Disbelieveland

Moments after the final buzzer signaled the improbable triumph of the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Golden State Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals, Cavs star LeBron James fell away from a celebratory team embrace and collapsed to the floor, wracked with sobs. Encircled by teammates, cameramen, and others, some of whom set hands on his shoulders or rubbed his head or back, LeBron lifted his head slightly, only to let it fall back against his forearm, his hand covering his eyes.

 

* * *

Earlier this year I wrote an essay describing what I hated about the Warriors. In it, I lamented what I took to be the eclipsing of uncertainty and surprise by their efficient domination of the game.  Friends, including friends who are analytics enthusiasts, tried to get me to relax. For all that analytics may aspire to “tame chance,” they rightly argued, the game of basketball and its players are too complex to ever eliminate uncertainty and surprise. I was grimly unswayed throughout the season.

Even in the Finals, my assessment of Golden State’s first two victories took this form: “Every Golden State basket looks effortless and expected. Every Cleveland basket looks ugly and lucky.”  That’s when I posted on the Facebook wall of a friend who was a Golden State fan on his birthday, “I hope someone bought you a broom because you’re gonna need it when the Dubs sweep.”  The prognosticating website 538 was more generous, giving the Cavs an 11 % chance of winning the title at that point. When Cleveland fell behind three games to one after dropping game four at home, the already absolute certainty with which I knew that Golden State would win the series became, somehow, improbably, even greater. At that point, 538 had the Cavs chances at 5 %.

Cleveland won Game 5 to make the series three games to two. But because Draymond Green of the Warriors had been suspended, I didn’t count that victory.  All I considered was the stupid shit the talking heads were repeating endlessly: no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA finals, the Warriors had not lost three straight in two years, the Warriors had only lost two games at home in the whole regular season.

So sure, the Cavs got Game 5 in Oakland (with Draymond out), but neither Curry nor Klay Thompson had really gotten on track yet and still Cleveland was struggling to win games and to keep Golden State from scoring, so even if somehow, the Cavs managed to draw inspiration from the home crowd and win Game 6, they had no chance at all of winning Game 7 in Oakland. 538 agreed with me: Cavs had only a 20% percent chance of winning the title (even if they had a 59 % chance of winning Game 6).

Then they won Game 6. I was happy for them. I was delighted by the sight of Steph Curry whipping his pacifier mouthguard into the crowd in a petulant tantrum. But it didn’t change any of my calculations and only modestly bumped up 538’s estimate of the Cavs’ chances of winning to 35 %.  Would you bet on a 35 % free throw shooter to make the next shot? Me neither.

In the first quarter of Game 7 I was dispirited. Though the Cavs held a slim one point lead, I felt like I was watching the first two games again. Every Cavs’ bucket looked hard, unlikely, while Golden State’s baskets were the predictable swished threes and wide-open dunks. Who do you think is gonna win that game?

The second quarter confirmed my impression. Golden State built a seven point lead by halftime as Cleveland’s defense fell apart, leaving Draymond Green to assume the role of the Splash Brothers’ new baby sibling, while their own offense continued to creak and sputter and smoke. To wit: more than one fifth of Cleveland’s offensive production in the second quarter came on a single four point play by Iman Shumpert. Iman Shumpert: you know what Iman Shumpert shot from behind the three point line in the series? 26.7 % (21.4 % if you take away that three in the second quarter of Game 7)  We gonna ride Iman Shumpert four-point plays to the ‘ship? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

The second half was, as many have noted, a game of brief runs filled with both brilliant plays and tragic blunders on both sides. Cleveland closes the gap, Golden State pulls away, Cleveland comes back and pulls ahead, Golden State answers with a run to take a one point lead into the fourth. The fourth quarter is even tighter, with neither team able to generate more than a four point lead, which Golden State managed to do with 5:37 left in the game on a Draymond Green jump shot that gave them an 87-83 lead.  What, I am asking myself at this point, are the chances that Cleveland outscores the Golden State Warriors by five points in the final five minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the Warriors’ home floor? At that point, I guess, I probably figured that the first team to 95 would probably win it. What’s more likely? That Golden State scores eight points in the next five minutes, or that Cleveland scores twelve? Nate Silver, what do you think?

Then improbability—no, impossibility (from my vantage point, anyway) happened. Golden State, the most devastatingly efficient offense in NBA history, scored two more points in the rest of the game (and none in the final four). Cleveland, of course, scored 10. But still I didn’t believe. The Kyrie three? I was elated, but I didn’t think they would win. LeBron’s free throw? There’s still ten seconds left: you think the Warriors can’t put up four points in 10 seconds? You haven’t watched the Warriors.

But I was wrong. The Warriors didn’t score another point. The buzzer sounded. LeBron fell into the group hug and then to his knees and then into convulsive weeping.

Here’s the thing:  I still didn’t believe it happened.  I really couldn’t take it in, couldn’t accept that everything I knew for sure would happen did not happen. In the past few days I’ve been walking around my patch of Northeast Ohio, of Believeland, wearing Cavs gear. People stop me. We say different things, but the thing we say most often is: “I still can’t believe it.”

