A year after the Houston Rockets failed to draft Jeremy Lin, they began to measure the speed of a player’s first two steps: Jeremy Lin had the quickest first move of any player measured. He was explosive and able to change direction far more quickly than most NBA players. “He’s incredibly athletic,” said Morey. “But the reality is that every fucking person, including me, thought he was unathletic. And I can’t think of any reason for it other than he was Asian.”
- Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
Last fall, a friend reached out to me about helping to finance and produce a film project commemorating the upcoming ten year anniversary of Linsanity. He knew I was a huge Jeremy Lin fan, so there was only one answer to that request: an emphatic hell yes. I did everything I could to make sure the documentary 38 at the Garden could be made by Oscar-winning producers Samir Hernandez and Travon Free with the talented director Frank Chi. That stretch in February of 2012 was one of the best and most exhilarating times of my life (I also proposed to my wife during Linsanity!). It was a seminal moment for me to see the impact that one person could have to inspire so many. Let me share why it was so important to make this film:
I was born in Queens and grew up in New Jersey, a die-hard New York Knicks fan, because my dad loved the Knicks. He grew up playing basketball in Taiwan and immigrated to the US and moved to New York in the 70s. He started following them back when Walt Clyde “The Glide” Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe were kings of The Garden. I grew up playing one-on-one with my dad in our driveway and watching Knicks games on NBC with Marv Albert. As a teenager, I had a Patrick Ewing jersey and a poster of John Starks dunking over Horace Grant and Michael Jordan. The other poster in my bedroom was the only Asian American athlete I had to look up to was Michael Chang. He won the French Open in 1989 and inspired me to play tennis competitively. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that, on the night of February 10, 2012, I would be sitting in Madison Square Garden, five rows behind the Lakers bench wearing a Knicks jersey of a Taiwanese American player, who would go on to score 38 points against the legendary Kobe Bryant. I was memorialized holding up a sign that was on televisions around the world; this image would go on to get me on SportsCenter for the next week.
Watching Jeremy made me, and other grown men, feel like we were kids again. Around the world, our eyes were glued to the screen, watching every game he played and every move he made. He captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world, because he made people believe the impossible was possible. To do this as a New York Knick, with one of the most notoriously tough — if not toughest — fan bases in the world, made it that much more impressive.
Jeremy Lin is as close to a real-life superhero as any Asian American has ever had, because he transcended his Asian identity. People of all colors, ages and backgrounds were rooting for this kid because it was an impossible story. Impossible because he was an Asian kid from Harvard that wasn’t even supposed to be in the NBA (in the minds of many). Jeremy made Asian Americans feel seen in a way we’ve never been seen before in our own country. He made people feel visible who’ve always felt invisible and forced to blend into the background. He was all over the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated and celebrated on prime time television like no other Asian American had ever been. This was the NBA, not figure skating nor baseball. And he wasn’t a 7’6” anomaly from China, he was a kid from Palo Alto, California that we could relate to because he grew up like so many of us. He flew completely under the radar and defied the odds to shock the world. Even the term “Linsanity” is derived from the disconcerting fact that it’s crazy to think that an Asian man could do what he was doing.
Why is it so impossible to believe that an Asian guy could do this? Because it doesn’t fit the box of what Asians are “supposed” to be able to do. Jeremy broke out of the box and the stereotype that everyone had put him in. A box full of limitations that many Asian Americans are often placed in, simply because of the color of their skin. Sadly, it’s a box that many of us put ourselves in, because we’ve been gaslit to believe that we have no business playing in certain rarified air. Jeremy is the embodiment of defying others’ beliefs and being told it was a fluke. People, from colleges to NBA teams to security guards to his own teammates, doubted him his entire life. Even after Jeremy proved it was not only possible, but fated, others continued to cast doubt on his true talent. ESPN’s Pablo Torre told me that the Knicks had the data that showed Jeremy was the fastest player on the team but even then, they couldn’t fathom it to be true. Jeremy exceeded every expectation that everyone else had for him, because he always believed he was good enough to be there.
I went to three games during that stretch of Linsanity and thought I knew everything about that time, because I lived it. But it wasn’t until I saw our film, that I realized there were perspectives about those moments that I had missed. Hasan Minhaj, one of the most insightful comedians of our generation, talked about “the wave off” when Jeremy waved off his teammates to take the game winning shot in Toronto against the Raptors. I must have watched that moment dozens of times, but I never fully realized how significant that was. As Hasan noted, we rarely if ever see an Asian American man wave off others and say “I got this” with the confidence Jeremy had. Not in sports, not in film nor television and certainly not in the workplace. We have been programmed to believe that Asians are meant to be in supporting roles, never playing the lead. But in taking that one game-winning shot, Jeremy literally and metaphorically changed the game.
