Was it only a year and a half ago? New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin became the toast of the sports world in February 2012. Yes, he played very well, averaging 9.9 assists, 25 points, and 2.2 steals per game in his first nine starts. Yes, he played in New York, the media capital of the world and hoop capital, too (and his igniting a moribund Knicks team also played a part). But it was the fish-out-of-water circumstances that created the sensation that was “Linsanity,” which is also the title of Evan Jackson Leong’s lively, if overlong, documentary.
Lin had been cut by two NBA teams already that season (once on Christmas Day). Bench warmer becomes star! He was a Harvard grad. A jock with a brain! Most important of all, he’s Asian-American.
How unusual was this? When Lin showed up at the players entrance at Madison Square Garden for one of his first games as a Knick, the doorkeeper told him this entrance was for the team. I know, Lin said. Oh, said the gatekeeper, you’re a trainer. Linsanity wasn’t just because Lin was a fresh face, with an unusual academic pedigree. He was, in basketball terms, a fresh race, too. True, Yao Ming, the great Houston Rockets center, is Chinese. But that put Yao (now retired) in another category, the one comprising the many foreign players in the NBA. Lin, of the Palo Alto, Calif., Lins, was a category of one.
The climax of “Linsanity” is, of course, Linsanity. The 70 minutes or so before that we get “The Jeremy Lin Story.” His parents are immigrants from Taiwan. He has two brothers. The family are religiously devout. “I know God orchestrated this whole thing,” Lin says. “It was out of my control. Just the way it happened, it was miraculous.” They visit Taipei every summer.
If home movies we get to see are any indication, Lin was one cute kid, whether at a piano recital, at meals, in a Christmas pageant, or, of course, on the basketball court. Junior year in high school, Lin broke his ankle before the state semifinal game. Next year, against a much-favored opponent, he led his team to the California Division II championship. Yet he wasn’t recruited. “He just didn’t fit the mold,” his high school coach says. Which is how so talented a player ended up at Harvard, which doesn’t give athletic scholarships.
The NBA didn’t draft him (are you seeing a pattern here?), but his hometown team, the Golden State Warriors, signed him. The Warriors eventually cut him, as did the Houston Rockets. The Knicks grabbed him, and a few weeks later Linsanity ensued.
The documentary doesn’t mention that Lin then hurt his knee, putting an end to Linsanity. It does mention that he signed a three-year contract with the Rockets, without noting he had a middling 2012-13 season in Houston. That would be Linormality, a whole different thing. What’s most pleasing about the documentary, perhaps, is learning how down to earth Lin is: amiable, modest, a bit of a lug. Unfortunately, down to earth is as different from compelling as Linsanity is from Linormality.
In addition to its theatrical run, “Linsanity” will screen as part of the Boston Asian American Film Festival, on its opening night, Oct. 24, at the Brattle.