The two big sports stories of the past week have both come out of New York City. One is the Giants' victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, which is not relevant to this article. The other has been the come-from-out-of-nowhere rise of Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. Last Sunday, as the garbage was being cleaned out of the stands of Lucas Oil Stadum, nobody outside of New York but the most diehard basketball junkies had heard of Lin--and even among Knick fans, he was generally regarded with the apathy that team benchwarmers typically receive. According to reports out of New York, he was this close to being cut by the Knicks when he was asked to start in a pinch. The rest, as Paul Harvey used to say, is history.
Or may become history, if Lin keeps up the pace. A week into his new career as a starter, it's entirely possible that this is all a flash in the pan--a statistical fluke which will be followed by a regression to the mean. It's possible that this is a case of fresh legs outplaying tired ones, in the compressed lockout-season schedule. It's possible that this is a case of a largely-unscouted player beating defenses not yet coached on how to stop him. Or, Lin may be the real deal--either way, we'll know more in a few weeks, when we have a larger body of work to examine. Either way, Lin has garnered himself a lot of attention in the NBA the past week.
On the assumption that Lin is the real deal, many NBA observers are asking the obvious question: How did this happen? How did a supremely skilled player slip below the radar of the league's talent evaluation process, and get cut by several NBA teams before exploding onto the scene? Lin was a star in high school (in Palo Alto, CA), but wasn't offered a scholarship by any Division I schools, and went to play at Harvard (which doesn't offer scholarships to athletes). He had a successful career at Harvard, but went undrafted in the NBA. He played in Summer League for the Mavericks, spent his rookie season on the bench for his hometown Warriors (where he was a crowd favorite, in a metropolis with a large Asian population, but did not get significant playing time). Before the start of this season, he was cut by the Warriors, played in training camp for the Houston Rockets (but didn't make that team), and was picked up by the Knicks, doing a stint in the NBDL before getting his big break.
Many are focusing on Lin's Chinese ancestry as a reason for his talents being overlooked. He's the first Chinese-American to make an NBA roster. Several overseas Chinese players have made NBA teams, but all of the Chinese imports who have done so (Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi, Mengke Bateer, and Yi Jianlian) have been big men, and only Yao has ever been any good. It doesn't stretch the bounds of credibility to suggest that NBA scouts, executives, and coaches are skeptical of Asian players; at a minimum, they tend to be a conservative lot who are loathe to color outside the lines. On the other hand, the Mavericks and Rockets (in particular) have among the most data-driven front offices in the league; both teams have had great success with foreign-born superstars (Yao, Dirk Nowitzki, and Hakeem Olajuwon), and both are generally regarded as top-notch operations--and yet both dropped the ball on Lin. (The Knicks, ironically, are often regarded as one of the worst front offices in the league).
How did this happen?
Of course, to ask that question with such incredulity is to pretend that this has never happened before in the NBA. It has, of course, and I would to focus on a similar story, of a player who rose from obscurity to stardom. It happened twenty years ago, in the same Madison Square Garden where Lin is now playing.
The player's name is well known to NBA fans: John Levell Starks.
John Starks was a basketball player from Oklahoma. Like Lin, he had a long road to NBA stardom, and was generally overlooked both in college and by NBA teams. He played for several different collegiate teams, due in part to some legal difficulties, graduating from Oklahoma State. He famously worked as a bagboy at Safeway during that time. He went unselected in the 1988 NBA Draft, a slightly greater humiliation than that suffered by Lin in 2010 as the draft that year had three rounds instead of two. He bounced around the league for a couple years until being picked up the Knicks--and only avoided being cut because he had been injured in practice (while trying to dunk on Patrick Ewing). But like Lin, Starks soon rose from the end of the bench to the starting lineup--and was a fixture and a fan favorite on the Knicks for most of the 1990s. His career highlight was posterizing Michael Jordan in the 1993 playoffs (the Knicks would lose the series to the Bulls, the eventual champion); his career lowlight occurred the following season when he went 2/18 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, which the Knicks lost to Houston.
The analogy between Starks and Lin isn't exact, of course. Starks' college career was dogged by legal trouble, and during his NBA career he was widely regarded as a hothead, with good reason. (In some ways, he was his generation's Rasheed Wallace). Lin has never had any issues with the law. On the other hand, Starks' ethnicity (primarily African-American, with some Native American ancestry as well) didn't work against him, whereas Lin is blazing a new trail for Asian ballplayers.
John Starks, however, is just but one example.
There have been many other players who also have similar career paths--lightly regarded in lower levels of basketball, undrafted (or drafted late) in the NBA, followed by stardom. Sports Illustrated has a photo montage full of examples of undrafted players who became starters or stars, and to that list you can a good number of late draft picks such as Manu Ginobili. Conversely, the first round of the NBA draft is chock full of busts. While NBA scouting and talent analysis has gotten more professional than the days of the cigar-chomping GM making draft decisions based on the sports page, it's still a major crapshoot, which many things that can go wrong (or right): Players who are a bad fit for teams. Players who excel against lousy competition. Players whose skills are suppressed (or featured) within a given coach's system. Injuries. Players who blossom late. NBA coaches and executives who don't trust rookies. And of course, players who come from backgrounds or situations that seldom, if ever, produce NBA-level talent.
The surprising thing about the Jeremy Lin story is not that it's happening.
The surprising thing is that it doesn't happen more often.