Because the New York Knicks play basketball in the country’s largest media market, the entire hoops universe finds out when anything happens, good or bad, to an underperforming NBA franchise that hasn’t won a title since 1973. But something more than media clout was at work in February 2012, when a backup rookie point guard named Jeremy Lin came off the bench for a struggling Knicks squad in an early-season game — and quickly became the biggest story in sports.
38 at the Garden, an HBO documentary short released in October, revisits “Linsanity,” the giddy mania that gripped New York City as Lin achieved liftoff with the Knicks and made an impact beyond basketball.
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Linsanity was one of those “impossible moments,” 38 director Frank Chi said during Deadline’s Contenders Documentary panel. “A moment when society at large tells a group of people, ‘You can’t do something,’ and then someone comes out of nowhere and just shatters all of it to pieces.”
An undrafted, undersized Asian-American signee who played college ball at Harvard, Lin went on a streak of point-scoring, playmaking brilliance over his first several games that helped to change the Knicks’ whole season trajectory.
Almost no one — not scouts, coaches, teammates, sportswriters or fans — saw it coming. Although then-President Barack Obama quipped, “I’ve been on the Jeremy Lin bandwagon for a while.”
The title references Lin dropping 38 points on the mighty Los Angeles Lakers and their star, Kobe Bryant, in a statement win on the Knicks’ home court of Madison Square Garden.
Linsanity was short-lived, but 38 shows Lin’s achievement still reverberating, in particular with people like Chi himself — Americans of Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Island descent. “It broke the Matrix for us,” comedian and actor Hasan Minhaj says on camera. Minhaj and other interviewees in 38 say Lin’s success demolished Asian stereotypes and proved Asians in America could excel in any field they choose.
“I thought we were making like a millennial nostalgia movie,” Chi said. “But it turns out we were making … an almost therapeutic movie for a lot of people who either feel like they don’t belong today or have had always had these feelings sort of bottled up inside them.”
He said the documentary arrives at a difficult moment, with Asian-Americans enduring a surge in racist vitriol and violence.
“A lot of Asian-Americans, we’re reliving this incredible memory — our favorite Asian-American memory from 10 years ago — in the context of what it’s like to live in the worst time to be Asian-American in recent history,” he said. “And I wanted to capture that feeling, because Linsanity was a magical moment for us.”
In a brisk reel dotted with game footage, celebrity interviews and colorful sequences from animator Miguel Hernandez, Lin himself also weighs in to say he recognizes his impact in hindsight.
“He shied away from how much he meant to people for a really long time,” Chi said. “And we’re just so grateful that through this project we all came together and really brought it home.”
Check back Wednesday for the panel video.
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