Zelophehad’s Daughters

My Trouble with Spectator Sports

Posted by Ziff

On April 29th, the San Antonio Spurs beat the Phoenix Suns and dismissed them from the NBA playoffs. I’ve been a passionate fan of the Suns for several years, and I was hugely disappointed that they hardly put up a fight, losing this first round series, 4-1. I watched parts of the series, but not all of it. It wasn’t for lack of interest that I didn’t watch it all, though. It was that I couldn’t bear to watch my team play badly or see the Spurs or their fans rejoicing. In the deciding game of the series, for example, I turned the TV off when, with under a minute to play and the Suns down one point, Boris Diaw got the ball in the low post and then turned and threw a cross-court pass to . . . nobody, and the ball went out of bounds. The fans in San Antonio went crazy and I felt sick. So I turned the game off. I was happy to miss the agonizing final seconds.

But what if the Suns had won? Would I have kicked myself for giving up too early? I don’t think so, because I don’t tend to enjoy dramatic victories by teams I’m rooting for. Here’s an example. In the NFL, I root for the San Francisco 49ers. In 1999, they played a Wild Card game against the Green Bay Packers. Steve Young was the 49ers quarterback at the time, and if I recall correctly, he had never beaten Green Bay in the playoffs. Anyway, the 49ers were down by 4 points when they got the ball back with about 2 minutes to play. They drove to the Green Bay 25, but with less than 15 seconds, I figured they were still far enough from the end zone that they had little chance of scoring a touchdown to win. Green Bay would just put a bunch of defensive backs in and near the end zone, and the 49ers would never get in. I was about to turn the game off when my wife pointed out to me that they still might win and I might want to see it. I was persuaded and left the game on, and then Steve Young threw a touchdown pass to Terrell Owens and the 49ers won.

So how did I feel? Thrilled? Elated? Overjoyed? No, I felt more relieved than anything. And this is entirely typical of my reaction when my teams win. I might be happy for a minute, but then it’s over and I quickly forget. But then they lose, I’m bitter and grouchy and short-tempered with my family for a while.

I love spectator sports. I love to watch basketball, football, and baseball more than almost anything else on TV. (I’m far too poor to attend games in person very often.) I love to read about them, particularly about baseball (as you might guess since I’m a number head and baseball writing often overflows with nubers).

But I have two big problems with spectator sports. First, I suffer (and make those around me suffer) a lot more when teams I root for lose than I enjoy it when they win. Unfortunately, it’s precisely at the point where I’m really starting to root for a team that I find I can no longer stand to watch their most crucial games. I just can’t bear the possibility that they might lose. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, since every team but the one who wins the championship in a particular year ends up with a loss, the teams I root for usually end with a loss, so I’m unhappy with my teams’ outcomes a lot.

My second problem is that when I root for one team, this means that I root against other teams, and when I root against teams, I really hate them. I mean, when the Suns were playing the Spurs, I wanted nothing more than to see Shaq body-check Tim Duncan (or even better, Bruce Bowen) into the scorers’ table. Or I would have enjoyed seeing Tony Parker struck down by a meteor to wipe the French smirk off his face. (Needless to say, I entirely approved of French smirks on Boris Diaw’s face.) But as much as I might relish my hatred of other teams (and their fans) in the moment, I know it’s ridiculous for me to be so mean, and I eventually regret hating them once the game or season is over. It’s been nearly two weeks now, and I can almost look at a picture of Robert Horry without wishing for his untimely death, for example. I do still hope the Spurs lose in the second round to New Orleans, but my white-hot hatred for them has cooled to a dull orange.

I’ve found three solutions that make my spectator sports experience more enjoyable. One is to have teams I root for win in huge blowouts. Such games don’t push my anxiety level through the roof and make me sick. For example, I grew up rooting for BYU football. In 1988, after years of regularly beating the University of Utah, they went up to Salt Lake and got whipped, 58-27. So in the 1989 game, BYU fans hoped for revenge. And boy did we get it. BYU jumped out to a 49-0 lead, and ended up winning, 70-31. That game didn’t make me anxious at all, at least not after the first five minutes or so. Similarly, I thoroughly enjoyed the 49ers’ 49-26 victory over the San Diego Chargers in the 1995 Super Bowl. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and the result was never really in doubt after the first quarter.

