Monday, March 15, 2021

Books On Basketball As March Madness Is Here


Madison Square Garden. Photo by Jason Schott.

As college basketball's March Madness is upon us and the NBA season is hitting the stretch run, it's a good time to read up on the game of basketball. These new books will teach you a ton about hoops, The Hot Hand by Ben Cohen, The Boston Celtics All-Time All-Stars by John Karalis, and How To Watch Basketball Like A Genius by Nick Greene.

The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks

By Ben Cohen

Custom House; paperback; $17.99

One of the biggest things in sports is the notion of "the hot hand," such as when Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller lit up the Knicks in the 1994 playoffs, or when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would keep throwing the ball to Rob Gronkowski, or when golfer Tiger Woods was having an amazing day on the greens.

For decades, psychologists and economists have studied the science of streaks to determine whether the "hot hand" exists. Is there such a thing as being in the zone, or is it simply a case of seeing patterns in randomness? Genius scholars and Nobel Prize winners have spent years answering this question.

A substantial number of the decisions we make every day are rooted in two opposing beliefs: that if something happened before, it will happen again - or if it happened before, it probably won't happen again.

Wall Street Journal sports reporter Ben Cohen, with his new book, The Hot Hand, has written an entertaining and provocative investigation into the seductive idea that streaks not only exist, but can be created. People look for patterns in coincidence, and coincidence in patterns. 

Is there a hidden logic that defies our basic knowledge of probability? If it is noticed that someone has a hot hand, can we adjust to take advantage? If we are mistaken that someone has a hot hand, what are the costs? What happens when we're right, and conversely, if we were right all along?

Cohen, in order to answer these questions, embarks on a kaleidoscopic investigation that ranges from the magical night that forever changed Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry's life, to a billionaire investor who made a fortune betting against streaks, to a couple of young economists who realized everyone else had been doing the wrong math, to how the bias of the human mind influenced a distinguished Iraqi sculptor's attempts to seek asylum, to the mystery of a missing World War II hero, and how Shakespeare's success was abetted by a flea.

Cohen writes: "I believed it was serendipity that I had stumbled across the hot hand in my favorite sport. It wasn't. The history of the hot hand has always been rooted in basketball. And so basketball is in this book because it has to be. There is no intellectually honest way to write about the hot hand without writing about basketball. The very smart people who have studied the hot hand for a very long time understood that basketball happens to be a wonderful excuse to explore the rest of the world.
    But the stories that have always resonated with me are the ones that are not quite about sports, and there are genius scholars and Nobel Prize winners who have devoted their attention to the hot hand in basketball because they weren't just studying basketball. When you start looking for the hot hand, in fact, it becomes hard not to see it everywhere.
    That's why I had to make sure I hadn't lost my mind when I read the first scholarly paper about the hot hand that was published in 1985. What made it such a classic work of psychology was its startling conclusion that the hot hand did not exist. This seemed too crazy to be true. As I would soon discover, I was not alone in my shock. The paper was a widely discussed sensation in part because nobody believed it.
        We'd all seen the hot hand. We'd all felt the hot hand. The hot hand was burned into our memories. And the appeal of this enticing paper was that it challenged something we all thought to be true. It was a study with a digestible takeaway that forced us to reckon with an eternal question of the human condition: How much should we believe what we see and feel?
    The world's brightest academics have been searching for hard evidence of the hot hand ever since. By obsessively looking for proof of something they couldn't find, these people inadvertently turned the hot hand into the Bigfoot of basketball. But those decades of crumpled papers, broken pencils, and deleted spreadsheets only strengthened the case of the original paper. It became clear over time that it was foolish to believe in the hot hand. Or was it?"

There is a practical use for the reader as well, with examples of how the "hot hand" can, or can't, be used, to your advantage. These include: since scientists now believe that our best creative work comes in bunches, artists, scientists, and creative types should churn out more a week after a successful project; it can backfire to believe in the "hot hand" in some industries, such as investors sticking to principles rather than chasing patterns; streaks can be real in sports and, if you're an athlete, there are times when it makes sense to take chances and embrace riskier strategies; the "hot hand" and gambler's fallacy are biases for managers to keep in mind, and they should rethink the order in which they read job applications to give candidates a fair share when hiring; and questioning how teachers grade essays, as one professor who has studied the "hot hand" now shuffles his exams and grades them twice so that his implicit bias doesn't affect his decisions.

