What Jeremy Lin Can Teach Us

Everyone’s jumping on the Jeremy Lin bandwagon.

Hey, even I’m doing it and I don’t know anything about basketball and can’t watch the games because of the ongoing dispute between Time Warner and MSG.

If I could, I wouldn’t know what I was watching and wouldn’t claim to.

But there are two pieces in today’s NY Times that are discussing Lin’s rise from obscurity, journeyman status, the Ivy League, bad scouting and possibly a bit of stereotyping because he’s of Asian-American descent (by way of Northern California). He’s not a prototypical basketball player who’s easy to explain with buzzwords. Those buzzwords are phrased in such a way that few are willing to dispute them because they’re so encompassing and easy to use as adjectives whether they’re meaningful or not.

In one piece, Lin’s failure to attract attention as a high school and college player is discussed—link.

In the other, Nate Silver dissects Lin statistically—link.

The mistakes that were made with Lin are common and happen not just in sports but in all endeavors.

The words “can’t” and “never been done before” are limiting and hinder those with the ability to accomplish their goals. They’re exacerbated if the individual is saddled with an absence of self-confidence or determination to keep moving forward in the face of such negativity. Because Lin continued to try and wasn’t looking for the validation of others to let him think he had a chance to succeed, he hung around and when he received his opportunity, ran with it while holding and passing and shooting a basketball—very well by the looks of things.

In baseball this happens all the time as well.

How many times have we seen a player who wasn’t considered a prospect because of ingrained beliefs that were more of a safety net than legitimate analysis?

People want to keep their jobs and a major part of that for a conventional organization is playing it safe and having an explanation for why they do what they do.

“He had a 100-mph fastball.”

“He’s a 6’3”, 190 pound righty with a clean motion and great upside.”

“He’s a tools guy.”

They’re excuses.

One of the reasons Moneyball struck such a nerve wasn’t that it seemed to work for awhile, but because the players who would’ve been shunned in the past were given an opportunity out of the A’s desperation to find players who could help them at an affordable price. What went wrong was when the concept spun out of control to mean, as a baseline, that rather than looking for players who could play, everyone was supposed to find fat players who took a lot of pitches and drew walks at the expense of other attributes.

The infamous, “not trying to sell jeans” catchphrase became part of the lexicon to explain why a player was taken and it took on the same context of the opposite “reasons” (excuses) listed above.

Old school and new school became interchangeable in stupidity, self-aggrandizement and tribalism.

Suddenly, everyone who could calculate a player’s on base percentage or strikeout rate in the minors was qualified to advise Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre on how to run their teams.

And they did.

And it didn’t go well.

It’s happened repeatedly in baseball that a player like Tim Lincecum was passed over because of his uniqueness of motion, training and diminutive stature, but became a star because there was one team—the Giants—willing to adhere to the rules laid out by Lincecum’s father and judged him by his results rather than that he’s a “freak”.

Lesser known players have benefited from this phenomenon.

Mike Jacobs isn’t a great player, but he was a non-prospect for the Mets and wound up with a decent career because he was called up as an emergency catcher in 1995, batted as a pinch hitter on a Sunday game in which the Mets were losing, hit a home run and had to have Pedro Martinez stand up for him for the Mets to keep him around rather than send him back to the minors. The Mets put him in the lineup at first base and he kept hitting home runs.

Jacobs went from a 38th round pick and “organizational filler” to a big leaguer that was the centerpiece in the Mets acquisition of Carlos Delgado from the Marlins after the 2005 season.

Jacobs hit 100 homers in his big league career and is still hanging around as an extra player who’s been in the big leagues, can hit the ball out of the park once in a while and be a competent bench player who can catch in an emergency. (He’s going to camp with the Diamondbacks on a minor league contract.)

Martinez himself had been misjudged by then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and the team doctors as too small and fragile to be a durable and consistent long-term starting pitcher. He was a reliever as a rookie and was traded for Delino DeShields following the 1993 season.

DeShields happened to be a good player, but he was traded for one of the best pitchers in history and that’s not his fault.

The lack of comprehension surrounding Moneyball and its subsequent offshoots isn’t that people didn’t “get” what Michael Lewis was trying to highlight, but that they took it as the new way of running a club at the expense of old-school scouting techniques and gut instincts that have to be part of the game.

Because they had a bunch of players who would be keys to a “Rocky”-style story with “There’s a Place for Us” by Barbra Streisand playing in the background as the group of misfits—one with a clubfoot (Jim Mecir); one throwing slow underarm junk (Chad Bradford); a former star on his way out (David Justice); and a former catcher who couldn’t throw and never had a chance to play (Scott Hatteberg); along with the fat players they drafted—celebrated a championship and shoved it into the faces of the big kids who never let them play.

They never won a championship, but that’s secondary to the perception and salesmanship.

Lin is getting attention now; there are going to be Lin jerseys popping up all over the place and he’s the toast of New York as an inspiration to those who are waiting for their chance and won’t quit.

He’s also going to have a lot of people who bypassed him contacting him to apologize, admit they were wrong, asking for things or hoping for Lin to say, “it’s okay, you’re not an idiot”.

But what if they are idiots? What if they are so dogmatic and invested in safety-first drafting/signing that they ignored what was right in front of their faces and are under siege because of that?

Is there a stat for scouts and executives screwing up and missing on players that could actually play, but weren’t allowed to for one reason or another?

If not, there should be one because there are Jeremy Lins everywhere waiting for someone in power to take a chance on them. There are opportunities to come up big if a team is smart or lucky or both. It all depends on who’s smart enough, gutsy enough or desperate enough to give those players that chance.

It’s random, but it counts all the same.

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  1. #1 by norm depalma on February 13, 2012 - 10:23 pm

    I think the fact that almost all ‘successful’ non black players in the NBA are born outside of the USA speaks to a latent racism in the sport in the US. Coaches in the US must be doing something wrong in their treatment of non black players—from childhood to professional levels–by pigeonholing and stereotyping. The treatment of Lin seems to be emblematic of this.
    And it’s not just that Lin has enough skill to play well in the NBA and was overlooked repeatedly; it’s that he has a full arsenal/’has game’. It’s astounding that everyone from college to the pros could repeateadly miss his ability to dribble, drive, pass, shoot, dunk, play defense.
    I wonder if the long distance shooting specialists like JJ Redick, Kyle Korver and, more importantly, if the white players who have been deterred from continuing in the sport, could have become stars with ‘complete games’ but for the reverse racism.

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