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Sports Heroes: Building Brand Through Performance

February 11th, 2012

Donny Deutsch recently spoke about Tim Tebow and he made an interesting point: We as Americans are often much more intrigued by athletes and celebrities that are being bad, than we are by the ones who are just working and persevering, trying to deliver results. It seems true, but American ideals are still rooted in the triumph of free will and the human spirit, in the underdog who prevails.

Tim Tebow was a phenomenon in professional sports during the second half of the NFL season. Dismissed by professional football experts, he came off the bench, played in the face of overwhelming adversity and criticism, and humbly guided the team to the divisional championship.

Now, cut to Jeremy Lin. Haven’t heard of him yet? If not, it should only take one or two more 38-point games like the one he had for the New York Knicks on Friday night. Twitter is aflitter after his performance against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

It’s been only 6 days — and 4 games — but in a New York minute, Mr. Lin has already garnered observations about his talent that teeter on the brink of legendary, even drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan. Until February 4, Lin had endured several years of rejection and was largely overlooked by the recruiting system of NCAA basketball as well as the NBA. The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin was talented, but told by Pac-10 schools that he would be considered as a walk-on. He was assured that he would be able to play on the team at Harvard, and chose to play there.

Being Chinese/Taiwanese, and playing for Harvard, placed Lin on a long, crooked road to achieve his dream of playing in the NBA. According to the Wiki, Sean Gregory of Time magazine wrote, “Lin was scrawny, but don’t doubt that a little racial profiling, intentional or otherwise, contributed to his under-recruitment.” Harvard is hardly a breeding ground for NBA all-stars; the last time an NBA player was recruited from Harvard was 1954.

The story is also not unlike the one told in the movie, “Moneyball,” which also takes place in northern California, only about 34 miles from where Lin grew up, in fact. It’s fascinating that in professional sports leagues, where hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake and winning is so incentivized, talent cannot be more easily identified and nurtured. Lin signed a modest 2-year deal with the Golden State Warriors in July 2010, his hometown, and favorite team growing up. The Asian-American population in San Francisco celebrated and followed Lin, but he never started a game, saw limited playing time, scored very little and on three occasions, was reassigned to the farm-league “Reno Bighorns.”

On December 9, the Warriors waved Lin and he was signed briefly by the Houston Rockets, but also let go again just before the season began on December 24. The Knicks claimed Lin off waivers on December 27, and made him third-string point guard. On January 17, he was once again reassigned to the D-League team, Erie BayHawks. On January 20, Lin had a triple-double, scoring 28 points and was called back to the Knicks three days later.

Now, having started 4 consecutive games, Lin has also led the Knicks on a 4 game winning streak. Since 1976, no NBA player has scored more points in their first three starts. Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve never seen it.”

And yet, why could no one see it? The story also reminds me of many anecdotal references in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Lin was not recruited by top, west coast universities, but he led Palo Alto High School to a record of 35-1, and a state championship as a senior. Gladwell makes the point that these instances are not so much a matter of personal triumph, but rather more about the history, the odds. Stories like the one of Jeremy Lin may seem unusual, but they are actually quite predictable if you look at his early success. It’s just the illusion we’re presented with because he was sidetracked and fell into such an uncharted, circuitous route to professional basketball. Also, there clearly was either conscious or unconscious bias because of his Asian heritage. Exceptional talent in basketball is not supposed to be Asian, much less attend Harvard. It’s yet another reference to perceptions of brand image, or perhaps in this case, to stereotypes.

Trust me, I identify. Iridium is a boutique. Never mind that I have hired the same creative directors and designers that worked at top global agencies on massive consumer accounts. Dismiss the fact that for 17 years, we have crushed it out of the park when given a chance to compete at an elite, corporate level. Few executives within the Fortune 1000 are willing to take a chance with their brand on a small firm that doesn’t have the pedigree. They prefer to keep going back to the same old pool of “usual-suspect agencies.” Note to large corporate brand- and marketing-leaders: Take a small, calculated chance here and there; reach to find something fresh and different. Think a little more like Billy Beane.

D’Antoni did, and he discovered quite an unexpected surprise. Lin has fought through the sludge of fixed perceptions, and that should be celebrated. He is the toast of New York. With each game, he is realizing increased pressure, but is also delivering on those expectations. Like Tim Tebow, like Victor Cruz — even the comeback of Michael Vick — Lin has defied the odds and focused on achieving excellence in the face of tremendous adversity. Everyone loves a comeback — and it transcends race and religion. Asian, African, Hispanic, Christian or not, poor or rich, the personal struggle that results in accomplishment is still the greatest, most enduring builder of brands. It’s still a story that makes us all well up with inspiration and pride and associate that name, Jeremy Lin, with a life-affirming experience.

With 38 Points, the Legend Grows

Jeremy Lin Is No Fluke

Lin’s Appeal: Faith, Pride and Points

Lin Keeps His Cool; Around Him, Heads Spin

Just Needing a Chance, Lin and Cruz and Tebow

Lin’s Success Surprising to Everyone

Coaches Say Knicks Have Found Someone Special

Sharing a Heritage With a New Knicks Star

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This entry was posted on Saturday, February 11th, 2012 at 11:28 am and is filed under Brand Identity, Business, Marketing, Media, Social Media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Hannah

    This post has so many different interesting points to comment on. How ironic that in an industry where talent should reign supreme, racial stigmas are still potentially creating biases and limiting opportunity.

    I find it disheartening that one of the main topics in the Lin story whether it be in blogs, twitter or Espn chats that theme of race continues to surface. Why do we as a culture have such a hard time rapping our heads around the idea of an Asian American basketball superstar?

  • Megan

    It’s so rare that that someone can overcome so many challenges and make his way to the top. Jeremy Lin gives inspiration to all athletes who are told that they’re not good enough. I hope for his sake, and all other possible “walk-ons”, that he continues to play well prove his critics wrong.

  • Molly Maguire

    There is no way Jeremy Lin could have prepared for the attention he has received over the last two months. It’s upsetting to me that the focus isn’t just on his ablility on the basketball court. I know this isn’t a realistic request, but the constant discussion of this race, academic background and size is irrelevant to me. He has out scored Kobe Bryant and turning and losing team into a winning one. If I was an owner of an NBA team I wouldn’t care about what he looked like because he has proved his basketball talent other the last ten games.

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IridiumGroup Inc.

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