In the opening minutes of Evan Jackson Leong's documentary, Linsanity, basketball star Jeremy Lin remembers security guards stopping him when he was walking into the players' entrance at Madison Square Garden, not recognizing he was on the team.
"That scene has a lot of layers," Leong says. "It shows a lot about racism and how Jeremy deals with it -- he can laugh about it. He doesn't let it bother him. He's on the team, and they don't know he's on the team and never think an Asian guy would be on the team."
Linsanity was a hit at Sundance and opens CAAMfest (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), the first documentary to do so in more than a decade. The movie doesn't just cover last February, when Lin, a Harvard graduate from Palo Alto, who had been cut from a couple of teams, became an international sensation with the Knicks. Leong had already been filming Lin for several years before Linsanity hit. What first attracted director Leong, a sixth-generation San Franciscan, was that Lin could dunk.
"I first heard about him when he was at Harvard, making some waves," Leong says. "He was this Asian-American guy from the Bay Area, he was a guard, he wasn't 7 foot 6, and he was dunking."
Leung decided to pursue Lin, but Lin wasn't interested.
"He's a very private person, very humble," Leong says. "At that point he was like, 'I'm not a reality star. I just want to focus on basketball.'"
Leong and his team went ahead and did some "unauthorized shooting" while Lin was still at Harvard, but when Lin started playing for the Golden State Warriors, he agreed to the project.
"I think a business manager told him whatever happens, you get some cool footage to remember all this by," Leong says. "We told him we wanted to be sure he's happy. Any time you're going inside somebody's life, you want to tell their story, not your own."
Leong didn't know how that story would end. He and his team, who all still had their day jobs (Leong worked as a producer at MTV), thought that it was amazing Lin made it to the NBA, but they were having a hard time getting interest in the documentary, and they were holding out for a better ending. They got it last February. Leung says the access they had had to Lin and his family was critical to the movie.
"How do you tell a story know everybody knows?" he asks. "Everyone knows he got cut, and that nobody wanted him in college, and then he became this huge success. What we had was footage no one else had. It was not the Jeremy on ESPN and in interviews. We had so much footage from his childhood. I think I have, like, two hours from my childhood. Jeremy has around 80 hours. They filmed everything."
Leong said he was as surprised as anyone when Lin, about to be cut from the Knicks, came off the bench to score 25 points and spark a seven-game winning streak and Linsanity.
"I was so happy for him," Leong says. "We were on this journey with him in his career. It's the thing you hope for as a filmmaker. We went through a lot looking for distribution, so there was some validation we stayed the course. I'm texting the guy after the game, and I was with him the day before he played the Lakers. Those are probably experiences I'll never forget."
"Linsanity" opens CAAMfest on Thursday, March 14 at the Castro Theater at 429 Castro Street (Market Street) at 7 p.m.