Sense and Nonsense

Posts from the “sports” Category

Football’s Lonely Position

Posted on April 23, 2015

This past weekend, Reading’s goalie, Adam Federici, by all accounts, kept his side in the semifinal FA Cup game against Arsenal with save after save. Goalies have a way of single-handily changing a game in this way. I did not like Reading, to be honest. Their approach to Arsenal was to bully and foul — what we have grown accustomed to as teams’ general tactic against Arsenal. But Federici’s display was unaffected by this borderline thuggery. He was stellar and outstanding. Except for that final moment. When he wasn’t. When a ball dribbled slowly off his body and slower still across the magic line. Painfully slow but not slow enough for him to reign it back in. Like a missed two-foot put during a golf tournament’s playoff final hole, we wish that on no one. And we just do not want to win that way.

The marvelous images below capture all of those marvelous emotions that come in a moment like that. Federici’s inconsolable dejection. Teammates’ comparable deflation and misery. Subsequent real attempts at consolation. From mates, managers and, yes, the opposing goalie. But in the end . . . all alone.

The Look of Friends

Posted on April 22, 2015

Ronaldo gets such a hard time for being Ronaldo, and the insufferable Football press and punditry similarly take apart Bale and play up the tension between the two. But the look on Ronaldo’s face when Bale became injured this past weekend dismantles all that — I think. It is a look of genuine concern that is quite moving. This is exactly how your friend would look standing over you.

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What Umpires Still Get Right When They Get It Wrong

Posted on April 6, 2014

We act as if we tell ourselves enough times that it doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t. That if we tell ourselves that something crazy and unfair didn’t happen for that reason but some other, then we are right and it’s all good. But the truth is, in infinite, infinite ways, there is a difference. There are tiny (and not so tiny) pinpricks.

The race of the pitcher, we found, also mattered, but not as much as other factors. Umpires were 10 percent less likely to expand the strike zone for African-American pitchers than for Caucasian pitchers, but race did not seem to influence whether an umpire called a pitch a ball when it was actually a strike.

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 9.12.38 PMTHIS season Major League Baseball is allowing its officiating crews to use instant replay to review certain critical calls, including home runs, force plays and foul balls. But the calling of the strike zone — determining whether a pitch that is not swung at is a ball or a strike — will still be left completely to the discretion of the officials. This might seem an odd exception, since calling the strike zone may be the type of officiating decision most subject to human foible.

In research soon to be published in the journal Management Science, we studied umpires’ strike-zone calls using pitch-location data compiled by the high-speed cameras introduced by Major League Baseball several years ago in an effort to measure, monitor and reward umpires’ accuracy. After analyzing more than 700,000 pitches thrown during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, we found that umpires frequently made errors behind the plate — about 14 percent of non-swinging pitches were called erroneously.

Some of those errors occurred in fairly predictable ways. We found, for example, that umpires tended to favor the home team by expanding the strike zone, calling a strike when the pitch was actually a ball 13.3 percent of the time for home team pitchers versus 12.7 percent of the time for visitors.30GRAYMATTER-superJumbo

Other errors were more surprising. Contrary to the expectation (or hope) that umpires would be more accurate in important situations, we found that they were, in fact, more likely to make mistakes when the game was on the line. For example, our analyses suggest that umpires were 13 percent more likely to miss an actual strike in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game than in the top of the first inning, on the first pitch.

We also found that the pitch count had an influence over the umpire’s perception of a pitch. When the count was 3-0, and another ball would end the at-bat, the umpires mistakenly called a strike 18.6 percent of the time, compared with a 14.7 percent error rate when the count was 0-0. But when the count was 0-2, with another strike yielding a strikeout, the umpires expanded the strike zone only 7.3 percent of the time, half the error rate for 0-0. The umpires, in other words, appeared biased against ending an at-bat.

The race of the pitcher, we found, also mattered, but not as much as other factors. Umpires were 10 percent less likely to expand the strike zone for African-American pitchers than for Caucasian pitchers, but race did not seem to influence whether an umpire called a pitch a ball when it was actually a strike.

In a way, it is surprising to find such nonrandom errors, because M.L.B. umpires are keenly aware that their ball-strike calls are being scrutinized and that they will be evaluated accordingly. They have an incentive to be as accurate as possible. And yet they still make routine errors behind the plate. We think that the sorts of errors we observed are not deliberate and may reflect an unconscious and biased decision-making process.

