Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve certainly heard the story of Jeremy Lin. Three weeks ago, he was a struggling pro basketball player, sleeping on his brother’s couch and hoping to avoid being cut from his team, the New York Knicks. Today he is a media celebrity, having led the Knicks to a string of victories while putting up all-star like statistics. In several games he performed heroically, with dramatic last second plays. The story is all the more interesting because Lin has a rather unconventional background. He is only the 4th Asian-American to play in the NBA and played college ball at Harvard; a school that has produced few pros.
In order to fully appreciate the Lin phenomenon, it’s worth looking at the history of the Knicks and New York City basketball. The forerunner of today’s NBA, the BAA, was formed in New York in 1946. Out of that founding, the Knicks, along with the Boston Celtics, are the only two original teams that still play in their “birth” city. In the early days of pro basketball, many owners, coaches and players hailed from New York. One of the preeminent college tournaments, the NIT, started at the Knick’s home arena, Madison Square Garden, and continues to be played there. Many early NIT titles were won by New York area schools. In short, basketball, from the streets to the pro level is weaved into the pop cultural fabric of the city.
Unfortunately, while the Knicks have been an historic franchise, they have not been a storied one. While they have had a number of competitive teams, they have only won two NBA championships with the last one coming in 1973. Meanwhile, the Celtics along with the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls, have a combined 29 championships. The last 40 years has been a frustrating attempt for the Knicks franchise to regain a championship and restore the pride of a city that has long lost its basketball bragging rights.
The last break the franchise saw was in 1985 when they won the first ever draft lottery and selected Patrick Ewing. Ewing went on to have a hall of fame career, leading the Knicks to numerous competitive seasons, bringing them tantalizingly close to two championships. Since he he was traded from the team in 2000, they have been on a decided down-slide, with no playoff wins in the last 10 years.
The unpopular Ewing trade was one of the first major decisions of James L. Dolan, who took on a lead management role in 1999. Dolan, the wealthy scion of the Dolan Cablevision empire, is effectively the Knicks’ owner, through his executive role with Madison Square Garden, Inc., the parent company of the Knicks. He is one of the least popular owners in professional sports, with fans and the media consistently criticizing his leadership, operating style and decision making. He is widely viewed as micromanaging, mercurial and self-important. Starting in 2001, he has been a central protagonist in the Knicks descent into the divisional cellar. He has been instrumental in 7 coaching changes including two hall of famers (Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown) who managed to last only one year before “resigning”.
The nadir was reached under Isiah Thomas, a one time star player who proved to be a disastrous coach and leader. In addition to his coaching role, Thomas was President of Basketball Operations and a Dolan confidante. His horrible personnel decisions gave the Knicks one of the largest payrolls to pair with a consistently poor win/loss percentage. In 2006, Thomas was the target of a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a subordinate. This led to an embarrassing public trial, shocking depositions from Thomas and ultimately a face saving $11 million settlement by the Knicks.
In 2008, Dolan replaced Thomas with Mike D’Antoni, who was highly successful as the coach of the Phoenix Suns. He brought in two high priced stars, A’mare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Each of these moves payed only modest dividends. In 2011, Stoudemire and Anthony led the Knicks to their first .500 season in a decade, only to be swept from the playoffs in the first round.
The strike shortened 2011 season had started on an auspicious note. Injuries to Anthony, starting point guard Baron Davis and others had led to a miserable 7-15 record. It looked like another season of mediocrity. It was at this point that the Jeremy Lin story emerged. Lin was an undrafted 6’3″ point guard. Despite an illustrious collegiate career at Harvard, no pro teams were immediately interested in him. He landed a minor role with his hometown Golden State Warriors and spent some time playing in the NBA Development league.
He joined the Knicks early in the 2011-12 season as a minor backup player. In his first 9 games he averaged about 5 minutes of playing time and less than 4 points. Due to team injuries, he was given an opportunity to start in a game against the rival New Jersey Nets on February 4th. He shocked the basketball world by scoring 25 points, leading the Knicks to victory. Since then, he has been on a tear, averaging an all-star like 24 points per game. His initial statistics have compared favorably to the early careers of such legends as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
But another, more interesting storyline has permeated this surprising underdog drama. Lin has been the consummate team leader, raising the level of his teammates, through unselfishness play, infectiousness enthusiasm and determination. His teammates on this winning streak have been primarily rookies and other backups. Although he has been willing and able to play hero, taking the last second game winner, he is just as inclined to pass the ball to an open teammate. He is also extremely humble and gracious in interviews, constantly praising his teammates for their contributions. In short, he has provided that ‘x’ factor that many star filled teams lack; chemistry.
It’s too early to know if Lin will ultimately have a long-term successful career as an NBA player. It’s possible that teams will adjust to his strengths or that he won’t be physically durable enough to have a long career. One would in fact expect that regression to the mean would reduce his statistics to more “normal” numbers.
In the meantime, he continues to be a source of inspiration and enthusiasm for his teammates, fans and underdogs everywhere. He also provides some interesting lessons for managers in the corporate world. Too often, we look to fill a team with stars, those folks who have great accomplishments, and high levels of ambition and confidence. Unfortunately, these folks frequently have large egos, wanting large amounts of control as well as the lion’s share of credit for accomplishments. In this way, they resemble the selfish star basketball player who wants to take every shot, build his statistics and up his profile with fans. To him, making the all star team, or getting a sneaker endorsement contract is more valuable than winning a championship.
It’s notable that Jeremy Lin’s ascendance was by accident. He was recruited by the Knicks as a backup and only got playing time due to the injuries of teammates. He was not part of a master plan of James Dolan or the Knicks organization. He simply emerged, proved his value and fought his way to a starting role. He did this without the arrogance, self-importance and bluster so common in star athletes.
It’s always dangerous taking examples from the sports world and using them as lessons for enterprise management. However, it is worth considering: How would your organization look if it had a culture that inspired, cultivated and rewarded the Jeremy Lins? Rather than creating a team of me-first stars, you could build a group that was focused on organizational goals and helping colleagues succeed. If done right, you’d have a lower cost structure, higher team performance and greater employee satisfaction.