The Undiscovered Star in the Cubicle in the Back

Jeremy Lin

There was an interesting interview of Spike Lee (, the American film director, who is also an avid fan of the New York Knicks basketball team, a few days ago. As some may know, in the past couple of weeks a previously unknown basketball player, Jeremy Lin, has become an overnight sports star because of his solid play, the resulting wins by New York, and his personal story.

An American of Taiwanese ancestry, Lin was a benchwarmer for the Knicks, who considered releasing Lin before his contract became guaranteed on February 10 so they could sign a new player. The Cinderella story (one can already imagine Hollywood figuring out how to create a movie about this) even has the requisite “sleeping on his brother’s couch in the lower east side because he wasn’t sure how much longer he would have a job with the Knicks” scene.

However, during a February 3 loss to the Boston Celtics, coach Mike D’Antoni decided to give Lin a chance to play. “He got lucky because we were playing so bad,” said D’Antoni. Lin had played only 55 minutes through the Knicks’ first 23 games. Just one week later he was named NBA Player of the Week.

Lee made some interesting points about the lessons learned from Lin’s story. The first, although somewhat sentimental, has a positive, affirming tone to it, namely, that

Interviewer: How did the NBA system miss this guy? You know he’s been cut a couple of times, he’s riding the bench with the Knicks. This is a system that is built to find talent in the NBA, and clearly the guy didn’t get good just last week or two weeks ago. How did everybody miss him?

Lee: Well, they can measure your weight, they can measure your vertical leap, they can measure your height. They can look at your stats, but you can’t really measure heart, desire, your spirit, your will to win, and Jeremy Lin possesses all that.

Later, the interviewer asks this question:

Interviewer: Do you think that this might open people’s eye not just in basketball but in other areas of sort of expanding…

Lee: I’ve got the answer for that. I have an advertising agency called Spike DDB, and we yesterday we had our quarterly meeting to go over the numbers, and one executive said that the great thing about this Jeremy Lin is that it’s not just affecting sports. Coaches, now really have to look at the end of their bench. People in business might have to look at this person down the hall in this cubicle. Because unless you take the time to know what you got, you could have a gem there. So what’s been happening with Jeremy Lin is not just affecting sports, its affecting business, everything. Everybody is going to start looking under rocks, looking at that nondescript person that stuck in the cubicle or wherever they are and say “Is this person good?”

Lee also talks a bit about how we judge people’s potential by their appearance and how this puts people in boxes and blocks people from becoming great. There is some food for thought on how, in business, we might go about judging people and whether that person the leadership rated as a “C” player is actually a star if  only they let that person out of the box. It also speaks, equally, to the idea that all employees, all individuals, must be prepared to seize the opportunity that might come along, even if a fluke, to demonstrate what we are capable of doing.

The interview is found here:

2 Comments on “The Undiscovered Star in the Cubicle in the Back”

  1. Kelly Bonds says:

    There is another fundamental problem. In basketball, it is pretty easy to see what good looks like and to see how an individual’s contribution translates into points, and then wins. In business, and also in life, the connection is not clear. There are so many standard ideas of what good looks like, how to solve a problem, which characteristics exhibit success, and they are so narrow in definition because they tend to represent what people are shaped to believe all their life from education, sociallization, and past experience (good and bad).
    I like the ideas presented here by Lee, but it is not just the prejuduces that he talks about that get in the way. There are alternative paths or different definitions of success that needs to be watched for, understood and allowed to flourish.

    • brucem says:

      Hi Kelly – I certainly agree with your observation that athletics is much easier than other areas of life because of the visibility of results and individual performance. Indeed, it is precisely because, as you point out, that often these things are more subtle in other areas of life such as business that business leaders need to take much more care and time before making judgments on people. Yet it is my experience that many business leaders make rather quick assessments about people based on very thin data points.

      The other thing businesses need to do better is define role expectations and deliverables with more precision. Many times the fuzziness of measuring employee performance is, in my opinion, as much as reflection of the subtleties of work as it is a lack of rigorous thinking by managers about what is really required and expected in each job position.

      Sports will probably always be a simplified microcosm of life (which is why we like to escape in that world) but I do think many managers have not put enough thought into expectations and measurement of outcomes.

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