PALO ALTO, Calif. — The basketball court at Palo Alto High School is unusual in that there are no floor-level seats for the fans. The grandstand is raised, like a balcony encircling the playing area, making it feel as if hundreds of people are simultaneously leaning forward to peer down at the players below. During games, the home fans sit together on one side, occasionally looking to their left to gaze at the state championship banners that hang on the wall next to the scoreboard.
This is where Shirley Lin would sit, usually in jeans and a team sweatshirt, cheering with the rest of the parents as her son, Jeremy, ran up and down the floor. At halftime, she would bounce around, talking to parents and teachers, checking in on the food and drink offerings she probably had a hand in organizing. Then, when the game resumed, she would return to her seat, peering intently at her son.
“She was not the loudest,” Mike Baskauskas, the father of one of Jeremy’s teammates, said. “But you knew she was there. She was probably the single most involved parent I’ve ever been around.”
Shirley’s husband, on the other hand, was always silent, and this was by design. Before every game, Gie-Ming Lin would traipse up the steps on the opposite side of the gym — to the point farthest from the rest of the home fans — with his video camera in hand. Sometimes, he would take along Jeremy’s younger brother, Joseph; sometimes, he would go alone. But he was always in the rafters instead of among the other parents, his camera trained on the floor.
“I guess you wouldn’t want to have your voice on the tape all the time, so that worked for him,” said Michael Lehman, who worked with Shirley at Sun Microsystems and whose son, Brad, was a teammate of Jeremy’s.
Lehman added: “But he was always there. You knew he cared and loved watching his son play.”
By now, the mileposts of Jeremy Lin’s basketball life are legend: State championship in high school. No scholarship offers. Harvard. Undrafted by the N.B.A. Picked up (and discarded) by a couple of teams. End of the bench with the Knicks. Got his shot on a February night and suddenly, incredibly, his world became a flash bulb.
Over the past three weeks, Lin has been poked and prodded by the tentacles of celebrity. He has had his high school days examined, his college years parsed and his rise to fame chronicled in publications across the world. Less attention, though, has been given to the story of his parents, who navigated a winding path from Taiwan to the Tidewater section of Virginia, from Purdue University to Palo Alto, on their way to raising a global icon.
“Jeremy’s life was formed by his parents,” Fu-Chang Lo, an elder at the Lin family church, said last week, and he and others who know the family maintain that in order to fully comprehend Lin’s rise from relative anonymity, his parents’ story must be understood.
Indeed, long before there were Madison Square Garden and endorsement opportunities and an unending spotlight on a quiet family from the Bay Area, there were two graduate students in a cramped apartment in Indiana, a rattling Ford Taurus and bills so overwhelming they once gripped the family’s finances.
At its roots, though, the parents’ journey is simple: Some 40 years ago, Lin Gie-Ming, a boy from Beidou, and Wu Xinxin, a girl from Kaohsiung, thought of coming to the United States. They dreamed of pursuing an education. They dreamed of perhaps, someday, raising a family.
From Taiwan to Virginia
Gie-Ming’s immigration to the United States arose from a fortunate connection. Ping Tcheng, a professor at Old Dominion University, graduated from National Taiwan University in 1961, he said, and about 15 years later sent a letter back to his alma mater seeking an engineering student who might be interested in working as his research assistant. In 1977, Gie-Ming arrived on campus in Norfolk, Va.
Gie-Ming, now 59, came from an educated family. His father, Lin Xinken, was part of the seventh generation of a family that crossed the Taiwan Strait in 1707 from Fujian province in mainland China, according to a short family history provided by a relative. Lin Xinken survived the massacre of thousands of Taiwanese by Chiang Kai-shek’s mainland Chinese troops in the spring of 1947. The purge was aimed at eliminating possible Communist sympathizers and advocates of Taiwanese independence, and fed decades of antipathy between longtime Taiwanese and new arrivals from the mainland.
Although living in a developing country rife with turmoil and internal feuding, Lin Xinken was more educated than most; he earned a business degree, was a skilled linguist and once worked as an interpreter in Indonesia, translating Japanese, Bahasa and English at a ham factory.
Lin Xinken died in his ancestral village, Beidou in south-central Taiwan, when Gie-Ming was about 5. After moving to Taipei with his widowed mother and four siblings, Gie-Ming followed in his father’s strong academic tradition. Gie-Ming attended National Taiwan University, the country’s most prestigious institution. After moving to Virginia, Gie-Ming studied electrical and mechanical engineering and worked on instruments related to Tcheng’s research for NASA Langley.
Tcheng recalled Gie-Ming as quiet and reserved — perhaps even slightly overwhelmed. “He made the same trip that I did,” Tcheng said. “Virginia is a long way from Taiwan. It must have felt like such a strange place.”
