Sustaining faith

Sports | Sudden superstar Jeremy Lin made basketball an idol before failure led him back to trusting God
by Samantha Gobba
Posted 2/16/12, 10:08 pm

A little more than a week ago, Jeremy Lin, then a third-string point guard for the NBA's New York Knicks, found himself suddenly in the limelight after leading his team to a surprise victory over the New Jersey Nets. Before coach Mike D'Antoni put Lin in the game out of desperation, few Knicks fans, let alone anyone else, had ever heard of the Harvard grad already cut from two other NBA teams.

But now, as he leads the Knicks on a seven-game-and-counting winning streak, everyone's talking about Lin, his underdog story, and his faith.

Sports commentators call him the "Taiwanese Tebow," a nod to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who sparked so much debate last year about public displays of faith. Although the men share a habit of giving God glory during postgame interviews, Lin's friends say the quiet and unassuming basketball player has little in common with the demonstrative football star.

But Lin's story of perseverance on the basketball court cannot be separated from his testimony of dedication to God, a faith that sustained him through rejection, humiliation, and now, unexpected fame. Through each setback Lin encountered on his way to becoming a household name, the devout basketball player trusted God and used his trials to encourage others.

During a conference hosted by River of Life Christian Church in Santa Clara, Calif., last year, Lin described his journey to the NBA as a roller-coaster ride between euphoria and despair.

When he signed with the Golden State Warriors in July 2010, Lin said he had confidence in his strong faith, remembering the spiritual training he had while at Harvard. He thought he was grounded enough to face life in the NBA. But soon Lin was deluged by media attention and thousands of Facebook friend requests.

"I felt like I was on top of the world," he said. "My life changed overnight."

But during training camp, Lin discovered he wasn't as ready for the big leagues as he thought. His teammates outperformed him on the court and even his coaches' encouragement couldn't lift his spirits.

"I was humbled very quickly," Lin said.

He eventually found himself headed for the NBA's Developmental League, where teams send players who need to hone their skills. Near despair, Lin wrote in his personal diary that he felt like a failure after putting so much pressure on himself to make the NBA.

"This is probably the closest to depression I've been," he wrote in an entry on Dec. 29, 2010. "I lack confidence on the court, I'm not having fun playing basketball anymore, I hate being in the D-league, and I want to rejoin the Warriors. I feel embarrassed and like a failure."

Just a few days later, he decided his basketball career was a mistake. "I wish I had never signed with the Warriors," Lin wrote on Jan. 1, 2011.

"That's really the amount of pressure and the amount of stress I put on myself, to the point where I really lost my joy, my passion, and my purpose in basketball," Lin told attendees at last year's River of Life conference.

At that point, none of the fame and glamour that come with playing in the NBA mattered to him.

"None of the paychecks, the car, the fame, none of the NBA lifestyle, none of that stuff, my dream job, my dream life, none of that meant anything to me anymore," Lin said. "My happiness was dependent on how well I played."

He realized that basketball had become an idol in his life, so he decided to return to trusting God for his future.

"For me to not trust God is crazy," Lin said, listing all of the ways God had paved his way to the NBA, including his dad's love for basketball, his coaches, and his spiritual growth at Harvard.

Adrian Tam, who served as Lin's spiritual mentor at Harvard, said Lin has a "very strong and vibrant faith." During his last year at the Ivy League school, in 2010, the player's busy schedule kept him from attending the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian-American Christian Fellowship meetings on Friday nights, so he and Tam got together whenever Lin had a break from classes and practice.

"We would talk about different aspects of following Christ and what that looks like," Tam told me. "We read a book together, Too Busy Not to Pray, and we would look for ways that he could engage in prayer. He really wanted to have prayer be … a regular thread in his life."

Lin grew up in the church, so he was "thrown off guard" by the godless culture of the Harvard basketball team, Tam said. It was then he got involved with the school's Asian-American Christian Fellowship, led a Bible study for two years for both Christians and non-Christians, and made concerted efforts to reach out to his non-Christian roommates. Tam said Lin was one of two practicing Christians on the Crimson basketball team, and when he made efforts to "mobilize" their faith, he did not preach at them.

"He always did it in a way that was respectful and sensitive," Tam said.

Lin made the trip to the NBA's D-League three times during his first season in the pros. At the beginning of this season, Golden State waived its right to resign him, and the Houston Rockets picked him up. Lin played just two preseason games for the Rockets before they cut him loose. He joined the Knicks on Dec. 27 as a bench warmer. He soon lost his spot on the roster and made another trip to the D-League in late January.

At the beginning of February, the team considered cutting Lin to make room under the salary cap for a new player. But on Feb. 4, with the team still licking its wounds from a tough loss against the Boston Celtics, D'Antoni decided to give Lin a shot. After playing just 55 minutes during the team's first 23 games, Lin came off the bench to score 25 points, grab five rebounds, and dish out seven assists, leading the Knicks to a 99-92 victory over the Nets. (See "Super bowled over," by Mark Bergin, Feb. 25 issue.)

During the Knicks' seven-game winning streak, Lin has averaged 24.4 points, four rebounds, and 9.1 assists, and has moved into the starting lineup.

Questions about Lin and shock over his recent performance have exploded on Twitter and other social networks. Sportswriters scrambled to find out more about the 23-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif. Media commentators dubbed the internet frenzy "Linsanity." It took about a week for word of Lin's faith to spread. Comparisons to Tebow soon followed.

Tam, Lin's Harvard mentor, says the two athletes may share a common faith but have very different ways of showing it. He hesitated when asked whether Lin would become a cultural icon like Tebow.

"He's a very friendly, non-assuming person, so even though he is very bright and very accomplished, you wouldn't be able to tell just by sitting around reading the Bible together or praying together," Tam said of his friend.

While Lin might not share Tebow's flair for attention, Tam added that both men have a commitment to sharing their faith and backing it up with their actions: "They both want to give all the credit to God."

This article originally appeared at WORLD on Campus.

Listen to WORLD sports reporter Mark Bergin discuss Jeremy Lin's impact on the New York Knicks on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Samantha Gobba

Samantha reports on the pro-life movement for WORLD Digital.

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