The Jeremy Lin Phenomenon: Lessons Worth Learning

As just about the entire world knows by now (I was going to say the entire western world, but it’s also the eastern world in this particular case), the New York Knicks basketball franchise went shopping in their closet recently, and found themselves quite a fine point guard in Jeremy Linn. On the wings on an inspiring winning streak due in no small measure to his skills, Mr. Linn found himself, in the course of a week, transformed from a marginal benchwarmer to a wildly popular starter for one of the most storied franchises in the NBA. In the process, he also became an iconic hero and role model for the Asian-American community.

As a long-time Knick fan, I’m delighted that the team appears to have found that elusive “missing piece” that might propel them to greater success. It’s about time Knick games were worth watching, and they surely are now. But as a rabbi, teacher, and student of the human condition, I am much more interested in seeing how Jeremy Linn, the person, responds to his newfound stardom and adulation. That’s a difficult adjustment for people far older and more experienced than he is, and there’s no grander stage on which to feel pressure than New York, in the “world’s most famous arena.”

The back pages of New York’s tabloids have been filled for years with sad stories of accomplished athletes who came to New York for big contracts and wilted under the pressure. Jeremy Linn is twenty-three years old, and a Harvard graduate to boot- not exactly the prescription for success in the rough and tumble world of professional sports. This is particularly true here, where the talking heads of sports can be extraordinarily cruel to athletes who don’t produce big-time in a timely fashion.

But the challenge that Jeremy Linn faces with his new fame was made far more compelling- and dramatic- by its ironic juxtaposition with the death of Whitney Houston, another wunderkind possessed of enormous talent who allowed fame and fortune to tragically overwhelm her. On one had we had the grand spectacle of Jeremy Linn appearing to handle the enormous pressures suddenly imposed on him both on and off the court with almost superhuman grace. He really seemed to understand what was happening to him and what its significance was, and to appreciate that this moment was his to have and celebrate. And then, on the other hand, we had the utterly awful and distressing spectacle of a woman who had- with uniquely amazing vocal power- sung the words “no matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity,” being found dead in a bathtub, almost surely from some combination of drugs and alcohol. I’m afraid there was no dignity for Whitney Houston in her final moments…

This much is for sure; the measure of who Jeremy Linn is and how his story will ultimately play out is yet to be written. The sports world is a place where people often burst on the scene with the brilliance of a comet, but their ability to sustain that level of performance is most usually suspect. Jaba Chamberlain comes to mind. When he first came up to the Yankees, no one could hit him, and he was considered the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera. To have people talk of you as a pitcher in the same breath as Mariano Rivera is to be breathing rarified air. But at this point, his star shines much less brightly. And he’s only one of many examples from a wide variety of sports.

As of this writing, Jeremy Linn is still- even after a loss or two- playing exceptionally good basketball, and it appears that the Knicks may just have caught lightning in a bottle. And in their own closet, no less! He makes everyone around him a better player, and that is the highest praise for an athlete. Why he was languishing on the Knick bench is an interesting subject for another time.

But the far greater test of Linn’s staying power will not be in the game of basketball, but in the game of life. The sudden deluge of fame and fortune that he is enjoying will test him to his innermost core. All outward indications are that he is grounded, intelligent, and deeply religious, and he appears to have a handle on staying that way. The truth is, however, that if you had asked any one of us two weeks ago who this guy was, we wouldn’t have known. We really don’t know him at all over any serious period of time, so we have no way to predict what the future holds for him.

I, for one, hope he thrives and continues to excel. Obviously, as a fan, I have a parochial interest in this. But the truth is that I want him to succeed as a human being, so that he never has to endure the kind of hell that brought Whitney Houston to her sad end. She had it all, too, and the world was her oyster. But she was not invulnerable to the demons that beckon all those who know fame and fortune, and neither is Jeremy Linn. I hope he has the inner strength to transcend those temptations and reach his truest potential. The best may indeed be yet to come.

Let’s hope so…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.