In Taiwan, Gie-Ming battled a language barrier in elementary school because his family spoke Minnanese, a dialect from Fujian province that is different from the Mandarin Chinese that Chiang mandated. In Virginia, he struggled with his English, but Tcheng said that in spite of his reticence, Gie-Ming still displayed an understated tenderness.
Tcheng was (and is) an avid book collector, he said in an interview last week, and he remembered once browsing through his shelves when he came upon a collection of Chinese stories. The book seemed unfamiliar to him, so he opened it. He smiled when he saw Gie-Ming’s name written on the inside cover.
“I don’t think he told me he had left it,” Tcheng said. “He just gave it as a gift. I still have it.”
Tcheng added, “Some of the details are hazy, but I know he was an excellent student.”
In addition to earning his master’s degree in engineering, Gie-Ming also met his future wife at Old Dominion. Wu Xinxin — who changed her name to Shirley Wu after arriving in Virginia — was studying computer science, and after finishing their studies at O.D.U., the couple went together to Lafayette, Ind., to pursue additional degrees at Purdue.
There, they lived in a tiny student apartment that rented for “no more than $120 a month,” according to Steve Tolopka, who also studied computer science at Purdue. “I’m not sure you would call these places furnished,” Tolopka said. “Maybe ‘barely furnished’? They had a bed, I think.”
At Purdue, Gie-Ming enhanced his reputation as a brilliant mind behind a silent face. His major professor, Philip Swain, said that he did not recall much about working with Gie-Ming on his doctoral thesis — it dealt with parallel processing and evaluating data from satellites — but did remember Gie-Ming’s needing few words during his thesis defense.
“His slides were very, very convincing,” Swain said. “At that time, it was a very important area of research.”
According to property records, the Lins then moved several times in the 1980s as their careers developed, with stops in South Florida as well as Northern and Southern California. They bought a house in Ranchos Palos Verdes, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 1985, and Jeremy Lin’s older brother, Josh, was born in 1987. Jeremy was born a year and a half later.
For the first four years of Jeremy’s life, his parents worked continually — Gie-Ming as an electronics engineer and Shirley as an engineer for airports, specializing in ticket dispensers — and Gie-Ming’s mother, Lin Chu A Muen, spent 11 months a year in the United States to help raise the children.
“Jeremy’s mother would go on business trips for a whole week, and I would cook Taiwanese dishes for him the whole time,” Jeremy’s grandmother recalled during a recent interview in Taipei.
As Jeremy grew older, the visits decreased in length and frequency as the children matured and Shirley was able to spend more time at home. In 1993, the family paid $370,000 for a 1,700-square-foot one-story house, according to records, and put down roots in the place where Jeremy developed into a basketball star while his mother became a perpetual — and often immovable — force in his development.
Mom in His Corner
If Gie-Ming planted the basketball seed in Jeremy and his brothers (through frequent trips to the local Y.M.C.A. and repeated viewings of old N.B.A. games he taped on his VCR), then Shirley, now 55, is the one who cultivated it. As the Lins settled in Palo Alto, she quickly became a sort of hybrid “tiger mom,” fiercely prodding her children to work tirelessly, but also advocating for them in whatever way she could.
Shirley made no illusion of her priorities; her e-mail address features, among other characters, three “J’s” — for her sons, Josh, Jeremy and Joseph — and the word “mom,” and other parents found her passion perpetual, if not infectious.
Shirley embraced the duality of her role. She was strict with Jeremy about academics, calling his coaches to warn them that a poor grade meant Jeremy would not be going to practice without improvement. But she was also willing to engage in playful bantering with Jeremy’s teammates when she drove them to practice. At the family’s church, the Chinese Church in Christ, she went with the children to the English-speaking service while Gie-Ming often worshiped at the service held in Chinese.
Shirley encouraged a balance for Jeremy, friends said; Friday nights would often involve youth gatherings at the church, and after studying with the pastor Stephen Chen, Jeremy and his brothers would frequently take Chen with them when they went to play basketball afterward.
“Sometimes, we would play until 1 a.m. and then go to Denny’s to eat,” Chen said. “Shirley would come and meet us.”
In an interview with a Taiwanese television station last summer, Shirley lamented that she did not fully understand the intricacies of the American youth basketball system when Josh began playing; choosing the right teams and finding the right opportunities for exposure can be challenging.
With Jeremy, however, Shirley was diligent; Baskauskas recalled that when Jeremy was nearing the end of elementary school, there was no elite-level program for youngsters that age to join.
“So we started one,” Baskauskas said.