One of the sources of bias we identified was that umpires tended to favor All-Star pitchers. An umpire was about 16 percent more likely to erroneously call a pitch outside the zone a strike for a five-time All-Star than for a pitcher who had never appeared in an All-Star Game. An umpire was about 9 percent less likely to mistakenly call a real strike a ball for a five-time All-Star. The strike zone did actually seem to get bigger for All-Star pitchers and it tended to shrink for non-All-Stars.

An umpire’s bias toward All-Star pitchers was even stronger when the pitcher had a reputation for precise control, as measured by the career percentage of batters walked. We found that pitchers with a track record of not walking batters — like Greg Maddux — were much more likely to benefit from their All-Star status than similarly decorated but “wilder” pitchers like Randy Johnson.

Baseball insiders have long suspected what our research confirms: that umpires tend to make errors in ways that favor players who have established themselves at the top of the game’s status hierarchy. But our findings are also suggestive of the way that people in any sort of evaluative role — not just umpires — are unconsciously biased by simple “status characteristics.” Even constant monitoring and incentives can fail to train such biases out of us.

Technologically, Major League Baseball is in a position, thanks to its high-speed camera system, to enforce a completely accurate, uniform strike zone. The question is whether we, as fans, want our games to be fair and just, or whether we are compelled to watch the game because it mimics the real world, warts and all.

Brayden King is an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Jerry Kim is an assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.

Heart and Spirit

Posted on March 30, 2014

In England, they call it spirit.  We call it heart.  José MourinhoYou can have all the skill, all the intelligence in the world, but without it, you will crumble.

Arsenal found some yesterday, tying Man City 1-1, both teams missing goal opportunities that could have won it. And yesterday, Chelsea, well, let’s let Mourinho tell it–

We lost against a team who are difficult, but against a team who were better than us in terms of spirit and mentality. That’s the last thing my teams are usually guilty of: normally, they don’t lose because the opponents are stronger in terms of spirit.”

Asked what had cost his side, Mourinho explained: “Mentality, and a little bit of quality. Mentality because the opponents beat us clearly on that: they were strong, aggressive, committed. Every one of them played at the top of their potential and that, in football, is important. And, after that, I think also we missed some qualities. The same qualities we’ve missed in every match we lost except Villa. At Stoke, Newcastle, Everton, Palace and drawing at West Brom … you try to find common points, and you do find them.

“Clearly we have some players because of their profile who find it difficult to perform in some kinds of matches. You have Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Gary Cahill and César Azpilicueta who perform in the sun, in the rain, on small pitches, on big pitches, against aggressive teams, against non-aggressive teams, against possession teams, against non-possession teams, and they perform every game from day one to the last day. And you have other players who are fantastic in some matches and disappear in others. You can find easily in these matches something in common. You can find it clearly.”

Asked what quality is required for his side, Mourinho said: “I cannot say in front of the cameras. I can write it on paper.” Offered a notepad afterwards, the Portuguese wrote “balls”.

So, what was Chelsea’s squad yesterday?

  • Petr Cech
  • Branislav Ivanovic
  • Gary Cahill
  • John Terry
  • Cesar Azpilicueta
  • David Luiz
  • Nemanja Matic
  • Frank Lampard
  • Andre Schurrle
  • Fernando Torres
  • Eden Hazard
  • Emboaba Oscar (s 45′)
  • Mohamed Salah (s 56′)
  • Demba Ba (s 70′)

Arsenal: Fourth at Best

Posted on March 23, 2014

wenger-epa_2860265bLast week I fretted that Arsenal’s squeaker victory over struggling Tottenham was a sign of being on borrowed time. And this weekend, the club celebrated its one thousandth game under Arsène Wenger with a shellacking–its own–from what they had declared, from coach to player, the most important game of the season. It was over in five minutes, with Chelsea’s second goal, and certainly within fifteen, when a red card for a penalty-area handball reduced the side to ten and the consequent penalty increased the lead to three. But to be frank, even the first goal seemed to give Chelsea an insurmountable advantage, and what happened in the next ten minutes just seemed to make it official.1898008_293503987470998_2090666596_n No need to watch any further. End result: 6-0.