* * *

So what is wrong with me besides the apparent fact for all my understanding of how the cultural narratives of basketball work, I have next to no ability to predict the outcome of basketball games? Of course I don’t: basketball games are unpredictable.

But that was my whole point to begin with. So what is wrong with me, I mean, that  despite my well-documented, vitriolic protestations against certainty, I clung so stubbornly to my own certainty. I suppose I was, in a long tradition of idiotic sports fandom, hedging against disappointment: if I could maintain my certain disbelief in the possibility of a Cavs victory, I wouldn’t feel let down when Golden State did what they were supposed to do.

But there was more to it than that. There was also a semi-conscious, pathetic stab at shaping the outcome: if I could (with apologies to the President) keep hope dead, I wouldn’t jinx the Cavs. That’s a tricky balancing act, as anyone who has tried it knows, because the moment you become conscious of what you’re doing, you ruin it and have to start all over again. Pretty soon you’re spending the whole game rapping your knuckles against your stupid wooden head to prevent who knows what horrible thing you have no control over from happening.

That’s lame, I know. But I think that it also points to something in me that is not lame. It tells me that for my all my intellectual abilities, for all my scholarly detachment, I cared. That’s not lame. I really, really, really wanted the Cavs to win.  Even more, I desperately wanted LeBron to win.

After all, I’m the guy who this year published a book whose last page looks like this:

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I wanted what I came to believe LeBron stood for to win: the indestructible autonomous power of those marginalized and despised and written off and undervalued in this world to win. I wanted that freedom to win.

* * *

But the thing about freedom is that it is, well, free.  You can’t control the vicissitudes of its exercise, particularly by others. You don’t know whether they’ll use it or how it will go if they try. It seems obvious that you can’t do this, as it seems obvious that all my mental machinations will not affect even a tiny bit what LeBron does with his freedom on or off the court, or how the game will come out.

But I think, seemingly paradoxically, that’s what makes these machinations so appealing to me.  They become a kind of playhouse in which I can act out—precisely without risk or consequence—my own daily struggles to be free and to help others be free.

Think of daily life as a Cavs possession and the task of carving out and renewing my own freedom as trying to get a bucket. You—or at least I—rarely get the LeBron breakaway dunk thrown like a thunderbolt from the sky, or the string of JR Smith step back threes raining in like meteorites, or Kyrie crafting some bank shot while lying on his back in the corner with four people on top of him. Mostly, daily life ends in turnovers, ill-advised, contested step-back threes and Matthew Dellevedova air-balled floaters. Then you need a time out and you brace yourself for Klay to put up 40 on you or Steph to bank in an underhanded scoop from half-court, on which you also fouled him. Perhaps I am not alone in not being astute enough to have figured out how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

Under these conditions, I guess it’s easier for me to speculate about probabilities and to pretend that by doing so I am affecting the outcome of events I do not control (especially when I’ve already forged an association between those events and freedom). After all, because I don’t control them and because it’s all in my head, it can go on forever, frictionlessly skating along on the surface of reality, which never gets traction on it.

But here’s the thing.  The Cavs did win, LeBron really did dominate, and he really did collapse on the floor in sobs. These things happened. independently of the probability of their happening.  They were not destined to happen. They were not miracles. They just happened. Perhaps in some important way they happened because neither LeBron nor anyone else intimately involved in making them happened devoted much energy to speculating about the likelihood they would succeed.

I think that’s how freedom, in tiny and massive ways, probably happens: when it happens; I mean, when people—me, you, LeBron—go ahead exercise freedom, put freedom into the world even when Nate Silver puts the chances of success at, like, 5 %.

The Culture of Moving Dots

Here is a video of “The Culture of Moving Dots: Toward a History of Counting and of What Counts in Basketball,” a public presentation I gave last week at a workshop on “Doing Sport History in the Digital Present.” The workshop was sponsored by the North American Society for Sport History and the Georgia Tech Sport, Society, and Technology Program. A few people who couldn’t be there had asked if I could make it available.

The presentation was a distillation of a longer scholarly essay I wrote for the workshop which I expect will be published in the Journal of Sport History.  But as I did the research for that I really became so fascinated with the topic that it has become the seed of what I envision as my next book, a companion volume to my recently published book, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball that I’m calling, for the moment anyway, Numbers Don’t Lie! A History of Counting and What Counts in the Cultures of Basketball. It will situate the analytics movement in basketball in broader frameworks of statistical reasoning in sports, measurement and statistics in scientific culture in the west, the use of digital technologies in the age of Big Data, and, as usual, the cultural and political dimensions of hoops.

Because the project is in its initial stages, I’m especially eager to get constructive feedback on it.  So as always, but more than usual, leave me comments or shoot me an e-mail.

