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“I’ve Always Known My Journey Would End in China”: Jeremy Lin’s Off-Season Grind Benefits Chinese Youth

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You’d forgive Jeremy Lin for taking a minute to relax after a championship-winning season with the Toronto Raptors, but that’s not in his program. The guard has played for a handful of franchises, but is best known for “Linsanity,” a record-setting streak of high-scoring games while he was a New York Knick during the 2011-2012 NBA season. Plagued in the following years by injuries, Lin put in time playing for Houston, LA, Charlotte, Brooklyn and Atlanta before landing on the Raptors roster in February.

While Lin’s career has made him nomadic over the last eight years, there are a few places he considers home: Palo Alto, where he grew up; Taipei, where his parents grew up, and from where they emigrated to the United States; and Pinghu, a small (for China), riverine city in southeastern China’s Zhejiang province from which his mother’s side of the family hails.

“When I go there, I feel the most at home,” Lin told RADII before an event at the Harvard Center Shanghai, fresh off his third visit to Pinghu. The NBA champ is currently midway through what he calls his “Asia trip”: an annual sojourn during which he and a small team (including his personal trainer of eight years and a full-time masseuse) spend several weeks of the NBA off-season minding various philanthropic and business concerns. “Asia trip” itineraries have included filming reality TV series — such as last year’s Dunk of China and a forthcoming new series called Wo Yao Da Lanqiu (我要打篮球; “Game On”) — and participating in celebrity basketball games alongside such other entertainment industry luminaries as Jay Chou and MC Jin.

Jeremy Lin basketball camp in China

Mostly, though, Lin is preoccupied during his seven-week Asia trip with helping develop the Jeremy Lin-LiQun Basketball League and the corresponding Jeremy Lin-LiQun Sports Foundation. The League currently operates seven basketball programs in China, and the Foundation puts on the annual celebrity game to support bringing basketball courts and training to children in rural China.

The Jeremy Lin-LiQun Sports Foundation runs in parallel to the Jeremy Lin Foundation, a US non-profit founded in 2013. The Jeremy Lin Foundation draws heavily on Lin’s faith — he is a devout Christian, and the Foundation’s mission statement is “to love and serve children and youth, by providing hope, empowerment and leadership development.” It also draws on his education as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he studied Economics and Sociology in order to understand the mechanics of poverty in East Palo Alto — then considered the “murder capital” of America.

Through his Foundation, Lin has launched programs for underprivileged children in East Palo Alto as well as every city where’s he’s played professional ball, dropping seeds that will bear fruit long after his NBA career has come to an end. But it seems that he views the relatively young culture of basketball fandom in China as a major avenue for his future work. “I’ve always known that my journey in some ways would end in China, that I would come back here and take the experiences that I had growing up in America,” he told RADII on a recent stopover in Shanghai. “The NBA training and the concept of a student athlete, a lot of these different things that I’ve learned through my childhood and my NBA experiences — I want to be able to help as many kids as I can in China.”

Read on for RADII’s interview with Jeremy Lin on his championship season, and his future goals, both on- and off-court.

Jeremy Lin interviewed by RADII at Harvard Center China, August 2019 (photo by Thana Gu)

RADII: You’ve been in China for a few weeks now — what all are you getting up to on this trip? You seem like you have a lot of different things going on.

Jeremy Lin: Yeah, this trip is going to be seven weeks in its entirety. And we have everything from filming a reality basketball TV show, to our basketball school stuff, to the basketball school foundation celebrity game. And then we have a lot of different endorsements, we have sharings that I do, for example at [the] Harvard [Center China], and I did one at Taipei, and basketball camps, all the way down the line. So really, it’s everything that we feel like we want to do in terms of culture creation and impact off the court.

This is our time to do it, because we’re in the off-season. During the [NBA] season, we don’t really get a chance to come over and do that. We are ambitious and trying to do a lot, but we feel like every year we come back, we get a better sense of how we can continue to help the next generation of kids.

In addition to your own basketball schools in China, on this trip you’ve also lent support to a new initiative launched by Alibaba co-founder and Brooklyn Nets co-owner Joseph Tsai. Can you talk a bit about that?

That was the launch of the Joe Tsai Foundation — what he’s been doing is, basically, he had this final round of school principals across China who he felt were doing a great job of implementing sports into their schools. And obviously, that concept of student athletes, and pushing sports alongside education, has not always been at the forefront of culture here. So he took thirty [of these principals] and did interviews with them, and he brought it down to 10. And that was how he launched his foundation: he selected 10 principals that he thought were doing a great job. He held a panel discussion [in Hangzhou], which I was a part of, and a little basketball session with some of the kids. But again — it’s all about promoting sports and education.

Jeremy Lin and Joe Tsai in Hangzhou

Jeremy Lin and Joe Tsai in Hangzhou, August 2019

You’re the first Asian-American player in the NBA to win a championship. There is a surprisingly long history of Asian-American players in the league — with Wat Misaka being the first non-white player to join professional basketball in 1947 — but this is a huge milestone that took decades to realize. What’s on your mind, on this trip in particular, representing such a major achievement and bringing it back to Asia?

I don’t know if winning a championship changes that much, to be honest. I feel like our vision and our strategy, what we feel like we can do and bring to create impact in this world, is what it is. And I think that anything you do on the court can assist it and make you more relevant. But specifically with the championship, that’s a little tricky.

I’m very, very motivated to continue to try to get better, and to continue to try to come back from my injuries, and to continue to show who I can be on the court

For me, I think it’s great because that is a piece of history that I’ll always have — and that’s awesome. And on the other hand, I also know I wasn’t able to contribute the way that I wanted to to the playoff run. And so in some ways, I’m so, so grateful for having that experience and being able to win a ring, and being able to have that piece of history. But I’m also, on the other end, very, very motivated to continue to try to get better, and to continue to try to come back from my injuries, and to continue to show who I can be on the court. And I think the more that I can do that on the court, the more that it just validates everything else that we’re trying to do on and off the court.