So, what’s wrong with Arsenal? To tell you the truth, I think they’re all high. I am not sure what reality they are perceiving (or is it that that they are drinking the same stuff some commentators were–at least before this game). After the essential disaster that was the Tottenham game, they were taking selfies on the pitch in celebration, and their interviews were steeped in pride at how they held on. But such a victory would not have been how Chelsea or Liverpool or Man City would have done it. They score goals, and they would have kept coming, kept punishing, just as Chelsea showed Arsenal this past Saturday. Chelsea’s coach, Jose Mourinho, explained this attitude this way: “We come, the way we used to say in football: ‘We come to kill’ and in 10 minutes we destroyed. After that, easy.”

To be sure, Arsenal are missing a few important players due to injury, each important in their offense: Walcott, Özil, Wilshere and Ramsey.  And even though Chelsea were missing a few too, Arsenal’s mattered more due to their roles. But it wasn’t just offense that was the problem, as evident by the score. Their defense was as wholly as, well, Swiss cheese. There seems to be no midfield to slow and disrupt the other team much less control the ball and push forward.

I am not sure how to fix the mess that is Arsenal, and I am not sure that those who are now sidelined will be the salvation. To the contrary, any team looking this bad with a few missing players must search deep for the issue, and it seems it can only be that a bunch of new players are necessary.wenger2PA_2860044b This seems to be Arsenal’s conclusion too.

The other possibility  that I am drawn to is the metaphor created by the game itself. The one thousandth game for Mr. Wenger was a disaster. It is as if a sign from the universe itself: one (or more) games too many. He has not won any titles in nearly nine years now. He unfathomably relishes in victories that he should not (even an earlier celebrated victory over Liverpool looked shaky, and they too crushed Arsenal (5-1) in the rematch). Remember, standout Van Persie and Nasri wanted out of Arsenal because they did not see a future in the club. And I am beginning to believe, much as you may like the man himself, that there may be something in this. So are others.

Hate to end with a quote by Wenger’s nemesis, Mourinho again, but it really does some it up:

I admire him and I admire Arsenal, because it’s not possible to have 1,000 matches unless the club is also a fantastic club in the way they support the manager, especially in the bad moments – and especially when the bad moments were quite a lot. So I admire the manager and I admire the club.

Arsenal v. Tottenham, 1-0: Living on Borrowed Time

Posted on March 17, 2014

1898008_293503987470998_2090666596_nIt is difficult to feel assured by Arsenal’s first North London derby victory yesterday over Tottenham at White Hart Lane in seven years.

There was nothing of the controlled, counterattack football of a Chelsea, which can make countering football seem dominant; but instead we witnessed a type of frantic, hold-on-to-your seats school-yard defense that prevailed in Man United’s annoying win over Arsenal earlier in the season: hanging on for dear life to a lucky first goal that came early the match, in this case around the minute mark. Lucky not in the sense that Rosicky’s goal was not brilliant, because surely it was, but lucky in the sense that Arsenal did not come close to scoring for the rest of the game.1970422_10152105838622713_1484049661_n

Indeed, the feeling you got from the rest of the Arsenal match was that of being on a roller coaster with the controls broken. I am not sure which game the NBC/SN commentators are watching sometimes when I hear assessments of Arsenal games, but they seem to spin much gold out of plain mediocrity. I get the same feeling when I hear them describe the play of my favorite player, Mesut Özil, who I think has not been the same player for weeks now.

The reality of Arsenal’s quality is that no one, not even the loopy NBC commentators, includes them among the three clubs (Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool) seriously contending for the title, despite Arsenal having lead the league for ninety days and being currently tied for second in points. Yes, even the team currently in fourth (Man City) is considered a more legitimate contender.

The problem today — the  problem with Özil — is that they seem to be lacking in what we summarily refer to as heart. Fearlessness. They are tentative and hesitant. They seemed focused on avoiding the mistake, the error. In itself not a bad thing, but when it takes on a life of its own, it becomes a debilitating aversion to failure, which, of course, will also avoid success. This aversion, I fear, betrays a team that is mediocre. Living on borrowed time.

Would you rather be lucky or good, is the perennial question. The answer, of course, is that you have to be both, unless you are extraordinary. Luck that runs out is that which is tied to the very ordinary.

The Way Out: The New Gladiators

Posted on February 3, 2013

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By BRYAN MEALER

Published: February 2, 2013

WHEN the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers take the field during the Super Bowl today, the teams will have five players who come from a small, conflicted region in the northern Everglades known as Muck City. The dark, silty soil surrounding the Florida towns of Belle Glade and Pahokee, some 45 miles west of Palm Beach, creates a fertile region for agriculture.