On Steph Curry: A Reply and a Clarification

Yesterday, Robert Silverman examined why retired NBA legends have emerged recently to make claims in the media that Stephen Curry (and the Warriors) wouldn’t have been able to torch the league back in their own era.  Silverman, who interviewed me for the piece, wasn’t trying to adjudicate these claims so much as try to understand what underlying feelings or forces be driving them to the surface of basketball culture right now.

This morning, pioneering basketball writer Bethlehem Shoals (a friend and a strong influence on my own thinking about the game to whom I owe a great debt), voiced first bafflement about what he took to be the central position of Silverman’s essay:

before offering a criticism by way of an analogy:

Shoals did not direct these comments at me personally, but I nonetheless, justifiably or not, felt interpellated by them; particularly having been one of Silverman’s sources for the view that Curry, to use my own words as quoted in the essay, “embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.” And, thus interpellated and, frankly, hurt, I feel compelled to respond to what I feel is a mischaracterization both of my views (and of Silverman’s own position—but I’ll let him speak for himself) in the essay.

Shoals’ analogy characterizes the position as “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” and then compares that to “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition.”  Though colorful and clever, I feel this analogy mischaracterizations the positions that I (and Silverman) expressed in the essay.

First, it’s not clear what Shoals means by “going at” but I wouldn’t say that either Silverman or myself went at Curry. Silverman did accurately quote me as saying that I found Curry’s play “predictable” (which I do) and Shoals is right if he surmises that this is for me a mark against Curry.  But it hardly seems to me to constitute “going at,” particularly when in the very same sentence I said that “I marvel at his ability” (and Silverman too devoted considerable space and lexical imagination to evoking Curry’s wondrous play).

Second, Shoals analogy conflates this “going at [X] as the face of [Y]” with “blaming [X] for [Y].  Blaming involves an attribution of causality and therefore the analogy implies that those who “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” believe he has caused “analytics-driven ball” (just as “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition” would be assert that Jesus somehow was a, or the, cause of the Inquisition).  I never said that (nor did Silverman) and I don’t believe it (and I don’t think Silverman does).

Third, the analogy implies that “analytics-driven ball” is equivalent to “the Inquisition.”  That may or may not be the case in Shoals’ eyes, but it is not the case in mine, and not only because of the obvious differences in scale and magnitude, which I’m sure Shoals did not mean by his analogy to gloss over.  It’s not the case in my eyes because while the Inquisition is unequivocally bad in my eyes, basketball analytics is not. I don’t think analytics is bad for basketball in the way that I think the Inquisition was bad for, well, humanity.

So let me try, once more, to clarify what I actually believe (and believe I actually said in Silverman’s piece or elsewhere).

First, I marvel at Curry’s ability. I’m saying this because nobody who references anything I’ve ever written or said in interviews about Curry (or the Warriors) seems to notice.  One more time: I marvel at Curry’s ability.

Second, I find Curry’s play predictable.  Others may not and that is fine. I do. I can’t help that I am not surprised by what he does.  While this diminishes my desire to watch him it does not prevent me from—as I said—marveling at his abilities.

Third, “Curry embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”  This voices my concern about Steph embodying what I would characterize as a cultural phenomenon.  Apparently, I have not been clear. And I need to spell out what I mean by this more carefully so that it will not be mistaken or caricatured. To “embody” something is very different than “causing it” (I’m gonna trust y’all to look that up on your own if you’re not convinced). Moreover, the problematic cultural phenomenon I feel Curry “embodies” is not “basketball-analytics” per se, but rather “a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”

Are those two things—”basketball analytics” and a “fetish with efficiency”—related? Sure. Are they the same thing? No. Is one responsible for the other? No. It’s not that simple. Yes, basketball analytics is responsible for devising statistical tools for measuring efficiency in basketball play and for producing arguments that may be used to support the claim that efficient basketball is the best basketball.  And yes, I believe the persuasiveness of this argument has led to an increased emphasis in the discourse around the game on “efficiency” an emphasis I would still characterize as a “fetish,” by which I mean an over-prioritization.

I don’t actually think that basketball analytics, understood specifically as a way of using quantitative reasoning to investigate questions about basketball play, is bad for basketball. On the contrary, I think it’s good.  I think what’s bad for basketball (or bad for me anyway) is when any one way of approaching and understanding the game comes to be seen as the only, or the best, way of approaching and understanding the game. And I do fear, and I acknowledge I may be wrong, that this may be happening today. It’s up to all of us to prevent that from happening.

But I do not believe, nor have I said, that Steph Curry or basketball analytics are either equivalent to or the cause of this fetish of efficiency. I think the cause is much simpler: capitalism.

When I say that Curry embodies this fetish, I mean that his success and likable persona can be taken as a demonstration of the superiority and desirability of a narrow emphasis on efficiency.

