Frank Chi had trekked from Washington D.C. to witness Linsanity, the basketball phenom that connected deeply with the Asian-American filmmaker.
Scalpers outside Madison Square Garden had other ideas.
“They were trying to charge $700 at the door,” Chi recalled. “It was not happening.”
So Chi wandered to a karaoke bar in nearby Koreatown, where he discovered a crowd with similar enthusiasm for Jeremy Lin. Together, as a culture suppressed by stereotypes that should’ve rendered Lin’s confidence and athleticism impossible, they saw the Knicks guard drop 38 points against the Lakers and Kobe Bryant.
“I’m surrounded by people who look like me and it was just two hours of us just losing it. People are crying in their beer. They’re screaming their lungs out. I’m doing all those things too,” Chi said. “And I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ Maybe it’s the wall of stereotypes Asian people feel following them around and then suddenly there’s a cathartic reaction when they see somebody break it on the world stage.”
Chi’s film on Linsanity, “38 at the Garden,” will debut Oct. 18 on HBO as a celebration of those special weeks and an education into the stereotypes that still follow Asian-Americans. Lin recounts his experience as an overlooked D-Leaguer turned overnight sensation, including his humble living arrangements on the tiny couch of teammate Landry Fields. There’s also an anecdote of an unnamed Knicks assistant coach dismissing Lin’s game as that of a “Japanese cartoon character.” But the implications of Linsanity to other Asian-Americans are the meat of the 38-minute documentary, with comedian Hasan Minhaj providing the most poignant and colorful analysis.
“Jeremy was not going to do a movie about Linsanity just recounting it and what happened on the court, even if it’s 10 year later. That’s not something I was interested in making and neither was Jeremy,” said Chi, who also worked on the 2018 documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “We wanted to make something that took the story and put it in the context of the people who freaked out about it the most.”
It’s also heavier a decade later. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, with former President Donald Trump stoking the hatred with his “Chinese Flu” and “Kung Flu” references. It fed into a rise in violence against Asian-Americans, including a mass shooting last year at a spa in Atlanta.
“We get to stereotypes that follow Asian people all the time, especially when you’re weak and submissive,” Chi said. “What happens when all those stereotypes get weaponized like during COVID? That’s anti-Asian violence.”
Lin’s story is not only about overcoming the emasculating stereotypes attached to Asians, but also how they almost kept him out of the NBA. He was a star in high school but received zero recruiting letters. He was a star at Harvard but never close to getting drafted. Chi said the pre-draft scouting reports on Lin “read like a lintany of anti-Asian stereotypes: passes the ball too much, lacks confidence in his shot.”
“Linsanity is a product of people underestimating him his whole life,” added Chi. “Jeremy is the greatest example Asian Americans have of someone who has this wall of stereotypes and is trying to crush them. He found every single crack in that wall and kept pushing, and pushing and pushing.”
The peak of Linsanity only lasted 10 days in 2012, with the Lakers game neatly situated in the middle. The ensuing months were a mess with accusations of Carmelo Anthony’s jealousy to questions about the severity of Lin’s knee injury to James Dolan’s refusal to match the Rockets’ contract offer. But that aftermath isn’t explored in “38 at the Garden,” which is more interested in contextualizing the gravity of Linsanity through the people it inspired.
Chi said the idea started through a conversation with fellow producer Travon Free. They were trying to find comparisons to Barack Obama’s election as the first Black president, “when society at large assigns a stereotype to a group of people saying you can’t do something. And someone comes out of nowhere and shatters it.
“So we were like what other moments feel like that,” Chi said, “and I said, ‘Look, I’m Asian, and I only have one answer for that — Linsanity.’”