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

I’m sitting in the middle of a long table, enjoying lunch with my small group after Sunday service. One of my friends asks sweetly, “Annie, did you know Jeremy Lin?” Suddenly, all other conversations cease and ten pairs of eyes fixate on me, waiting for my response. “Yeah, I knew him. We were both in HRAACF [the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian-American Christian Fellowship]. But I didn’t really know him – we’ve spoken maybe a couple times.”

Photo courtesy of nikk_la.

It seems that Jeremy Lin is the unavoidable, ubiquitous conversation topic these days. I’ve watched with amusement over the last couple weeks as the most unlikely of fans have emerged from within my social circles. One of my good friends, literally the last person I expected to be starstruck with Linsanity, grabbed me by both shoulders and demanded quite seriously, “TELL ME EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT JEREMY LIN.” My parents emailed my brother and me a YouTube video of a Jeremy Lin interview, then later giggled on the phone as they confessed they’ve been diligently watching his highlight reels, and had I watched the YouTube they sent yet?! “He’s amazing!” they chortled. My guy friends refer to Jeremy as “my boy,” while it seems every other girl is expressing her wish to date Jeremy. But I don’t need to tell you these stories; you and I are just as caught up in it all.

But through my own willing participation in the Linsanity, I became aware of how shallow our fixation thus far has been. We – both the media and individuals – seem to endlessly reiterate the same few basic facts we know about Jeremy: He’s Christian! He’s Asian-American! He went to Harvard! ...and repeat, with some tantalizing embellishment or another thrown in with reference to Tim Tebow or Kim Kardashian, as the case may be.

And with each new piece of information we obsessively consume and share, fueled by the escalating effect of social media, we further underscore and idealize Jeremy as an Übermensch of inhuman faith, exceptional intelligence, and clutch athleticism, while his humanity slips farther and farther away from our minds.
The truth is, Jeremy does represent movements much bigger than himself. He is at once the timely savior of a struggling franchise, a profitable posterboy for a rejuvenated league, a champion for the often-overlooked Asian-American population, and a provocative agent of change within a conflicted China. And, of course, he is making the biggest splash as outspoken flagbearer for the cause he has steadfastly and intentionally pursued – the advancement of the Christian faith. But though much of our initial interest in Jeremy stemmed from a basic shared commonality in one of these aspects of his identity, or his appeal as the protagonist of a Cinderella story to which we might aspire, we have since nearly forgotten that Jeremy is just a man after all.

Even the hype surrounding Jeremy’s faith can undermine his desire to share, and for us to perceive, it in its true form: a developing journey marked with exhilarating highs, deep lows, and the most formidable doubts as recently as the very present.

For those who have known Jeremy pre-Linsanity, this is a supremely exciting time with special sentimental meaning. It has also turned into a time of careful deliberation for us who bear the responsibility that comes with shared faith to compose responses with integrity to Jeremy’s own message to everything from the innocent questions of our friends to the aggressive demands of the media.
I happen to live in a house with the current staff of HRAACF, Victoria Lo (Harvard 2011 graduate) and Lue Qin (Harvard 2010 graduate), so I’ve observed first-hand how they’ve been handling all the requests from the press for some statement or another about Jeremy’s involvement with HRAACF. They held a long meeting to discuss how to respond out of a desire to respect and reflect Jeremy’s own response to media attention. Jeremy’s attitude has been one of admirable humility; he has become known for deflecting praise to his team and giving God the credit for his wins. So that has been Victoria’s and Lue’s focus and prayer as well: that in the midst of Linsanity, we would celebrate Jeremy, but ultimately follow his heavenward pointing example.

The same concern has been shared by Cheng Ho (Harvard ‘10), Jeremy’s close friend, roommate, fellow student-athlete, small group member, and longtime superfan. When I pitched my article thesis to Cheng, he revealed that he’s been wading through an absolute flood of interview requests from both American and Chinese media (he’s currently in Beijing working to promote the National Football League). Cheng has been extremely selective in responding, however, because he worries whether the big picture of Jeremy’s story, in which the gospel is so central, will be genuinely and faithfully conveyed.

But are we not already constantly made aware of Jeremy’s faith, inseparable from any mention of Jeremy himself? What more is there to convey with regards to this gospel? Haven’t we heard it all already, and then some?

While talking to a good friend of Jeremy’s who wishes to remain anonymous, I heard her speak the answer: “So far, Jeremy has been portrayed as this very religious, humble, unselfish person – all of which is true. But I just hope that this doesn't make others see him as unreachable, as someone they can't relate to. I find it somewhat amusing when the media portrays him as this soft-spoken, mild-mannered guy, because around his family and friends, he is outgoing, incredibly funny and sarcastic, very playful and social. And he definitely has swag!”

We discussed the possibility that the frenzy around Jeremy and his faith might serve to actually undermine his goal to point to God, as people begin focusing on him, or more accurately, the holy caricature we have come to identify as him. Perhaps the most significant obstruction to Jeremy’s own passion movement is nothing less than Linsanity itself. What if we could shed some light on the man himself behind the larger-than-life Asian-American Christian Harvard graduate hero? Perhaps understanding his fundamental humanness might help us realize that he is just like any other guy, full of nuanced character, quirky passions, and an abundance of hilarious college memories. And perhaps we would come to see that everything Jeremy is, is nothing more and nothing less than the earnest product of striving to practice his faith step by step through every moment in life.

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.”

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.”