Read with care, please, so as to be sure you understand what this does not mean:

  • It does not mean that this is Curry’s fault or his responsibility to prevent.
  • It does not mean that Curry is the only player (or the Warriors the only team) that could be said to embody this fetish.  I don’t think that. I only think that because of their extraordinary success they can serve as a more persuasive example.
  • It does not mean that Curry’s play (or Curry himself as a cultural figure) can only mean that. That is obviously false, as I have written about elsewhere by now ad nauseum. “Curry” means, among many other things: talent, hard work, Christian faith, accessibility, family, fatherhood, creativity, daring, confidence, overachievement, youth.

It can be difficult, as Shoals knows better than I, to sustain thoughtful, informed, sensitive, and intelligent discourse about basketball in the sports media sphere.  Long standing attitudes among fans, economic pressures, and the forms of social media themselves often seem to demand and to reward facile oversimplifications and polarizing dichotomies so long as they are cleverly phrased.

For those of us (I take the liberty of including both Shoals and Silverman) in this, who love the sport as a complex form of athletic ability, cultural expression, embodied thought, aesthetic experience and social condensor, it seems especially vital to take care that our public contributions to discourse about the game are adequate to its depth and complexity.

Towards a Techno-Scientific, Socio-Cultural, Tactico-Strategic History of Basketball Analytics

I know, I keep rebooting. In my last post on this topic, I referred to a larger (academic) research project on the rise of basketball analytics.  The first step in the project is a 5000-7000 word article for a workshop organized by and special issue of the Journal of Sport History dedicated to “Doing Sport History in the Digital Era.”

However, I’m also realizing that there’s enough material, and enough curiosity on my part, to make a book out of this.  Moreover, I discovered that there are no comprehensive histories of statistical thinking in basketball (or in sports, period) of the sort that exist for statistical thinking in general. So I think there’s a need; perhaps for a companion volume to Ball Don’t Lie! called Numbers Don’t Lie! The Quantification of Basketball. Who knows? Perhaps it’ll be volume 2 of a Hoops Quartet, I’m beginning to visualize.

As I learn more, I’m finding I’m more interested in understanding, describing, and offering interpretations of the various facets of the rise of basketball analytics and less interested in making judgments about it, as I did too hastily here.

To that end, today I formulated two basic questions guiding my thinking and research.

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That is, I have questions about the causes or conditions of possibility for the rise of analytics and questions about the effects of this rise.

Next I tried to turn these questions into a concept map, to which I added a branch for milestone events.

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I then started filling in some of the first conditions of possibility I could think off the top of my head, or that basketball people on Twitter suggested. There are in no particular order.

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To this, I added just a few obvious effects, as placeholders.

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Lastly, I begin to fill in some of the most obvious milestone events.

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When all these nodes in the concept map are expanded, it looks like this:

Screenshot 2016-02-06 16.45.39

I’m still working out how best to use this concept mapping platform, and welcome suggestions in that regard. But most of all, I’d like to draw on the varied, collective expertise of readers to help fill in facts, refine conceptual distinctions, and suggest sources and specific avenues of research.

 

 

Basketball Analytics (Take 2): Winning

I’m realizing from the feedback on my post about basketball analytics that the issues the phenomenon raises are more complex than what I’d thought or allowed for in that post.  In fact, they are too complex to properly examine in any single blog post.

Truthfully, all this has been part of a longer, academic project that has me very excited, very curious, and very impatient to know more. That impatience, led me to cast my “reflections and reservations” about analytics in an aura of understanding and conviction that belied my confusion and uncertainty and concealed the fact that I’m at the beginning of an open-ended process of discovery.

In fact, I have a lot to learn. I don’t at this point have a firm grasp of the methods of basketball analytics at this point, nor of how they are implemented institutionally.  I’m not sure what they might “mean” for the culture of basketball, nor, therefore, do I have a definitive opinion about them.  In all these areas, what I have are glimpses and impressions, partial comprehension, intuitions and half-formed thoughts, strongly felt but as yet poorly understood aversions and attractions, and questions I’m not entirely sure how to formulate.

At this point, I’m not even sure that it’s accurate to say that I have “reservations about analytics.” To be honest, I’m just ravenously curious to better understand analytics (both the reasoning and its institutional implementation) and how it harmonizes with or sits in tension with other facets of the culture of the sport that might be characterized as irreducibly “subjective” or “qualitative”.

Maybe this means I should keep my mouth shut until I figure it out. But—you guessed it—I don’t think so.  For one thing, maybe unfortunately for readers, I learn not only by reading and reflecting in solitude, but also by writing, both by the process of putting thoughts into words and having words shape my thoughts and by the process of considering the feedback of readers.  But also I believe, or at least hope, that my sharing that process with readers can enliven a broader conversation about the various complicated aspects of this issue. So let me make another pass at this, with greater care, humility, transparency, and respect for the complexity of the issues.

Some Premises

First, all my research into the history of basketball and its cultural accompaniments indicates that to grasp any element of the sport requires us to consider its relationship to the broader social context, beyond hoops, in which it has occurred. I’ve seen nothing yet to persuade me that the rise of analytics is any exception. My research has also confirmed what I believe by temperament: that the culture of basketball is just that—a culture. This means that we all contribute to it to varying degrees and in varying ways and that we all bear responsibility for the shape it’s in and the future directions it takes.

