Why the Jeremy Lin phenomenon?

I suppose that if you don’t live around New York, and you’re not a sports fan, and don’t follow the news, and you don’t happen to be of Asian descent, there might be a chance that you haven’t heard about Jeremy Lin, a point guard for the injury-plagued New York Knicks. Lin had just been called up from the NBA’s developmental league on Jan. 23, went in as a substitute on Feb. 4, and proceeded to score 25 points with 7 assists in beating the New Jersey Nets.

Promoted to starting point guard, he then proceeded to score 28 points with 8 assists against Utah, 23 points with 10 assists against Washington, 38 points and 7 assists against the L.A. Lakers and Kobe Bryant, 20 points and 8 assists against Minnesota, and on Tuesday night, 27 points and 11 assists, with a game-winning shot at the buzzer, against Toronto. All Knicks wins.

In 2006, despite leading his high school team to the California Division II championship, he received zero college athletic scholarship offers. He played for Harvard in the Ivy League, which doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. After leading Harvard to the Ivy championship in 2010, Lin entered the NBA draft but went undrafted.

He signed a short-term contract with the Golden State Warriors, which some commentators and fans regarded as a publicity stunt to attract Asian fans. He was waived by Golden State on Dec.  9, 2011, then claimed by Houston. But Houston waived him on Dec. 24, 2011. He was claimed by the Knicks on December 27, sat on the bench and played mainly in the D-league until Feb. 4, when he became a phenomenon.

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Why was his success in the NBA a phenomenon? The world loves stories of people who succeed after overcoming obstacles, the great novelists who overcome stacks of rejection letters, the singers who come out of nowhere to win American Idol. Jeremy Lin has that kind of feel-good story.

But why wasn’t his talent recognized earlier? He won his state championship in high school ball in Palo Alto, Calif., home to Stanford University. Nobody noticed enough to offer an athletic scholarship? And after his championship play at Harvard, all 30 NBA teams found other players more worthy of being drafted?

A lot of people seem to think Jeremy Lin was overlooked because he was Asian, and I’m sure that was part of the story. It’s not that anyone set out to deliberately exclude talented Asian players from athletic scholarships or the NBA. It’s just that Lin didn’t look like any of the successful point guards that any of the college and NBA scouts had seen before.

Even though professional scouts today follow basketball players in the far corners of the world, and bring the best to American colleges and to the NBA, they may have all been looking for the same exceptional physical characteristics and skills rather than the combination of skills plus intelligence that Jeremy Lin offers. Think of the professional scouts who clashed with Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball. And the moral is the same as in the movie: teams can improve their chances for success by learning to think outside the standard box.

It’s no doubt also true that Jeremy Lin’s basketball skills have improved over time as the result of hard work in high school, college, and in international and professional competition. Maybe Harvard was the right place for him to play college ball. And a season practicing with the Golden State Warriors and then play in the D-league had to prepare him for his starring role under the lights in Madison Square Garden.

His skills were brought to culmination at the right time, and in the right place under national and international media attention. Lin has scored 136 points with 44 assists in his first 5 consecutive starts in the NBA, which is a record that should stand up for a long time. It’s going to be fun to see how much longer that record can be extended.

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