Many Asian Americans are first-generation immigrants or second-generation Americans (the children of immigrants). Our immigrant parents often raise us with a scarcity mindset, so we feel like anything we are given, we should deeply appreciate, even when we are the ones who worked and fought so hard to earn these successes. We are taught that we should play within the boundaries and not to rock the boat or draw attention to ourselves. We are told by others in this country that we should feel grateful that we are even in this country. We are programmed to believe that it’s a privilege just to be here, to never complain, and to never ask for “more” than we may have a chance to achieve, despite the systemic barriers. We make ourselves small for others and try to take up as little space as we can, because we don’t think we deserve to take up space; or worse, we fear the repercussions of trying to take up more space. By shrinking ourselves, we start to limit our own dreams and expectations, so much so that we don’t even try anymore. We become numb and accept what we are given.
“How many times in my own life did I pass the ball or hold myself small.”
Hasan Minhaj, 38 at the Garden
Asian Americans are told we don’t belong in so many ways that we start to believe it ourselves. “Go back to your country.” You don’t belong at this lunch table or on this team or at this party. Your food is weird. Your language is weird. Your traditions are weird. Your clothes are weird. We are continually reminded that somehow being different makes us “less than.” We are made to feel that our culture and skin color are something to be ashamed of or inferior. We are treated like foreigners in our own country. Even with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, our cries for help are ignored by mainstream America, while Asian women and elders are senselessly beaten and murdered. Once again, a hurtful reminder that our pain is secondary to others and we are still unseen. We begin to question our self-worth and internalize that we have a lifelong handicap. People are constantly trying to undermine us and “keep us in our place.” We’ve been so beaten down that we start to believe that our dreams plateau at middle management, because heaven forbid if you deserve to be a partner, or CEO.
No matter how much you’ve achieved or how many boxes you’ve checked off, there will always be people who will still say you’re not good enough for this reason or that. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because unfortunately, they are the ones with the power to put you in leadership positions. Partner at McKinsey. Managing Director at Goldman Sachs. Vice President at Google. Partner at Cooley. We’ve all heard the same feedback that gaslights us into believing we don’t deserve it: “You’re just not leadership material” or “You just don’t have what it takes.” These are just vague, overused excuses to keep us in our lane and avoid promoting us. Meanwhile some mediocre colleague is taking credit for our work or being promoted above us, because we don’t advocate strongly enough for ourselves. In the back of our minds, we believe what our parents told us, that working hard is all we need to get ahead (when it most definitely is not). We also have the voices of our parents in our heads making us feel guilty for wanting to tell our employers that they can take their bamboo ceiling and shove it.
We are constantly selling ourselves short, because we’ve been programmed to believe that more isn’t possible. But if Jeremy Lin had believed that and his parents had deterred him from pursuing his dream, he would have ended his basketball career in college. Jeremy refused to allow all of the stereotypes, racial slurs, and doubters stop him from standing atop of the basketball world in a way very few players will ever experience in their lifetime. The reason so many Asian Americans idolize him, is because he did what we all wish we had the courage to do. It was by no means easy, but he pushed aside all of the haters, underminers, and non-believers to make his dream a reality. Jeremy had the confidence in himself to ask: Why not me?
If there was a movie about an all-Asian military battalion that was the most highly decorated in American history, no one would believe it. Except that it would be based on a true story about the 442nd infantry regiment of segregated Japanese American soldiers during World War II. Hollywood would never produce a big-budget film based on the 442nd, because people would think it’s too much of a stretch considering how Asian men are depicted in the media. Just like it would be unrealistic to have an Asian leading man in a romantic comedy because Asian men “aren’t desirable” or “masculine enough.” Any number of excuses could be used to maintain the current narratives about Asian men in society created by mainstream media and Hollywood, but Jeremy Lin obliterated all of those false narratives.
Jeremy inspired me to believe that anything is possible. His story encouraged me to ignore all of the noise and doubt that held me back. His breakthrough also made me question if I was placing limitations on myself and what I was capable of.
Since that time, I have often asked myself the question: Why not me? I’ve started two companies and raised close to $30M in venture capital funding. I’ve started an investment syndicate, Hyphen Capital, that has invested over $25M in 80+ Asian American founded companies, because I want to provide a runway of support for other Asian American founders who have the confidence to ask, “Why not me?” I wrote and published a letter that was published in the Wall Street Journal condemning anti-Asian discrimination and violence, that was signed by over 8,000 business leaders, spawning a movement of new Asian American activists: Stand with Asian Americans. I joined the board of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to build a museum honoring AAPIs on the National Mall. And I became an executive producer of 38 at the Garden, because if our own community didn’t step up to back this film, it would never get made. My dad passed away twenty years ago, and didn’t get to experience the Linsanity, but I know that he would have loved our film on so many levels. I’m grateful that years from now, my sons will be able to relive that moment through the lens and perspective of this documentary. It has made me more intentional about raising them with the confidence and audacity that I didn’t have growing up.
What is holding you back from doing great things? We all struggle with obstacles on a daily basis, whether internal or external, but imagine what you could do if you were unshackled from those doubts and fears. How many other inspirational leaders would we have to look up to if we didn’t hold ourselves small? How many triumphs have we missed because we didn’t wave off others and shoot our shot? Ask yourself the question: Why not me?