Second, here is a partial and inchoate list of issues (or terms or concepts) that I have come to think are in some way or another in play: quantification, statistical reasoning, probability, chance, prediction, beauty, knowledge, fact, Protestantism, aesthetics, emotion, economics, competition, winning, efficiency, discipline, innovation, creativity, order, chaos, big data, play, surveillance, ethics, labor, profit, capitalism, rules, the market, and value.

I view all these terms, considered both in and out of basketball, and each with its own history, as threads woven together into a complicated, dynamic, still unfolding fabric.  That fabric is basketball. That means it’s difficult for me to grasp the end of any particular thread and follow it without running into other threads running alongside or intersecting with it.

Thoughts and Questions on Winning

That said, I’ve got to start somewhere and for the moment I’m interested in winning, by which I mean, winning games as a goal for owners, coaches, players, fans, and other stakeholders in NBA basketball.  It appears that if winning is your goal, basketball analytics provides you with a set of methods for understanding how to do that in general and, if you’re smart, you can learn to adapt the insights provided by analytics to your personnel to achieve more wins given the current rules governing play and the laws and contracts governing the construction of teams.  Moreover, if you’re an owner, analytics also promises to generate those wins, as Daryl Morey put it in 2005, for less money. Winning, it seems, is valuable and valued, and so, like any valuable and valued thing, if you can get it more cheaply, all the better.

I’m not sure yet whether I want to try to question whether winning is a primary goal of everyone with a stake in NBA basketball. I wouldn’t know how to determine that, and anyway it does seem that winning is a primary goal for most of those (like owners and general managers) in a position to influence the way basketball gets played in the NBA, which really is more to the point.  And I’m guessing, though I’m not sure, that winning is their primary goal, among other reasons, because they presume that winning is a primary goal of most fans, who express that by spending money on the sport and so generate revenues for those decision makers.

But I do want to challenge the assumption that winning should be the primary goal and its frequently voiced corollary that it is natural for winning to be the primary goal where professional (or any other) sporting events are concerned. At the very least, I’d to make room in the conversation to ask some questions.

  • Is the drive to win really natural?
  • If not, how and by what forces did winning became the primary goal?
  • According to what criteria of rightness or goodness do we assert that winning should be the primary goal?
  • How were those criteria determined? And by who?
  • What impact, if any, does the primacy of winning have on the way professional basketball gets played?
  • What other aims do stakeholders bring to their engagement with NBA hoops?
  • What elements of play do these aims lead these stakeholders to value?
  • How are these aims and elements of play impacted, if at all, by the primacy of winning and the elements and styles of play valued by the drive to win?
  • Let’s say that I have a friend who worries that the drive to win, harnessed to the drive to make a profit, and capacitated by the powerful tools of basketball analytics, is tending toward a homogenization of the game by a process of “capitalist selection,” what should I tell my friend to do?

I have some thoughts about these questions, but I don’t want to take up too much time.  I realize there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking or provocative here.  But I’m hoping by taking it slow to invite reasoned conversation and to lay the groundwork for actually generating insight.  In any event, in my next post on the topic, I’ll to begin to explore these questions. . . . unless, of course, the questions change in the meantime.

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Basketball Analytics: Reflections and Reservations

Okay, here’s the short version for those require maximum efficiency (n=”the point”/number of words) in their reading environment:

At the heart of my reservations is my sense that value can be defined in many ways: economically, aesthetically, morally, to name just a few.  And that economic definitions of value in terms of efficiency productivity may be beginning to eclipse and drive out of the public conversation considerations of aesthetic and moral and other values, particularly when these appear to be at odds with economic value.  In short: some very beautiful (aesthetically valuable) things are not economically efficient.  I am worried that once we have allowed certain kinds of things that we value to be eclipsed, we could find ourselves in the position of having lost those kinds of things forever.

The rest of you, who enjoy the backroads of an intellectual journey, please carry on with my sincere thanks.

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Why I Hate “the Warriors”

I’m annoyed.  Here’s the thing:  I thought I was gonna write a quick explanation of why I hate the Warriors, hot take click bait for contrarians.

Because: I do, I hate them!  See, it’s easy for me to feel that, it’s always right there, seething under the surface, clamoring to be voiced. I hate the Warriors. That part is like falling off a log. But an explanation is a different kind of thing. For an explanation I have to think, and when that happens, at least for me, things get complicated.

Why do I hate the Warriors? What about them do I hate?  People ask me this. It’s fair. What’s to hate about a superb team made up of apparently likable players playing well individually and together? What’s to hate about ball movement or great shooting or winning or appearing to have fun? What’s to hate about Oakland having a great team?  What am I even talking about?! People ask me these very difficult questions. And I keep repeating, confirming the stereotype of the egghead academic, that it’s complicated.