Many of the black residents of the area were drawn there by the opportunity to work in the vegetable fields that surrounded the towns. The migrant workers, who by and large settled in run-down boardinghouses, began participating in two extraordinary football programs. The public high schools in Belle Glade and Pahokee, located eight miles apart, have sent at least 60 players to the National Football League, including the five who will suit up today: for Baltimore, Anquan Boldin, Deonte Thompson, Damien Berry and Pernell McPhee; for San Francisco, Ray McDonald.

But even more extraordinary is the world that produced these players. Official unemployment in Belle Glade hovers around 16 percent, although the town’s mayor believes it’s closer to 40 percent. In the Glades, the “official” jobless rate has always been a joke because so few people are even on the books. Many of the agricultural jobs disappeared as vegetable production turned into sugar growing, now largely mechanized.

In 2010, the Palm Beach County sheriff’s office estimated that half of the young men in Belle Glade between the ages of 18 and 25 had felony convictions. The town’s migrant quarter resembles something on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, or Kampala in Uganda. Some families have recently resorted to catching rainwater to survive because their utilities have been cut off for nonpayment.

In the ’80s, when the towns began exporting receivers and running backs to elite college programs far and wide, the region was notorious for having a very high AIDS rate. Drugs and shootings are inescapable.

In 2008, Norman Griffith, the captain of the Pahokee Blue Devils, was killed in a robbery after a game. In 2000, a linebacker for the Glades Central Raiders, Jyron Seider, was gunned down after a dice game.

In Muck City, the well-worn line that “football is like religion” doesn’t even begin to convey its importance. Football is salvation itself, a fleeting window of escape from a place where prison or early death are real and likely outcomes.

Mark Ovaska’s photographs focus on social issues.  Bryan Mealer’s latest book is “Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town.”