Needless to say, big blowouts by teams I’m rooting for in big games are few and far between, not to mention being difficult to predict. I can easily miss them while trying to avoid an anxiety-provoking nail-biter.

Another solution is just the opposite. When teams I’m rooting for are so badly overmatched that there’s no hope of victory, I don’t get worked up about it. The 49ers, for example, have been bad for what, about a decade now, so I don’t get too worked up over many NFL games. I know they’ll do well to go 7-9 and if they manage to sneak into the playoffs, they’ll get creamed, so I don’t worry I’ll be disappointed. On the downside, rooting for a bad team can get old quickly. I don’t really have the stamina of people like Cubs fans who wait decades for a World Series win and seem to revel in having their team always come up a little short.

My last solution is not to root for anyone. Growing up, I remember my father really enjoyed watching NFL football, but he didn’t root for any team in particular. When I asked him who he wanted to win a game, he would say things like “the referees” or “I just want to see a good game.” At the time, I remember that I always thought this was a cop-out. How can you watch a game and not root? But now I can really see the appeal of this approach. For example, I remember watching the Jets come back from a 30-7 deficit to beat the Dolphins in a Monday Night Football game in 2000. I had no rooting preference in that game; I just enjoyed the drama. So now I use this approach often. Interestingly, my kids are getting old enough to watch sports with me, and when they do, they’re just like I was when I was a kid: they want to know who to root for. When I use my dad’s responses on them, they get annoyed and say “Dad, no really! Tell me who we want to win!” I typically satisfy them by choosing a team to root for on a semi-random basis, like which team has the best-known player who shares one of their names or their friends’ names, for example.

The downside of the no rooting approach is largely that it’s hard for me to maintain neutrality. I can drift into a rooting preference quite easily, even if only for a game. For example, I told myself I didn’t care who won last year’s Super Bowl, but a couple of minutes into the game, I had to admit that I was rooting for the Giants even though they were spectacular underdogs. I just find it difficult to not want one team or another to win.

Okay, so now you know my sports obsession problems. Now I turn the question to you: Do you ever become overly obsessed with your sports rooting? If so, how do you deal with it? Or do you have any suggestions for rooting but keeping yourself at the level of enjoying it without becoming obsessed?

33 Responses to “My Trouble with Spectator Sports”

  1. 1.

    I have been a true blue sports fan for most of my life, when I was little I cried, yes I was five give me a break, when Philadelphia Flyers beat my team (at the time) Boston Bruins. I still cannot listen to Philadelphia Freedom from Elton John without feeling a little twinge. If truth be told I have NEVER cheered for the Flyers since then.

    My current team, since 1981, is the Edmonton Oilers and I live and die with them. I am pathetically following them waiting for a return to the glory era of the mid – late 1980s when they won five championships, 84,85, 87, 88 and 90.

    Baseball I have never been able to follow consistantly since the strike in 1994 so I never really get too worried about those games and usually spend most of my time cheering against the Yankees, as my two teams Blue Jays and Giants both kinda suck.

    Football i am a Rams fan but really because of fantasy football I have not really cheered for any team specifically. More often than not I have unfavourites, Patriots and Cowboys who I cheer against rather than anyone specifically cheer for.

    Do not follow basketball

    Soccer I kind of follow Sunderland AFC in the English Premiership.

    The only real team I agonize over and will follow is the Oilers but I am notorious for giving up early, or clinging on when all hope is lost.

    However I love the axious battles which could turn on a dime. To me a series which has gone seven games and comes down to one goal played in overtime turns my crank. There is just an carthartic sense it is hard to describe for me.

  2. 2.

    What an incredible waste of time and emotional energy!

    Do you realize what contributed to the Roman empire downfall?

  3. 3.

