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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Jeremy Lin and the Common Core

My 91 year old mother called Saturday to compare notes on Jeremy Lin with my 11 year old son. That officially confirms his status as a phenomenon — beyond basketball, beyond sports. If by any chance there is a reader of this blog who is not “up” on the latest pun on his name, and the reasons behind it, here’s the short version of his story (and then I’ll explain the link to the CC). Lin grew up in Palo Alto, a 5 3 skinny 9th grader, he had no prospects in basketball. But he played pick up games with Stanford players, and held is own. He sent around tapes of his high school exploits to colleges, but none were interested — except one: Harvard. Read, he is also smart, speaks Mandarin, got into Harvard. He led his team, scored 25 points a game, was not selected as best player in the Ivy League and was not selected by the NBA. He made two pro teams as a walk on, but was cut. Finally, the NY Knicks, desperate because no one on the team could play his position picked him up — but never played him. Then, needing to decide whether to keep or cut him, they let him into a couple of games, expecting him to fail and be released.

Since then Lin has transformed the Knicks, captured international attention, scored at a pace matched historically only by Hall of Fame players, and, in test after test, has shown that he is as promising a player as the league has seen in years. So, how come? Why did scouts — men whose entire job it is to evaluate talent — fail to see him when he applied to colleges, when he was eligible for the pros, and when team after team had him in practice, but decided to cut him? How could everyone have missed him (with one exception, see below)? Can he really be that good?

The standard answer is that he is Asian-American, and that either a bias that sees Asian-Americans as significantly less athletic than, say, African Americans, caused people not to see what was in front of their eyes, or that a current marketing fascination with having an Asian-American sensation in New York has caused the media to overplay his skills. Either way, his ethnicity is central to the story. It is, and — for our purposes — it is not. The scouts have said that they reason they did not “see” him is they did not have any one to compare him to. Indeed, if you listen to scouting reports, they have become a matching game — Player X, yes, he looks like a left-handed Michael Jordan, a skinny Kobe Bryant, etc., etc. That is, of course, the wrong way to evaluate someone’s potential. The question is not, whom from the past do they resemble, but what is their potential for the future? Answering that requires problem solving on the fly, inventing new means of measurement that do not rely on memory but on judgment.

As it turns out only one person who handicaps talent, a FedEx driver who writes about ballplayers on the side, predicted Lin’s success. Friends this story is the CC in perfect miniature: you learn for the future by developing the problem solving skills to see what is front of your eyes. You do not look back to memorize what textbooks have determined is the story of the past, rather you learn to think, to evaluate, to develop your own tools and come to your own judgments. And at the end of the day, a player no one picked is a global hero, and FedEx driver turns out to have clearer vision than the experts. That is our Common Core fable for the day.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    Yes, Lin was invisible because of stereotyping, as most of us are in daily life. Apparently, without thinking about it, people depend on assumptions about others based on generalizations and ignorance, always presuming that ethnic background, race, gender, clothing, age “describe” us. And, without previous contact, most people cannot compare or recognize others which is why proximity and contact educate us.

    I, too, enjoyed the story of the man who used the other part of his brain which Kahneman describes. Let a layman lead us!

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    welll said, though I think Lin was invisible not just because of stereotyping but because of a structure of thought in which you evaluate the future by seeking a past referent. As you point out, that is “fast thinking” and is problematic not just as a matter of bias but as a framework for making any judgment. In a way this is the “emperor’s new clothes” issue — where only the outsider FedEx driver can see what everyone else cannot accept that they are seeing.

  3. While it’s true that scouts underestimated Jeremy Lin, many others in Palo Alt/Stanford have been following his career since high school. (And my kids went to the other Palo Alto high school.) Jeremy led Paly to a state basketball championship, for heaven’s sake! The Palo Alto Weekly has been on the story since at least 2006:

    And we’re thrilled for his success.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    but this is again the same story — he led the high school to a state championship, but no college — including the rather large sports and academic power in his backyard — recruited him. He was visible and invisible at the same time.

  5. I always thought he *wanted* to go to Harvard and not the university across the street. Many local kids choose to leave town. And the Stanford coach who didn’t recruit Jeremy? No longer Stanford’s coach.