Nobody hit the jackpot in February 2012 like Jeremy Lin. After a rough start to his NBA career — in two years he had been cut by two teams and sent to the Development League several times — he caught fire. Taking advantage of injuries to his New York Knicks teammates, and the overall dismal state of the Knicks that had been going on for a decade, Lin almost singlehandedly turned around a team that had lost 11 of its previous 13 games. With Lin in the starting lineup for his first time as a pro, the Knicks went on a seven-game winning streak. Lin set scoring records for first-time starters, hit a stunning last-second game-winning shot against the Toronto Raptors and found himself not only on the sports pages of the New York tabloids but on the cover of Time magazine.
The only person who had nearly as good a February 2012 as Lin was Evan Leong. A filmmaker, Leong had started a documentary about Lin several years earlier, when Lin was playing college ball at Harvard and being mentioned as a potential NBA draft pick. “That was just a good story to tell. A good enough story,” Leong said of the early stages of his project. But when Lin turned, in a matter of weeks, from a struggling bench player to an international icon, the documentary took on a whole new level of significance.
“Everything else stopped in my life. I focused on everything he did. I got lost in it just like everyone else,” the 34-year-old Leong, who attended several of those memorable Knicks games, said from his home on New York’s Lower East Side.
“Everyone on the street, cab drivers, were talking about it. It transcended sports. People just gravitated to this story. It was unique. Who can’t get with this story?”
The guy who goes from wannabe athlete to star player is a good enough tale on its own; there’s an entire shelf of DVDs of such stories, led by “Rudy,” about the undersized kid who dreams of playing football for Notre Dame. But Lin added several layers to the genre. Lin’s parents had emigrated from China to California, making him the first Chinese-American to play in the NBA. He came out of Harvard, which was hardly a basketball powerhouse. The last player to go from Harvard to the NBA was Ed Smith in 1954, and no one from an Ivy League college had gone onto an NBA career since Chris Dudley, who started his pro career in 1987.
All of which makes Leong’s film, “Linsanity,” feel like it contains multiple layers of fiction. But when the film screens at Aspen Filmfest, at noon today, it will be in the True Stories segment of documentary movies.
Leong came from the same culture — San Francisco area, Chinese-American, vocal Christian — that produced Lin. The filmmaker began paying attention to the basketball player when Lin was in his senior year and was earning national attention.
“We’d never seen that before,” Leong, a sixth-generation Chinese-American, said. “I grew up with guys who could play ball, but nobody had crossed over into the mainstream like that. He had moments on ESPN — Harvard had never been on ESPN before.
“There was a lot in Jeremy Lin I could relate to. I figured if I made a documentary, it could inspire a little kid. When you see someone like yourself, you think, ‘Maybe I could do it’.”
The attraction to Lin’s story went beyond his on-court statistics. “Linsanity” portrays a hard-working, determined young man who dominated basketball games from early childhood. And Leong liked the all-around character, not just the guy who lit up the scoreboard.
“The things he represented were good as a role model — be a good Christian, study hard, play hard,” said Leong, who met Lin through Christopher Chen, a co-producer of the film. “And he wasn’t just a shooter — he did everything: dunking, making game winners.”
When Lin did make the NBA, Leong’s project became more complex. Lin wasn’t drafted out of college but was picked up by the Golden State Warriors. There was talk that it was a marketing move — an Asian kid from Harvard playing (or more accurately, sitting on the bench) for the hometown team. Lin got sent to the D-League, basketball’s equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues, three times, to play in backwaters like Erie, Penn., and Reno, Nev. But Leong continued to believe in the value of his project.
“He made it to the NBA — that’s a great story. No Asian-American had done that,” Leong said. “And he was such a good role model and character.”
When Lin had his break-through month, Leong realized the pressure was now on him as a filmmaker. “It was a huge responsibility,” Leong said. “Sometimes an amazing thing happens, but then the film doesn’t live up to it. That was scary. There’s only going to be one documentary. It had to be great because the whole world was watching.”
Leong, who majored in Asian-American studies at UCLA, never went to film school and had only one previous film to his credit, takes a straightforward approach in “Linsanity.” “Ultimately, my purpose was just to be a conduit for Jeremy’s story,” he said. “I didn’t want to be ‘60 Minutes,’ putting my agenda on it. I wanted to tell the story that Jeremy wanted to tell. I think I did my job.”
Watching “Linsanity,” that’s hard to argue — Leong did a fine job of being in the right place at the right time with the right guy, sticking with his project,and staying out of the way of a once-in-a-lifetime story. As an NBA fanatic, I had seen the Jeremy Lin saga unfold numerous times on ESPN. Still, watching Lin hit jump shots, drive to the basket, outplay superstar Kobe Bryant, it still felt like a fable.
“I think what we experienced was freaking amazing,” Leong said. “It won’t be this crazy again. Jeremy can probably never do this again.”
“Linsanity” ends, more or less, with Lin’s rise. Since then, Lin left the Knicks to sign with the Houston Rockets. Last season, Lin played decently but nothing like that magical month of February 2012. Lin was injured in the playoffs and missed several games as the Rockets were knocked out in the first round.
“We shot it for three years. We said we had to end it,” Leong said. “This was the moment, his whole life leading to this moment when he arrived. That’s what our documentary is about.”
Leong believes that, in a way, his career parallels Lin’s. “Linsanity” is his moment of arrival.
“There’s a part of me that said, ‘OK, I’ve been doing this 12 years as an indie guy, hustling, not making a name for myself,” he said. “This was game-time for me, too.”