Here's how two media outlets described Jeremy Lin during the heights of "Linsanity" -- the period last year when Lin captivated the sports world with his sudden rise from a twice-cut bench player to a vaunted NBA point guard for the New York Knicks: "Their most popular player in a decade"; "An international hero after turning an unexpected big break into gold dust." And here are two of the lowest remarks that NBA fans used during Lin's emergence: "Chink"; "Chinaman." For Jeremy Lin, it was the best of times and the worst of times. And those times are captured in a new documentary about Lin's life called, appropriately enough, Linsanity.
The movie screens Thursday night at the Castro Theatre, at the opening night of CAAMFest, the annual film festival formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Two months ago, Linsanity made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where Lin and director Evan Jackson Leong received a standing ovation from a crowd that showered them with compliments -- and questions about how Lin handles the highs and lows of his new fame. Leong told me that his documentary is a chance to see Lin in a new way -- as a still-young athlete (he's 24 years old) whose athletic skill and skin color inspire many reactions.
"Jeremy Lin is news, and news is going to produce two sides," Leong says. "That's what makes Jeremy ready for any barrage -- you can take sides with him and get a reaction. He has a lot of fans and a lot of haters. All the haters can hate what they want, but for me, you can't not get with his story. Here's a guy who was an underdog his whole life. And he made it to this level. This is only his third year in the NBA and he's the starting point guard. How many players can say that?"
Lin's backstory starts in the Bay Area, where he led Palo Alto High School to a state title, but he was little recruited by colleges. Lin chose to play for Harvard -- where Leong first heard about him. In 2009, Lin was the second most prolific scorer in the Ivy League, averaging 18.6 points a game, second in steals, and third in assists. When Leong -- who is a sixth-generation San Franciscan -- approached Lin about making a documentary, Lin was reticent.
Leong had many things in common with Lin -- an upbringing in the Bay Area, an active belief in Christianity, and a strong identity as an Asian-American. But Lin wasn't familiar with Leong's previous films, which included a short documentary about Him Mark Lai, who was a prominent Chinese American historian, and a short documentary, BLT: Genesis, about the making of Better Luck Tomorrow, which was a 2002 drama about Asian American students who get involved in crime. The director of Better Luck Tomorrow, Justin Lin, has served as a filmmaking mentor to Leong.
"I definitely had to convince Jeremy what I was about," Leong says. "And what kind of filmmaker I was, and what kind of story I wanted to tell. He only required that we work together on it -- that it wasn't 'my way or the high way.'"
Then there was the matter of Leong's Mohawk haircut. Leong, 34, has had it for many years, and before meeting Lin for the first time, he was concerned that Lin would think the director was too outlandish. "The first time I met him, my fiancé said, 'Maybe you should wear a hat,'" Leong says. "So I did wear a hat. We went out to eat, and I wore the hat the whole dinner. And then at the end, as we were leaving, Jeremy walked behind me, and he goes, 'You got a 'hawk?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I do.' And he said, 'That's cool, man.' And I was like, 'OK.'"
"I've always had interesting hair," Leong adds. "Earlier in my life, I had corn-rows. I can't live normal. That's the one thing I can't do."
This avoidance of "normal" extends to Leong's professional career. During the filming of Linsanity, Leong took a job as a producer with MTV in New York. It was a gig that a lot of burgeoning filmmakers would relish. Leong did -- and didn't. Leong worked at MTV for a year and a half. At one point, he followed Lin to Taiwan, using vacation and sick time to film key scenes for Linsanity.
"I've been an indy filmmaker for a long time," Leong says. "I started shooting the film before I went to MTV. MTV was a stepping-stone for me. I always had lots of projects. I was shooting music videos. I was doing all sorts of things because I didn't want to work in a corporate environment. All my projects are built around my passions. That's what keeps me going. But I had to pay the bills. My boss knew I wasn't there for a career. They knew I wanted to be an independent filmmaker. They were comfortable with it as long as it was within the rules."
Linsanity takes viewers through Lin's NBA career, including getting cut by the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. Lin was also almost cut by the New York Knicks. In fact, Leong was prepared to end his documentary in early 2012, when Lin was signed by Knicks, but in a tenuous position of sticking with the team. "I thought we had a great ending with him putting on a Knicks jersey," Leong says. "We had this awesome story of this kid who made the NBA. That was amazing already. At that point, it didn't turn out the way Jeremy wanted for himself. For him, it was a bitter-sweet success story."
That's when "Linsanity" happened. That's when Lin was put into the Knicks' starting lineup as a desperation move. That's when Lin ignited the then-struggling Knicks to a 6-0 record, scoring 38 points against the Lakers in a nationally televised game, hitting the game-winning shot against the Toronto Raptors, and making moves and dunks that suddenly elevated him into the top tier of American sports stories. Because the NBA has a global audience, Lin's success turned into a global phenomenon. The guard who had to sleep on his teammate's couch because of finances, who was given an outside chance to make the NBA, who wasn't recognized by security guards at the players' entrance at Madison Square Garden, was now showing up to arenas where fans sported his jerseys and waved signs with Lin's image on them.
And here's an odd thing about Lin and Linsanity. Though Lin attended the Sundance premiere, he has still not seen the entire film. "He's seen bits and pieces of rough cuts here and there, but he's never seen the whole thing," Leong says. "So we're excited to see what happens."
Still, Lin has seen enough of Linsanity to know that he wants people to see it -- to understand the arc of his life, including the prejudices he's had to deal with, like the waves of name-calling. As Lin told a reporter at the Sundance Film Festival: "Whether it's racial boundaries, racial stereotypes, or even just a sports story, inspiring other people to pursue their dreams -- I think there's a lot of different angles with which I am hoping this film will be able to impact people."
Linsanity screens Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at the Castro Theatre on the opening night of CAAMFest. For tickets and more information visit caamfest.com.