Jeremy Lin on overcoming stereotypes as an Asian NBA player — even among teammates: ‘I was invisible to them’

In 2012, it was difficult to escape "Linsanity" — when Jeremy Lin, then an unknown New York Knicks point guard, went on an insane scoring run, completely captivating the nation. Lin accomplished huge feats, like scoring 38 points to beat Kobe Bryant and the Lakers at Madison Square Garden, which was thrilling — but also, for many, shocking, because Lin is Asian, and many had never seen anyone who looks like him command respect on the court.

But Lin, whose parents are Taiwanese immigrants, says he was used to being underestimated.

“My teammate Aaron Brooks, when I was with the Houston Rockets, said it best. He said, 'Everybody looks at you and they're like, 'Oh, you're lunchmeat,' meaning I'm just gonna walk all over you, I'm gonna punk you,” Lin tells Yahoo Life. "And that was the target on my back that I had growing up. Everyone was either like, 'he sucks, I'm gonna absolutely destroy him,' or 'I'm gonna give him my best effort, because I cannot let this Asian dude score on me' or 'I cannot get showed up by this guy.'”

Leaning on his faith, family and discipline, Lin played in the NBA for 13 years, the peak being when the 2012 Linsanity thrust him into the spotlight. His star turn is now chronicled in the HBO Max documentary, 38 in the Garden, which uses the game against Kobe and the Lakers as a backdrop to discuss masculinity, representation and stereotypes facing Asian men.

When I had Linsanity, that was magnified times, like, a thousand, because everyone had me circled on their calendar. And that's the hard part about lack of representation — the way Hollywood perceives Asians and Asian males —is that when you finally have that breakout moment, you naturally will have this whole group of society that is ready to go out and get you and take you down,” says Lin.

“It happens across the board for people who are represented inaccurately or not represented enough.”

As a kid, Lin wanted nothing more than to be in the NBA. Encouraged by his basketball-loving father, he threw himself into the sport, leading his high school team to a state title and being named Player of the Year in his division. In college, he played for Harvard and set the Ivy league scoring record.

Still, when it came time for the NBA draft, Lin was overlooked. He would eventually get picked up by the Golden State Warriors in 2010, where he struggled to get playing time and opportunities to lead. In 2011, he moved on to the New York Knicks, where he remembers feeling invisible and prejudged by other teammates. Though it would be the team to eventually see Lin's breakout, he first had to overcome his biggest obstacle: his own self-doubt.

New York Knicks' guard Jeremy Lin and Los Angeles Lakers' guard Kobe Bryant at New York's Madison Square Garden in 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)
New York Knicks' guard Jeremy Lin and Los Angeles Lakers' guard Kobe Bryant at New York's Madison Square Garden in 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine) (Ray Stubblebine / reuters)

“As a player and an athlete, I can't sit here and blame anybody else if I don't believe in myself,” says Lin. Were there obstacles? Yes. Were there barriers? Yes. This is what everybody is dealing with when they are a minority or when they're trying to do something that has never been done,” he continues. When no one else can see you getting better, but you're in a gym every day, you're doing the same drills and doing better in those drills than you were the week before and the months before, that's where a lot of the confidence has to slowly be built."

"People talk about Linsanity, and they talk about the breakthrough, but they just don't realize what that grind looked like before," he notes. "And when you don't have people who are really in your corner, you might not make it through those moments.”

It’s been more than a decade since Linsanity, but now, following the pandemic spike of anti-Asian hate crimes, is perhaps the perfect time to unpack what Lin's historic scoring run has meant to Asian-American fans. 38 in the Garden does just that, through interviews with celebrities like Hassan Minhaj, Lisa Ling and Ronny Chieng, who help to contextualize what Lin's boldness, strength and confidence on the court meant to them and the AAPI community at large.

At the time, Lin says he was overwhelmed by all of the extra attention. But today, he is able to recognize how his history making moment was bigger than sports — or even himself.

“This is not my story,” says Lin. “It is a story and a moment that many underdogs, minorities and people of color were able to kind of rally around and hold up together and say, 'This is our moment.'”

The HBO documentary film 38 at the Garden debuts Oct. 11 on HBO and HBO Max.

—Video produced by Stacy Jackman