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Sustaining faith

Sports | Sudden superstar Jeremy Lin made basketball an idol before failure led him back to trusting God

A little more than a week ago, Jeremy Lin, then a third-string point guard for the NBA's New York Knicks, found himself suddenly in the limelight after leading his team to a surprise victory over the New Jersey Nets. Before coach Mike D'Antoni put Lin in the game out of desperation, few Knicks fans, let alone anyone else, had ever heard of the Harvard grad already cut from two other NBA teams.

But now, as he leads the Knicks on a seven-game-and-counting winning streak, everyone's talking about Lin, his underdog story, and his faith.

Sports commentators call him the "Taiwanese Tebow," a nod to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who sparked so much debate last year about public displays of faith. Although the men share a habit of giving God glory during postgame interviews, Lin's friends say the quiet and unassuming basketball player has little in common with the demonstrative football star.

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But Lin's story of perseverance on the basketball court cannot be separated from his testimony of dedication to God, a faith that sustained him through rejection, humiliation, and now, unexpected fame. Through each setback Lin encountered on his way to becoming a household name, the devout basketball player trusted God and used his trials to encourage others.

During a conference hosted by River of Life Christian Church in Santa Clara, Calif., last year, Lin described his journey to the NBA as a roller-coaster ride between euphoria and despair.

When he signed with the Golden State Warriors in July 2010, Lin said he had confidence in his strong faith, remembering the spiritual training he had while at Harvard. He thought he was grounded enough to face life in the NBA. But soon Lin was deluged by media attention and thousands of Facebook friend requests.

"I felt like I was on top of the world," he said. "My life changed overnight."

But during training camp, Lin discovered he wasn't as ready for the big leagues as he thought. His teammates outperformed him on the court and even his coaches' encouragement couldn't lift his spirits.

"I was humbled very quickly," Lin said.

He eventually found himself headed for the NBA's Developmental League, where teams send players who need to hone their skills. Near despair, Lin wrote in his personal diary that he felt like a failure after putting so much pressure on himself to make the NBA.

"This is probably the closest to depression I've been," he wrote in an entry on Dec. 29, 2010. "I lack confidence on the court, I'm not having fun playing basketball anymore, I hate being in the D-league, and I want to rejoin the Warriors. I feel embarrassed and like a failure."

Just a few days later, he decided his basketball career was a mistake. "I wish I had never signed with the Warriors," Lin wrote on Jan. 1, 2011.

"That's really the amount of pressure and the amount of stress I put on myself, to the point where I really lost my joy, my passion, and my purpose in basketball," Lin told attendees at last year's River of Life conference.

At that point, none of the fame and glamour that come with playing in the NBA mattered to him.

"None of the paychecks, the car, the fame, none of the NBA lifestyle, none of that stuff, my dream job, my dream life, none of that meant anything to me anymore," Lin said. "My happiness was dependent on how well I played."

He realized that basketball had become an idol in his life, so he decided to return to trusting God for his future.

"For me to not trust God is crazy," Lin said, listing all of the ways God had paved his way to the NBA, including his dad's love for basketball, his coaches, and his spiritual growth at Harvard.

Adrian Tam, who served as Lin's spiritual mentor at Harvard, said Lin has a "very strong and vibrant faith." During his last year at the Ivy League school, in 2010, the player's busy schedule kept him from attending the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian-American Christian Fellowship meetings on Friday nights, so he and Tam got together whenever Lin had a break from classes and practice.

"We would talk about different aspects of following Christ and what that looks like," Tam told me. "We read a book together, Too Busy Not to Pray, and we would look for ways that he could engage in prayer. He really wanted to have prayer be … a regular thread in his life."

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