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February 17, 2012

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I read this, and then a while later someone reposted that story about Joshua Bell playing unnoticed in the subway, and realized it's connnected. There are tons of unrecognized musicians and athletes out there —it's not the only way in which our professions are similar. Whether in sports or the arts, overnight stars are made by the media. Of course they are very talented, but the reason no one noticed Joshua Bell there in the subway is precisely because the last (unfamous) violist they'd heard playing in the subway sounded just as good to their ears.
That's just my take, anyway.

Cool post LJ. Lots of things to discuss here.

IMO there is definitely a racist, or at least racial, aspect in making a big deal out of an Asian guy playing NBA ball. It's as if an Asian guy playing good hoops is some kind of freak of nature, like a talking dog or a chicken that plays the piano.

It's racist in a few directions, actually, because as Mayweather notes, nobody would be that amazed by a black guy playing that well.

All of that said, I'm not sure it's that big of a deal, as a practical matter. Nobody got lynched, for one thing. And Lin's success will only open up the sport for lots of folks who didn't think basketball was "for them", which will only be good.

Yay Jeremy Lin!

What's also interesting, to me, is that he's a Harvard grad. How many Ivy League-ers in the NBA? How many Ivy League-ers even aspire to playing professional sports, or any kind? Aren't they grooming themselves for "better" things? Another interesting social / cultural lens there.

Regarding the music thing, Eric Clapton famously commented that every town in the US had at least one guy who played as well as he did. Clapton's a great player, but there is way more than a little truth in his statement.

The range of factors that contribute to someone performing at the very highest levels of achievement, or not, are really broad. Many if not most of them are not really directly related to talent. Many are not under the control of the performer. Many are related more to plain old luck than anything else.

I was talking with a bass player I work with occasionally the other night, and we were in fact discussing the number of guys we knew who are great - really great - players, who after a lifetime of work were still scuffling.

My buddy commented that one of the biggest factors in being successful in a musical career is whether you're someone that other folks basically like hanging out with. Nothing to do with music, just whether you're good company. Because a lot of playing music for a living involves, basically, hanging out.

The skill set involved in doing something professionally, at a high level, is often only tangentially related to the thing itself.

Or, at least, being extraordinarily good at the thing itself is just sort of assumed. In other words, being extraordinarily good at the thing itself basically gets in the door -- makes you a candidate for success -- but is no guarantee, at all, of success per se.

Talent means that, if you put in Gladwell's 10,000 hours, you might turn out good enough to be worth considering. Then, you have to put in the 10,000 hours.

Then, if you bring the other 572 things that go into being professionally successful, and also have some luck, and also are insightful enough to recognize your lucky moments, and also know how to make good use of them, you might do quite well.

It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll. Or, be an NBA point guard. Or, whatever.

Basically, if you love something, you should just do it, and not think too much about how far you're going to get. Because, realistically, you probably won't get all that far, and even if you do, the success might not be as satisfying as just doing the thing itself.

I think the idea that the perfomers of any elite outfit--opera, basketball team, Princeton students--are the "best" is an illusion. The perfomers are very very good, of course. But the cutoff between someone who didn't get in and someone who did does not necessarily relflect a real difference in quality.

Think of Olympic class downhill skiiers: is the the skiier who makes the bronze medal by one hundredth of a second actually a better skiier than the one who just missed it by one hundredth of a second and got no medal at all?

It's possible to determine who lacks the skills to be qualitied for admission to one of the elite outfits and it is reasonably possible to decide who has those skills. But who is "best?" There's too many ways to be excellent to think of performers that way.

As to Jermey Lin, since I don't know who he is I'm just left feeling sort of baffled as to why anyone cares if a basketball player is Asian American (whatever tht means) or not. Is it a competition thing? I can remember some angst amongst some of the African American boys of a middle school basketball team when the showy player that got all the attention was the music teacher's son and Jewish. It didn't last long because middle school basketball isn't that big a deal but there were some ugly things said.

I think that Fallows makes a good point, that there would be hype over Lin's store regardless, but there is more hype due to his being Asian.

That said, I thought the salient point of LJ comments was this:
There is talent everywhere, we just don't know how to nurture it and make it fully flower.

More to the point, we don't know how to even recognize talent (let alone prospectivce talent) unless it up and smacks us in the eye. As a result, we make enormous use of proxy indicators. Proxies which, objectively, depend on apparent (not real) correlations. (See also Fallows' comments about basketball being a "Jewish game" pre-WW II.)

If anyone thinks that isn't a defensible description of how we approach the question of talent, ask yourself this: have you ever worked in a large organization? Did you notice how many really mediocre people got promoted way beyond their level of incompetence? (Yes, some superstars get recognized. But we're talking about the vast majority of employees here.)

Why does that happen? I submit that it happens because they are good at some things (aka "politics") which are most irrelevant to their actual job. And the ability to schmooze, etc. is rewarded because those doing the evaluation don't know how to actually evaluate the people they are rating and promoting.

In short, this isn't a basketball thing. It's a general problem -- with a few sports amenible to statistical analysis (although that is far from precise).

Whenever I see something about Lin's story and how it resonates with young Asian-American males I have flashbacks to the discussions that came up when I taught Better Luck Tomorrow a couple years ago -- many comments centered on the character of Ben Manibag and his 'token' role on the HS basketball team. Justin Lin sensed some of the same undercurrent that Jeremy Lin is tapping into now. Judging by my students' responses back then to the film and now to Linsanity I'd have to say that there's something cathartic about this particular public vindication.

Guess we cold call it Lindication.

This, about another sport, football in England, suggests the kind of pressures that even athletes at the top level might have.