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Looking further into the future of your career, how important do you think China will be as a place to develop projects related to basketball, or even beyond basketball? Do you foresee pursuing future business opportunities or anything like that in China, especially post-NBA?

Yeah — I don’t think it’s any secret that China is already, and will continue to be, a dominant force, and a big part of the world ecosystem or dynamic or whatever you want to call it. But I think at the end of the day, for me and my team, actually China isn’t so much about the monetary business value. Honestly, if the economy goes up or down, it doesn’t really matter to us. My grandparents are from here, and all my ancestors are from here, and I speak the language fluently. When I was growing up in the US playing basketball, all anybody ever wanted to talk about was, “Oh, that dude’s Chinese. That’s a Chinese basketball player.” It was never “a basketball player” growing up. I was never “an American basketball player.” I was never just a basketball player. I was always, “That’s a Chinese dude. That’s a Chinese basketball player.”

So for me, I’ve always known that my journey in some ways would end in China, that I would come back here and take the experiences that I had growing up in America in that immigrant life that I was able to experience. And I would bring the things that I can — for example, the NBA training and the concept of a student athlete, a lot of these different things that I’ve learned through my childhood and my NBA experiences. I want to be able to help as many kids as I can in China.

jeremy lin with children in china

Earlier in your China trip this year you visited the hometown of your mother’s family, Pinghu. Had you been there before? What did you get out of this trip this time?

It was my third time going to Pinghu. I went in 2011, 2017, and 2019. For me, it’s great to go back every time, because for me that’s… Maybe this is touching on the immigrant, Asian-American [experience] or whatever, just immigrant culture in general. But when I come to China, the closest form of home I have is Pinghu. When I go there, I feel the most at home. That’s where my grandmother grew up, that’s where my jiugong [great uncle] was, and that’s where my grandmother’s father was. So when I go there, they treat me like I grew up there. There is that hospitality. And in Chinese culture, everything is about family and hospitality, and that’s really the only place I get it.

When I go to America — again, I don’t always feel particularly at home in America, for always being seen and alienated as, “Oh, that’s that Chinese guy.” But the closest I have to home is Palo Alto, California, where I grew up and spent the majority of my life. And so between those two spots, those are really the only two places in the world — and maybe also when I go back to Taipei as well, where my parents grew up. When I go back to there and I see my mom and my dad’s side of the family that’s still in Taipei. I’d say those three spots are the most at home I could feel. Anytime I go back to Pinghu, it’s obviously amazing to see how quickly that city has grown in eight years. It’s ridiculous.

Jeremy Lin visits his jiugong‘s grave in Pinghu, Zhejiang

Do they have a Jeremy Lin statue yet?

No! [laughs] I would forbid them from putting a statue.

We’ve covered New York rapper MC Jin quite a bit on RADII, I was really happy to see how much of a hype man for you he was during the playoffs run. What parallels between yourself and him do you see? In a similar way, I feel like Jin was often pigeonholed as, “Oh, he’s a Chinese rapper.” It wasn’t, “Oh, he’s a sick rapper” or “He’s a great freestyle rapper.” It was like, “Oh, he’s Asian. He’s Chinese.” Yet that didn’t really stop him from reaching a certain, quite high level of success. So I wonder if you have any thoughts on that, similar trajectories between you and he?

For me, I keep my circle close and it’s very rare that I get close with another… with anybody, to be honest. The last eight years of my life, I haven’t made many new friends. But there are a few celebrities I really, really connected with, and Jin is one of them. I love the guy to death. There’s just so much about our story that we can really connect on. And there is that whole, you know, Chinese person in a non-Chinese industry. There is that underdog element. There is always having to carve your path and fight an uphill battle because nothing is going to be handed to you.

“I keep my circle close and it’s very rare that I get close with another… with anybody, to be honest”

And then there’s the other side, where our faith is  really strong for both of us. It means a lot to both of us. And in many ways, that’s saved us. What that has saved us from is that overnight sensation thing that turns your life upside down. When he started to win those freestyle battles, and he got thrown in and he immediately signed a label deal, and [snaps finger] his life turned around so fast. And it was the same with me. When I started playing in New York, it just happened so fast.

Those things, it’s hard to come out the other end the same person. It’s hard to come out the other end sane. You see it all the time with celebrities, people who are given so much so early. They flame out. There’s just a lot of — no one human can handle all that. For us, finding our faith through that and seeing everybody and dealing with all the pressure and the changes and the people who you loved and trusted now trying to use you or seeing you as a moneybag. And people who you grew up and really confided in are now like doing things behind you.

All that to say, I’m a huge fan of who [Jin] is and the way he’s carried himself. I’ve met a lot celebrities, and when you meet a real one, you know. And that’s what he’s always been to me. He’s always been a real person. A super real, genuine friend. And we kick it outside the glitz and the glamor and the recording songs and social media stuff. We kick it outside of that.

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Last question: you alluded to it earlier, but speaking specifically about your NBA career, what are your ambitions currently? You talked about wanting to work through your injuries from the past. Is there anything specifically on your mind this off-season, looking toward the next season?

My thing has always been that I’m trying to be the player that I know I can be. And I haven’t achieved that yet. And so, I understand that realistically the time is ticking, but I also believe God has a perfect plan and that things will happen in the right timing. So I’m just gonna continue to work, continue to enjoy each day, and whatever challenge I have in front of me next, like for next season, that’s what I’m gonna go all out for. I’m an all-in type of guy. And I’ve always had that same dream: I wanna be that player that I know I can be.

Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.