New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin is the first Taiwanese-American to play in the NBA, a sports league where 76% of the players are black. But Lin’s story transcends race and sports. In less than two weeks, his unprecedented on-court performance has triggered a meteoric rise from obscurity to full-blown cultural and economic phenomenon. Author Nicholas Nassim Taleb defines a “Black Swan” as an unexpected big impact event that, after the fact, is explained away with hindsight. Linsanity is a Black Swan on all accounts; unprecedented, impactful and subject to hindsight bias.
At 23-years-old, Lin has had arguably the most amazing debut of any player in the history of the NBA. Accordingto Elias Sports Bureau, he is the only player to go undefeated and score 20 or more points in each of his first five starts since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. Lin has carried his team, previously under .500, to seven straight victories. In those games, Lin is averaging 9.5 assists per game and his fellow starters are scoring 24% more than they did in January.
Taleb says a Black Swan has no past evidence to convincingly point to its possibility. Prior to February 4th, there was no evidence to suggest a debut performance like Lin’s was a possibility for any player. Lin’s résumé makes it all the more unlikely for him. He didn’t receive a scholarship offer for basketball, played at Harvard, graduated with a 3.1 GPA in economics, went undrafted into the NBA and was cut by two teams in five months before joining the Knicks. Sounds like a long shot to me.
Lin’s Black Swan has already had a major impact and will only build over time. TV viewership of Knicks games on New York-based MSG Network has nearly doubled. CNBC sports business analyst Darren Rovell reports that web traffic at NYKnicks.com increased 550% last week. Also, the total value of shares for the Knicks’ stadium (MSG) increased by $228 million in the eight days following Lin’s debut. A Google Shopping search returns over 2,000 distinct Lin-related merchandise, including T-shirts with every Lin pun imaginable, iPhone cases, a newly published coffee table book on famous Jeremy’s (Lin is credited in the sub-title), and a $1,040 autographed Warriors jersey. Linsanity has also gone global. On February 11th, Jeremy Lin was the sixth highest Google search in the world with high interest coming from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and the Philippines.
Following the Black Swan playbook, Lin’s emergence has already started to be explained away with retrospective probability. As of February 16th, there are 9,976 news articles online about sabermetrics prognosticating FedEx delivery guy, Ed Weiland. Sure, Ed saw it coming, and so did Dallas Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson. Donnie now says he knew Lin was underrated “stock” and compares him to hall-of-famer Jason Kidd. Back then, Donnie was so sure of Lin’s stock that he offered him a whopping one year contract. Elsewhere, blogs are bursting with predictions of who will be the next Jeremy Lin in baseball and other sports. The truth is no one could’ve predicted the immense impact, on-the-court and off, that Lin has had in the last 14 days. The better lessons to learn are not how to improve our crystal ball but how to maximize opportunities for unlikely late bloomers to become break-out successes. For now, let’s just be happy that our nation’s basketball programs aren’t run like China’s, where talent development is limited to those few children who the government predicts will be exceptionally tall.
Photo Credit: Kimberly*