Mission log: Earth date, 1980. Eight-year-old Justin Lin and his family arrive in Los Angeles from Taiwan. After growing up on a farm, Lin suddenly finds himself in urban Southern California — and a bunch of guys are celebrating in purple jerseys. A day earlier, the Lakers had won the NBA championship, the first of five titles the Showtime teams led by Magic Johnson would claim in the '80s. Lin was instantly hooked on basketball. "It changed my life," he says.
Mission log: Earth date, 2016. Lin is now 44 and one of Hollywood's hottest directors. His four Fast and Furious movies have made nearly $2 billion worldwide — a run of success that earned him the job of directing Star Trek Beyond, which was released in July ahead of the franchise's 50th anniversary this month.
In a way, Lin was the natural choice to oversee the 13th Star Trek film: After coming to the States, Lin, his brother, and their parents would watch reruns of the original show after his dad got home from a 12-hour workday. At first, Lin was interested mainly in the cool, weird aliens and spaceships. Later, the series informed his sense of family, exploration, and character — all hallmarks of good storytelling. When paired with his love of basketball, Star Trek had Lin speeding toward filmmaking.
When he arrived in the U.S., Lin didn't speak English and didn't have many opportunities to socialize. His parents sent Lin and his brother, Jimmy, to the local Boys Club to help them get settled. There they met Coach Bob, who put them on the basketball team. Because they were the youngest players, they spent most of the time on the bench. But in the last game of the season, a blowout, Lin finally saw the floor.
"The ball went off [an opponent's] foot and just rolled to me, and I threw it up and it went in," Lin says. "And I got addicted." He skipped the soccer team other kids in his community joined and shot around and practiced by himself instead. "And when I went back to the Boys Club the next summer, basketball definitely became my passion in sports. That's where everything kind of linked up."
He spent a lot of time in the school library practicing English by reading sports encyclopedias and biographies of hoops heroes like Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West. "Those myth-building stories that I loved as a kid really helped me through how to deal with adversity," Lin says. "Basketball was what helped me find empowerment. And learn that hard work can really lead to something."
He also learned from his role model, Magic Johnson. At the time, the Lakers were the best team in the NBA, and no player was better than Johnson. Lin picked up the ins and outs of the game, as well as lessons in leadership, by watching him play.
"I enjoyed watching them going to commercial breaks because before they cut out you saw him run to his teammates," Lin remembers. "The way he talked to them, you could tell he was never negative. It was just him trying to get the best out of everybody."
A NEW FRONTIER
Like any sports-obsessed kid, Lin imagined a life in the pros. But as he got older he realized he didn't have the skills or the height (he's 5'4") for the NBA. So he turned his attention to a new goal, one born out of everything he picked up shooting hoops and watching Star Trek: filmmaking.
Lin attended film school at UCLA and made his first feature in 2002. Four years later, producers tapped him to take over The Fast and the Furious franchise beginning with Tokyo Drift. Lin directed the next three Furious films with a masterful blend of grip-the-armrests, high-octane action sequences and funny, heartfelt scenes. The series became more popular — and more successful — with every movie. Hollywood noticed. When producer J.J. Abrams needed someone to take over the Star Trek movies, he called Lin.
"Justin has proven himself as an incredibly strong storyteller, but what struck me more than anything was his genuine love of Star Trek," Abrams says. "He's really the perfect fit."
But Lin wasn't so sure. On one hand, the series held special meaning for him. On the other, he would only have six months to take Beyond from script to screen. Ultimately, it was the memories of watching Star Trek with his parents — and the opportunity to set a new tone for the series — that led him to take the job. "It was a really cool balancing act making the film, to not only embrace what has made it great but to also challenge everybody," he says.
Lin accomplished his goals on Star Trek Beyond like he always does: by drawing on his basketball education. He saw himself as a point guard or a coach motivating the team to go after one common goal — whether that meant pushing his writers to think big, then go bigger, or inspiring his cast to take their characters into new territory by destroying their home, the Enterprise. The result is an action-packed spectacle that honors the spirit of family, friendship, and optimism that has allowed Star Trek to endure for 50 years.
Another Trek with Kirk and crew has been announced. But if all goes well, Lin's next project will be his most hoops-focused. He's working on Space Jam 2, a sequel to the classic 1996 animated and live-action movie that starred Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes gang. LeBron James is stepping in for Jordan. The story line is pretty perfect: Lin will have gone from loving basketball, science-fiction, and movies to directing a sci-fi basketball movie.
"Making movies is very much like basketball," he says, "and I feel like I'm living my NBA dreams."
Photos: Kimberley French (Lin on set), Manny Millan (Johnson)