The body speaks metaphors in Evan Jackson Leong’s documentary Linsanity which chronicles the unforeseen rise of Houston Rockets basketball player Jeremy Lin. The loudest of these body metaphors is the image of Lin’s large frame cribbed into a stunted couch, a teammate’s couch he slept on while his status with the Knicks was tentative. This image of Lin’s unruly body constrained by the couch’s constricting dimensions can stand in as the Procrustean Bed of the powers that be in the NBA that refused to see Jeremy Lin in any other frames than the limiting lens of what they felt a basketball player ought to be. A basketball player, in their minds, is either a black guy or a really tall white guy. That is, until that beautiful run in the winter of 2011 that marked Jeremy Lin as the man for whom so many Asian-American basketball fans had been waiting.*
But awareness of embodiment doesn’t stop with the couch as crib. We find Lin reminiscing how he’d whine to his mom about not being taller and the strange efforts he made as a kid hoping to extend his limbs. We have scenes of what this young man eats, showing how the ‘Western’ diet contributed to how tall Lin stands today. (I put ‘Western’ around quotes because one example is Latin food that has been Westernized, a fireplace-log-sized burrito he consumes early on in the documentary.) Lin also tells us how he learned humility in his high school after an injury in his junior year.
Like Lin’s young desires for his literal body, we can also extend the body metaphorically further towards the ritual of practice, the practice of ritual. Lin grounds his life in his faith first, his family second. To underscore this, Linsanity peppers the film with Lin’s self-devotions of faith, expressions through words and through his body. Just as he practices his free throws and threes freely, his commitment to his church’s theology is clearly demonstrated in prostration and prayer. And furthermore on the religious tip, Lin’s performance on the court can be seen along the lines of evangelical theologian James K. A. Smith’s ideas of embodiment in the Christian faith. In a July 7, 2012 radio episode of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio show Encounters entitled “The Devil Has All the Best Stories”, Smith discusses with host David Rutledge how Christianity’s reluctance to acknowledge how we live through our bodies is problematic because it misses a great opportunity to revive the Christian message. Smith sees his fellow Christians living through Christ through embodiment. As Rutledge summarizes – “Embodiment — the part our physical bodies play in shaping our minds — has long been a problem for Christian thinkers, particularly the reformed church, with its emphasis on the intellectual. But James Smith argues that meaning is a product of our imaginations as much as our intellects, and that Christianity needs to think harder about such tricky concepts as love, longing and desire.” Regardless of your religious faith, or lack there of, your mirror neurons can share with Lin the physical thrill of scoring the winning points at the final buzzer. The pivotal plays Lin imagined on the playground were realized in 2011, and you can experience the thrill in communion with his shots in the closing seconds of critical games. And if your religious beliefs are in sync with Lin’s spiritual philosophy, those same mirror neurons can enable you to live through Christ’s message through Lin’s body via his movements on and off the court in Linsanity. As the documentary shows, Lin has used his fame to evangelize to his fans. His bodily display becomes Christian testimony.
It might be hard for you to believe that an atheist such as myself just wrote that paragraph above. But I find all scholarship interesting, and that includes theological or homiletic scholarship such as that proposed by Smith. I don’t have to be a Christian to find aspects of Smith’s scholarship intriguing, just as I don’t have to be into anime to enjoy Ian Condry’s recent book The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Duke University Press, 2013). Nor do I have to be into Hello Kitty to be anxious to read Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific (Duke University Press, 2013) by Christine Yano. (Yes, I the Duke University Press catalog is more my ‘biblical’ canon.) So neither do I have to believe in Christ to understand what Smith is arguing and then see how Leong’s film allows for a similar interpretation of Christian practice.
Still, when I heard Leong share at the preview screening as part of this year’s CAAMFest how much he had to plead Lin to allow him to make Linsanity, and then heard from Leong how Lin eventually agreed because he trusted Leong, I was worried that this trust had a quid pro quo. I worried this would result in hagiography in the guise of documentary. But Linsanity provides much more than a narrow reading of Lin’s life through Lin’s theological lens. The viewer is the basketball passed off on many different themes that become present in Lin’s celebrity trajectory. Lin has space to speak about what’s important for him, but alternate interpretations are informed by other images/sequences throughout the documentary.
For example, when Lin is quoted in an interview saying ‘things would be easier’ if he were black, (Lin’s Romney moment?), Leong’s montage of the NBA draft where Lin was ignored includes a parade of white players amongst black players, showing who else would have had it easier. I want to be very cautious here to not speak of Director Leong’s intent. There was no time to interview him provided at the CAAMFest screening. So I wasn’t able to confirm what was intent and what was not. I am merely saying the wealth of thematic avenues Leong provides enables multiple interpretations of Lin’s (so far) brief rise in the NBA. As an atheist, when Lin narrates his story as God having a plan for him, I can still enjoy Linsanity without agreeing with that theological interpretation. To me, Lin’s rise to NBA stardom is more complicated than ‘God did it’. There is a public school system that enabled his rise to stardom. There is the family support and financial support that helped him survive a trip to the D-League. Similarly, when Lin calls himself ‘lucky’, there’s a truth to that, but Leong’s film demonstrates how much hard work Lin has engaged in to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that would eventually arise for him. I learned how the NBA owners lockout was used productively by Lin. I learned how much the D-League must really suck for the players sent down. So if you make it back up from the D-League, it’s a lot more than luck that gives you a second, or third, chance. There’s some serious hard work involved.
Some might say a doc like Linsanity writes itself considering the dramatic arc of Lin’s life. But Leong’s doc Linsanity works because alternate interpretive trajectories exist within the film. This was done while still staying faithful to Lin’s faith, to Lin’s own take on the story of his young life. Lin’s body’s rise above the rim might be brief, it might be temporary, (although I hope not), but that winter moment in 2012 was freaking beautiful regardless of what theological or sociological frame one brings to that brief moment in time.
* It needs to be underscored, or footnoted, that not all Asian-American basketball fans are huge Jeremy Lin fans. I know quite quite a few Asian-American basketball fans who shrug their shoulders when Lin’s name is mentioned, feeling greater allegiance to the specific teams they follow then the fact that Lin shares with them certain phenotypes or a particular ancestral homeland, or even a particular religious faith.