Let’s start with what I don’t hate. I don’t hate Steph Curry. His skills are peerless, the precise, but seemingly effortless creativity with which he deploys them is joyful and awe striking, not to mention at times hilarious, and it  manifests at least as much dedication and hours of effort as I’ve ever admired in any other player.  I don’t hate Draymond Green and the ability to adapt to his environment by growing new capacities in leaps and bounds that he’s demonstrated as part of this team. Nor do I hate his brash, trash talking confidence. I don’t even hate the Warriors for beating the heroic LeBron James and the closest thing I have to a hometown club in the finals last year. I don’t hate their crisp pace, or their spacing, or their ball movement. I don’t hate three pointers in particular or great shooting in general. I love all these things. And yet…

And yet, basketball doesn’t just exist within the lines of the court. Basketball is also, for me anyway (and I would argue for anyone, whether they are aware of it or not), a set of stories, stories that convey (and influence) attitudes and beliefs and values. And basketball also is a set of broader societal forces and practices that find their way into the game, moving the minds and hearts and bodies of owners, general managers, coaches, players, fans, and the media. So that while I can watch and admire all that I described above, it’s simply not possible for me to do so without also experiencing feelings provoked by all the other things I can’t help but notice are in play when the Warriors take the floor. (By the way, that, in case you wondered, is why “the Warriors” is in scare quotes in my title.)

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point at length, but I can’t help, I’m sorry, but be disturbed by what lurks between the lines of the collective adoration of Steph Curry. It’s not that his skills don’t deserve our admiration. They do, and I believe he is rightly considered the best basketball player alive at this moment.  It’s the way that many (I know: not all) in the media, in the corporate world, and in fandom convey their delight in his success (particularly when it involves licking a saber’s edge over the slain body of the last player they made into an object of worship, LeBron James).

I’m repelled, heretical though it may seem in our country, by the celebration of his Christianity, as though believing in Jesus were a talent or an accomplishment, or evidence of moral virtue, or, um, at all relevant to being a basketball player. And I wonder why in Jesus’s name we, as a culture, give a shit about what Steph believes. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Christians or that Steph Curry is one. I hate that this fact ever appears to his credit in a story about basketball.  Ditto for his having an adorable child and loving her: happy for him that he has one, happy for her that he loves her. Stop talking about it (or start talking about all the NBA players, especially those who didn’t come from two parent households, who are also devoted to their kids).

I’m irritated (not repelled, I’m trying to be precise here) by the open-mouthed marveling at his physical stature, as though with every floater he drops in heavy traffic he were preschooler spelling a difficult word or moonwalking on his parents coffee table, as though he has somehow overcome greater obstacles than other great NBA players.  He’s not, and he has not.  Yes, he is not as tall as the average NBA player, nor as strong, but he’s neither the shortest nor the weakest of his peers. He’s 6-3, was raised amidst material privilege by both his parents (one a former NBA player and three-point specialist), and spent his childhood at NBA practices and games, surrounded and tutored by NBA players. That doesn’t make him a lock to become the greatest player alive (far from it, as I’ve already acknowledged: he’s clearly worked his ass off), but it also doesn’t make him a miraculously prodigious tiny street urchin who wandered in grubby off the street corner and began launching step back threes with unprecedented accuracy.

Lastly, I’m repelled (yes, repelled again), by what I view as a pernicious racist subtext in the cult of Steph Curry. Let me emphasize: I am not referring to conscious attitudes held by individuals who adore Steph Curry. I’m talking, as I have tried to demonstrate in my book, about the workings of collective, unconscious dispositions and desires that we have all inherited by American society and the history of basketball.  Unless we actively and explicitly combat these, then it becomes too easy for the celebration of a light-skinned, blue eyed, average-sized guard to come at the expense of dark-skinned, brown-eyed, over-sized black men.

Is any of this Steph’s fault? Mostly, I would say no, it’s not. But it is to the degree that he deliberately reinforces (or capitalizes upon) any of these elements of the narrative that has risen up around his brilliant on-court performances.  I leave it to others to judge whether he has or not, and with that, enough about the Church of Steph Curry.

Next up, I can’t watch the Warriors peerless team play and lights out three point shooting without seeing it as the most advanced current manifestation of a tide that has been slowly swelling in basketball over the last 10 years or so that prizes productive efficiency above all else. This feeling has spurred me to a more extensive research project into all the elements, conceptual, technological and otherwise that have driven this development; which is to say, I’m still learning a lot about it. But in my currently oversimplified understanding of the story it goes like this.

Inspired by the advances in the statistical analysis of baseball, some fans with statistical proficiency began to think about the game of basketball and how to quantify what looked to the rest of us more or less like pure, unquantifiable material flow. In doing so, they isolated “the possession” as the fundamental unit of basketball play and to begin to experiment with methods for calculating the productivity of teams (and individuals) in terms of how the various basketball actions they undertake affect the ability to generate points per possession.