Last year Plymouth Argyle's players went eight months without wages. A friend of mine playing for them at the time very nearly lost his house. In the end he lost everything else as he battled to meet his mortgage payments.

I suppose that American pro sports are more professional and you might say that Plymouth Argyle is not the top level. But I think about what happened with the Montreal Expos, where the team was stripped of players and then front office staff and equipment, such that the Marlins clubhouse was filled with equipment that still had the Expos logo on it, it is difficult to imagine any player playing to the full extent of his talents.

Also, I think that wj is probably more correct than I am. And russell's observations about playing and hanging out probably explains my situation. Hanging out, no prob. Playing, never quite had the chops.

Having lived in Asia for many years, it never occurred to me for a moment that there was something remarkable - as opposed to unusual - about a good Asian(-American) basketball player.

What surprised me, and "made" the story as far as I was concerned, is how long he had gone without recognition of his exceptional talents. Outstanding in HS, but no scholarship offers. Goes to Harvard, not exactly a hoops powerhouse. Undrafted, gets picked up but not retained by several teams. And now, miracle man!

A large part of this is explained (above and in the articles linked to) by the fact that one particular skill that he has - that a point guard has to have - is one that is not terribly visible/testable. And that is the ability to "see" the whole court, assess it, and make instantaneous but sound decisions based on this. (Football QBs need something very similar, which - similarly - is hard to assess until you see it in action, over and over again.) It's the converse of measurable, visible "athleticism," on which too many people (including sportspeople who should know better) obsess.

I understand that Lin's Asian(-American)ness made this story, as a story, special, along with the fact that it happened in New York, where any sporting experience is routinely awarded about ten times its actual significance by the NY-based media. OK, but from a sporting perspective, it's the fact of his being unrecognized, passed over, so often, at so many levels, that makes it fascinating.

That one writer thinks it's really about Lin's open Christianity is symptomatic, if not emblematic, of utter cluelessness.

I think the idea that the perfomers of any elite outfit--opera, basketball team, Princeton students--are the "best" is an illusion. ... Think of Olympic class downhill skiiers: is the the skiier who makes the bronze medal by one hundredth of a second actually a better skiier than the one who just missed it by one hundredth of a second and got no medal at all?

Maybe not... but the group of Olympic downhill skiers themselves are most certainly the best in the world. Just as American professional basketball players are some of the best in the world at what they do. How is this even in dispute?

As to Jermey Lin, since I don't know who he is I'm just left feeling sort of baffled as to why anyone cares if a basketball player is Asian American (whatever tht means) or not.

"Asian American" -- Americans whose descent is from the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, or Southeast Asia. Though colloquially this tends to refer only to those of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent. Jeremy Lin's roots are in Taiwan and mainland China, and he also grew up in the sort of very distinctive Chinese-American-Christian subculture. Lots of people have a certain amount of pride in their ethnic and racial heritage and like to see "one of their own" becoming famous, especially when it's in a field held in high regard by the public where those of their background aren't normally represented.

It's the converse of measurable, visible "athleticism," on which too many people (including sportspeople who should know better) obsess.

Basketball, compared to baseball, strikes me as a sport that is much harder to use blind statistics and metrics to rate players and predict their ability on the field, so I can imagine that coaching and recruiting decisions end up focusing more on subjective impressions of things like "athleticism" and "hustle."

I didn't dispute the excellence of someone who could get into the Olympics.

I wrote "Asian-American whatever that means" because I was remembering this from the post:

"Because the Asian-American experience has no unifying notion, no Ellis Island gateway and it draws on a canvas that is half of the world, and is usually the half we (for various values of 'we') don't know about, this coming together really makes no sense. (as someone observed, dang those Asians all look alike, I'm always getting Amartya Sen confused with Wen Jiabao)"


Sometimes people don't like being lumped together and I knew I was using very imprecise language and felt a lttle apologetic about it.

that is the ability to "see" the whole court, assess it, and make instantaneous but sound decisions based on this.

Yes indeed.

The most meaningful metric, IMO of course, for if someone is a good athlete is "when that person plays, we win a lot".

Hard to pin down, but savvy folks recognize it.

Applies in lots and lots of contexts.

Hanging out, no prob. Playing, never quite had the chops.

LOL.

Which reminds me of the old chestnut:

Q: What do you call a guy who likes to hang out with musicians?

A: A drummer.

"My buddy commented that one of the biggest factors in being successful in a musical career is whether you're someone that other folks basically like hanging out with. Nothing to do with music, just whether you're good company. Because a lot of playing music for a living involves, basically, hanging out."

This is almost certainly a big factor, especially for the non-front-man. But one thing we hate to admit is that there really is just a lot of luck which separates the various really good people into 'has a good career' and 'does not have a good career'. You can set yourself up for the possibility of a good break but not necessarily get it. You can get a good break and not be the best in the room. And there are some artists who you wonder if they couldn't have been much more popular if they had been born 5 years later or 10 years earlier.

One example I'm thinking of right now is Janelle Monáe. She is young enough that of course we don't know if she is going to have an enormous career, but I feel almost as if she would have had a better chance at a different time.

[I have a half baked theory about ebbs and lulls in the importance of harmony vs. melody in popular music, and the dangers of doing too much harmony when it isn't the 'time' for it. I think it is unrelated to my half baked theory about baritones vs tenors and my theory that you really don't want to be a baritone trying to break in during the 75% of the time when tenors rule the airwaves.]

Anyway, I don't know crap about basketball and I've gone down a huge tangent. Sorry.

No prob, Sebastian. Actually, I'll probably take the Janelle Monáe ref and the second to the last graf and make that the Friday open thread ;^)

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