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A look back at Jeremy Lin’s back-to-back ‘Sports Illustrated’ covers

What Linsanity meant to Asian-Americans

On Feb. 10, 2012, ESPN’s own Pablo Torre walked into Madison Square Garden to watch the Los Angeles Lakers challenge a suddenly hot New York Knicks home team. He had no idea if the story he was working on (he was a writer for Sports Illustrated at the time) was nearing its end — or just beginning. In the week leading up to the match, Jeremy Lin had scored 25 points in a 99-92 win over the New Jersey Nets, followed that up with a career-high 28 points in a win against the Utah Jazz, and scored 23 points in a road win over Washington.

Lin, claimed off waivers by the Knicks just two months earlier, had become the most improbable story in sports. Before the Lakers game, Kobe Bryant was asked about Lin’s three-game stretch. “Who is this kid?” Bryant said nonchalantly. “I’ve heard about him and stuff like that, but what’s he been doing? Is he getting like triple-doubles or some stuff? He’s averaging 28 and eight? No. If he’s playing well, I’ll just have to deal with him.” And with those comments, the stage was set for Knicks vs. Lakers to be the true test of whether Lin was worth the hype.

The general expectation, and one shared by Torre was that Lin’s incredible run would come to a swift end. Instead, it became the start of the most exhilarating two-week stretch not only of Torre’s career, but for many Asian-Americans around the country. Reminiscing five years later about that evening, Torre can only smile. “That,” he said, “was the most amazing sporting event I’ve covered live.”

In 2010, Torre wrote a feature about Lin for Sports Illustrated while he was a senior point guard at Harvard College. But despite having a previous relationship with Lin and his parents, the concern this time around was figuring out a way to get access. “Before that game, I was convinced that if I needed him to go to Six Flags with me, we could have done that,” Torre said. Instead, Lin was being shielded by the Knicks. A one-on-one interview was out of the question.

“It shows that we shouldn’t be stereotyped, that Asian-Americans can do a lot of different things. It’s not just math and science. That was meaningful.” — Paul Okada

With 48 hours left until his deadline, Torre pleaded with the Knicks’ vice president of public relations, Jonathan Supranowitz, to give him five minutes with Lin for his story. In his most desperate moment, Torre offered to tutor Supranowitz’s kids for free, but was turned away. He left the arena without talking to Lin, and the clock was ticking.

Meanwhile, inside the Sports Illustrated office, the editorial team was not particularly worried about how their cover story would turn out. Terry McDonell, the group editor who made all final decisions about who to put on the cover, was aware that Lin was the dominant sports story, but had also made the call partly because of Torre’s previous connection to Lin. “It gave us a great advantage in the coverage,” McDonell said. “If we didn’t have a really strong story, we wouldn’t have done it.”

In the two days after Lin’s remarkable performance against the Lakers, Torre was finally able to persuade Lin to call him for five minutes. While it was a relief, the short conversation ended without one particular detail that bothered Torre: He forgot to ask about the color of Lin’s brother Josh’s couch in the Lower East Side apartment where Jeremy slept before his breakout game against the Nets a week earlier.

The couch had become a talking point in media circles, and Torre wanted to get an additional detail that other publications hadn’t reported on. So he spent most of Sunday exchanging texts with Lin. “One of the most embarrassing things of my journalism career,” Torre said. Three hours before his filing deadline, Torre finally got the reply he needed. The first paragraph of Torre’s cover story, which detailed the rise of Lin, included the line “the 23-year-old point guard had been crashing on the brown couch.”

When the cover hit newsstands, it immediately became a huge source of pride for Asian-Americans. “One of the things that Asian-Americans have dealt with from the outset of when we started immigrating to the United States are stereotypes,” said Paul Okada, co-founder of fan site JeremyLin.net. “Just to see an Asian-American on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It shows that we shouldn’t be stereotyped, that Asian-Americans can do a lot of different things. It’s not just math and science. That was meaningful.”

Ursula Liang, a writer at the time for ESPN The Magazine, remembers when Yao Ming was on the cover of ESPN’s NEXT issue in 2001. But Lin struck a different nerve with her. “We always talk about [Jeremy] being the everyday Asian-American,” Liang said. “He represents so much of us. There are so many firsts that are happening for Asian-Americans so late in the game. [The cover] was one of them.”

Shanghai-based L.A. native Terence Lau, who met Lin when his family visited China for a league-sponsored tour before Linsanity ever happened, had a similar reaction. “Everybody who went to college had a friend who went to church and played basketball,” Lau said. “Even if I didn’t know Jeremy, I still knew him.” American magazines such as Sports Illustrated were hard to track down in China, so Lau asked his friend Brian Yang back in the United States to get him a few copies.