    Jon, I am definitely on board with cheering against the Yankees. It’s just unfortunate how often they do win. I feel like my disappointment rate cheering against them is nearly as low as it would be cheering for some other team.

    ed42, so is that a vote for my solution #3–don’t root for anyone? :)

  4. 4.

    I love watching sports. I think the five best channels on TV are ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, The Golf Channel, and Outdoor Life Network.

    Ziff, I used to have the same problem you describe, where I identified so much with a particular team that the team’s success influenced me emotionally. But I can say now that I really enjoy watching a game for the sport itself, and whether my favorite team wins is a relatively minor consideration. (That is probably a wise strategy to adopt for a fan of the Royals.) There is something to be said for the ability to appreciate a difficult thing done well, and I played just enough of sports when I was younger to realize just how difficult it is to compete at a very high level. The sixteen year old version of me was pretty sure he would make his living as a left-handed reliever in major league baseball, but my inability to either throw or hit a breaking ball consistently caused me to have to get a real job. As a result, I love to watch somebody else do it well.

    Anybody who cannot appreciate the way Greg Maddux works the plate, or Derek Jeter’s smooth swing, or Michael Jordan’s body control in the air around the basket, just isn’t enjoying life to its’ fullest extent.

  5. 5.

    Hello. My name is Ziff and I am an obsessive sports fan.

    In 2003, when Grady Little refused to replace Pedro Martinez in the 8th inning – giving up the game to the hated Yankees, tears and broken hearts littered the sidewalks of Boston. The city was in mourning for weeks. One of my colleagues took the loss so personally that he vowed never to watch the Red Sox play again. He was serious. I thought he and everyone else was deranged – who cares? Until the 2004 season infected me with incurable Red Sox fever. Now I’m sitting here eating chips and salsa watching Dice-K walk a run in for the Twins. Come ON, Dice-K.

    And go Celtics!!!

    Yeah, ZIff. This time of year is tough for non-sports fans. One thing I have to complain about is the inane banter of the sports announcers – especially at half time – they’re all such idiots.

  6. 6.

    ECS,

    Your remark about halftime reminded me of Tom Boswell’s column in the Washington Post where he listed 100 reasons why baseball is better than any other sport. His first four reasons are because baseball has no:

    1. Bands.

    2. Half time with bands.

    3. Cheerleaders at half time with bands.

    4. Up With People singing “The Impossible Dream” during a Blue Angels flyover at half time with bands.

  7. 7.

    Ziff, this post actually explains a lot about why people get so nutty about politics – which is just like sports except that, on top of everything you mention, people think that their team winning is important. It’s going to be one crazy season this year.

    (In fact, I was just thinking that all this calculating and forecasting of the chances of either dem getting the nomination is a lot like what goes on prior to BCS or March Madness selection.)

  8. 8.

    re #2 ed42

    So who did the ‘Roman Empire’ play? Aren’t they the ones that were blown out by the ‘Barbarians’ 49-0?

  9. 9.

    Good point, ImaL. I think their Colosseum also got Vandalized.

    Arrgh, ECS, I remember that game with disgust as well. In rooting against the Yankees, I’ve naturally developed some affinity for the Red Sox. That game made me ill. How could Little not have seen Pedro’s fatigue, particularly given that stamina was always his weakness? I’m glad I’m not alone in being obsessed with my spectator sports.

    Speaking of being obsession, thanks for your comment, Mark, on getting beyond that so you can enjoy the performance more. So how did you do that? Was it just a matter of time or maturity or something, or did it require some kind of conscious effort?

    Good comparison, Eric. I guess one difference between sports and politics is the lack of the fan of Mark’s type in politics. I mean, nobody watches political campaigns to enjoy the skill of the participants without having some stake in the outcome, right? :)

  10. 10.

    Good post, Ziff.

    I used to talk baseball regularly with a former co-worker. He was a Red Sox fan, but other than that, a perfectly nice fellow. He was a sabermetrics guy — I’m just an amateur, but I bought the then-current Bill James handbook and tried to keep up with OPS and percent-of-batted-balls-that-turn-into-hits (whatever that stat is called) (“true ERA” or something like that?) and so on.

