February 13th, 2012
11:03 PM GMT
New York (CNN) - Harvard economists might not be able to fix the financial crisis but one might be about to fix the U.S.'s National Basketball Association.
Or at least, that’s what they’re saying about Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks point guard and freshly appointed savior of basketball.
Having struggled to find a professional team after finishing his economics degree at Harvard, Lin found himself sleeping on couches, bouncing around the Developmental Leagues hoping for a break.
The hapless Knicks finally gave him one a few weeks ago. Five games and five wins later and we have another sporting sensation on our hands.
From the very beginning, the comparisons with America’s other cult superstar, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, came in thick and fast.
Both defy the typical profiles enough to assume underdog status. Both have hit improbable hot streaks at opportune times. And both have re-energized two struggling franchises. Raise your hand if you predicted the Knicks and the Broncos being the two most talked-about teams in sports this season.
Unlike Tebow, Lin’s professional numbers speak for themselves. He’s scored more points in his first four games than any other NBA player in history. Tebow won despite his numbers, Lin wins because of them.
As anyone with an economics degree from Harvard will warn you though, regression to the mean is always a risk with such a minute sample size.
It may already be happening in fact – see Saturday’s game against the Timberwolves, where Lin’s game-winning free throw served only to distract from his six turnovers in a distinctly less than immortal performance.
Lin struggled to get a break in the big leagues for a reason, and we’ll presumably see evidence of it soon. And once the wins stop coming, it will get harder and harder to justify the hype.
That’s not to say Lin needs to be an All-Star to become a superstar. Thanks to his Taiwanese heritage, he’s able to harness Asia’s insatiable appetite for sports, the commercial and cultural power of which can never be underestimated.
Retired center Yao Ming was propelled to iconic status despite a career where injuries were sadly more of a feature than championships.
If Lin can keep up the momentum for long enough, there’s no reason why he can’t do the same.
Even though Lin never built up celebrity status in the Chinese leagues like Ming did (Lin is American and grew up in California), the Chinese interest is already there – 900,000 followers on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, can’t be wrong.
And of course, it’s not just Ming’s sneakers that need filling.
With the PR damage from this year’s lockout and the gradual decline of old superpowers like the L.A. Lakers and the Boston Celtics, the NBA badly needs new personalities.
With the Ivy League background and the couch-surfing, Lin has that in spades. Doing it all in New York, one of the world’s biggest sports markets, would only make a push for global domination easier.
For now the Knicks can enjoy the short-term publicity boost - the double digit percentage gains for its parent company over the past week are no coincidence.
But these kinds of gains will look like small fry if Lin can reach his full commercial potential. Tim Tebow had a shot at being an American superstar, Lin has a shot at being a global one. It’s his shot to take.
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