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The larger meaning of Jeremy LinBY: Dan Rottenberg 02.28.2012
Jeremy Lin emerged seemingly out of nowhere this past month to lead basketball’s lowly New York Knicks to eight victories in nine games. As with Joan of Arc, Lin reminded us of the limitless possibilities of human achievement, especially when a determined individual functions in the context of a team.
Jeremy Lin, Joan of Arc and Napoleon:
Jeremy Lin, the Harvard economics major who never received a college basketball scholarship and was ignored in the professional draft, emerged seemingly out of nowhere this past month to lead the lowly New York Knicks to eight victories in nine games after their two star players were sidelined. Has anything so astonishing ever happened before?
Well, maybe a couple of times:
— The early Christians, armed with nothing but faith, came out of nowhere to convert the mighty Roman Empire, 1,500 years before Gandhi demonstrated the power of passive resistance. I’m still not quite sure how they did it. But of course that miracle took four centuries; Jeremy Lin’s miracle took just a few weeks.
— Joan of Arc, a peasant girl armed with nothing but faith and sheer determination, came out of nowhere to lead the demoralized French army to victory at the siege of Orléans.
— Napoleon escaped from exile in Elba with just a hundred men (as well as supreme confidence) and somehow managed to overthrow Louis XVIII and reclaim the French throne.
— During the First World War, in the week leading up to Christmas 1914, parties of German and British soldiers, after exchanging seasonal greetings and songs between their rival trenches, disregarded their commanding officers and ventured into “no man’s land,” where they exchanged food and souvenirs, sang carols, conducted joint burial ceremonies and played football games together.
I’m still scratching my head over that one, too. But it did happen.
— Between 1989 and 1991, a bunch of nobodies with names like Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Anatoly Sharansky brought down the entire mighty Soviet Communist bloc without firing a single shot.
So, yes, miracles have happened before. Still, to see Jeremy Lin— whom no one took seriously when he played for Harvard, and a Chinese-American, to boot— break records and score victories and generally make fools of established stars like Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki… at the very least it suggests that we’ve barely scratched the surface of human endeavor.
But the key to Jeremy Lin’s astonishing success— like the miracles I’ve mentioned above— is that he didn’t operate alone. He functions in the context of a team.
Sometimes otherwise ordinary people flourish in the context of a team or institution. With the support of Philadelphia’s Drexel banking house, a confused and aimless New Yorker named J.P. Morgan became the financial giant of his age. William Safire was a partisan political flack until the New York Times transformed him into a journalistic statesman. Apart, the Chicago Symphony and the conductor Georg Solti were second-rate at best; together, they were acclaimed as the world’s greatest orchestra.
Conversely, some spectacular individuals— athletes like Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens come to mind— never quite mesh with their teammates, and so championships constantly elude them.
Campus big shots, 20 years later
There’s also something to be said for the stage of one’s life. When I was a Penn undergrad in the ’60s, the noted sociologist E. Digby Baltzell often remarked, “Look at all the guys who are big shots on campus. Twenty years from now they’ll be nobodies, and the campus nobodies will be the big shots.”
That’s pretty much the way things turned out, as anyone familiar with the careers of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs can attest. But pace Jeremy Lin, I would add a corollary: College isn’t at all like high school, and life isn’t at all like college.
Think how that corollary applies to you. In my case it applies, for example, to where I live (as a high school student in New York, I couldn’t conceive of living anywhere else), to my romantic life (I dated dozens of girls in high school and college without ever going steady, yet I was married by my senior year of college, and I’ve stayed married), and my journalistic career (I never held any role higher than sports editor of my high school and college papers, yet less than two years after graduating from college I was editor-in-chief of a real daily newspaper).
You too can engage in this exercise. Thank you, Jeremy Lin, for reminding us that the past doesn’t necessarily dictate the future, that the final chapters in our lives remain to be written, and that the possibilities may well exceed our wildest dreams.♦
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