Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Premature Close of Linsanity on Broadway

A week ago, the New York Knicks officially declined to match the Houston's Rockets' three year, $25.1 million offer to Jeremy Lin, thus ending a short Knick career in which a young Taiwanese-American Harvard grad captivated the country and the world for two months with incredible performances as the Knicks pulled out of a tailspin and back into contention. His emergence caught the attention of not just basketball fans, but was the topic du jour around circles previously apathetic about the sport. Legions of Asian and Asian-Americans, including my wife and parents, suddenly categorized Knicks games as "must see TV". In the middle of the "Linsanity", I wrote a post about my own excitement and fears.

When the rumblings began that the Knicks weren't going to match the Rockets' offer, I actually began my cycle of the five stages of grief:

(1) Denial. What? insider Marc Stein quoted a Knicks source two weeks ago as saying "They will match any offer up to one billion dollars." The implication being is that the Knicks management, led by owner Jim Dolan, wasn't stupid. They knew that the financial upside of Lin with his global popularity and marketability would far outweigh any salary cap penalty. Surely they aren't going to be so irrational, right?

(2) Anger. After a while, I was simply pissed at the prospect of having my sports fan nirvana shattered. "My favorite hometown basketball team had a Taiwanese-American Ivy-League educated Christian with the right to match any offer and we're going to pass?" I fumed at the idiocy of the decision, and vented on Facebook with posts like: "People need to calm down about this Jeremy Lin thing. It's just smart business: When you can get rid of a young talent who is a fan favorite, global icon and adored by a multibillion dollar Asian market and replace him with a fat guy (Raymond Felton) and old guy (Jason Kidd) who just got busted for his 2nd DWI, you gotta pull the trigger."

(3) Bargaining. Then there was sense of, maybe the Knicks can at least get something back for Jeremy Lin. I mean, they're not so foolish as to lose him for nothing, right? If we're convinced that he'll never mesh with Carmelo Anthony (more on this later) and the plan is to stick with 'Melo, why don't we sign him and then bundle him with Amar'e Stoudemire so we can get some cap relief? Other GM's get the value of Lin's marketability, why don't we at least make this a decision that actually makes the Knicks a better basketball team? Just please don't make the end state a virtual trade of Jeremy Lin for Raymond Felton.

(4) Depression. I don't know if I was ever depressed about this. I mean, besides crying myself to sleep and lying in the fetal position for hours.

(5) Acceptance. But seriously, at some point, I came to realization that this was for the best, especially Jeremy Lin, who right or wrong, I cared more about than the Knicks franchise.

So I ask myself, is this the sort of "this is for the best" in the way that people are consoled after their boyfriend or girlfriend cheats on them and leaves them heartbroken? I don't think so. I legitimately think that this is absolutely the best thing for every party given the circumstances. I'm not rationalizing. I'm admittedly disappointed that the perfect storm of having my favorite player (by far) on my favorite team with the ability to watch every game on cable will no longer exist, but it's not to be.

What became clear to me in the past week is that the Knicks didn't think that Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony could play together effectively - largely because 'Melo would never adapt. Both players are most successful (and happy) with the ball in their hands, and Carmelo is simply not going to change his game at this stage of his career. The lack of synergy on the court was seeping into some tension not just with 'Melo but other players. Anthony's reference of Lin's "ridiculous" contract offer as well as J.R. Smith's petty comments around players (namely, him) being jealous of Lin's contract.made it clear that Linsanity and the global popularity of a guy who had a transcendent run for only a couple of months didn't play too well with some of Jeremy's more petty teammates.

By the way, please ignore the baloney about the luxury tax implications and penalties. The salary cap space is already blown through the 2014-2015 season even without Lin's contract. There will be no contract flexibility with Carmelo, Amar'e, and Tyson Chandler's along with the three year deals of Felton and Kidd. You can argue owner Jim Dolan would be paying a larger penalty with the Lin contract, but I'd be surprised if his refusal to sign Lin ends up ultimately netting positive for him financially. The lost market value of MSG stock (which has already started to reflect Lin's departure) doesn't make up for money "saved" by not matching Lin's contract. Plus, let's be honest, any money that Dolan saved is never coming back to fans in the form of cheaper cable to less expensive tickets. I also don't buy that Dolan's angry that Lin didn't play at 85% in the playoff series that they would have lost anyway. If he's ticked that Lin and his agents "renegotiated" a higher deal with Houston after it was clear that the Knicks would match the lower one, then shame on him for letting his ego cut off his nose to spite his face.

As for Jeremy, he's going to be in a good place. Houston showed that it could be a viable international market when it did so well with Yao, and as the 10th largest U.S. television market, it's not as if he's going to Podunk, Nebraska. From a basketball standpoint, Jeremy Lin will really be in much better shape. He'll be the undisputed leader of a team of young guns, including Jeremy Lamb, Chandler Parsons, Royce White and Terrence Jones. He's going to be loved, not frozen out by his teammates. His new coach, Kevin McHale, will let him run the offense that best utilizes his skills. It'll be more like the good old days at Harvard, when he was the leader of the pack and his teammates were thrilled to follow his lead. Being a young team, they'll struggle but fans will have reasonable expectations and there'll be significantly less pressure to win now.

