Understanding Jeremy Lin: his Harvard buddies on his faith, friendships, and the occasional prank

The first thing Cheng said to me when I approached him about this article was, “For Jeremy, the most important thing for him is not to elevate himself, to gain fame or even wealth. The most important thing for him is to glorify God via basketball.” But the notion of playing a sport for God is still too abstract and meaningless without specific application. What concretely does it mean for Jeremy to play basketball to glorify God?

Cheng pointed to the recurring struggle Jeremy consistently brought up in their weekly small group meetings during their college years: feeling the temptation to play the game for his own pleasure and satisfaction. When the going was good and Harvard’s “Jeremy Lin Show” made college basketball headlines, Cheng said Jeremy confessed feeling urgently tempted to play exceptionally well and score a lot of points, and to perhaps not pass the ball to his teammates as much. He struggled with his self-awareness of the urge to compromise and “change his game to score more points” in order to impress NBA scouts. Jeremy also constantly checked his occasional feeling of superiority over his peers, and actively combated this tendency by trying to befriend those he didn’t know as well, inviting them to a conversation over a meal.

Jeremy's friends Cheng Ho and Jon Takamura hold a picture of Jeremy at Harvard Commencement 2010. Jeremy skipped the graduation ceremony due to a schedule conflict with an NBA training camp. Photo courtesy of Cheng Ho.

On the other hand, when faced with setbacks and disappointments, Jeremy’s faith underwent severe tests that led him to question God’s purpose for everything he was going through. “We all envision a life path that we think is good for us, but sometimes things don’t work out. For Jeremy, this didn’t happen one, two, three times. It happened over and over, many countless times. To the point where he thought about giving up basketball, and became really skeptical about whether God had a different plan for him altogether.” Cheng observed that Jeremy’s approach was “to completely surrender himself to God. He learned not to care.”

I was intrigued by what sounded like quite a loose, indifferent handling of one’s own career. Cheng was quick to clarify the full meaning of Jeremy’s attitude, relating it to his now triumphant present, “The temptation to keep his job is now stronger than ever.” Temptation to keep his job? This is the staggering irony before us: a man who has broken the NBA record for total points in first five career starts views the game of basketball as simply what God has given him to work with for the present, and nothing more. Step by step.

Jeremy’s way of integrating his faith and athletic pursuits began in his early years at Harvard, and he used his past personal experiences to encourage others as well. Cheng, who by his sophomore year was a starter on the Harvard football team, recalled a defining moment in his friendship with Jeremy when Cheng lost his starting spot on the team, even after performing well the previous Ivy championship season. Bitterly angry, Cheng went through a psychological crucible that took a toll on his sleep, his mood, and his relationships. He didn’t know how to handle being relegated to a backup position for the first time in his life. One afternoon, as Cheng was leaving for a game, Jeremy popped his head out and said, “I sent you something in an email. When you have a chance, take a look at it.” Later at the field house, Cheng found a long email from Jeremy, full of Bible verses related to sports, as well as reflections on his own past experiences. “He was trying to encourage me and also show me the right perspective for how to face the circumstances in a godly manner. These verses had helped him before, and they would help me now.” Cheng was touched, and recognized in Jeremy a true friend who provided support as well as gentle exhortation. “I recently sent the email back to him because he was going through a similar situation in the NBA.”

Though he and Jeremy had initially met in their freshman year, each identifying the other as “that other Asian guy playing sports at Harvard,” Cheng found that his friendship with Jeremy developed and solidified in the context of their HRAACF small group, in which discussions about faith and the consumption of food both figured prominently. “Jeremy consistently invited me and other athletes to join his small group. At first, I was not really interested at all in matters of faith. Then he said, ‘I’ll bring food.’ And I said, ‘Cool, I’m in.’”

Danny Kim, a 2010 Harvard graduate and also then a member of Jeremy’s small group, remembers how Jeremy on occasion made their meetings a time of (literally) fun and games. He once organized a night of silly games, one involving “pantyhose and tennis balls,” another “blindfolds and throwing rolled-up socks at each other,” and, of course, an eating competition.

One of the games Jeremy devised for his small group. Photo courtesy of Esther Wu.

Cheng assured me, “People think Jeremy’s a really serious individual, but he’s actually really chill and actually really, really immature! The things that he would say and do would sometimes make me say, ‘Wow. Who are you?!’ When you’re with him, all hell breaks loose. He’s a goofball, has a great sense of humor, and doesn’t take things seriously. For example, he loves playing DotA and Halo (popular video games) in his free time, often with his brothers. Anytime I saw him playing, I would just walk out immediately. He’d shout, ‘Hey! No, I’ll be done soon!’ I’d wait thirty minutes and he’d still be playing. He’s just a normal person who likes to have fun.”

In the off-season, Jeremy often invited his friends to play a game of pick-up basketball with his teammates. Andy Choi, Jeremy’s classmate and fellow HRAACF member, recalled the thrill of those moments, “Whenever I got the text or call, I would drop whatever I was doing and sprint like crazy over to Lavietes [the basketball arena]. As I got close to the gym, I would slow down and try to control my breathing so I wouldn’t look like an eager little boy excited to play with the big kids. But once I entered the gym, I never felt like I didn’t belong or wasn’t good enough to play with the rest of them. Jeremy would always include me, and actually pass me the ball even though I was clearly the worst player on the floor.”

Even in these casual games, Jeremy’s competitive spirit was an ever-present force. “It was good to be on his team because he hated losing. In those pick-up games, I don’t think he ever lost. If his team were losing, he would take over the game and score the last however many points needed to win.”

Danny remembers one such game his freshman year when he got a little playful with Jeremy: “I was guarding Jeremy on a one-on-one fastbreak and I was talking a little smack to get him riled up. "C'mon, J Lin, what you got?" He pulled up behind the 3-point arc and drilled the shot. I spoke no more.”

Danny, Andy, and Jeremy bonded, too, over what became a weekly tradition of eating together at Le’s, a popular Vietnamese restaurant in Harvard Square. Danny and Andy independently mentioned to me one particularly memorable Sunday night their sophomore year. As they were enjoying bowls of pho, they discovered that they were all “down to get an ear piercing.” So they spontaneously headed to a piercing salon upstairs from Le’s. Jeremy, petrified of needles, was afraid to go into the piercing room alone, so Danny had to go in with him and provide moral support. Alas, all three of them picked out such a small stud that “it ended up looking feminine” instead of what they imagined would be a really cool look. Then again, Jeremy’s relationship with his piercing proved to be short-lived anyway. “He was afraid of his mom finding out about the piercing because he knew she would kill him. He was right. When he came back the next fall, he was no longer wearing an earring and his piercing had closed.”