Hong Kong and the fine art of LIN-kage

March 02, 2012

Think of Greg So, our cherished Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, and you most likely think of his passionate “championing” of a future Competition Law. But he nurtures at least one more great passion – basketball.

So it was that an elite group of the region’s business leaders gathered last week for a big APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) meeting here in Hong Kong received an elaborate introduction to Jeremy Lin, to his team the New York Knicks, and to their recent brinkman victory over the Miami Hawks.

While perhaps some of the audience share Mr So’s passion for basketball – and have perhaps heard of the 23-year-old Taiwanese basketball hero credited with transforming the performance of the New York Knicks – the initial response of most in the audience must have been puzzlement. Did we really need to know how many late-night hours our “Minister for Business” spent poring over basketball stats??

But suddenly all was transformed when Mr So revealed why Harvard-graduate Jeremy Lin should be the hero of this lunchtime business speech. For Jeremy, who is positively a midget in basketball terms, at 6’3”, is the New York Knicks “point guard”. And for those ignoramuses like me who know nothing about basketball, “point guards” are very special.

As Mr So patiently explained, a point guard’s job is “to create scoring opportunities for his team” – to set up plays on the court, and to get the ball to the team-mate best placed to score: “Point guards are often evaluated more on their assist totals than on their scoring,” he added – though if I recall clearly, Jeremy Lin has a pretty mean scoring record too.

The crux, though, it that Mr So sees Hong Kong as Asia’s “point guard”: “Hong Kong can facilitate movement of goods and components in the region, and help enhance participation by small and medium enterprises in regional and global production chains.”

As Mr So’s metaphor sunk in, a light went off inside me. He is absolutely right. Hong Kong is indeed the quintessential “point guard”. By comparison with other economies, Hong Kong is, like Jeremy Lin, comparatively small. But we are quintessentially a team player: if the economies along a product’s value chain can be imagined as a team, then Hong Kong’s clear role and expertise is to manage the chain, make sure the team is pulling together effectively, and to make sure each team player is in the right place, and is doing what he does best. Hong Kong’s role is to have a clear understanding of the comparative strengths of each member of “the team”, and our value-added derives from helping them play to those strengths. Their success is our success. To baudlerise Greg So’s quote: “Hong Kong’s responsibility is getting all the players (read “economies”) playing for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.”  Nevertheless, Jeremy Lin’s No 17 shirt has been soaring in value.

To discover more about Mr Lin, and to learn more about the art of playing point guard, I turned to Howard Beck at the New York Times. The more I read, the more it was clear that Hong Kong is indeed Asia’s point guard. More important, it reminded me of the unrelenting pressure to improve that must sit at the heart of being a successful point guard – or a faltering one.

Jeremy Lin may have emerged “overnight”, but it seems his miraculous transformation from an overlooked and underestimated rookie to the world’s (and in particular New York’s) basketball darling was not an overnight thing at all. Mr Lin’s transformation began 18 months ago, is a story of perseverance, hard work, and self-belief, and has resulted in “a reworked jump shot, a thicker frame, stronger legs, a sharper view of the court – enhancements that came gradually, subtly, through study and practice and hundreds of hours spent with assist coaches, trainers and shooting instructors.”

Jeremy Lin’s success is clearly the result of huge effort, focus and dedication – with an unassuming humility at its core. This is a guy who arrives early and leaves last. He was not just practicing 3-point shots, or how to blow past defenders; he was doing the “dirty work” – cleaning up the sweat on the floor, and carrying equipment bags. He was also giving away his first class air tickets to others in greater need.

So Hong Kong has a lot to learn from this dynamo in a No 17 shirt. Our role is indeed that of “point guard”. Our team – which for Hong Kong means all of those companies that use Hong Kong as their logistics and headquarter hub for Asia – needs us to optimize their effectiveness. Our role may be overestimated and overlooked – as was Jeremy Lin for so long – but it is critical, and can only be maintained through perseverance, hard work and self-belief. Our role must be to see the challenges our team, or investors, face with strategic clarity, and then to use our team resources as effectively as possible. In Jeremy Lin’s terms we need “the ability to see the entire floor, to see it from the vantage point of competitors and opponents, and to make right decisions for the team.”

Until Greg So’s unusual lunchtime speech, I confess I was indifferent to basketball, and largely ignorant of Jeremy Lin. That has changed. Hong Kong is no longer just Asia’s World City. We are Asia’s point guard. While we have huge natural aptitude for the role, we will not keep the position – or keep our investors at the top of their competitive game – without ruthless focus and unstinting perseverance. But we also need to retain that critical self belief: even if it is not Hong Kong that is scoring the points, it is our effectiveness as point guard that ensures our team scores the points. The glory may go to the point scorers, but our role is indispensable. We may often feel we are not recognized for doing anything more than mopping up sweat from the floor, or carrying equipment bags, and that can be frustrating – but surely - like with Jeremy Lin - keeping that humility must be good.

PS: In yesterday’s game against Cleveland Cavaliers, the Knicks roared back from behind in the 3rd and 4th quarters to win 120-103. Jeremy Lin was named man of the match, scoring an impressive 19 points, and 13 assists.

* The translated Chinese version was published in Ming Pao on Mar 3, 2012.


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