The Secret of Jeremy Lin's Success?

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


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.

Related tendencies showed up when people were asked to take pictures of other people. East Asians, compared to westerners, framed the pictures so that the individual was smaller relative to the entire scene.

An assessment of eastern and western art found something similar. East Asian landscape paintings, wrote Nisbett and Masuda, "tend to put the horizon high as it would be seen by a bird flying over the landscape or an artist perched on a high outcropping. Western landscapes put the horizon low, as it would be seen from the ground. Consequently, less of the landscape is seen."

I played basketball in high school. Actually, "played" is misleading. I mostly sat on the bench--though during my freshman year I did, to my credit, have the prescience to play at the high school where the great Shaquille O'Neal later played. Anyway, I remember a kind of perceptual "frame shift" you needed to undergo when, on a fast break, or while driving the lane, you had targets to your left and right and needed to be aware of them simultaneously. It was a kind of broadening of your focus, toward a more wide angle view. You stared straight ahead but your focus wasn't straight ahead; in a sense, there was no focus.

Is it crazy to think that the perceptual tendencies that Nisbett and Masuda documented in East Asians could equip them for this sort of thing?

There's at least one problem with my conjecture. These experiments were done with Asians, not Asian-Americans, and presumably immersing people of Asian heritage in western culture makes them more and more like westerners. Indeed, other researchers showed Rorschach cards to China-born Chinese and American-born Chinese and found that the China-born subjects were more likely to view the patterns as a whole, whereas the American-born focused more on details.

But even if immersion in western culture would erase all vestiges of this Asian heritage, that doesn't mean it would do so immediately. One posited explanation for the differences Nisbett documented has to do with the way Asian parents direct the attention of their infants and young children. Lin's parents were born in Asia (Taiwan), and maybe their child rearing reflected that.

In any event, they seem to have raised a nice young man. Here's a video of Lin being interviewed earlier this year, back when he was with the Golden State Warriors. My favorite part is near the end, starting at 3:20, when he is lured into briefly dancing. It's kind of endearing.

[Update, 9:40 a.m., 2/14: Alert commenters Kawlighty and Joe Smith caught two factual errors that I've fixed. I had originally said that this was Lin's rookie year, when in fact he played some games for the Warriors last year. I had also said there had been one Asian NBA player in recent decades (I was of course thinking of Yao Ming) when in fact there have been several.

Image credit: Reuters