How To Measure An Athlete: Understanding Linmetrics

Posted on August 28, 2012

With eighteen seconds remaining in the 1982 NCAA Basketball Championship game, a scrawny freshman received the ball right of the free throw line and rose straight into the air.  The rest we know as remarkable history.  Michael Jordan would leave North Carolina his senior year (after playing on the 1984 Olympic Team) and become the best basketball player ever.  He won six NBA championships and made one of the most profound, seminal sports commercials of all time in which he recounted the number of last shots he had taken—26—and missed.  It was a quintessential statement not only about sports but life:  “I have failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”  Though you may remember success, essential to it has been repeated, potentially debilitating failure that would reduce others to putty.Lin 0212
Tempted as we might be to romanticize Jordan’s iconic winning shot as leading to everything else—as did Jordan’s influential father but not Jordan himself—we would be better off contemplating that much hard work preceded and followed that singular moment.  Many have taken and made the last shot of a big game not to become great players.  Many have also left college early to mediocre professional careers.  As important as that shot may have been for us, and even him, Michael Jordan was already on the extraordinary path that we eventually discovered him on, and only extraordinary determination kept him there.
The most interesting thing I personally remember Jordan saying—I have never felt much affinity towards him—was that there were many players in the league that had as much skill.  The difference was mental:  “Talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” Jordan was renowned for a dogged work ethic during practice and the offseason and outspoken leadership on the court.  He insisted upon inserting a “For the Love of the Game Clause” into his first professional contract allowing him to play basketball during the summer which at the time was prohibited by union rules.  Jordan said that he could never have lived that way.  He would later say that preseason was a waste of time because he arrived ready to play.
There have been many distractions since Jeremy Lin skyrocketed to prominence.
For those who do not know the basic story, Lin was an unrecruited high school star who lead his undersized Palo Alto team to the state championship and went on to star at Harvard.  He was undrafted out of college, cut by his two previous NBA teams, and was squandering at the end of the Knick bench until injury and desperation forced that woeful team to use him.  Lin immediately caught fire scoring over 20 points a game for the first six games of a seven-game win streak, while amassing a franchise leading number of assists.  Since Lin’s emergence, the Knicks have won 10 and lost 4.  Integral to the Lin narrative is that he is Asian-American, the second to play in the NBA, the first being in the 1950s.
For its part, the press has charged unabashedly into rote mythmaking.  The nonstop, over-the-top coverage that accompanies the emergence of a potential anointed one would lead you to believe that Jeremy Lin fell out of the sky.  And that his apparent differences explain his success and might instigate a breach from the current standard of selfish play and immodest personas.  For sure, Lin perfectly fits the mold of a consensus sports hero:  articulate and thoughtful, humble and gracious, religious, good-enough looking.  He is the proverbial outsider with good values; a marketable divergence from the dreg of the league’s perceived physical and cultural monotony.  The problem with mythmaking, however, is that reality is often an inconvenience that must be jettisoned or ignored.
Truth is, a number of people have been writing about Lin for some time.  A couple years ago, web blogger Jay Caspian Kang smartly wrote, “Lin’s story has already been taken over by writers, bloggers and fans who feel the need to distort, tweak and primp him up into a perfect metaphor.”  Presciently describing the current spectacle, Kang added, “Through no fault of his own, Lin stands at a bombed-out intersection of expected narratives, bodies, perceived genes, the Church, the vocabulary of destinations and YouTube.”  For some time, Lin has embodied the pent-up frustrations and hopes of those resisting the demeaning narratives of others.
More debilitating than inspiring or celebratory, the media’s standard mythologizing is often near folly.  We cannot, it seems, take extraordinary achievement for what it is but must distort and mythologize it in an attempt to hype it.  To make us cheer or cry.  We turn everything into a movie.  In this, we belittle our own humanity, our own real and ordinary struggles, which cannot compete with testosterone fantasy.  It is enough that our movies fail us this way; we would hope for more from those charged with reporting facts.
The media frenzy has brought expected backlash.  A sports blog writer has been fired and an on-air personality suspended for characterizing recent Lin missteps as “A Chink in the Armor.”  There is a compelling counternarrative there about whether a gracious and charitable twenty-something Latino kid would be sufficiently familiar with the fading slur in the first place much less would intentionally use one if he were.  Indeed, the idiom’s use by the suspended older on-air personality, whose wife is Asian, would seem to indicate a significant obscurity or at least a growing irrelevance.  Given that being an Asian-American is such an integral part of Lin’s narrative, and given the exceptionally sincere chagrin and remorse shown by otherwise pretty good people at a mainstream sports outlet (ESPN is not The National Review and neither individual is Rush Limbaugh), a knowing use of a blatantly racist epithet seems dubious.Lin 2 0212
Some have also questioned whether Lin would have received the same press if he were African-American.  Well, no.  And there is nothing surprising or wrong in this.  Lin carries the understandable glee and hopes of not only his own community but all those who cheer for someone unlikely and seemingly so improbable—the underdog.  Spike Lee’s trademark, awkwardly oversized t-shirts visible from his prominent sideline seat at recent Knick and All-Star games feature wonderfully imaginative Lin imagery.  The collective reaction to Lin is not dissimilar to having a black golfer suddenly dominate the sport.  Or a black president.  Indeed, the circumstances giving rise to the obsession with Lin only confirm the cultural and institutional dominance of basketball’s most numerous group.
To be fair, some in the press have raised the truly interesting question posed by Lin’s success:  how do we assess and value talent?
Many have been quick to suggest that Lin’s race accounted for him being overlooked.  (Maybe the obsession with Lin’s race explains the reaction to the Armor comments.)  After Lin propelled the Knicks into their first win against the Lakers since 2007, Kobe Bryant said plainly, “Players don’t usually come out of nowhere.  If you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning.  But no one ever noticed.”  But Lin was far from overlooked.  Several teams, including the Lakers, reported that Lin was on their radar screens.  The Lakers, for one, were outmaneuvered twice—first by Golden State, then by Dallas—attempting to sign Lin.
