Project Lin

The story of Jeremy Lin's would-be Svengali
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Richard Twu’s gleaming, sterile apartment complex rests apart from more blighted pockets of San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. The development hides between a plump green hill and wrinkled Bay waters, in a nook occasionally draped by fog whenever some deity wants to make it part of a higher-level scavenger hunt. Rich sits down in the lounge and leans forward intently. He is Taiwanese-American, built like an athletic combo guard. His skin is tight across the face, though his brow furrows sharply into hash marks if he so much as flinches. Twu can hold court for hours, expounding in a soft voice that sometimes crackles into vocal fry. He transmits stories at the pace of a burning candle, his enthusiasm more enduring than frenzied.

Twu runs Dream League, a rec basketball organization that started with an Asian-American focus, though it has since broadened out to include people of all backgrounds. It is an all-consuming job and lifestyle for a man who chose this over more profitable pursuits in venture capitalism. He intended the Dream League to approximate the NBA structure: “We’re one of the few leagues to almost fully adopt NBA rules. My goal has always been to make it like an NBA experience.” The unsaid “dream” was always to have something more than an ersatz NBA, to forge a sense of possibility in the community. Twu beams with some pride when describing Dream League projects, but there is a heaviness to his tone when he speaks of Jeremy Lin, the kid whose public career has done the most to marry Asian-American identity to basketball. Perhaps this is because Rich once tried to steer Jeremy towards this dream, only to see that advice dismissed and his efforts rebuked. Lin has certainly realized Rich's vision, but three years ago, Rich ultimately failed to sell Lin on the idea and its importance.

“Rich had all the best intentions in the world,” says Jeremy’s former AAU coach Jim Sutter. “He just got there a bit late. Maybe [Twu] could have talked to him a little different, but Jeremy tried to do it his way and I respect it.”

Lin’s inner circle includes his family, his coaches, and generally anyone who has been with him since before he broke through to national acclaim. Twu approached Lin in the middle of his college career, when plans were already being made for a possible future in basketball. In the summer of 2008, Jeremy played in San Francisco’s Kezar Pro-Am league. He was fresh off averaging 12.6 points as a Harvard sophomore, but far from national renown. “I had heard of Jeremy, never seen him play,” Twu recalls. “And I go, ‘Well, it’s the last game of the season.’ I almost didn’t go.”

Lin was matched up against D-Leaguer Jovan Harris. What stood out most was Lin’s ability to retreat on drives until he surged forward to block Jovan’s shot. “You don’t really see that in Pro-Am. And on offense, you could see the evolution into what he has now. He just couldn’t finish back then.”

Rich introduced himself to Jeremy after the game. Numbers were exchanged and a lunch was scheduled. Lin was, as Twu describes, “Real quiet, exuding the Taiwanese culture. I would have been like that, too.” Rich certainly related to this way of being, but would later fear that American basketball culture would not. “We’re always struggling with the two poles of where we’re brought up, in our family, as being really reserved, and American culture. But to be successful, we gotta be more social.”

At lunch, Rich tried to convince the nineteen-year-old of his potential: “I’ve been to (NBA) Summer League and I’m absolutely certain you can make a roster on one of those teams.” With a laugh, Twu revealed the internal monologue of that statement: “And I was thinking, ‘That would be the first Asian-American to do that!’”

It appeared that Lin would need copious amounts of help to reach his NBA potential. Harvard was not on the typical scouting checklist, and he already had to deal with the obstacle of looking different from almost every college basketball player. Fortunately, as Twu saw it, he knew just the right guy to assist and protect Jeremy. In 2004, Rich met Darren Matsubara—an Adidas-affiliated power broker—at a Vegas tournament. Matsubara, described by ESPN the Magazine as a “legend in American AAU ranks,” was certainly no stranger to navigating the cavernous world of high-end “amateur” basketball.

“Mats” as he is oft referred to, coached DeShawn Stevenson, Carlos Boozer, and the Lopez twins at AAU on the Elite Basketball Organization team. He also served as Global General Manager of the Adidas Nations project. In Sole Influence, a Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger book on the shoe industry’s role in youth basketball, Matsubara is described as someone whom (then UCLA coach) Steve Lavin could ill-afford to snub. This is because Matsubara’s connections to top youth players meant he could guide this talent toward certain coaches. To put it bluntly, he was and is perceived as powerful in the world of young athlete trafficking, an unsavory realm where thirteen-year-olds can tour the country for months on end like grizzled carnies. To be high-up in your field is to command respect, but Matsubara’s field is one many view as a blight on sports. He has defended himself as one of the good guys, claiming, “There’s a difference between people. If the NCAA finds a college coach cheating, does that mean Mike Krzyzewski is? Of course not.”