    The good thing was, despite his unfortunate allegiance to the Devil, he was a true fan of the game. We talked about the Schilling no-hitter (when he was pitching for the D-Backs) that was broken up in the 8th or 9th with a bunt. And I said, “suppose the Sox are playing the Yankees. And it’s an important game — a playoff game, maybe. It’s the 7th inning, and the Yanks pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, or a perfect game. What do you do?”

    And he said, without hesitation, “you root for the no-hitter.” Sure, he loves his team, and hates the Yankees. But a no-hitter is more than that, it’s a piece of history. And you’ve got to root for that.

    Other fun topics of conversation: Is Glavine bound for the hall? (Not at all clear, four years ago. Still not a lock.) Who should be in the Hall, but isn’t? How useful is Ichiro, really? (Record number of hits, but does he ever hit anything but singles?) And so on . . .

  11. 11.

    p.s. I think the Suns’ window may have closed, unfortunately.

    Nash didn’t look like himself, the Spurs series. Age may finally be catching up with him. Amare is good, but isn’t really _that_ good. Not that he lacks the talent, but he’s just too lackadaisical, and takes too many plays off. I think he may be the second coming of Chris Webber.

    Shaq is a good presence, but is too limited at this point to be more than a third option. Barbosa and Diaw are frustrating — sometimes they light it up, but they’re maddeningly inconsistent.

    And of course, the sudden lack of a coach is a bit troubling. (It will be fascinating to see how D’Antoni works out in New York — we’ll see how much of his success was the system/coach, and how much was Nash and Amare.)

    Plus, the West is suddenly crowded with new blood. New Orleans, L.A, and Utah are all stocked for years to come. (And Portland promises to be scary in a few years.)

    It’s not a good combination, really.

  12. 12.

    The only team I really live and die by is the Miami Dolphins. (I’m a big Mariner fan, too. But that only goes back 10 years or so,) You can imagine what the last few years have been like, for me. I’ve loved them since before I have memory. My parents have a picture of me in a Dolphin sweater when I was no more than 3. They were organized as a team just a couple days after I was born, and I assume the connection is astrological.

    I find, and am stunned by the discovery, that I no longer hate the Yankees.

    ~

  13. 13.

    Ziff: Now I turn the question to you: Do you ever become overly obsessed with your sports rooting?

    Yes — absolutely.

    (And thanks a lot for re-opening my wounds over the Suns this season. I get grouchy every time I see a playoff game still knowing that the Suns are not in it. (And we all know that the title last year should have been the Suns but the league office stole it from us by benching Amare and Boris in game 4!) I worry that Kaimi is right about Nash getting over the hill. The Shaq for Shawn trade ain’t looking so hot now.)

    Anyway, I don’t know why the human mind has trouble telling the difference between actually important things and not-so-important things. But I think caring so much about strangers playing sports is a prime example of that weird glitch in many of our brains.

  14. 14.

    Kaimi, I’m so glad to hear that you’ve sampled the true gospel of sabermetrics. It’s a blast. I love discussing the kinds of questions you mentioned. For example, I think Glavine is pretty much a lock for the Hall now that he’s got his 300 wins. If I recall correctly, no pitcher has ever been excluded who reached that plateau. Of course, he could always take the Mark McGwire route to be excluded, but other than that I think he’s probably in. If you’re interested in a whole book full of really fun Hall of Fame arguments, I highly recommend Bill James’s Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame. It’s pretty accessible, stats-wise; he uses a few stat-based tools, but they’re not as complicated as some of his methods, and I think he lays them out pretty clearly. And I love James as a writer; he’s very entertaining.

    Hmm. Perhaps I will reach a more Mark IV-like approach to sports if I focus more on these types of fun questions than on living and dying (mostly dying) with my teams.