Where does this leave me as a fan? I'm still wresting with it, but I'm deeply disappointed that the Knicks didn't match the offer and try their darnedest to make it work. I'm disappointed that Carmelo (despite the lame attempts of his PR people to hide this) let his ego get in the way of a partnership on the court that could have been special. I'm disappointed that Jim Dolan didn't throw a bone to a large portion of fans who wanted to see what a healthy (and young and improving) Jeremy Lin could add to a team of veterans. The reality is that not only are the Knicks worse without Lin, they're much less compelling. This wasn't about sacrificing the future for the present. This was about sacrificing the present and future for a luxury tax penalty and soothing the ego of a jealous star player.

On Facebook, a number of my friends have dramatically announced their abandonment of the Knicks as fans. Such is their anger and disgust around the team and how this was handled. Detractors may mock them as not being "true fans", but there are no rules around this stuff. Either you're inclined to root for a team or you're not. You can't fake being a fan. If you don't care about a team, you don't care about a team. No contracts are signed or vows made. And as far as detractors saying "you quitting as a fan won't change anything", that may be true, but people don't have to be a contributor to Cablevision's ratings, advertising revenue and leverage for MSG cable fees. People can vote their approval or disapproval with their feet, their money, their social media buzz and their remote controls.

I look at the Knicks and I don't care if they win. When Jeremy Lin was on the Knicks, the fan base was electrified, in part, because we identified with and loved the underdog who was genuinely a good guy just happy to be there who took down giants like Kobe and Dirk. We liked the childlike joy that he instilled on a team of unassuming role players when they started rolling teams who couldn't believe that this kid from Harvard was scorching them. I can root for Steve Novak and perhaps Tyson Chandler, but rooting for Carmelo Anthony? J.R. Smith? Jim Dolan? No thanks.

Go Brooklyn. Go Houston.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Let the Little Children Come to Me"

From a young age, I've always been moved by Jesus' love for little children. Being raised Roman Catholic, one of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) lessons (think Sunday School) that stuck with me as a first grader was a cartoon textbook account of parents gathering to have their children blessed, only to have indignant disciples ready to shoo them away, per the account in the Gospel of Mark:
10:13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
That cartoon account of the Jesus' blessing of the little children has also seared into my mind (for better or worse) a detailed visual picture of what this looked like. Specifically, I envisioned an orderly queue of well-behaved and perfectly groomed (e.g. nicely combed hair, ironed tunics) children with happy smiles and patiently holding the hands of their parents, waiting their turn to step up to receive their blessing from Jesus, who is sitting on a rock in beautiful meadow with green grass in 80 degree sunny weather most typically found in La Jolla. Of course, some of this projection might be accurate, but most is probably not.

I thought about this during a Sunday where my children had a particularly tough time at church service. They were fidgety and couldn't sit still. My daughters found it utterly impossible to sit or stand still. During service, when the congregation would stand, they would slouch or sit. Two of my kids were constantly jockeying for position to sit next two whoever in the family they wanted to sit with at a given moment. Otherwise, they would slouch or crawl up in the pew in the fetal position whining about being tired. And despite instructing my son to pay attention during the service and at least follow along during our praise and worship time, he was more distracted folding his bulletin into a paper airplane. More than a few times, I've had to lean down to them and hiss a whisper of  "Cut it out. Now."

It's tempting for me to overreact to their bad morning, and I'd be the first to admit that I was a less than gracious and more than a little judgmental person when I wasn't a father and couldn't understand why parents couldn't get their kids to behave as Stepford children during service. Being a father of three young children, I've become much more understanding of how difficult it is for a 3-year old to stand for 20 minutes and sing songs which are difficult to sing with an inability to read the words, or listen to words which sail over their head. The reality is that little kids fidget (and worse) when us adults would prefer they were much more orderly.

Going back to the Gospel account of Jesus and the little children, I think my own preconceived notion of the account of Jesus and the Little Children has actually undersold the power of the grace within the message. The usual exegesis of the passage mostly revolves around God's love for children and mostly speaks about children's child-like faith, wide-eyed trust and lack of independence and self-sufficiency. All of this is true. But I wonder if it's possible that part of what makes this passage even more powerful is that Jesus isn't merely embracing well-behaved little children who are cute, cuddly, polite, adorably precocious and well-mannered. Little children, as a whole, aren't like that, or at least are never only like that.

Little children are, at times, rambunctious, rebellious, messy, whiny, loud and annoying. Perhaps the fact that Jesus is so eager to bless and love these children is another testimony to grace, and a wonderful reminder of his eager and possessive love for those of us who are a bit rambunctious, rebellious, messy, whiny, loud and annoying.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Operational Excellence and the Communities It Kills

A week ago, an industry rival announced that it was going to close down a site in nearby Nutley, New Jersey, a decision which will have major ramifications upon that community. In addition to the having to deal with the loss of around $14 million in local tax revenue, Nutley, Clifton and surrounding towns will lose up to 2000 jobs. I would expect that a handful of those employees deemed as most important will be retained and provided sufficiently lucrative packages to relocate to other sites outside the local area. The other who are not so lucky will need to join the growing ranks of unemployed, seeking employment in an increasingly tight pharmaceutical job field, wondering if they'll have to bite the bullet and take contract work or roles which pay considerably less than their current wage.