Twu: “We talked about how it was one of (Darren’s) dreams to help the first Asian-American come into the NBA because he played at Fresno State. He’s actually had firsthand experience of being an Asian-American player, possibly a novelty. It was clear to me that he did have a genuine passion to helping an Asian-American.”

In December of 2008, Twu took a brief detour from a New York tournament to visit Lin in Cambridge. They broke down tape in Jeremy’s dorm and hung out around campus, with Rich watching two games from the stands. “He had a move where he went baseline and then jammed it. And I was sitting there and my jaw hit the ground. I was like … wow … I’ve never seen an Asian-American ever do that anywhere.” Lin was ecstatic over the game and eager to relive the experience. “He was like, ‘Let’s see if the newspaper photographer got it!’ And there it was. He got a perfect shot of Jeremy. An Asian kid dunking. Perfect shot.” That game was enough to convince Rich of Lin’s NBA talent. Twu texted Matsubara, who was impressed.

From then on, Rich religiously followed Jeremy’s obscure career on Harvard’s grainy video stream. Through a laugh, he recalls, “I was probably one of only a few subscribers to the Harvard feed.” Twu would inundate Jeremy with advice, frequently texting him with tips and pointers. Jeremy’s play also prompted regular communication with another interested observer: “Every time Jeremy had a good game, I would text Mats.” Matsubara was a macher, someone who could get Jeremy in front of the right scouts and NBA executives. Twu’s ideal scenario was for Lin to be guided towards success by members of the Asian-American community. He wanted to show the world that Asians could help Asians, drawing an analogy to how Michael Jackson was aided by a strong group of black musicians and black record producers. But Jeremy was wary of such grand designs.

“Once the word ‘Adidas’ came out, Jeremy probably sort of got defensive. Later on he would say that I kept pressuring him to talk to Mats,” says Twu. “I just couldn’t get them to talk to each other. I could feel a force field going up.”

Twu’s enthusiasm for the Asian-American community was an animating force in his quest to help Lin, but such talk left Jeremy cold. “I would say, ‘You’re going to have a major impact on Asian-Americans!’ Looking back on it, I was very naive about that. I used to wear my heart on my sleeve.” Sutter confirmed that impression. “Jeremy didn’t want to be an Asian-American symbol, he didn’t want all that. He just wanted to play ball.”

Both Sutter and Twu spoke to Lin’s monomaniacal focus, with Rich describing Lin as a highly absorbed “absentminded professor,” and Jim describing a kid who would create his own practice schedule to bookend team practices. Over the course of Lin’s junior season, his need for focus may have been in conflict with Twu’s desire to help with big-picture advice. Jeremy was having a monster year, averaging 17.7 points on 50-percent shooting, and all but ensuring his status as a prospective pro. But more success came with requests for less Rich.

“The whole theme was, ‘I need to focus. So I’m sorry if I don’t return your phone calls or texts anymore.’” Twu says. He recalls Jeremy saying: “That one time you were talking to me, you kept talking and talking and talking,” in reference to a time Twu stopped by a library study session. An aghast Rich asked why he wasn’t just told to simply stop at the time. To his memory, Lin replied: “I’m not like that.”

Twu drew back. “I stopped contacting him, and if I did, it would be some piece of advice that I really thought he’d need.” In the summer of 2009, Lin decided to attend the Impact Basketball Academy in Las Vegas in an effort to prepare for a pivotal senior season. Despite their waning relationship, Rich was happy to hear about the decision, maintaining high hopes for Lin and the possibility of working with him in some capacity. Twu pulled the string at his disposal and called Darren Matsubara. Matsubara was involved in a workout of various Adidas players (including Derrick Rose, then coming off a Rookie of the Year season) and gave word that Lin would be allowed to join in among the elite. Twu was thrilled, but he still needed consent from Jeremy’s family. Rich met with Team Jeremy, made his pitch for the workout, and for Matsubara as a shepherd: “You’re going to have possibly a really big impact on the Asian-American community. And if your path is to the NBA, why not hire an NBA expert like Mats?”