    Thanks also for your Suns analysis, even if I don’t like the conclusion. I think you’re probably right. The Suns’ best opportunity was probably last year, when I really think they might have gotten past San Antonio if not for the Horry incident and resulting suspensions.

    I agree that Nash seems to be clearly in decline. What is the likelihood, do you think, that he could remain productive by simply reducing his playing time. Again, I’m going from memory, but I think that near the end of his career, John Stockton was just as efficient as he’d ever been in terms of shooting and assists per minute; he just played fewer minutes. Of course, I guess even if that worked out, it might be difficult to build a team around a point guard who’s playing 25 minutes a night.

    And what’s the likelihood that Amare might mature? He’s young still–I think he turns 26 this year. Is there precedent for players getting more focused as they age?

    Still, all thinks considered, I think you’re right that this team is done. I was pretty impressed, actually, that their upper management was willing to trade for Shaq, even though it didn’t work out. At least they showed a willingness to try to get someone to fill an obvious need.

    Thomas, I’m clearly still working toward the maturity level to no longer hate the Yankees. Perhaps if they can go a whole decade without a World Series win. Heck, if Boston keeps winning too much I may start to dislike them.

    Sorry about the Dolphins. On the bright side, it seems highly unlikely that they’ll be worse than 1-15 next year.

  15. 15.

    Sorry, Geoff, about re-opening fresh wounds. I agree with you about last year: David Stern and Stu Jackson’s uneven application of the “leaving the bench” rule was terribly unfair. I get the feeling Stern knew it too, considering how defensive he got when he was interviewed about the incident at the time.

  16. 16.

    I was a junior and senior high school football and baseball coach while I taught school. I can get obsessive, but generally not for one particular team. The Jazz (since I grew up in Utah), the Celtics (from my years in Boston), the Braves (Dale Murphy fan from the old days and my time in the Deep South) – those are the only teams for whom I root on a regular basis.

    I live in Ohio, but can’t bring to cheer for a Cleveland team – and there haven’t been any professional teams in my Cincinnati area for the years we’ve lived here. My girls love the Colts (yep, Manning crushes), but I am back to cheering for the Jazz.

    Jordan’s blatant shove of Russell – as the refs swallowed their whistles (I HATE that practice; call the end of the game the way you call the rest of the game! You say, “We don’t want the refs to decide the game,” but that’s exactly what they do when they swallow their whistles! End of rant) was the emotional low point for me. I wanted the Jazz to win so much, but I also wanted Jordan to lose just as much. I know a woman who told me about an experience she had with him at a restaurant, and I’ll just say that I don’t want my kids to “be like Mike”.

    Deep breathing now, as I try to back away. Going out with this:

    The Suns are dead; Jerry Sloan should have at least 5 Coach of the Year awards; Bonds and Clemens should be examined to see if their heads are disproportionately large in comparison to their (never mind); Greg Maddux is the most incredible athlete I have ever seen. Period. Hands down. Not even close.

  17. 17.

    You know you are a real fan when you sit in the snow to watch a baseball game where neither you or the Umpire can see the ball.

    My favourite, sad, moment was attending a Blue Jays game at the old CNE Stadium in September watching them fight out for the East Division with the Detroit Tigers (fall of 86 or 87 I do not remember at this point). I showed up for game four of the second last series at home, game 4 the Jays win and we win the division and they lose in 13 innings on the 27th.

    Then I showed up a few days later to watch them play the Brewers hoping for a big win only to watch them lose in the snow and cold. In the end they absolutely collapsed, needing one win to clinch the title they lost 7 games in a row, sigh.

    Of course when they won in 92 and 93 I was out in Western Canada and living too far away to go to any of the games but still loved it.

  18. 18.

    It was 1987. Thanks to Wikipedia.

  19. 19.

    Fun post, Ziff. It’s led me to reflect on my own history of getting emotionally attached to sports–which admittedly isn’t quite as extensive as yours. I remember collecting baseball cards as a kid, of course. Though as you may recall, especially before I learned to read the stats on the back of them, I traded you for players with cute pictures. :) I believe I got a bit savvier than that, however, once I learned what the numbers meant. And I remember being happy when the Royals won the World Series in 1985. (Since Utah didn’t have a professional baseball team, there wasn’t a logical team to root for–I think I picked the Royals because I liked George Brett.)