Here let me say: of course they did! Because, I say as someone who is just trying these lenses on for size, it’s cool as hell to see the game through them! (I’m the guy, I’d like you to know, who kept stats of the imaginary NBA Finals series he played against his best friend in the driveway and I’m the guy whose Dad kept stats at everyone of his games and then printed out reams of analysis generated by his IBM XT.) I don’t hate numbers. I love numbers and wish I understood them better. So I don’t fault these individuals. I don’t attribute to them soulless, malign intentions. I turn the game into stories and appreciate it with words, they turn it into formulas and appreciate it through numbers. Live and let live, right?

Definitely.  But I worry that the beautiful curiosity, wild imagination, unorthodox vision, and intellectual energy driving their efforts came also to be recognized for its potential value to owners and general managers seeking to maximize and stabilize the return on their financial investment in players.  How, in essence, these individuals might be asking themselves, do I get the most points per possession for the fewest dollars? Now we’ve gone from a few teams hiring some statistically minded kids to analyze their box scores to a half-dozen cameras perched in every arena in the league surveilling the every movement of players and delivering a torrent of big data to small armies of analysts to crunch and transform into actionable information for executives, coaches, and yes, even players.

Of course, I don’t expect that capitalist owners (or their paid underlings) would prioritize questions other than those related to maximizing their ROI.  And, if you’re comfortable with having the unencumbered freight train of free market logic trundle along, you’re probably thinking I’m naive.  After all, this is just the nature of things in our world. Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or its effects.

The Warriors, it seems to me, who lead the league in offensive efficiency, seem not only to be the incarnation of this tendency, but, by their success, seem also to be spurring other franchises to try to figure out how to do what they’ve done—as evidenced by Steph and others telling teams not to try.  This may be fine for many fans, whose favorite team either is the Warriors or is trying to become them. But for me it threatens to turn the NBA, which I have long loved to the degree that it presented me with an alternative to the corporatization of daily life in America, into the advance guard for ever more invasive attempts to make economic efficiency the mother of all values, to maximize productivity, and to create more reliable predictive models.

I don’t mind efficiency, I don’t mind productivity, and I don’t mind predictions. God knows I like to get my work done and to know what shit storm is coming around the bend so that I can prepare for it or avoid it.  But these are strong tides in which we are blithely romping in America today and if we don’t watch out, we may find that they’ve swept out to sea some other things that we used to like to have around: beauty, surprise, chance, and nonsense, to name just a few.

Which brings me to my final point, the relationship between the Warriors increasingly predictable domination of all competition and the annihilation of uncertainty and of the emotional complex (and marvelous, wondering stories) to which it gives rise.  Last week, the Warriors demolished the Cavaliers by 34, the Bulls by 31, and the Spurs by 30. Two of those teams (the Cavs and Spurs) were supposed to represent the only significant challenge to the inevitability of the Warriors winning a second consecutive title this year. So much for that. Even if Nate Silver at 538 only puts their chances of winning the title at 46 % (still 20 percentage points higher than the Spurs), I don’t know anybody who really thinks that the Warriors won’t repeat.  Unless, of course, they get hurt. But even I don’t wish for that.

But that’s kind of the point for me. I don’t want to have to wish for great athletes to get hurt so that uncertainty will be restored to the game. And, in basketball, unlike in my life, I like not knowing what will happen next, or how the story will end. I like the tension in my stomach and shoulders, the quickening of my pulse this uncertainty brings, and I like the emotions of fear, hope, elation, relief, despair associated with these physical signs.  I think of basketball as a story-generating machine, but really, it’s the uncertainty that basketball creates and the emotions that uncertainty provokes that are, I think, the source from which the basketball stories I love have always come from.

The Warriors are on pace to tie the 1996 Bulls record setting 72-10 regular season won-loss record. I’d have hated watching those Bulls teams if it weren’t for the utter unpredictability of Dennis Rodman and the sense his existence allowed that I didn’t know what was happen next, or, to put it another way, what the story would be tomorrow. Hell the very presence of Rodman’s brightly colored, pogo-stick body alongside MJ’s in a Bulls uniform was itself a kind of ceaseless source of nourishment for the imagination delighting in the fragile, fleeting materialization of the improbable

I think I know what the story will be tomorrow, and the day after, and in June, when the Warriors finish off their thoroughly probable title run.

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The Culture of Moving Dots

Today I listened to a very well crafted, informative lecture by Rajiv Maheswaran on how basketball teams are using movement tracking devices and computing power to inform the decisions they make about roster composition, strategy and tactics.  Not only was the lecture itself admirable (something that, as a teacher, I care about a lot), but the human scientific intelligence and the technological power described in it leave me awestruck.  Moreover, the potential for the insights generated by this work to cut through certain persistent myths in basketball culture—myths that often harbor and purvey harmful social attitudes, especially about race—seems exciting to me.