His race-based appeals were again met with resistance. According to Twu, Jeremy said, “I don’t want to think about that.” As Twu recalls, Jeremy’s mother responded with, “He plays for God,” in response to Rich’s ethnicity pitch. Shirley Lin’s voice may have been the most important of them all. As Jim Sutter puts it, “Make no mistake. The mother calls all the shots.” She wanted no part of this, which was akin to a death knell. This crystallized just how far apart the two sides were. Twu hailed from “the secular venture capitalist world,” as he put it, while the Lin family had their own intensely religious perspective. Rich was attempting to forge a bond based on commonality, only to discover irreconcilable differences. Jeremy was kind enough to lead a crestfallen Rich out of the meeting, thanking him for his consideration. This did not do much to mitigate the Dream League commissioner’s sense of loss and frustration. His great hope was fading off into an uncertain future.

From there, the family strategized in a manner Twu found questionable. When Tim Kawakami—arguably the Bay Area’s best known sportswriter—came in pursuit of interviews for a Lin story, he was denied. And the family hired Roger Montgomery, an agent who only claims a couple clients. Watching these developments from afar, Twu still felt compelled to try his hand at guardian angel. He wrote a glowing argument for Lin’s NBA potential on the popular Warriors blog Golden State of Mind, followed by more posts extolling Lin's talent. When Harvard played at Santa Clara during Lin’s senior season, Rich organizeda raucous crowd for the homecoming, advertising Lin as “The New Steve Nash, Making Asian-American History.” The Dream League bought tickets in bulk, sold them for the discounted price of $8.88 (“8” is a lucky number according to Chinese tradition), and repeated the promotion when Jeremy played Columbia in New York.

But when the Warriors finally signed Lin as an undrafted rookie in the summer of 2010, Rich was not exactly eager to reconcile. He attended Warriors Media Day but kept a cool distance from the rookie. “At the media day, I wanted to avoid him and I did avoid him. I just didn’t feel comfortable. Because, the whole time I was pushing for Mats. And that didn’t happen and he got his own contract, so I knew I’d been proven wrong.”

When Lin’s NBA career sputtered, Twu saw it as a lost opportunity. On Twitter, he lamented how it all could have been different had Jeremy not chosen the “wrong trainer, wrong agent, among other things.”

Lin struggled early in the libertine Warriors’ offense. In late December, the Warriors shipped him to Reno’s D-League squad, then brought him back to the Bay in January. Keith Smart buried Jeremy on the bench, even behind Acie Law and his creaky game. Over the offseason, a botched quest to sign DeAndre Jordan led the Warriors to cut Lin. Then Houston picked him up only to drop him as quickly. Then, a half-interested, ill-constructed Knicks team plucked him from a waiver wire.

In the last month, Lin has become what Twu envisioned, albeit without much help. He is an Asian-American basketball icon, though that was never his priority. I asked Sutter about Lin’s lack of self-promotion, to which he responded: “I don’t think he looked at it as a hindrance. I think a lot of it was, being brought up by his parents, being disciplined, working hard, and that’s supposed to be good enough, yeah?” Lin’s commitment was always to basketball as a meritocracy, to the idea that he could forge his own way on his own terms.

Nevertheless, Twu has misgivings. “Back then, helping Lin was mostly about being proud of being Asian-American, which now I don’t feel as much.” I ask why he doesn’t feel it as much now that so many people taking pride in Lin’s accomplishments. “Because, it’s about respecting him. It’s his life. This is his life, this is not my life. But it’s hard to let go of that. Now I respect him as him, how he wanted to approach it. It works for him, it’s always worked for him.”

When contacted about this story, Lin confirmed that Twu and he “had a relationship,” but declined to confirm or deny any other details. Matsubara did not respond to interview requests.

Correction: Twu called Lin at the Harvard library. He did not show up in person.


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Comments

I have gotten needled about the library incident, so let me set the record straight. I did not go to Jeremy Lin's study group at a library. I called him on his cellphone and he happened to be at the library studying.

Happy to follow up on the subject of Jeremy Lin with anyone, hit me up on Twitter @poormanscommish.