Before I even get out of the blocks on this topic, I will offer the disclaimers that:
a) I have little interest in the NBA and have not watched a professional basketball game in several years
b) despite his recent rise and wild level of popularity, I have never seen Jeremy Lin play a single minute for the New York Knicks
With both of those facts out there, as most of us know it still remains impossible for anyone to escape the Jeremy Lin phenomenon these days, even on NPR and running web sites, where opinion from pundits, analysts and dilettantes alike attempts to put the significance of Jeremy Lin into proper perspective for us. Even for a story that I have admittedly not followed closely, I have gathered a fair amount of insight on the role of Lin’s attendance at Harvard, the importance of his Asian heritage, his time in the NBA D-League, what constitutes a ‘bad night’ on the hardwood for Lin and even the existence of an ersatz, cello-playing Jeremy Lin that overlapped with the Knick Lin in Cambridge.
Without worrying too much about the state of basketball in the Ivy League or the number of replica jerseys due to be sold in China in the wake of Linsanity, there is one question that has sparked my interest to a certain degree. In an age where the fast and ready access to a wealth of electronic data allows for an endless amount of analysis and comparison, many in the running community have inquired and mused about whether a running equivalent of Jeremy Lin exists, and if not yet where will he come from. While that discussion and the related assertions and arguments hold little practical value, it did prompt me to think about whether and how a ‘Jeremy Lin’ figure can emerge and exist in our sport.
Due to the nature of the way in which professional basketball and professional running are structured, it should follow that potential Lin equivalents (equivaLints?) exist at virtually every turn on the running circuit. Due to the limited opportunities that an NBA, D-League or European League basketball player has to gain exposure, break into a lineup or log valuable playing time, there may well be potential impact players languishing on the bench or sweating out their time as practice players on roster to support the team’s structure from the low position on the totem pole. The professional running circuit, like running at any level, has no bench and no practice players. If you’re fit and enter a race you have the ability to compete well and gain recognition. For the most part, there is no second string field that earns a place on the starting line only when the hitters pull out of races. Sure, it can sometimes be difficult to get into the heats you want in select meets, but the bottom line is that if you prove you belong you will be granted access to a lane. In such a system, the burden of creating a breakout moment rests primarily with the athlete, who can’t claim that sitting out while others race serves as an obstacle to performance. At the developmental levels (youth, HS programs, etc.), the open access to competitive opportunity remains one of the most welcoming and beneficial aspects of our sport. Even college teams have travel and developmental squads, and major road races see handsomely rewarded professionals toe the same line that high paying or fundraising hobby joggers do.
So, the answer to the question ‘Who is the Jeremy Lin of the running world?’ is…. there is no such thing. Jeremy Lin is more of a modern-day Lou Gehrig, who started at first base in place of Wally Pipp and then went on to play in over 2000 straight games, than a figure that can be compared to any unsung heroes in waiting of the running world. Regardless of when and how an athlete gains his moment on center stage, the value and potential of that moment becomes lost unless the level of performance warrants recognition and reward. Races like the USARC series, USATF Cross Country and other major road races have no true qualification standard and afford each runner that feels deserving of a spot the chance to lace up the shoes and compete for glory and prize winnings. Coaches and race directors typically don’t decide who gets the nod and who sits out, and that means that each runner remains in control of his own race outcome and destiny. Clearly, some are going to make more of such opportunities than others, and maybe those that seize the moment share more in common with Jeremy Lin, but if you want to identify runners that keep their heads down; display a consistent and honest work ethic each and every day; and patiently await the time to shine then you only need to scroll through the top six or eight places of any elite race to see the up-and-comers mixed in with the names of those paid and sponsored professionals.
In the wake of Jeremy Lin’s meteoric rise, NBA scouts, coaches and GM’s have been prompted to wonder whether they already have the next Lin somewhere in their organization. Some teams undoubtedly have just such players waiting to break out if they could only achieve the necessary game experience and seasoning necessary to excel professionally. I don’t know much about coaching basketball, but I can imagine that it’s difficult to give every athlete on a roster equal access to playing time during which they can earn and keep a prominent role on the team. In that sense, in team sports you are always going to create a system in which some teammates thrive at the cost of others whose development is thwarted. In our sport, ironically, the more ‘playing time’ you log in your event the worse off you are, and thus the best way to help both yourself and your team is to spend as little time competing between the gun and the finish line in any given race. The backstory of hours on the roads, trails and track do, however, provide the sobering balance to the perception that runners merely rip off their sweats and drop blazing times based on pure talent alone.
One tried and true sports psychology approach emphasizes focusing on the factors that you can control while leaving the elements out of your control on the periphery. My guess is Jeremy Lin has succeeded due, in part, to employing just such a strategy while remaining poised to go for his when the right rime presented itself. Many people express surprise when unsung stars and instant sensations speak and act with confidence (sometimes mistaken for arrogance) after they have burst upon the scene. The countless hours of preparation, visualization and other rehearsal that precede a proverbial coming out party serve as a common denominator for the patient athlete that has done many times in practice what eventually (hopefully) becomes manifest once the lights go up. For this reason, coaches and the athletes themselves often have a much easier time taking these ‘surprise’ success stories in stride, for they have known all along that once the time is right it’s possible to capture lightning in a bottle. The Jeremy Lin craze won’t last forever, but if Lin has prepared diligently he’ll prove that he has staying power once the next great thing comes along and steals some of the limelight.