Linsanity: Sundance Review

A sports doc with abundant heart persuasively chronicles the emergence of a global phenomenon. 

Evan Jackson Leong’s film adds significant new perspective to point guard Jeremy Lin’s breakout NBA season.

PARK CITY – When pro basketball player Jeremy Lin burst into the national consciousness in a flurry of record-setting games with the New York Knicks last winter, most fans -- and even many sports professionals -- had little clue about who he even was. While a surge of global enthusiasm, quickly dubbed “Linsanity,” pushed him to international celebrity, in reality Lin was struggling for the opportunity to sign a multiyear NBA contract.

Chinese-American filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong already was shooting a documentary about Lin’s career well before the stardom stage, which allows him to bring an insider’s perspective to one of the NBA’s most memorable career starts. With Lin’s worldwide following already firmly in place, broadcast play for Linsanity is practically a lock, while basketball’s already notable popularity throughout much of Asia could assure the delivery of multiple territories for a variety of formats.

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The middle son of Taiwanese immigrant parents who settled in Palo Alto, Calif., Lin started playing basketball from an early age, modeling his moves on Michael Jordan and encouraged by his NBA-fanatic father and tirelessly supportive mom, who observes in an interview that “Jeremy will do anything he can to get what he wants.” Local media began tracking Lin when he played point guard for the Palo Alto Vikings high school team, leading them to a state championship.

Coaches, players and sports correspondents considered him a likely candidate for a major university scholarship, but when none materialized, he entered Harvard, playing on the varsity team that went on to the Crimson’s first NCAA tournament since 1946. Although Lin accumulated impressive stats at Harvard, he got passed over again in the 2010 NBA draft.  

Accepting an offer to play in the Dallas Mavericks’ summer league, Lin subsequently signed with his hometown Golden State Warriors for the 2010-11 season. Although he’d finally accomplished his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA, he rarely saw game action. As the first American-born NBA player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent, there were whispers that the team had picked him up primarily to capitalize on ticket sales and marketing opportunities with Northern California’s substantial Asian-American population.

When Lin was dropped by the Warriors, the Houston Rockets picked him up, then quickly cut him again. Lin was facing the expiration of his contract when the New York Knicks came calling, putting him into a memorable series of games in February 2012 as a substitute for injured-list point guards.

In his first five career games, Lin scored a record-setting 136 points, including 38 in a single game against Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers. Fans both old and new instantly responded to the point guard’s historic run, flooding social media platforms with praise and showing up at games with hand-lettered signs or wearing slogan-emblazoned T-shirts. Perhaps the strongest wave of support came from Asian-American fans nationwide who finally had a hero to cheer for and helped launch the Linsanity craze, as well as basketball fanatics all over Asia who responded to both his professional talent and his family heritage.

From promotional spots, endorsements and Facebook tributes to the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time, Lin had the sports world’s undivided attention. And as Leong continued to shoot his documentary, the story suddenly blew up to global proportions.

With a mix of personal interviews -- including extensive on-camera discussions with Lin, combined with more informal scenes – home-video footage from Lin’s childhood and clips from his high school and college careers, as well as game-play commentary from ESPN and other broadcasters, Leong has assembled a film that’s not just a stirring sports drama but also a classic immigrant-family success story, presented in an entirely new context.

With Leong skillfully orchestrating the interview segments and actor Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-O, Lost) narrating a voice-over that occasionally tends toward an overly dramatic tone, the film is attractively packaged and superlatively edited by Greg Louie, who impressively distills the disparate formats and source materials. Since the film’s title emphasizes public reaction to Lin’s rise to stardom, some additional footage featuring fan reactions and social media trends would have been welcome, however.

Ironically, Lin attributes both the adversity and success he’s experienced to his ethnic heritage, crediting his Chinese-American upbringing for cultivating his discipline and perseverance and frankly discussing the taunts and racial slurs directed at him in both collegiate and pro ball, as well as the racial stereotypes perpetuated by the media. As a devout Christian, he says he’s been gradually able to deal with that adversity, as well as the many other challenges of his career. Leong’s film recognizes that Lin’s religion plays the pre-eminent role in his personal hierarchy of “God, family, basketball,” but it doesn’t dwell unduly on either his faith or his ethnicity, instead integrating these themes into the narrative, which is foremost a sporting tribute.

Recapturing the joy Lin experiences while excelling on the court in that incomparable season -- as fans at first discovered, then promoted and finally celebrated his accomplishments -- Linsanity reaffirms that the best sports stories originate with dimensional, relatable subjects who earn respect and admiration through their personal struggles and triumphs. Lin’s three-year $25 million contract with the Rockets, signed following his season with the Knicks, confirms that he’ll continue to be a player to follow.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres
Production companies: 408 Films, Arowana Films
Director: Evan Jackson Leong
Producers: Christopher C. Chen, Allen Lu, Brian Yang
Executive Producers: Sam Kwok. Patricia Sun, James D. Stern
Music: The Newton Brothers
Editor: Greg Louie
Sales: CAA
No rating, 88 minutes