This morning I clicked over to www.cnn.com, and there was the latest Jeremy Lin piece: a video titled “Jeremy Lin’s lessons for success.” Below the video were link to multiple other Lin videos and stories. (One was Letterman’s top-ten worst Lin puns, a part of which I’m sure my title could become, but I simply couldn’t resist.) I hear he’s been added to NBA all-star events. All this, I keep thinking, after a streak of seven excellent games. Meanwhile, I look at the book my wife pulled off the shelf last night and left in the den: Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage.
I am fascinated by the Jeremy Lin story—not just the athletic angle, not just the overnight sensation angle. I’m intrigued by what it is revealing about so many facets of our cultural anthology. Lin embodies the quixotic notion that with hard work and perseverance, anyone can achieve his or her dreams. Plus his parents moved to California from Taiwan, so it has the immigrant angle. And that last aspect is part of what I find most compelling: at the same time, Lin both affirms and discredits commonly held stereotypes. Asian-American who graduates from Harvard? Got it; makes sense. Star point guard in the NBA from Harvard? Maybe, but unlikely. Asian-American star point guard in the NBA? You’re kidding me.
So it’s natural that we’ve been inundated with Lin stories. They are remarkable and inspiring, and we have an obsession with athletics. It’s very similar to the Tebow-mania from a couple months back, and there have been several pieces comparing the two. Whose rise is more amazing? Whose story is more compelling? Which of the two is more likely to last? We have no way of knowing, and we even are wondering. Some are doubting. Yet at the same time we already have granted Lin some sort of mythic status.
Watching the story unfold, I can’t help but think of certain young athletes I’ve worked with and watched through the years. I always find one oft-repeated story the saddest. I’ll share a single tale that captures the essence of the narrative. I’ll call the boy Joe. In the early grades, Joe was a soccer star. While other kids were forming a hive or doing cartwheels, he was scoring all the goals. Unusually agile, fast, and big for his age, he dominated. With it came all the accolades, particularly the predictions that later he would be a star. Certainly he would play in college, maybe even the pros. His father loved all this and encouraged it to a large degree. The problem was, Joe succeeded early on because he was physically precocious. He dominated only because of that. He did not develop skills or a real sense of the game. Even by middle school Joe was an average player. He never made the high school varsity. His confidence suffered not just in athletics, but in other areas.
While obviously I’m talking about people at two extremes of the sports ladder, they both capture our desire—maybe even basic need—to anoint a hero. When we do that, we place unrealistic and thus unfair expectations on the emerging idol because of our own desires. For a professional athlete, particularly a superstar, that simply is part of the job. But it shouldn’t be part of the job of growing up. Doing that is hard enough, and children inevitably disappoint their parents. It’s part of how we all learn. And those are the moments when it’s probably most important that we recall and stress what really constitutes long-term success.
Young people also see that, as quickly as we crown heroes, we will knock them down. For a while there, Tebow was the amazing story, defying all those who said he couldn’t make it as an NFL quarterback. Remember how the Broncos knocked out the Steelers and he was celebrated? Then they were crushed by the Patriots, and all the naysayers chanted, “Told you so.” It’s difficult to convince young people that setbacks and failures are all right when they see this unfold. And our criticism is illogical. I’m perpetually amazed how quick we are to lambaste professional athletes, who are the best in the world in ways many of us can’t conceive. I’ve competed against some professional soccer players, and it humbled me quite quickly. It also helps me remain grateful for the fact that, while I couldn’t reach the highest levels, I loved playing and gained massive life lessons.
I’m rooting for Jeremy Lin. I want this to be a happily-ever-after story. We crave those. But rather than get too swept up in the Lin-sanity, let’s also use it as a reminder to keep youth athletics in perspective.