Column: Not every Ivy Leaguer becomes an NBA star
The names "Jeremy Lin" and "Harvard" pop up in the same sentence so often lately you might think every Ivy Leaguer who chases the dream winds up in the NBA.
Not so. Nearly all of them must face reality sooner or later and learn to make do in less glamorous occupations, such as Wall Street CEO, legal titan or even secretary of education. But none of them minds basking in Lin's reflected glory.
"I followed Jeremy since he was a kid, and I always knew he'd amount to something," chuckled Arne Duncan, a former Harvard basketball captain who really is the U.S. Secretary of Education. "It's been amazing to watch. It shows that if you keep working and people pay attention, there are plenty of diamonds out there just waiting to be discovered."
Duncan doesn't count himself as one of those diamonds, though he played in the U.S. Basketball League after graduation, then had a cup of coffee at the Boston Celtics' training camp and played pro basketball in Australia for four years before launching his public-service career. Duncan might have stayed on the other side of the world, too, if the pull of his hometown weren't so strong.
"I was getting paid to do something I loved. I was comfortable, and being honest, if I'd stayed for another year, I'd probably be there still," he said. "It sounds corny, but because of the way I was raised ... and all the mentors who invested so much, I felt an obligation to come back and help."
As if Ivy League grads lacked bragging rights, Lin's worldwide celebrity has provided them with yet another gift. More than a few can boast of having better nights playing against the Knicks' sudden sensation than Kobe Bryant or anyone else in the NBA has so far.
"I know this sounds crazy now, but there were three guys just on our team I would have taken over him any day of the week," said Cornell senior guard Chris Wroblewski. "I wasn't super impressed."
Wroblewski, who was named Ivy League rookie of the year in 2008-09 largely because of his defensive skills, was glued to Lin home-and-away during each of his first two seasons with the Big Red.
"The game I remember is my sophomore year at home, when both teams were pretty good and people started calling it the 'clash of the Ivy League titans,'" he said.
(Considering how little attention the rest of the basketball world normally affords Ivy League games that might be an overstatement. But back to the story.)
"He was the focal point in our scouting report, and we made it a priority to limit his touches. I think he had 16 points, but eight turnovers, too, and we beat them here by 36," Wroblewski recalled. "It's fair to say I'm not the fastest guy, so I had my concerns even then whether he could get around guys in the NBA.
"That shows you much I know."
Yet Wroblewski knows enough to have lined up a job in finance back near his home in suburban Chicago when he graduates this spring. Of the three Cornell teammates he figured would get their NBA shot ahead of Lin, Ryan Wittman, the unanimous Ivy League player of the year selection in 2009-10 and the son of Wizards coach Randy Wittman, is already working for Morgan Stanley in Minneapolis. The other two are still sticking it out in pro basketball's rough-and-tumble lower circuits. Louis Dale plays in Germany, and Jeff Foote, who bounced around with teams in Israel, Spain and Poland and was in camp briefly with the NBA's Portland Trailblazers last fall, is playing for the Springfield Armor in the D-League.
"The good thing about going to an Ivy League school is you've got a lot of options after getting your degree, and a lot of them more lucrative than basketball, especially where I'm at," Foote said. "You get a good starting salary with say Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley, and maybe 10 or 20 years down the road you wind up even better off. The bad thing is that people assumed you played in the Ivy League because you weren't good enough to get an athletic scholarship anywhere else."
Foote takes some pride in knowing that in corporate offices across the country, guys like him are enjoying rare moments of celebrity again. Suddenly, many of the financial planners, insurance agents and accountants who work alongside them can't hear enough about the night one of them stared down Jeremy Lin.
"Honestly? I don't remember much about it," Foote said. "We beat them pretty handily. I knew he'd get an opportunity, but I expected the only way he'd catch on was maybe as a backup point guard. I hope his success makes a lot of people look at the league differently."
Duncan thinks so, too, but he's hoping there's a bigger lesson to be learned from Linsanity.
"The best thing about Jeremy's story is it shows you don't always have to have pedigree or be a McDonald's All-American to get where you want to go. If you work hard and you've got humility, and what matters to you is making the team better, you can find a way to contribute.
"Look," Duncan said, "Jeremy is a very special kid, but it isn't about the numbers he puts up. The Knicks were — how should I put it — a dysfunctional group, and he made them a team. He's been held to low numbers plenty of times, but the only thing he ever cared about were 'Ws.' Find guys like that," he said finally, "and success isn't usually far behind."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him on Twitter.com/JimLitke.