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

So “it’s basketball and Christianity and food,” Cheng asserted, that were important in Jeremy’s life. “That’s about it; there’s not too much about it other than that.” And what about academics? Cheng laughed, “A lot of times he didn’t really like studying.”

Perhaps Jeremy remembered one thing from his economics class with Andy. “He once took a picture of me sleeping in class, and he would always make fun of me for it. The funny thing was, when midterm season came around, he would ask me for notes. I clearly didn’t take notes.”

“In the classroom, he never raised his hand to ask a question. Ever! If a TF [teaching fellow] called on him, he would pretend he was sick or go to the bathroom to avoid talking.” Cheng attributed this to Jeremy’s aversion to public speaking throughout college. “He doesn’t enjoy the spotlight, and feels uncomfortable talking about himself. During his college years, he refused to be in a lot of interviews. Now, though, he’s in a different situation. He needs to be able to suck it up and embrace public attention.”

It’s clear that the process of opening up and being himself in public has already begun for Jeremy, at least during games. Cheng made frequent references to Jeremy’s utterly new persona on the court, in which he’s playing with a tremendous amount of confidence and passionate, crowd-pleasing charisma never seen before by his friends and former teammates. “At Harvard, Jeremy never displayed emotion when he played. Now we see a much more vocal high energy player fist-pumping, chest high-fiving, and screaming.”

In the past few weeks, Jeremy has risen out of obscurity and made a name for himself with unbelievable speed (I’m reminded of this tweet Jeremy sent a mere month before Linsanity began: “Everytime I try to get into Madison Square Garden, the security guards ask me if I’m a trainer LOL”). It’s true on the court, too, as Jeremy has earned the respect of his teammates and is now seen telling the Knicks’ star players where to stand and what to do. When I ask Cheng if Jeremy’s leadership abilities were already clearly evident during his Harvard years, he briefly cites Jeremy’s election as captain of the men’s basketball team, and then launches, laughing, into a more personal illustrative anecdote:

“It was winter, and there was snow on the ground as we walked back to our dorm. Naturally, I made a snowball and threw it at Jeremy. It missed his face poorly. He turned around and said, “Cheng?” with an evil look. Laughing, I took up an even bigger one and threw it at him, and again missed. Finally, I nailed him just as we got to our dorm. He was like, “Alright, I’m going to get you back.” Later that night, after we ate dinner with our whole eight-person rooming group, he made sure I was the last one to leave the dining hall. As we walked back to our dorm, Jeremy signaled with his hand and suddenly a huge torrent of snowballs started flying at me, from everyone else in our group. I was very upset and started going crazy chasing people around, thinking, I only threw one, and now you pull a full-out snowball revenge on me, rallying the entire group! Jeremy noticed I was really angry and apologized, ‘Sorry man, it was just a joke.’ I didn’t talk to him for two months – no exaggeration. Every time our group ate together, I intentionally ate at another table. This story shows my immaturity, but also Jeremy’s leadership ability – his ability to get people to do things, to rally the group. People just naturally listen to him.”

Jeremy with his housing group. Photo courtesy of Jeremy's friend.

Now, Jeremy is in the ultimate position of influence, not only in games played out on a polished wooden surface, but in as intimate a setting as the very hearts and beliefs of his fans, and as broadly as in the imaginations and aspirations of whole populations around the world. Cheng has observed firsthand the effect Jeremy is having as he himself embodies an entirely counter-cultural worldview to his Chinese fanbase. “In China, for example, Christianity is a very sensitive topic. But when Jeremy talks about God and Christianity, people here are more respective and willing to listen. He’s in a position to share his story, create a positive influence, and make an impact.”
It’s up to all of us to fully appreciate his story as the dynamic testimony of a man whose faith struggles and unique experiences have shaped him thus far, who has been given a remarkable opportunity to do great things in the present, and whose future steps are still paved by faith.Let us recognize that his story and his faith are accessible to us; that he is relatable to us, and in some ways, just like us. I asked Cheng how he eventually reconciled with Jeremy after the snowball incident. “I don’t really remember, but I think he must have needed help on a problem set or something.”