Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

June 8, 2011

Disagreeing with the First Lady

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:50 am

When Barack Obama was running for president in the fall of 2008, much was made of his fondness for pickup basketball. We were told that First Lady Michelle Obama even used the court to learn a little more about her then-boyfriend, enlisting brother Craig Robinson (who also, yes, happens to be the Oregon State head coach) to play against Obama and report back.

“When I got him out on the court in a pickup basketball game, I saw his character traits,” Robinson later told Inc. magazine. “He was honest, hard-working and team-oriented. He had high integrity.”

The implication here is clear: Basketball reveals aspects of our fundamental nature that are not as quickly apparent when we are more guarded in our normal day-to-day interaction. I suspect many of you have had similar experiences with coworkers or classmates. In addition to my experience playing staff hoops with the Seattle Storm front office, I remember how much we all learned when what were supposed to be casual games of dodgeball turned into fierce debates over the finer points of the rules.

There’s a limit to this process, however. Basketball and other sports are a shortcut for learning more about someone’s character, not the sum total of it. Just because someone happens to be a ballhog on the court does not automatically make them a bad person, or vice versa. I think there is a danger of forgetting this when we watch athletes we do not know in real life. When players like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook fall short, this is often interpreted as a failure of character rather than a basketball issue.

In part, this is a matter of neglecting sample size; we tend to overestimate the extent to which a single play or game reflects innate ability rather than chance, which is why players get labeled chokers on the basis of a handful of misses or losses. It also demonstrates that too much blame or credit is given to coaches and star players rather than allowing teams to win or lose as a whole. Mostly, though, it’s a case of confusing the symbol of basketball performance with the underlying characteristics it symbolizes.

This is nothing new, of course. Bill James was railing against similar things in his writing decades ago. What has changed is the fervor of the assessments. In the opinion age–and I firmly believe that’s what we live in, not the “information age”–there are so many takes offered that it has become necessary to shout loudly to be heard from the pack. The ability to count page views has also increased the value of a polarizing take as compared to a more thoughtful, nuanced analysis that doesn’t drive clickthroughs. Lastly, the rapid news cycle has sped up the process by which players are glorified and cast aside, often multiple times within the same playoff series.

James–LeBron, that is–had a bad game by his standards Wednesday. No doubt about that. But it was a failure in basketball terms, of missed shots, turnovers, getting beaten on defense and not making the right play to help his team rather than a lack of desire to win or compete. Let’s discuss it as such.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton. He suspects Mrs. Obama doesn’t actually disagree, but it made for a snappier title than “On Basketball and Character.”

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