The Hot Hand is quite an entertaining read, as it takes us to the jungles of the Amazon, a sugar-beet farm in the Midwest, and strip mall arcades to show us how recognition of patterns can be fruitful, or a total disaster. It can appeal to readers across a wide spectrum, from sports fans to readers of business books to people searching for self-improvement and "big idea" non-fiction.

The Boston Celtics All-Time All-Stars: The Best Players At Each Position For the C's
By John Karalis
Lyons Press; paperback, $18.95; eBook, $18.00

The Boston Celtics are one of the most illustrious teams in NBA history, with a tradition that few can rival in American sports.

Let's say you're coach of this team, which tied for the most championships of all-time, 17, with their longtime rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, and you have every current and former player available on your bench.

Game 7 of the NBA Finals is approaching and it's time to make up your starting five. Who's your starting center, Bill Russell, Robert Parrish, or Dave Cowens? Who's starting at guard, Bob Cousy, Jo Jo White,  Tiny Archibald, or Dennis Johnson? Who is your power forward, Kevin McHale, Kevin Garnett, or Tommy Heinsohn? Is Larry Bird or John Paul Pierce your small forward?

In this entertaining and fun book, long-time Celtics writer John 
Karalis combines statistical analysis and a host of intangibles to construct an all-time Celtics lineup for the ages.

Karalis writes: "My entire basketball life, I've watched a team whose home is on the north side of Boston. Their wins gave me joy. Their losses gave me grief. I've cried tears of joy, anger, and sorrow because of them. Chances are you have too.
This is how sports works. Hundreds of men have pulled that green and white jersey over their heads. Hundreds of players have stuffed themselves into cramped locker rooms and inhaled Red's second-hand smoke in an effort to make us feel these feelings. Yet we have cheered for one team.
It's sort of like standing at a car wash all day and watching car after car after car roll by. You lose count after a while, but you've been in one place watching it all the whole time. 
But what we've watched has been more amazing than anything any other basketball team has done: better than the Lakers, who started in Minnesota; better than the Knicks, who haven't exactly been very successful in their time in the so-called mecca of basketball (whyich is surprising for a city that has produced so many greats); better than Chicago, who might boast the greatest player of all time, but still not the greatest winner.
The hundreds of players who have passed through Boston include some of the best to ever pass through the National Basketball Association. When a team wins 17 championships, more than any other in league history, it goes without saying that some amazing players have played their part. All these outstanding players and teams make this book an interesting project, because Celtics history can be packages in any number of ways.
We can create a team simply of the greatest winners of all time, a multiple-champions-only list of players to take on the basketball world. We can create a team built to win a championship in any era, pulling a 15-man roster together that can challenge any champion in any era and win. We can go decade-by-decade and build a super-team with just one from each year of the team's existence.
I could keep going with all sorts of examples, and each one could pull in a different group of players. The list of not only the greats, but guys who were elite at specific skills, is extensive. There are dozens of players from every era who deserve recognition.
For this exercise, though, we're going to limit it to just one dozen: 12 of the best who gave Boston their best and reached unbelievable heights, thrilling Boston fans by winning titles and making plays that didn't seem possible.
I wasn't lying when I said Boston was lucky. Some of then players on the list you're about to read would make any all-time team anywhere. Some would make the NBA's all-time team (and have through various specially marked league occasions). As I explore the breadth of their accomplishments, the depth of their desire to win, and the reverence they earned from teammates, you'll see why these guys became obvious choices."

How To Watch Basketball Like A Genius: What Game Designers, Economists, Ballet Choreographers, and Theoretical Astrophysicists Reveal About the Greatest Game on Earth

By Nick Greene

Abrams Press; hardcover, 272 pages; $28.00; available Tuesday, March 2nd

Basketball is a game that can mean many things to people, with its combination of athleticism, craftiness, rules, intangibles, and superstardom making it a game of culture, art, and all the things that make us human.

In the very insightful and engaging new book, How To Watch Basketball Like A GeniusNick Greene, a contributing writer at Slate and former web editor of the Village Voice, deconstructs the sport from top to bottom and puts it back together again. He details its intricacies through reporting and dozens of interviews with experts. 

The thing with this book that sets it apart is that the experts are not the usual suspects on ESPN, but a soap opera casting director weighing in on the game's most prolific floppers, magicians analyzing Chris Paul's mystifying dribbling techniques, cartographers breaking down Steph Curry's deadeye three-point shooting, and plenty more.

