clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Amateur Mathematics Of Linsanity

As Jeremy Lin takes over the basketball world, Dan Grunfeld examines the phenomenon from a player's perspective. Warning: calculators not included.

Getty Images

When I was at Stanford, our team would occasionally play pick-up games at nearby Palo Alto High School, known to the locals affectionately as "Pally." It is a mere stone's throw away from the Stanford campus, unless we're talking about Navajo Sandstone, whose density would slightly disrupt my calculations, but regardless, Pally is right next to Stanford, and it's also where Jeremy Lin went to high school. His senior year at Pally was my senior year at Stanford, and I remember hearing about his exploits now and then.

He had a superb high school career and led his team to an improbable state championship in his final season. But ultimately, Stanford decided to pass on him, as did all the other major programs in the Bay Area. I'm sure all those places had their reasons -- maybe they thought he wasn't big enough, strong enough, quick enough -- so Jeremy bounced from the Bay and took his talents to Cambridge.

Related: Jeremy Lin and how Stanford, Cal, UCLA and the Pac-12 missed him.

I don't think I need to tell the rest of the story, because here we are, in the middle of probably the coolest thing that has happened to the world since the bagel was invented. Seriously, aside from Kobe, who doesn't love Linsanity? There is just nothing bad about it. It's a story that has captured the imagination of the basketball world by somehow combining the perfect mixture of inspiration, captivation and entertainment into one unlikely amalgam of amazingness that will not soon be forgotten.

At the very core of Linsanity, there's his performance on the court, which has been outstanding. I've watched him during this run, and it doesn't take a genius to see that the guy is straight ballin'. He's under control, he's poised, he's quicker and more athletic than you think, he's making the people around him better, and most importantly, he's leading his team to win after win by playing with passion and emotion. From a basketball standpoint, it's a beautiful thing to watch.

This phenomenon, though, obviously runs much deeper than that, for a number of reasons. With that in mind, let's all go ahead and pull out our calculators (mine's a TI-89 Titanium, thank you) and initiate the computing sequence so we can tally up some of the reasons why Linsanity has resonated on such a profound level:

1. He came out of nowhere, an afterthought underdog on a non-guaranteed contract, rumored to be on his way out the door before he was thrown in against the Nets and had his breakout performance.

2. He'd already been cut by two NBA teams this season.

3. He went to Harvard, a school more commonly associated with astigmatisms than All-Stars.

4. He's an Asian-American, only the fourth ever to play in the NBA.

5. He galvanized and resurrected a sinking team with a substantial payroll that's currently missing its two superstars.

6. He's doing it in The Big Apple, under the most powerful basketball microscope on Earth, in the world's most famous arena, in the only city on the globe where it's known that if you can make it there, in that concrete jungle of Chris Wallace, Coney Island and knishes, then darn it, you can make it anywhere.

7. Upon arrival in New York, he slept on couches belonging to his brother and the excellent Landry Fields.

8. He seems to be taking the whole thing in stride, handling himself the right way, and having fun in the process.

I'm going to stop at crazy number eight, but those are the reasons why Super Lintendo, as my friend Kalter calls him, has become an international sensation. And yes, I mean international, as in the entire basketball world. The night he dropped 38 on the Lakers, I was on a road trip in Greece with my Israeli team, and the next morning, it was all anyone was talking about, regardless of nationality. All the way across the pond, in a country where the average thickness of the male moustache is an awe-inspiring sight to behold, Linsanity had suddenly become the most impressive thing on everyone's lips.

Surely, it's madness, and it's been a joy to watch for basketball fans everywhere. But for me, as a basketball player, my interest in Jeremy Lin's rise goes a bit beyond that. The certifiable Linsanity that is consuming the courts nowadays really illuminates one of the most inherent and important truths about being a basketball player, one that I've experienced and observed time and time again throughout my career: sometimes, it's all about the opportunity.