Yang turned out to be the perfect person to ask, since he was a producer working on a documentary of Lin that would eventually become the Netflix documentary Linsanity. Yang is also a lifelong Sports Illustrated subscriber, someone who read the issues from cover to cover as a child. “It’s the defining platform for sports journalism,” Yang said. “To see Jeremy grace the cover, that’s not something I could have dreamed of in my wildest dreams.”

“To see Jeremy grace the cover, that’s not something I could have dreamed of in my wildest dreams.” — Brian Yang

Meanwhile, having finished the most important cover story of his career, Torre was on to his next assignment. The weekend after Lin’s cover hit newsstands, Torre was with former Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein in Williamstown, Massachusetts, working on a story about transgender Olympic hammer thrower Keelin Godsey. On Feb. 19, 2012, Lin’s run continued as he scored 28 points, dished out 14 assists and added five steals in a 104-97 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. It was the Knicks’ eighth win in nine games.

In the middle of Godsey’s living room in Williamstown on Sunday afternoon, Torre got a call from one of his editors. They wanted another cover story on Lin, and needed it in less than 24 hours. “This was actually historic,” Torre said. He went to his rental car, canceled his trip home, booked a hotel in town, and emptied his Rolodex, calling everyone from Kenny Blakeney (Lin’s former assistant coach at Harvard) to Arne Duncan (former Secretary of Education and a Harvard alumnus) to Ryan Fitzpatrick (current NFL free agent and Harvard alumnus), James Franco (Palo Alto High alumnus) and Manny Pacquiao (at the time, the most high-profile Asian athlete besides Lin). The story, which detailed the marketing potential of Linsanity and considered what was next, ended with the questions “What if the good games never stop coming? What if a bubble refuses to pop?”

Back-to-back Sports Illustrated covers are a rarity. Outside of covers highlighting events such as the NBA Finals, when Michael Jordan and Dirk Nowitzki landed on covers in consecutive weeks, this had never happened. “It was unprecedented,” Hank Hersch, the then-assistant managing editor of Sports Illustrated, said. “Part of what made it feel OK was that there was such a feel-good nature to the story. He was such an easy guy to get excited about.”

“I don’t have a child, but this was like being a parent and feeling pride for your kid who did something so well, like getting straight A’s or becoming the president of the United States,” Yang said. “It vaulted whatever feelings I had in the first week into overdrive. It was like, OK, now we’re playing with house money. We already got our cover, and now it’s happening again?”

“What if the good games never stop coming? What if a bubble refuses to pop?”

Phil Yu, founder of the website Angry Asian Man, who is not an avid sports viewer, still felt the need to rush out and get both issues.“That was like getting an Oscar,” Yu said. “It was the cherry on top. Like this is official now. It’s SI official.” Hua Hsu, a writer and associate professor of English at Vassar College, barely remembers being excited about covers because he was so wrapped up in the day-to-day experience of Linsanity in New York. “It was like being drunk or high and not wanting to reflect on the moment too much and to sort of just live inside it,” Hsu said. But the fact that Torre, whose parents are from the Philippines, wrote the story mattered to Hsu. “They got someone who had a really thoughtful perspective on it. That really excited me,” Hsu said.

The sense of disbelief spread into Lin’s family as well. Jeremy’s younger brother Joseph was a freshman point guard at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, at the time. “It was crazy,” Joseph said, laughing. “It was indescribable. Everything was happening so fast. As a family we were just like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ ”

In the Dallas game, Lin scored 21 points against the now-Brooklyn Nets and 17 points against Atlanta Hawks. After that, in another spotlight game versus LeBron James and the Miami Heat, Lin went 1-for-11 from the field and scored eight points with eight turnovers. After that, he scored 20 points twice more before suffering a meniscus tear in his left knee in late March. Lin missed the rest of the season after knee surgery and signed with the Houston Rockets in the offseason.

Five years later, the impact of Lin’s back-to-back Sports Illustrated covers endures. “You just have to have a representation of what’s possible, especially in the Asian-American community,” Liang said. “Your parents need to see that it’s possible. People don’t need to know about sports to be able to walk by a grocery store aisle and see [Jeremy] on a cover. That’s a different type of visibility.”

“Linsanity is such a personal story to every Asian-American in a way that I think is special,” Torre said. “Those two weeks, man. The most intense and satisfying of my entire career, easily.” And even though a third consecutive cover didn’t happen, in the following week, Sports Illustrated released its Major League Baseball preview issue with Ozzie Guillen and Jose Reyes of the Miami Marlins on the cover. The tagline, sprawled across the middle in white, read “MARLINSANITY?”

Alex Wong is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He writes for Yahoo Canada Sports, GQ, The New York Times, SLAM, and other places.