Experts featured in the book include: Bronson Messer, director of science at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility; Colleen Macklin, game designer and director of PETLab; Eric Kallman, co-founder and CEO, Erich & Kallman Advertising Agency; Graham Lustig, artistic director of the Oakland Ballet Company; and Ken Pomeroy, meteorologist and creator of KenPom.

Every chapter treats an aspect of the game of basketball to a multi-disciplined study that goes beyond the lines of the court to examine key elements of the sport from some surprising and revealing angles. You will also learn quite a bit of history along the way, including about the sport's founder, James Naismith, and a lot of it which predates the NBA, which started play in 1947.

In this excerpt, Greene writes of one of the parts of the game that provokes the most excitement: "Dunks are audacious feats of grace and athleticism, but the first dunk in history was just plain audacious. Recall that, for a period in the early twentieth century, there were no out of bounds markings. Courts were instead enclosed inside cages, and it was this feature that allowed New York baller Jack Inglis to soar during a game in the 1910s. According to author Bill Gutman, Inglis 'jumped up alongside the basket, grabbed the cage, and pulled himself up alongside the basket. While the defenders looked up at him helplessly, a teammate passed him the ball. Inglis caught it while hanging on to the cage with one hand and dropped it through the basket.' According to Gutman's book, 'It was a perfectly legal play, because no one had ever seen it done before.'

Legal or not, that shouldn't count as the first dunk. Much like finding the identity of the jump shot's inventor, the provenance of the slam dunk is murky. Anyone with the ability to rise above the hoop should have been able to do it, but reports are surprisingly rare. 'We all could jump high enough, but we never envisioned dong anything like dunking the ball,' John Isaacs, a player on the all-Black traveling New York Renaissance (aka New York Rens) team in the 1930s, told a reporter in 2004. 'All we wanted was the basket.'

What's more, there wasn't even a word for the move until 1936. That's when New York Times writer Arthur J. Daley got to watch the U.S. Olympic team train at the West Side YMCA before the Berlin Games. There he saw Texan Joe Fortenberry, who stood either six feet seven inches or six feet eight inches tall (reports vary), and the six-foot-nine Willard Schmidt show off their athleticism. The men 'did not use an ordinary curling toss,' wrote Daley. 'Not those giants. They left the floor, reached up and pitched the ball downward into the hoop, much like a cafeteria customer dunking a roll in coffee.'

Fortenberry left his job with a Kansas oil refinery in order to captain his country's team that summer. It was a good decision. He scored eight of the United States' points during its 19-8 win over Canada in the gold medal game. James Naismith was in Berlin to watch in person, and the old man saw a peculiar version of his sport, one that was played on a muddy court in the driving rain. As Fortenberry told the Amarillo Globe-News, 'Adolf Hitler said it was an outside game and that's where we were going to play it.' History's greatest monster loved streetball, apparently.

Fortenberry was a precursor to Mikan and Chamberlain, a giant who managed to make the sport look so easy that his opponents protested his very existence. After the Olympics, a group of humiliated teams unsuccessfully lobbied basketball's international governing body to impose a height limit of six feet two inches for all competitions.

Height was an obvious advantage in basketball, but Fortenberry had the special combination of size, speed, and coordination that allowed him to dominate at both ends of the floor. He was the prototypical 'athletic big man,' and journalists treated him like a walking oxymoron. '[I]n spite of this height and his awkward, lumbering appearance, [he] is the best all-around athlete at West Texas State Teachers College,' the Associated Pres quipped in 1933. Fortenberry was the school's heavyweight boxing champion and a standout gridiron receiver, but his sui generis feats on the hardwood garnered national recognition. In the words of the Associated Press, he 'slaps at a basketball much as a cub bear would at a bobbing apple.' How terrifyingly charming.

Whether you think of the move as dunking a roll into coffee or an ursine apple-slap, Fortenberry's use of it represented an evolutionary leap in how the game was played. It's why that New York Times reporter dedicated a significant chunk of his article on the U.S. Olympic team to the soaring centers who 'left observers simply flabbergasted' at practice. As writer Michael McKnight explained in a 2015 Sports Illustrated story, '[Fortenberry] may not have been the first man to dunk a basketball, but he was the first to do it in an aesthetically stirring way, and in front of the right people.'

A dunk is a stunning thing to behold. When the Wright Brothers made history at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, their aircraft ascended to an altitude of ten feet, and this achievement was deemed worthy of the term flight. Naismith, meanwhile, hung his peach baskets at that same lofty mark. He nailed them to a balcony, a structure that is out of reach by design. Humans really have no business meddling up there without the use of stairs or stepladders."

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