Do you remember "Linsanity" when it pretty much was the sports news in New York few years ago? There was a very important lesson that we should not quickly forget.
I have a relative who graduated from an Ivy League school few years ago with an economics degree and had a choice of Wall Street firms to become an investment banker. Jeremy Lin, former New York Knicks guard, with an economics degree from Harvard, would have created a bidding war on Wall Street or top companies in Silicon Valley such as Apple, Google or Facebook.
Unfortunately, Jeremy Lin wanted to play basketball in the NBA, so he had to struggle like kids who come out of Tier 3 colleges who want to join Wall Street firm in their investment banking group or on a development team at Apple, Google or Facebook. Talent alone but would not have been enough for them to get a fair shot.
Lot of experts in NBA did not give Jeremy Lin a fair shot because they trusted their cognitive biases and passed on him rather than what their eyes saw. This is one of the main reason why people were so captivated with the Jeremy Lin "Linsanity" story.
For those who may not have followed this story when it was in the news, Jeremy Lin was the New York Knicks guard who had gone from being an unknown practice squad and to become the most talked about sports story in New York City, America and Taiwan -- in one week. Some sports anaylst suggested that was the most improbable sports story they can ever recall.
How did this happen?
Not just by turning the Knicks from losing to a winning, but how he fell through the cracks of NBA talent experts who follow basketball talent right from the time they are in their diapers.
This oversight had lot to do with human decision making, even by experts, where their cognitive biases lead them to make decisions that turn out to be totally wrong. The NBA experts probably thought they were making the right decision. This type of decision making also happens in business, schools and government so let’s take a look at what is the root cause of this decision making error.
To better understand Jeremy Lin’s story, a little background is required.
Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese American, played basketball on his high school team in Palo Alto and led them to a state championship. One would think he would be heavily recruiting by colleges, especially one next door called Stanford. Stanford passed on him. Moreover, he was not recruited by any colleges and decided to attend Harvard to earn an economics degree and play some basketball. He led Harvard to a post season tournament in his senior year.
Though he was a star at Harvard, no NBA showed any interest on draft day; however, he was later signed as a free agent by Golden State Warriors. It was a short stay as he was released due to team’s need to fit their payroll under the cap set by the NBA. There was no room for him, even though he was one of the lowest paid player in the NBA. He was then picked up by the Houston Rockets, but same thing happened there.
Finally he was picked up by the New York Knicks on a 10-day contract on their practice squad and was not expected to make it on their regular squad. He was eventually going to be released when the injured players returned from their injuries. It was a long shot for him to even make it at the end of the bench with the regular team.
Call it luck or destiny, but due to Knicks losing and player injuries, the coach of the Knicks had to put Lin in the game against the NJ Nets. To everyone’s surprise he performed way beyond anyone’s expectation (scored over 20 points) and led the team to a win. Remarkably, he did this without their top two star players not playing.
He was immediately put in the starting lineup and led the team to four straight wins, including a 38 point effort against the star studded Los Angles Lakers on February 10th in Madison Square Garden in front of over 19,000 fans.
When asked Kobe Bryant, Lakers super star, to comment on the sudden rise of Jeremy Lin from nowhere, he said, "players don't usually come out of nowhere. If you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. But no one ever noticed."
The reason no one noticed is because, let’s face it, how many Asian American Harvard graduates are playing in the NBA? I mean playing basketball, not being with the team in the role of taking care of business, legal or medical matters.
Jeremy Lin would have been a no brain hire on Wall Street or top companies in Silicon Valley, but was easy to overlook by NBA talent scouts and GMs. No talent scout or a GM is going to take a chance on an Asian American Harvard educated basket ball player. It only happens in movies. We don’t need to wait for this movie; we saw it in real life in NYC.
This type of decision making has to do with cognitive biases that we have formed over the years where we don’t make rational decisions no matter how intelligent we are. We make short cuts decisions that serve us well most of the time; they save us lot of time. Just look at how much time a Wall Street hiring manager would have saved by taking a chance on Lin? How much time was supposedly saved by NBA GMs by not drafting Lon or releasing Lin?
We do this too all the time, but it doesn’t blow up in our face like the way Jeremy Lin's situation has with NBA talent experts in such a public and embarrassing way.
Jeremy Lin rise shows that even experts make errors trusting their cognitive biases rather than their own eyes. Will we learn much from Jeremy Lin to prevent this from happening to us? I doubt it since we are easily prone to cognitive biases.