With Shirley squarely in the middle of the group, a National Junior Basketball program was built in Palo Alto, which included a top-tier regional team that featured Jeremy and many other youngsters who went to play with him on Amateur Athletic Union teams and in high school.
“It filled a hole,” Baskauskas said.
While Gie-Ming’s general fascination with basketball is well known — he has an abiding love for the hook shot, and one of Jeremy’s former teammates, Brad Lehman, said, “I think that’s the only shot I’ve ever seen him take” — Shirley’s devotion to the game was driven by her children.
Her commitment to it, though, was unusual among Asian parents and, in the Taiwanese television interview, Jeremy acknowledged his appreciation for his mother’s willingness to break from the norm.
“Growing up, some of my mom’s friends would tell her that she was wasting everyone’s time by letting me play so much basketball,” he said. “And so she would get criticized, but she let me play because she saw that basketball made me happy.”
He added: “It’s funny because once I got into Harvard, the same moms that were criticizing her were asking her questions about which sports their kids could play to go to Harvard. It was a funny reversal for me to see them support me in basketball, even though not many other Asian parents would have done the same.”
‘He Takes Care of Me’
Shirley’s involvement in Jeremy’s basketball life was often as an organizer — of travel schedules or practice times or who would be driving the players’ vans to a road game — but she did not stop there. She would often talk animatedly with Jeremy in Chinese after games — “I always wished I knew what she was saying to him because he was so good,” Brad Lehman said — and Michael Lehman, Brad’s father, recalled her once helping recruit a talented player to join their sons’ A.A.U. team. Shirley did not coach, but she also did not hesitate to question those who did about Jeremy’s playing time or strategy.
After working with Shirley to start the N.J.B. program, for example, Baskauskas was pressed into coaching duty for the team.
“Our conversations then were a little different,” he said, smiling. “She had her son’s interest at heart. Who can blame her for that?”
As Jeremy’s career progressed, Shirley reveled in her son’s success — she wore T-shirts with “The Jeremy Lin Show” written on them when attending his games at Harvard — but she often struck a realistic tone. In the Taiwanese television interview, she said she had suggested Jeremy take two years to see if he could make it in professional basketball and expressed concern over what might have happened if he had been stuck in the N.B.A. Development League, where salaries are low.
“I thank God that he made the N.B.A. his first year,” she said with a smile. “Now I don’t have to take care of him. He takes care of me.”
Her concerns with money were understandable. Though the Lins live in Palo Alto, their family home is a modest ranch, with roof tiles that are slightly warped and a small, patchy front lawn. There is no basketball hoop in the driveway and the house is on a block that features tightly packed homes, chipped fences and utility poles with fading signs posted on them about a missing orange tabby cat named Emma.
As devout Christians, Shirley and Gie-Ming preached humility to their children, and they spoke from experience. After being widowed, Gie-Ming’s mother raised five children on her husband’s savings, she said.
For Shirley and Gie-Ming, money became tighter as their family grew. Not long after they bought their home here, their debts forced Gie-Ming to file for bankruptcy in 1995, according to court records. After a reorganization of finances, the case was dismissed 11 months later.
Still, humbleness remained an obvious family trait. Gie-Ming and Shirley embraced their lives at the church, with Gie-Ming occasionally teaching a Sunday school class in Chinese and Shirley acting as a formal teacher and an informal counselor. Chen said he would often see Shirley slip her arm around the shoulders of the young girls in the congregation and say, “How are you?” with a wide smile. Most of the children, Chen said, called her Aunt Shirley.
Even during a rare splurge, Jeremy’s modesty showed through. Nathan Lui, a high school friend of Jeremy’s, recalled going to an Audi dealership with Jeremy and Shirley shortly after Jeremy had signed with his hometown Golden State Warriors. After years of riding around in a Taurus, he was ready for an upgrade.
While out on a test drive, Lui said, the salesman asked Jeremy if he was a basketball player. Jeremy said, “Yes.” The salesman pressed on. “Did you play in high school? College?” he said, and Lui remembered smiling from the back seat.
“Jeremy had just been signed by an N.B.A. team that played like 10 minutes away from there,” he said. “Anyone else would have been shouting it out, telling everyone.”
But that was not how Shirley and Gie-Ming had raised their son.
“Well,” Jeremy told the salesman, “I used to play in college.”
Sam Borden reported from Palo Alto and Keith Bradsher from Taipei, Taiwan. Howard Beck, David Chen and Michael Luo contributed reporting from New York, and Mike Gruss from Norfolk, Va.
Sam Borden reported from Palo Alto and Keith Bradsher from Taipei, Taiwan. Howard Beck, David Chen and Michael Luo contributed reporting from New York, and Mike Gruss from Norfolk, Va.NYT