The Secret of Jeremy Lin's Success?

How the New York Knick's philosophical heritage may be helping him win

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Jeremy Lin is on the verge of becoming the Tim Tebow of basketball. I don't mean that he's a devout Christian who is suddenly showing a remarkable ability to guide his team to victory--though he is that. I mean that the story of this New York Knicks point guard is moving beyond the world of sports fans into the culture at large.

What gives this story legs is that (1) Lin graduated from Harvard, whose basketball program has never been dubbed "gateway to the NBA," and (2) he is Asian-American.

I gather that this second fact is considered by some not just statistically noteworthy (no Asian-American has played in the NBA in decades, though several Asians have) but inherently ironic. Certainly the fact that Lin was almost completely ignored by both college recruiters and pro scouts could be explained by a belief that people of Asian descent aren't built for hoops.

But there's a sense in which Asian heritage could equip a person for success in basketball, and it wouldn't surprise me if we start seeing more Asian-Americans in the NBA. What follows, at any rate, is my armchair pop-psychology theory to that effect.

Lin is known not just for scoring but for "assists"--that is, he's good at passing the ball to teammates who are in a position to score. Since helping teammates score is a form of selflessness, it's tempting to invoke stereotypes about collectivist Asian values, but that's not where I'm heading.

Being a good passer in basketball isn't the same as being a good passer in football. Quarterbacks tend to go sequentially through their targets--they look at the primary receiver, and if he's not open they look at the next prospect, and so on. In basketball, the great passers are simultaneously aware of several targets at once; their focus expands toward the edge of their peripheral vision. Indeed, sometimes the success of the pass depends on never looking directly at the person you're passing to, as that would tip off your opponents.

One of the most intriguing cultural contrasts between eastern and western ways of viewing the world was documented in experiments by the psychologist Richard Nisbett, some of them in collaboration with Takahiko Masuda. The upshot was that East Asians tend to view scenes more holistically than westerners.

In one experiment, East Asians and Westerners were shown pictures and then asked to remember what they'd seen. Westerners tended to recall the dominant foreground image. If the picture was of a beaming tourist with a mountain stream in the background, they'd remember the tourist clearly. The stream? Not so much. East Asians were on balance better than westerners at remembering the background.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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