    As a teenager I rooted passionately against the Jazz. I think it’s because at that point I was feeling vociferously anti-anything-about-Utah. But unfortunately that caused me to be snotty to my younger sister Elbereth, who rooted for the Jazz–and I regret that. (Not necessarily rooting against the Jazz, but being mean because of it.)

    However, I think my biggest emotional attachments have involved Olympic gymnastics. In particular I remember Eve’s wedding day, which was in July 1996. We cleaned up after the reception, and went home to watch the individual all-around, which was incredibly depressing, as gymnast after gymnast took the lead only to make a mistake that effectively took her out of the competition. I was especially sad to see Shannon Miller stumble. It was a rough night. (We still tease Eve that that’s what was most memorable about her wedding day.)

  20. 20.

    Jordan’s blatant shove of Russell – as the refs swallowed their whistles (I HATE that practice; call the end of the game the way you call the rest of the game! You say, “We don’t want the refs to decide the game,” but that’s exactly what they do when they swallow their whistles! End of rant) was the emotional low point for me.

    Ray, regarding your rant, amen and AMEN. I also find it immensely frustrating when officiating in the playoffs in general seem to be officiated differently than the regular season. I completely agree that the “let the players decide” line is a load of crap. Would they reject the need to call players for going out of bounds in the last two minutes? Why not just let them play? Huh?

    I share your pain over the 1997 and 1998 Jazz, as I was rooting for them at the time. Forgive my fickleness–I lived in Utah at the time and now live in Arizona. Actually, I’ve kind of continued to root for both teams, which hasn’t been too difficult to negotiate given that the teams don’t really seem to be rivals at all. I don’t hold out much hope this year for the Jazz against the Lakers, but I was impressed that they managed to pull off wins in both games 3 and 4 at home.

    Jon, that ’87 collapse must have been horrible. Did you take any comfort in the Tigers then turning around and losing to the underdog Twins in the ALCS? I guess probably not. It is nice that your team finally broke through to win, though.

    Lynnette, I had forgotten that you used to root against the Jazz! But wasn’t it you who earlier (before I saw the light of Jazz fandom) chastized me for not rooting for them because you said I should be “loyal to my state”? :)

  21. 21.

    While baseball statistics get all the limelight, I think basketball actually presents more interesting statistical problems — since many of the biggest contributions players make come in acts that don’t get recorded and are hard to measure. So indirect inference is needed; much more fun and challenging…

    The post makes a great point, Ziff. Should I point out that your central dilemma has scientific confirmation? A bunch of different research in psychology and behavioral economics suggests that people feel a loss as about 4-5 times more emotionally powerful than a gain of corresponding magnitude. And since all teams — even the really great ones — tend to win about half of really close games and lose about the other half, watching a non-blowout with a rooting interest is in expectation a great way to make oneself miserable.

    I guess there are a few ways out, most of which involve really distancing oneself from direct engagement with the sport. If you don’t want to do that, I think the only other option is just to embrace the misery. I remind myself that nothing’s really at stake, and then the pain becomes play-pain and we can get on with things.

    So, for example, I can look back at the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals with nostalgia — even though the memory still burns…

  22. 22.

    Rt,

    I agree with you that basketball statistics are underrated. The problem is that we often don’t apply them intelligently.

    Fir instance, I think it is misleading to judge a point guard the way we usually do, on the basis of steals, turnovers, and shooting percentage. A far better measure of a point guard’s effectiveness is team shooting percentage. A good guard can get the ball to his teammates in positions where they feel comforatble shooting. He can help mediocre shooters look good, and a poor guard can make good shooters look bad, because he forces them to take the ball in places and situations where they are uncomfortable.

  23. 23.

