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.