If we look at it in mathematical terms, which we suddenly like doing around here, what has happened with Jeremy Lin confirms the validity of an established basketball equation for success -- one that I was tempted to call a "Lin-ear" equation before I realized I don't like having to punch myself in the face. In particular, it perfectly demonstrates how unpredictable one of the equation's variables really is. This simple basketball equation for success reads:

(Talent + Preparation) x Opportunity = Success

That's it. It's not rocket science, and we don't need any high-level encryption software to decipher it. Rather, it reflects a fairly basic formula -- one that pertains to basketball as well as life -- wherein one's Talent (natural ability) and Preparation (hard work, desire, commitment, motivation, perseverance, attitude) are added together to form a value that more or less represents that person's potential. That value may be very high or very low, based on the factors that comprise it, but what really matters so often in this equation is the multiplier, the Opportunity. That is the variable that is sometimes so elusive, and it's the one that has fallen so perfectly into place for Jeremy Lin.

Before discussing the external factors that have worked in his favor, however, it must be said that all credit for what he's doing right now does not lie with the hands of fate, and instead must be given solely to Jeremy Lin himself. He obviously took great care of the variables that were within his control, and accordingly, when he caught sight of variable number three, he was ready to strike. The Talent was there, the Preparation was there, and when a perfect convergence of circumstances caused an extraordinarily valuable Opportunity to fall right in front of him, the dude ferociously snatched it up, grew coldhearted point-guard-angel-wings, and blasted off into the stratosphere with it, raining down Lin-flavored-excellence-pellets on the bewildered heads of his detractors as he gracefully glided above.

It's crazy, though, to think about the alternatives: what if 'Melo hadn't gotten hurt? What if Amar'e hadn't experienced a tragic and sad death in the family? What if Baron Davis' back had recovered a little sooner, jamming up all those precious PG minutes? What if New York hadn't been searching for a solution at the point position since the beginning of the season? What if Mike D'Antoni's unique offensive system didn't offer extraordinary amounts of space (something I know that it does because I played for Coach D'Antoni for a month in 2008)? What if all his teammates and coaches didn't support him and believe in him enough to give him a shot? And frankly, what if Jeremy Lin had struggled in that game against New Jersey and been cut to give a chance to someone else?

Under any of those circumstances, it's quite probable that Linsanity never would have happened. His Talent and Preparation would have been exactly the same, of course, but the Opportunity multiplier would never have reached the heights that it did, and Jeremy Lin might never have been able to show the world exactly what he is capable of.

Lack of sufficient Opportunity happens all the time the world of basketball, and -- to be frank -- it's a real bitch. A friend of mine is a respected NBA veteran who spent the first several years of his career as a journeyman, bouncing around teams and leagues until he finally got a chance one year -- because of another teammate's injury -- to show everyone what he could do. I'll never forget when he told me that he waited for six years -- keeping positive, staying focused, and working on his game -- just to get one real Opportunity to prove himself. To his credit, he took advantage of it, but I know there are many other amazing players out there who haven't had their chances yet. It's impossible to say how many guys are capable of performing the way Lin is, because the guy is bananas right now, but I know for a fact that there are a lot of immensely talented basketball players around the world, and some of them might just need a little Opportunity.

The unfortunate part is that, for so many guys, that Opportunity might never come. Basketball, after all, is not a game to be played by control freaks; there are just too many variables out of our hands. Injuries, politics, teammates, styles of play, personal happiness, circumstances and certainly the whims and sensibilities of coaches -- all factors that play an intimate role in our success as ballplayers --are ultimately elements that are out of our control. That's scary, if you think about it, because with all the gifted players fighting to play at the highest levels and make it to the most impressive heights, the margin for error is extremely thin, and sometimes, that arbitrary and evasive sprinkle of Opportunity is all that separates the "phenomenon" from the "what team's he on?"

It's the unsettling reality of what we do, and it makes what Jeremy Lin is accomplishing that much more incredible. Linsanity is really Talent, Preparation and Opportunity all coming together in the right place, at the right time, with the right coach, in the right system, in the most amazing city in the world, with an overlooked Asian kid who was spurned by local programs and instead matriculated at the hallowed halls of Harvard. It's a wonderful story, and it doesn't look like he's going anywhere any time soon. Again, all credit for this goes to Jeremy Lin. A lot of guys simply don't have the perseverance to keep on fighting for their Opportunity. Or, in other cases, maybe the Opportunity does come along, just like it has for Lin, but they're not able to take advantage of it, even if the Talent and Preparation are there. Sometimes, I guess you need a little Luck, too. Maybe that should go in the updated version of the equation. Until then, let's keep watching Jeremy Lin do his thing. By seizing his Opportunity, he's creating Linsanity, and he's earned every second of it.