Of course, as someone who has spent a lot of time analyzing the often irrational (if unconscious) attitudes embedded in the language and stories used to talk about basketball and basketball players from the game’s invention to the present day, the facts offered up by quantitative reasoning can be one useful instrument for countering these myths. And I can certainly see this presentation as a demonstration of the brilliant complexity of the physical and cognitive abilities of individual basketball players.  But still, quantitative reasoning and the technology and facts to which they lead remain just that—useful instruments—and ones whose utility depends, like that of any instrument, on the intentions of the user and the context of the use.  They are not, in my view any way, some sort of final horizon of human knowledge about basketball and its culture.  That’s why, despite these positive feelings, a reservation popped into my head almost from the outset, kept nagging at me throughout, and remained when I finished watching. 

At a linguistic and conceptual level, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this blog, I’m concerned with the abstracting tendencies in basketball culture that lead us to see players as something other than human beings like ourselves.  So I get worried when Maheswaran boasts that in sports, through the “instrumenting of stadiums,” “we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.”

moving dots

we’re turning our athletes into moving dots.

There better be, in my view, some extremely compelling reason, some significant value delivered that outweighs for me the ethical cost of viewing (let alone “turning”) athletes—or any human being, for that matter—into a moving dots.  After all, psychologists have told us that seeing other people as moving dots, say on a radar screen, seems to make it easier to kill them.

But Maheswaran’s work seems driven by an assumption that the ability to track and quantify human movement is a desirable thing.  He asserts this more or less directly a few times in the course of his lecture, apparently to remind his audience of the practical value of the scientific research involved.  

So, he introduces his work with the relatively simple rhetorical assertion of value:

And wouldn’t it be great if we could understand all this movement? If we could find patterns and meaning and insight in it.

Then, after a detailed and informative explanation of how machines deliver NBA franchises information about shot selection and shooting ability, he explains that

it’s really important to know if the 47 [meaning the 47% shooter] that you’re considering giving 100 million dollars to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots.

Finally, in concluding he offers a touching glimpse of the personal value we might derive from non-sporting applications of this technology:

Perhaps, instead of identifying pick-and-rolls, a machine can identify the moment and let me know when my daughter takes her first steps. Which could literally be happening any second now.

Studying-Gothic-4

Think very carefully about this: are you prepared to live with what what you create?

Finally, he lands on a firmly optimistic and time honored Enlightenment era affirmation of the blissful marriage of science and progress in the quality of human lives:

Perhaps we can learn to better use our buildings, better plan our cities. I believe that with the development of the science of moving dots, we will move better, we will move smarter, we will move forward.

To some degree, I am with him on most of this.  However, I must say it’s no more important to me to know if the player that an NBA owner is considering giving $100 million to is a good shooter who takes bad shots or a bad shooter who takes good shots than it is to know whether my friend Johnny is moving his body in the most productive way during his shift as a stocker at the local Walmart. Beyond this, with regard to his final assertion, a great deal depends for me on what he means by better and smarter and even forward.

I am no scientist, but I am also no Luddite.  I recognize and depend upon the value of quantitative and scientific reasoning and its many technological applications countless times in the course of my daily life.  For example, at this very moment, I tap my fingers on a wireless computer keyboard that sends signals to my CPU that in turn transforms those movements into letters and words appearing on my screen in the post composition screen of a page on the internet. I may not understand the process in detail, but I know enough to know that my own work depends, directly or indirectly, on the work of people like Maheswaran.  And so I want to be clear that I am not adopting some sort of polarizing anti-technology stance whereby I’d advocate a world law banning the use of quantitative reasoning, science or technology in sport or elsewhere.

I am, however, advocating for a place at the table where decisions concerning the development and use of such instruments get made.  

I don’t mean a place for me personally (though I can think of worse candidates), but for people like me (but smarter and better informed—in other words, I can also think of better candidates) who have devoted much of their lives to studying the history of the relationship between human technologies and human values.  People, I mean, willing to attend to the annoying complexity of concepts like better, smarter, and forward.

Our technological power, as Maheswaran so ably demonstrates, is growing in leaps and bounds and the demonstrations, like his lecture, we have of it—themselves reliant upon new technologies—grow increasingly enticing and compelling to more and more people. Meanwhile, despite a shrinking budgets for higher education around the country, corporations and university administrators continue to prioritize spending for the development of facilities, faculty and resources in science, technology, engineering and math.

But this expansion has often come at the expense of investments in the humanities disciplines that have been the traditional home (in universities, at any rate) of critical conversation about the ethical costs and benefits of the developments we find so enthralling.  0When we contemplate, individually or collectively, using a new tool (which is how I see the technological application of scientific research), we must ask ourselves, informed by historical knowledge and by a deep interest in the causal web that extends around the globe, into the earth itself, and forward into the future, what we stand to gain and to lose by its use.  As you might imagine, the conversation that follows that initial query is likely to be complicated and messy and, dare I say it, inefficient.  But it is no less—and perhaps more—urgent that we have it on that account.

We need, in other words, to think very carefully and to talk about what we’ll gain and lose by moving “forward” into a “better” and “smarter” world in which we may all transform one another into moving dots.