Outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently hypothesized that there would be no "Linsanity" if Jeremy Lin, the overnight NBA star who's already been shoehorned into this week's All-Star festivities, didn’t play for the New York Knicks.
“If it was happening in Charlotte, no one would know," Cuban told ESPN.
Highly doubtful: He might not be as big a story, but Lin's numbers combined with his unique personal story would put him on the map anywhere.
Sure, playing for New York gives Lin the biggest media spotlight in the world. But big cities, according to our analysis and other studies, appear to play a significantly larger role in sustaining superstar careers than in launching them.
The rise of a basketball superstar requires the capacity to excel every night and put up world-beating numbers. Individual performance is the absolute key factor in the rise of players to initial All-Star status, according to a major study of the lifecycle of NBA superstars.
Lin's numbers, even with his limited time in the league, already put him in the stratosphere of NBA talent. The New York Times's Nate Silver found clear evidence of superstar performance over his first four games. Extend that over his first eight games and he's even more impressive. In historical eight-game streaks, Lin leads all point guards with 200 points, besting Isaiah Thomas (184) and Magic Johnson (147). In assists over eight-game streaks, he's second only to John Stockton, with 76 to Stockton’s 82.
But how do cities affect the arc of superstar careers?
To look into this, I turned to Patrick Adler, MPI alum and UCLA doctoral student, who has amassed detailed data on the geography of sports. As a stand-in for NBA super-stardom, he tracked All-Star appearances per player since the 1976 merger with the old American Basketball Association (or ABA) and cross referenced them with the team and city they played in.
It’s clear that big metros produce the most All-Stars, as I will detail in a follow-up post later this week. But smaller cities and smaller market franchises produce their fair share. The size of a city has no statistical association with the initial rise of players to All-Star status, according to a detailed study I wrote about here.
The vast majority of All-Stars since 1976 have been players that appear year-in and year-out. Slightly more than one in ten (11 percent) have made only a single appearance.
Smaller cities produce more one–time All Stars. Of the cities that currently have NBA teams, Memphis leads this category: roughly two-thirds of its All-Stars (66.7 percent) have been one-timers.
While great players from small cities can and do reach the All-Star game, players from big cities are far more likely to make repeat appearances. Nine in ten All-Stars from New York have played in more than one All-Star game, as have 93 percent of players from Los Angeles and 95 percent from Boston.
Large cities play a more important role in prolonging superstar careers largely because they can surround superstars with better players, afford more All-Stars who can leverage each other's performance, and generate more media attention. Of course, these are the same factors that often draw superstars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or LeBron James to bigger cities as their careers progress. The same study finds that playing in a big city alongside other All-Star caliber players trumps individual performance in sustaining a superstar career.
We'd have to disagree with Mark Cuban: with stats and a story like Lin’s, people would know about him wherever he was playing. But if he keeps it up, the odds of him being a superstar for years to come are far greater in New York than they would be in Charlotte or even Dallas for that matter.