By Marc Stein, The New York Times
It was Room 3296 at Coronado Springs Resort, inside the gates of Walt Disney World in Florida. Jeremy Lin said he had memorized every aspect of its layout.
“I know where the scratch marks on the wall are,” Lin said. “I know where the spider webs were.”
Lin spent 43 days and 42 nights in that room as a member of the Santa Cruz Warriors, playing in the NBA G League bubble in a bid to make it back to the best league in the world for the first time since the 2018-19 season. After a season of gaudy statistics and rock-star treatment with the Beijing Ducks in the Chinese Basketball Association, Lin bypassed millions of dollars in China to play for $35,000 in the NBA’s developmental league and give scouts ample opportunity to study him.
Lin, 32, finished the G League’s abbreviated season at 19.8 points per game on 50.5% shooting and with strong, 42.6% shooting from 3-point range, but missed six of the 15 games with a back injury. While he waits to see if he did enough for an NBA team to sign him, Lin once again finds himself in the spotlight as a leading voice in the Asian American community.
After another G League player called him “coronavirus” on the court, Lin, who is Taiwanese American, has been speaking out against the racism and bigotry that numerous Asian Americans have faced since former President Donald Trump began referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus” last year.
Lin spoke about his NBA comeback bid and his activism in a wide-ranging phone conversation Monday. (The highlights of the interview have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)
Q: On his willingness to play in the G League as a nine-year NBA veteran:
A: The more that we talked to teams, they were telling my agent: “Hey, we want to see if Jeremy’s healthy, and we want to see if Jeremy can still go. No offense to some of the leagues overseas, but we would love to see him here in front of us, in an NBA system, playing under NBA rules.”
I know I’m an NBA player. I know I’m a better shooter. I know I’m a better defender. I know I’m more well rounded as a basketball player. I know these things, but I just needed a chance to show it.
Q: On how he was received by fellow G Leaguers:
A: There were two instances where a player said to me, “I grew up watching you play.” I’ve never had another player tell me that, but then I was like, “OK, well, you’re 18 or 19 years old, so I understand that.”
Q: On facing younger players still trying to establish an NBA foothold:
A: Ever since I was out of the league, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to get back in. Now you can put your money where your mouth is and compete against all these hungry players. It’s the ultimate competitors’ den where everyone in there is just going at each other.
I’ve been a target my whole life. Since I was a kid, I was either a target because people look at me and they’re like: “Oh, he’s not that good. I’m going to take his head off. He’s lunch meat.” Or they don’t want to be embarrassed by me. Now you add on the whole “Linsanity” thing, and I have an even bigger target, and if you watched the games, I was commanding a lot of attention from opposing teams. But it’s fun.
Q: On initially not wanting to discuss Linsanity, his run with the New York Knicks in February 2012 that landed him on Sports Illustrated’s cover two weeks in a row:
A: That’s how I felt about it for a few years after. But at this point, I’ve come around now to really appreciating and embracing it. For a while it was kind of this phenomenon, or this shadow, or this expectation, or this ghost that I was chasing — sometimes chasing, and sometimes trying to run away from. Now it’s more like a badge of honor that I’m really proud of and what it meant to so many people.
At the same time, there’s a lot more basketball left in my body. I definitely appreciate everything about Linsanity and what it taught me, but I really believe I’m a better player now than I was then. The G League validated a lot of what I felt like I was doing in my training but I hadn’t shown yet.
Q: On revealing the on-court incident in which he was called “coronavirus” and speaking out to support the #StopAsianHate campaign:
A: With everything happening recently, I feel like I needed to say something. The hate, the racism and the attacks on the Asian American community are obviously wrong, so that needs to be stated and that’s part of my role. I also feel like part of my role is to bring solidarity and unity, so I need to educate myself and continue to learn more and also support other groups, other movements and other organizations while also bringing awareness to the Asian American plight.
And then another part is to play basketball and play well, because I think there’s a lot of underlying stuff about Asian Americans being quiet and passive and just, “Yeah, we’ll tell them what to do and they won’t talk back.” So for me to play basketball at the highest level is going to do more than words themselves can say.
Q: On working with the G League to handle the incident internally without naming the player who directed the slur at him — and Lin’s talks with the player:
A: Everything’s good. It was a really cool conversation. I felt like it was handled the best way. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. We were able to just discuss everything.
I wanted to share that everybody is susceptible to these types of things and to racism, but to me that’s not the main focus. The goal isn’t like: “Woe is me. Look at this situation.” The real issues right now are the people that are dying, the people that are getting spit on, the people that are getting robbed, the people that are getting burned, the people that are getting stabbed. That’s where the attention needs to be.
Q: On his time in Toronto and winning a championship — but playing only 1 minute in the 2019 NBA Finals:
A: On one hand, I came out of it with a ring. I was the first Asian American to win an NBA championship, so there’s something super special about that. Even just being in Toronto, to see how the city, how the country, rallied around that team, to go to a parade with 2 million people — it was incredible, man.
At the same time, honestly, it’s what I needed. I had a 10- to 12-game stretch where I could try to break into the rotation. I didn’t play the way I needed to play, but I learned what I needed to learn. I came off two years of injury and I realized after that stretch that I had to get surgery on my shooting arm that nobody knew about. I never said anything to anybody.
It was already starting when I first got to Toronto where something didn’t feel right. It got to the point where, in the playoffs, I couldn’t even shoot a 3-pointer because there was a small bone spur in my shooting elbow. During the playoffs, no one knew, but by the end of the Finals I could only shoot out to the free-throw line.
So I had to do the surgery and I was struggling with that a lot, but also mentally I had a lot of trauma and fears from my prior injuries that I hadn’t appropriately resolved. And that’s what Toronto and part of the season in China last year really showed me: You’ve been approaching the injuries like it’s physical rehab that you need. You are already physically beyond where you were before you got hurt. You have to rehab the mental side.
Q: On his confidence that one more NBA call will come:
A: I’ve done what I needed to do. I took on the challenge. I went to the G League when some people thought it was crazy for me to go. I think it’s just a matter of time, and I believe it’s going to happen. We’ll see. I know I belong.
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