I'm not begrudging companies from doing what they deem best for their stakeholders. I know that every company has had to make difficult decisions in the midst of increasingly challenging business conditions, and those decisions often have an adverse impact upon municipalities, communities and families. In a strange twist of irony, my own employer made a decision a few years ago to significantly curtail operations at research and development site located in my childhood school district, the same site where my father toiled 30 years to provide for our family. The blowback wasn't pretty. A current colleague who lives in the area confided in me that his family can't walk around town with any paraphernalia bearing our company logo without fear of being hissed at, being targeted by snide remarks or otherwise glared at with looks that kill.

So what will Nutley and the surrounding towns do? They'll do their best to muddle through, and will likely offer a generous tax package (which they might not be able to afford) to entice another employer or set of employers to use the site. There will be more belt-tightening at the community level, and some of the small businesses (e.g. restaurants) which depend on the workers at that site will likely close down. And yes, that will lead to even more joblessness.

I'm all for encouraging job creation and stimulating the economy by creating an economic and regulatory environment which is business-friendly. But while I defend every company's right to downsize, I can't help but wonder if what's happening is a collective death-spiral of our economy by opting for operational excellence (e.g. cost cutting) instead of transformative growth. Or put another way, strategists always warn that a company "can't cut it's way to growth". As more and more companies leave dying communities with dwindling purchasing power in their wake, where will we find the disposable income to purchase and invest in companies which will spur that growth? It's another form of the death cycle. It's all over the place, and the news isn't good.

But the good news that if you have stock in Roche, your holdings are up 2% since that announcement. Terrific.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Exceptional to Me

There's been recent discussion going around that the United States is no longer exceptional. First, there was the preview clip in the new HBO drama "The Newsroom", where an anchor played by Jeff Daniels goes off on a rant around the ills of the country when tossed the seemingly innocuous softball question of "What makes America the greatest nation of the world?" There's debate with those who are politically liberal and conservative around what makes our country great, and similar disagreements around what we need to change to make our nation ever greater. The view of our country from across the oceans in Europe and Asia has pockets for warmth and admiration, but also more than a smidgen of contempt and even rancor.

Like everyone else, I'm not blind to what has happened in the country in the past five years. We still have a housing crisis. Joblessness at all levels continue to impact family all over the country. The complex problem of how to develop excellent yet affordable healthcare systems and education systems still is a problem with no solution in sight (Obamacare is not the solution, in case you were wondering). Hordes of people are unemployed or underemployed and there's an alarming increase in family homelessness. The moral fabric of the country seems to be ripping at the seams and the near-term future looks bleak with the country carrying a massive deficit on the track towards a European-type recession. Other than that, things are going great.

But I (and many would agree) wouldn't trade my American identity for any other in the world. I love my country. It's not easy to articulate why, and I can't objectively prove its cultural and social superiority any more than I can point to numerical figures our metrics which provide evidence of its greatness. The United States doesn't lead the pack in secondary education advancement, crime prevention, life expectancy or employment rates. Other countries have far few infant deaths and homelessness per capita. But those numbers don't change the fact that I still think it's the greatest country in the world.

At a wedding last weekend, the reception emcee was pumping up the crowd and pointed at bride, and said to the guests, "Look at her! Isn't she the most beautiful woman in the world?" and the joke among the husbands sitting at my table was that this was a "trap" question for all of us who were sitting next to our wives. Caroline (my friend, the bride) was radiant, no doubt, but of course my wife Sarah is the most beautiful woman in the world. I'm sure my friend Jim would respectfully disagree, as he would regard his own wife as such. Same with Luke, Dave and every husband in that banquet hall. It's not a slight against the bride. It's the way it should be.

But it's more than an "eye of the beholder" thing. I saw a glimpse of what I think makes America great. when my wife and I were watching the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier this week, when I saw a young black lady from Virginia named Gabby Douglas win the gymnastics competition after a tremendous floor routine, and then running to embrace her coach, a naturalized U.S. citizen from China now living in Des Moines named Liang Chow. Two people with such incredibly different backgrounds both found and are contributing to greatness in America, because in their heart of hearts they know that this country values and embraces exceptional ism regardless of social class or ethnic background.

I admit that I'm psyched to see more of this starting later this month, where our American athletes will be a mosaic of athletes and coaches of different colors with different stories all coming together to represent our country with pride. One can claim that diversity doesn't in of itself doesn't imply greatness, but I'd argue that the diversity in America is and has been a necessary component for our exceptionalism. And I'm rooting hard for this tapestry of greatness, representing the greatest country in the world.

Happy birthday, America.