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Jeremy Lin: ‘There’s definitely some bittersweetness to my career’

The Raptors guard on Asians in pop culture and representing an entire race

Linsanity now resides in the original land of Vinsanity.

After buying out his contract with the Atlanta Hawks, Jeremy Lin has joined the Toronto Raptors for the playoff stretch. Despite playing for his eighth team in nine seasons, the 30-year-old guard remains one of the most popular players in the NBA. Lin has more Twitter followers than All-Star starters Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard combined, and on Weibo (a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook in China) alone, he has 5.85 million followers, more than any other active player and second overall to only Kobe Bryant.

The first Taiwanese-American player in NBA history, Lin has become a voice for Asian-Americans on topics ranging from masculinity to cultural appropriation. Before leaving the Hawks, Lin spoke with The Undefeated about his career and the year of crazy, rich Asian successes.

From the success of Crazy Rich Asians to Chloe Kim and Naomi Osaka and Kyler Murray, who’s part Korean, winning the Heisman Trophy, do you notice Asian-Americans succeeding on the grand scale from a pop culture standpoint?

Definitely. Crazy Rich Asians, even Kim’s Convenience [Canada’s first sitcom with an all-Asian cast], Sandra [Oh], there were a lot of breakthroughs. I’m definitely keeping tabs because I’m always rooting for that. That’s something near and dear to my heart for sure.

Why does it mean so much to you?

When I was growing up playing basketball, I didn’t see much color. I didn’t really think it made a difference. After I went through Linsanity, I learned the world wasn’t quite ready or didn’t know how to handle Asian-Americans, Asian-Americans in sports, Asian-American masculinity and a lot of different Asian-American issues.

Since then, I’ve seen how it’s not overt at times, but it’s very subtle in the way race plays a factor in how people are viewed and the stories, perceptions and all the subconscious bias that can go on. That’s a very real thing to me now. It’s something that I actively try to speak out against. But I wouldn’t say it’s only for me and Asian-Americans. It’s social justice, period. [It’s] the underprivileged, underserved and those being treated or judged a certain way based on skin color and appearance.

I understand where you’re coming from as an Asian-American man. But for those who don’t know what you’re speaking of, can you elaborate?

When you talk about Asian-American masculinity, the way the U.S. kind of views that, it’s Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan. I experience this a lot with my teammates asking me honest questions. When I have these conversations, I’m like, ‘Dang, we’re very far off from where I wish we were.’

When you think of Asian-Americans, you think of a lot of different things — the model minority, the bamboo ceiling, so many different things. If you look at the way Asians are portrayed in media, in Hollywood and mainstream movies, the majority of the time it’s a refined lawyer, an IT guy, a nerd or dork. Even as I came out and started to play well, a lot of the jokes that were being said and a lot of the hate coming the other way, I was like, ‘Man, some of this is purely because I’m Asian.’ For me, that really opened my eyes up to the reality of this world.

For me, Bruce Lee was this paradox. I love this guy because he’s awesome. But everywhere I go, people would call me ‘Bruce Lee.’ So I’d love him and hate him at the same time. Did you have that feeling?

It’s different for me, but everywhere I went people called me ‘Yao Ming’ because I was playing basketball. I’m not 7-foot-6. I wasn’t born and raised in China. There are so many things that are different about our stories, but they had nothing else to call me, so they called me ‘Yao Ming.’ Same with every kid growing up now that’s Asian. When they play on the court, they call them ‘Jeremy Lin.’ That just shows you how everyone sees, like, ‘Oh, you’re Asian, you’re Jeremy Lin. Oh, you’re Asian, you’re Yao Ming.’ It’s not even a differentiation between types of Asian.

It’s almost like you have to be representative of your whole race. Not just Chinese, I’m talking about Asians. Is that a weird sentiment that you have to represent an entire race?

Yeah. At first it was something I ran from and really struggled with. Now I embrace it way more and am more equipped to handle it. I’m not perfect, but I kind of know who I want to be at this point in my career, so I keep trucking along and doing things the right way and stay above all the distractions.

You mentioned teaching your teammates. Are there specific incidents in which you’ve taught teammates about Asian-American culture?

I’ve taken teammates to Taiwan and to China and they love it. They’re like, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ It’s been amazing. I don’t think I’ve had one player who’s gone over and told me they didn’t want to come back.

Why is that?

I think it’s because the love they get over there! They have a new appreciation for Asian culture, who I am, who we stand for. There’s a deeper appreciation for it when you’re on the ground and can see, feel and touch and don’t rely on mainstream media to form their opinions.

What is it like still being the only Asian-American in the NBA?

(Editor’s note: Jordan Clarkson identifies as Filipino-American and Kyle Anderson is 1/8th Chinese.)

At times it kind of sucks. At other times it’s amazing. Amazing because you get to challenge everyone’s viewpoints and perspectives. I’m rooting for so many more Asians to come in. Last year, when I was with Brooklyn and we had Ding [Yanyuhang] on the summer league team, I was like, ‘Dude, please make the team. We’d have so much fun together during the season.’

Before the start of the season, you hadn’t played a regular-season game in 555 days. What goes through your mind when injuries happen, and how do you overcome them?

A lot of that is my faith. Trusting God has a perfect plan. I’ve seen him do a lot of miracles in my life, and he doesn’t ask me to be perfect or make every shot or be healthy every game. He just wants me to be faithful and to give him my heart. I feel like I’ve been able to fight to have that right type of faith. It gives me hope even when I’m going through 555 days without playing a game.

Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks (center) reacts after sinking a 3-pointer against the Atlanta Hawks at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 22, 2012, in New York City.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

You’re almost a decade into your career. Linsanity was seven years ago. You’re only 30. You’re already mentoring the next generation like Trae Young. When you look at your NBA career, both on and off the court, what comes to mind?

On the court, to be honest, I feel like it’s been tough at times for me. Not having those Brooklyn years in my prime, waiting for that chance to be The Guy, to be a starter and all those different things. There’s definitely some bittersweetness to my career. Off the court, I feel like I’ve been able to have a lot of fun, make and create a positive impact, promote the right values.

At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I’ll be able to look back at my career and say, ‘Man, this whole thing that I experienced, my whole career was a miracle from God.’ And I mean that with every last bone inside me. It took miracle after miracle after miracle for me to be in this position today, so when I look back, I’m going to be so grateful.

Cary Chow is a freelancer for The Undefeated and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Manager for a Fortune 500 company. He has an unrivaled talent for breaking video equipment, still thinks Omar was wronged in "The Wire," and roots for both the Clippers and Lakers and doesn't care about your fandom rules.