While the “overlooked because of this race” narrative does not hold up, we are still left with both Golden State and Dallas’ seemingly inexplicable decision to cut Lin.  Remarkably articulate Kobe again frames the issue well (you have to understand that Bryant is being prompted into these timely sound bites by the mythologizing press):  “The biggest thing to me is how everybody missed it.  They all would be fired if I was owning a team.  I hear this stuff, ‘It came out of nowhere.’  I think it’s a load of [garbage]. You can’t play that well and just come out of nowhere. There has to be something there and everybody missed it.  So heads would roll.”
The reason Lin was cut and the cause of his recent emergence may be rather simple, although belying the narrative of exclusion and ignorance.  All-Star Steve Nash (Canadian Nash is also a media darling), to whom Lin is usually compared, matter-of-factly provides the obvious explanation:  “I don’t think anyone saw it.  He’s improved a lot.  Last year I thought he had potential to be a good player but was still learning, still developing.  He’s improved his skills as a good playmaker on pick-and-rolls and getting to the foul line, finishing, finding openings for shots but also making his teammates better.  He’s a good fit, but he could be a good fit whoever needs him.’’
Yep, Lin may just have gotten a whole lot better and found the right team, according to one of the most thoughtful, premier point guards in the league.  Bill Holden, who recruited Lin to Harvard, would agree.  Holden believes that Lin’s work ethic transformed the 155 lbs and 6’1” high school toothpick into his current 205 lbs and 6’3” power and explosiveness.  Holden also believes that Lin actually benefited from not being recruited by the top basketball programs but instead going to Harvard where he got much more playing time and was able to excel in the less powerful Ivy League:  “If he goes to Stanford then it could have been just like it was at the beginning of his NBA career.  He may have never gotten off the bench and never been able to develop as a player.”
Holden also reflects on the “very team oriented” Lin’s natural talent:  “The thing that really drew me to Jeremy is that he just had some natural basketball instincts that you can’t coach.  He just has a good way to read the game, a good vision of the game, a good understanding of the game . .  .  . he had an ability to get to the basket, to get into the lane and score.  That’s something that he would always be able to do.”
So, Holden identifies the same indicia of long-term and broader success described by Jordan:  work ethic, basketball intelligence and sacrifice for the team.
Coincidentally, the recent Academy Awards ceremony has returned attention to Moneyball, which depicted the revolution in baseball’s analysis and assessment of talent and success.  Before the 2002 Oakland Athletics, teams relied on statistics that focused on individual achievement such as batting average and runs batted in.  Trying to compete with teams having three times its payroll, the A’s looked for alternative ways to identify talent that were overlooked by other teams.  Instead of statistics stressing the individual, the A’s focused on statistics that more directly correlated to team wins, such as on-base and slugging percentage.  As a result, the relatively impoverished A’s were able to identify overlooked and undervalued players and successfully compete with teams such as the Yankees.  Now several teams use the Oakland approach.
Sabermetrics—the specialized analysis of baseball largely through statistics that measure in-game activity—has its expected corollary in basketball.  Basketball’s in-game statistics include Successful Possession Rate, Turnover-Adjusted Points per Shot, and Turnovers per Touch.  The upshot of this analysis when applied to Lin is that while his recent performance shows some relation to the NBA’s storied point guards, it also shows some significant, umm, holes.  Lin does not rate as highly as those other point guards but may end up being very good.  That is to say, never say never.
So either basketball’s Sabermetricians have some more work to do or Lin will likely disappoint.  Only time will tell.  Knicks’ veteran center Tyson Chandler, however, knows now:  “He’s not a fluke.  You can tell when a guy isn’t really that skilled but is just having a good stretch.  This guy is skilled.  He’s fast.  He gives the defense a problem, and he’s really crafty at the rim.”
It seems likely that better Sabermetrics will be developed to assess talent and predict team success.  With our increasing over-analysis and micro-specialization has grown the pursuit of the minutiae.  Ripe for pursuit would be off-court indicators such as work ethic.  Maybe the Sabermetricians will eventually figure out how to accurately measure off-the-clock practice time or the amount of basketball film watched per week, the challenge, of course, being relying on something other than self-reporting.  (Perennial all-star Ray Allen famously gets to the gym 3.5 hours prior to game time.)  Or maybe the Sabermetricians will develop a test to measure basketball intelligence (notice how Tiger Woods can tell you every golf hole he has played and many of his idol Jack Nicholas), or develop better Sabermetrics to measure contribution to the team.
But it is as likely that there will remain crucial characteristics that will remain immeasurable.  Michael Jordan’s ability to miss 26 last shots and still remain the indomitable Michael Jordan is not measurable.  Many players who take the last shot—because in their minds that is what great players do—seem selfish and do not have the same quality of success.  Measuring heart and a positive belief system, whether that belief is in the player himself or something greater, does not seem possible.  Holden, Lin’s high school recruiter, understands such intangibles:  “As a recruiter, I learned a long time ago that you can’t measure what’s in a guy’s head; you can’t measure what’s in a guy’s heart; and you can’t measure what’s below his belt.  And that was the unique thing about Jeremy:  He just measures off the charts in all three categories.  He gets into that [big game] environment and he can just compete.  He did in high school, he’s done it in college and now he’s proving he can do it in the NBA.”
Chemistry also seems immeasurable and unpredictable:  the reality that a lesser player (Derek Fisher) can add more value than a more skilled one (Carmelo Anthony), whose presence may even disrupt a team.  Chemistry, like sacrifice to the team, is more important to team success than individual talent.  Dwayne Wade and LeBron James could cancel one another out; success has only been possible when one defers to the other or both defer to the team.  Like marriage, successful and sustainable unions are not guaranteed by the presence of accomplished individuals alone.  There is much more, it is relatively minor, and it is not measurable: communication, unequivocal support, positivity, loyalty, trust.
For Nash, again, the entire Lin phenomenon is not overly complicated:  “It’s a perfect storm.  He’s a guy who is in some ways a late bloomer and an overachiever, and you can tell that he’s worked extremely hard and he’s also smart so he’s learned how to be effective. Then maybe the biggest part of the story is he joined a struggling Knicks team in the media capital of the world, so it’s just an awesome confluence of things and it’s been exciting to watch.”
We may look to a host of numbers, and combinations of numbers, and theories, to confirm the presence of talent and to predict success.  In the end, however, the true measure of an athlete, like the true measure of a life, is the immeasurable heart.Lin 3 0212