I asked several more of my mutual friends with Jeremy to recall some of their favorite memories with him, how they were personally celebrating Linsanity, and what impact his story has had on their lives. Here are their responses:
"I knew Jeremy would be a special player when the first time we played pickup he dunked on me the first play. I fell on my back and he was kind enough to help me up. It was embarrassing then but I feel better to know that I was dunked on by an NBA star." - Eric Lu, friend, Harvard ‘09
“For me, the thing I remember most about Jeremy is the down-to-earth, relaxed nature that he always exuded. Whether it was running into him on University Avenue in Palo Alto during summer vacation, conversing with him at bible study, or playing a pickup game with him in the offseason, there was never the awkward distance that one may feel to a star college basketball player. And in recent days, it has not mattered whether it has been a college friend or Yao Ming congratulating him for his successes—he has embraced everyone in a display of humility and generosity that has colored his rise to prominence.” - June-Ho Kim, friend and small group member, Harvard ‘09 (reposted from June-Ho's personal blog)

Jeremy with his friends after a basketball game. June-Ho Kim and Joony Moon, both pictured at Jeremy's right, contributed to this article. Photo courtesy of June-Ho Kim.

“My favorite Jeremy memory was after one of my a cappella group’s concerts that he wasn’t able to attend, he asked me if I had any recordings from the concert, specifically of any songs his then girlfriend might have been singing. I sent him a link to the video of the concert and thought that was the end of that. She then told me the next day she had walked into Jeremy's room earlier and found him embarrassingly listening to her song on full blast even with his roommates around.” - Joony Moon, friend, Harvard ‘10
“For the average person at Harvard, Jeremy Lin was a passing interest. Basketball just wasn't that big on campus, but for those of us already obsessed with Crimson sports, it was a feeding frenzy. We postered our office with his face, called him every chance we got, and even sent reporters to his Bible study. Unfortunately, we didn't think to coin the term ‘Linsanity,’ but we were the hoops star's first groupies!” - Max Brondfield, The Crimson Sports Editor, Harvard ‘11

Photo courtesy of the Harvard Gazette.

“I am overwhelmed by God's faithfulness and provision in his life and I'm incredibly hopeful for the ways that He has and will continue to use Jeremy for touching people's lives. I feel that Jeremy is a faithful witness and as he lets his own light shine, he gives the rest of his brothers and sisters in Christ the courage to do the same. For instance, for me, Linsanity is a great segue to sharing the good news, because when he comes up in conversation, I can talk about how I knew him in the context of Christian fellowship and our mutual goal of trying to live out the radical life of love, justice, and sacrifice modeled by Jesus.” – Danny Kim, friend and small group member, Harvard ‘10
“Jeremy's faith penetrates every aspect of his life both on and off the court. I personally have been struck by how earnestly Jeremy strives to be a spiritual leader, not only within his spiritual circle, but also within his nonreligious social circles and even in romantic relationships. Conversations with him about relationships revealed how intentional and committed he is to being a spiritual leader who keeps God at the center of any relationship.” – Elizabeth Shen, friend, Harvard ‘10
“I remember when I was watching the Dallas Mavericks game, I was so excited to the point I had to tell myself to calm down. It was too much for me to handle. I forced myself to not look at Facebook. I did not talk to anyone. I just tried to act as calm and normal as possible. I wished I was there with him. I would have shaken him and told him how happy I was. For me, that game was broadcasting at 2 am in China. I never thought I would ever in my life watch a basketball game at that hour. But I was literally enjoying every second and every moment.” – Cheng Ho, friend, roommate, small group member, Harvard ‘10
“Honestly, there are times I am envious that he is living my childhood dream of playing in the NBA, but then I realize I am more jealous that he is bringing God to the world, while I have a hard time bringing God up with a friend. But that’s a good jealousy because it inspires me to strengthen my own faith in God and be bold in my beliefs.” – Andy Choi, friend, Harvard ‘10
“If you didn't know Jeremy was a superstar before you met him, you still wouldn't know afterwards.  He has a humble disposition and is completely approachable and friendly.  His faith in Christ flows completely out of his person; he knows that apart from God, he is nothing, and so his very identity depends on the love that Jesus has shown for him.  He is ambitious, but quietly so--he will never go through anyone or walk over anyone to get to where he wants to be, and he is an example of what it looks like to be content in everything.  Even though he was at Harvard (not a basketball school by any stretch of the imagination), he learned to be content there and used his leadership and skills to build up the team.  While he hoped and worked towards playing in the NBA, he would have been happy to play in a second tier league because he had prayed about it and felt God's calling to professional basketball.  Of course, it would never be easy to be less than the best--and it wasn't easy to play at Harvard either--but Jeremy has a rootedness and spiritual foundation that can carry him through those hard times.” – Adrian Tam, Jeremy’s spiritual adviser, Harvard ‘06
“It seems like Jeremy has just been gracing the cover of one magazine to the next, but he wasn’t always the glamorous star that the media has depicted him. If I had to describe Jeremy and how he felt at the end of his senior year, it’d probably be “uncertain.” He was unsure if the draft would work out, and if not, then what—Europe? But through all this, he always kept faith in God—knowing that something was going to work. Now, I’m celebrating by telling people that besides his basketball skills, what a great guy he is. I personally feel proud and happy for him, because it just goes to show that good things do happen to good people, even if it might take a while and take you on a rollercoaster ride in the process. So that’s exactly what I tell people—that Jeremy really deserves it.” – Bing Han, Jeremy’s small group co-leader, Harvard ‘11