    Mark, that’s actually a burning issue among basketball statisticians. For example, generally speaking, when a player goes from a team with a great point guard to a team with a lesser point guard, that player’s shooting percentage usually doesn’t change very much and seems to go up about as often as it goes down. In general, it’s hard to make a solid statistical case for the hypothesis that any particular player has the ability to make his teammates offensively better. If you want to improve your team’s field goal percentage, the best approach remains hiring a player whose career field goal percentage is higher than the team’s current average or firing one of your worst-shooting players.

    However, on the defensive end — which is currently the great black hole of basketball statistics — I think there may be much more of a teammate effect; playing defense as a guard when you have Tim Duncan or Dikembe Mutombo behind you has to be easier than when you have, e.g., Jarron Collins as your second line of defense.

    But, generally speaking, I think measures of players’ quality (offensive or defensive) based only on measured accomplishments (blocks, steals, baskets, etc.) are misleading. They disregard the quality of teammates and opponents, as well as less measured things such as setting good screens, playing excellent on-the-ball defense, moving the ball quickly in set plays, etc. The best measures, I think, are based on a player’s plus-minus conditional on the plus-minuses of the other players on the floor at the same time and the statistical quality of the player’s substitutes on the team. (Plus-minus, of course, being his team’s relative success when he’s on the floor versus when he’s on the bench.)

  24. 24.

    RT,

    Hmm. I’ll take your word for the skepticism about offensive stats. I will maintain, however, that team shooting % is still a more valuable tool for evaluation than numbers of assists.

    I agree completely with you about team defense. Larry Bird had slow feet and was therefore a horrible one on one defender, but he was invaluable on team defense, because he understood when to pressure the ball, when to double team, and when to sag back into the passing lanes. Some players have an almost uncanny knack for coming up with a steal at a critical moment in the game.

    In general, I think stats are fun if they help explain what happened in the game. Baseball is the most open, because you can look at a box score and make sense of what happened, even if you didn’t see the game. Football is a mess because the stats don’t reveal much, and sometimes they actually obscure what happened. Basketball and hockey are the most fluid of games, so it is hard to capture what is going on with numbers.

  25. 25.

    I’ll also add that one reason I find baseball so interesting is that the stats allowed themselves to be reconfigured in ways that give additional meaning.

    Batting average is one measure of success, but slugging percentage is even better because it accounts for multiple base hits. And OPS is even better because it accounts for multiple base hits, plus bases on balls, hit by pitch, sacrifice flies, etc. (One reason I love the game is because sometimes making an out (via sac. fly) is nontheless considered good for the team because it advances a runner, so consequently it counts in the offensive stats.

    The downside is that you can get carried away with them. A few years ago I got really excited about batting average with runners in scoring position. Some batters were just average .275 hitters until they had teammates on second or third, then their average jumped to .450. They then started to measure BA with the go ahead run on second or third in the late innings. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker and became an annoying shill until it was demonstrated to me that BA is remarkably stable over time, and that any observed differences with runners on base are anomalies that even themselves out. Then I felt pretty dumb.

  26. 26.

    Take assists, shooting percentage, team shooting percentage, steals and scoring average and evaluate point guards. I’d like to see the results.

    Stats are flawed in a game like basketball because there is such an interplay between what one player does and how that influences another’s stats. My favorite example is Jordan and Pippen. Pippin was seen as a Hall of Fame player and one of the best 50 of all-time when he played with Jordan. Take Jordan away, and Pippin was just another all-star.

    The real test of ability is how someone performs when they are the only option – when their team is a waste of space around them. The Cavs getting to the finals last year was amazing. You can beat the Cavaliers by triple teaming James; you can’t beat the Celtics by triple teaming Garnett – or the Jazz by triple teaming Boozer. I can’t think of a single NBA championship team that didn’t have at least two legitimate all-stars, if not two legitimate Hall of Fame players. (There probably is one, but I don’t care enough at the moment to go back through all of them. Even the Lakers this year only are what they are because they have Fisher and Gasol.)

  27. 27.