©Copyright TW Matters™ 2012 (except photos)

Rory in Scarlet

Posted on August 25, 2012

rory-1200Two iconic moments emerged from this year’s PGA Championship, neither of which really received much attention, but each offering two different glimpses of the future.

First, Rory showed up Sunday in the brightest of reds. Not the muted burgundy or maroon typically favored by Tiger. Rory was in wild scarlet. When asked about the choice in shirt color after he crushed the field, Rory explained that his mischievously prescient sponsor (Oakley) scripted the red shirt earlier in the week. But make no mistake, Rory embraced it. He said he would not have worn the color if paired with Tiger, and I believe him. But it is hard to believe that Rory would have still gone through with it if he also weren’t leading the tournament. That would have looked silly. No, this was a Statement. Rory was going to bring home his second major wearing the color Tiger has owned for a generation of Sundays. Fuck Tiger. That time is over. This is my time. There is no way around this message, just like there is no way around the power of the statement, each made emphatic by the margin of the victory.

I would have missed the second moment if not for a fellow TW follower. He sent over a video showing that when pressed to hoist the trophy in the standard victorious pose of the champion, Rory had all sorts of problems simply lifting the damned thing up and then over his head. It was nearly comical. He used his knee, contorted, made up his face, and strained.  I would bet he grunted. All the while dressed in scarlet.

The perfectness of the metaphor is similarly unavoidable. To be sure, Rory won major number two in convincing fashion. But is he really up to the red shirt? After his victory, the sports media again took up the chants of heir apparent; the mantle has passed; the real threat to Tiger’s push for the record. Padraig Harrington again gloated. But just weeks ago the media were writing about his slump, missed cuts and off year since winning his first major.

Heir apparent? I don’t think so. We’ll need a few more wins before we can think that. Up to the red shirt? Hardly. But maybe Rory would have started a trend where those ahead on Sunday endeavor to wear the color. Good luck with that extra pressure. Those are some enormous shoes to fill. Just hope they can lift the trophy.

Does Tiger Own Sunday Red?

No and yes.McIlroy_Woods_PGA_split_610

I would be the first person to tell you that I never would have gone along with it. I would never have stayed away from a particular color solely because someone else favored it. I wear red now and shoot, well, high. That professional golfers would have done it in mass has always baffled me. Weren’t they committing the ultimate sin in sport? To concede power in any way to another athlete? To give a competitor—especially one so dominant and intimidating—any sort of psychological advantage? “Eye of the Tiger” (laugh) and all that. (Ever note how Sprinters treat one another at the start of the race? Total defiance and bravado.) Nope, I wouldn’t have done it. It’s like conceding even before you step on the course. It’s giving yourself another psychological hurdle to overcome.  There’s Tiger, the scrambler with razor sharp focus and incredible game, in his winning, charmed fucking red shirt. Wasn’t this homage to Tiger one of the biggest mistakes of all time? Part of the perfect storm that gave us Tiger? And it’s not like the other golfer’s even like Tiger which might have explained the unprecedented deference. And you know, like Sprinters, Tiger never would have done it for anyone else.

But honor him they have. And there has been something noble and honorable and golf-like about the entire thing.  And now some 14 majors and 74 PGA victories later, he has earned the respect and, yes, deference. Even if you don’t like him. Or you hope that one day far in the future you might be better.

©Copyright TW Matters™ 2012 (except photos)

  

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