    Good point about the research on a loss feeling worse than a gain of the same size, RT. I hadn’t even made that connection. Actually, the social science research that this discussion made me think of is the minimal group stuff where people identify with a group based on the flimsiest of reasons. Have them estimate the number of dots on a screen and then tell them at random that they’re an overestimator or underestimator. Suddenly they identify enough with their group to give more to members of the same group when playing a game. That’s totally my experience with choosing rooting preferences. Based on the most trivial reasons–because a team is an underdog, for example–I can get hugely involved in a game and then be massively disappointed when my team (which I didn’t identify with until the game started) loses.

    Interesting discussion about basketball stats–so where should I start if I want to read what the basketball statisticians have to say, RT? I’m at least fairly well read about baseball, but I don’t know the first thing about statistical analysis in basketball.

    Mark, I agree with you about liking baseball because the stats are the most open. The discrete nature of the play really contributes to measuring performance meaningfully. You can do all kinds of fun things like win probability analysis that I think the Hardball Times people do, where you estimate the probability of each team winning the game before and after each play, assign credit/blame for the play, and you have a measure of performance that is completely situation-adjusted, at least within the game. Of course it doesn’t account for the meaningfulness of games–it assigns the same value to a game if winning the division hinges on it or if it’s the last game of the season for a team that’s going to finish with over 100 losses.

    To the degree that analysis of sports performance can be broken down into measurement versus statistics, I lean toward enjoying the statistics side of things. I’d rather have measurement questions settled and have good measures that I can use to answer fun questions, although I can definitely see the appeal of asking interesting questions about measurement. I think that’s probably why baseball is my favorite.

  28. 28.

    Regarding the question of evaluating point guards, I like the approach you all have taken, RT, Mark, and Ray, of assuming a team’s entire offense is in some sense traceable to what a point guard does. So the question is, what would a good point guard do that a bad point guard wouldn’t? Perhaps by superior passing and running the offense in general, he gets his teammates good looks earlier in the shot clock than a poor point guard would. Assuming that players are reluctant to take poor shots until the shot clock is running out, then their shooting percentages wouldn’t really suffer with a bad point guard. It’s just that it would take 18 seconds to work the ball for a good look instead of 12 or something. This might account for the finding you cite, RT, that a player’s shooting percentage isn’t reliably predictable from the quality of the point guard he’s playing with. But then point guard quality would show up in other measures. Longer times to get to a good shot mean greater probabilities of losing the ball by a bad pass, a steal, or a shot clock violation. These turnovers wouldn’t necessarily be charged to the point guard, but they may be ultimately attributable to him nonetheless.

    Just a thought.

  29. 29.

    Ziff, if you like Hardball TImes, you’ll like Baseball Musings, too. Just try to overlook the pinstripes.

  30. 30.

    Btw, I think the discussion of point guards now generally is different than the same discussion 15 or more years ago. Most teams then ran more organized offenses that required a point guard be the “non-shooting” guard. The way many teams play now is quite different.

    I think that’s why some of the most famous point guards over the last two decades are from teams that ran specific offenses that depended heavily on coordination, timing and floor management. Magic Johnson and John Stockton come to mind immediately, and it’s instructive that the new “floor generals” of note play for . . . the Utah Jazz (Jerry Sloan) and the Charlotte Hornets (Byron Scott). That’s no coincidence.

  31. 31.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Mark.

    Interesting point, Ray. If I understand right, you’re talking about the situation now where a point guard is expected to carry more of the scoring load than he used to. I’m sure you’re right that the differences in the job description–what was expected of a point guard–would require different methods of evaluating them over time.

    Given this I can really see the appeal of RT’s suggestion of using each individual player’s +/- score conditional on the +/- scores of the other players on the floor. Certainly this approach has its flaws, but it’s good in that it looks at the outcome of interest–team points–without getting bogged down in potential distractions like assists.

  32. 32.

    Those of us who are cursed to be Cleveland fans learned perspective ages ago: it’s about how you enjoy the game, not whether you win.

  33. 33.

    Go Saints! Become a fan of facebook page here: Colts Will Lose Super Bowl 2010!

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