The Joy of Stats
The brainy, numbers-crunching Jewish fans who’ve revolutionized pro sports and realized every geek fan’s dream are celebrated as heroes at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
Cuban has hired people to analyze which individual referees make what calls—the league records only which penalties are assessed against which players—and discern patterns in that data. By definition, then, he is a referee analyst, and he offered one of the best defenses of this field of advanced metrics—or, really, of any field of advanced metrics—that I have heard. “Everybody’s got a different skill set, and I wanted to be aware of each official’s skill set to the best of our ability,” he told the crowd. Perhaps certain refs are simply “better” at calling three-second violations or “better” at calling offensive fouls, much as certain basketball players are better at making uncontested three-point shots or better at forcing opponents to turn the ball over. If Cuban knows which ones they are and other teams don’t, that might be worth three points in one game, which might be worth one more win, which might be worth one more home-field advantage in the playoffs, which might be worth the championship. And since only one team out of 30 will win the championship, it is far from outlandish to pour real resources into obtaining even the tiniest of edges. No wonder Cuban looked so pleased onstage, chewing gum as though in conscious effort to keep his mouth shut about the blatant imperfections and occasional scandalous biases of NBA refs. How sweet it will be when he gets his championship—and his last laugh.
On Saturday morning, I attended the “New Sports Owners: The Challenges and Opportunities” panel, moderated by Jessica Gelman. Simmons was back, but much quieter; he was joined by Joe Lacob, the relatively new owner of basketball’s Golden State Warriors; Jeff Moorad, who is the relatively new owner of baseball’s San Diego Padres; and Wyc Grousbeck, the less relatively new co-owner of basketball’s Boston Celtics. Lacob was in town to see his mediocre Warriors, and, naturally, they’d lost the night before, 103-107, to the Celtics, who would later secure the Eastern Conference’s third seed and who have just swept the New York Knicks to make the second round of the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Grousbeck opened the panel by sarcastically shoveling the shit of last night’s defeat into Lacob’s mouth while the Boston crowd cheered. Lacob took it good-naturedly, though I didn’t see why he should have.
After the panel, Lacob was in the hallway for the next hour-and-a-half, talking to whomever wanted to talk to him. Sometimes these people looked fairly important; other times they were kids, all light-blue oxford shirts and acne. I departed when Lacob did, around 12:30 pm—he got his bag and coat from the check immediately before I did—and I watched him wheel out, alone, a shortish man with tan skin and brown hair combed over what’s maybe a bald spot in the middle of his head, trying to figure out which exit of the vast, empty first floor of the Boston Convention Center would most quickly lead him into the cushioned seat of a cab. This is insane, I thought. And it was. Joe Lacob is worth millions, all of it self-made. Dude could have been anywhere. But he was at the Boston Convention Center at 9 in the morning on a Saturday in early March. Why didn’t he just stay in what is, after all, the Golden State? Or if he wanted to travel with his team, why wouldn’t he sleep in, or go eat a $60 brunch at one of Boston’s finest dining establishments? Why go, and then stick around talking to whomever wants to talk? How much of an “edge” could his team really get from that? And even if there is a slight edge to be gained, or the potential for one, well, it’s only sports.
To which the reply comes: Well, it’s only life. For a while, it astounded me that NFL quarterbacks are among the most scrutinized people on Earth despite the fact that they are actively relevant for roughly a few hours on precisely 16 days each year (and a few more hours on a few more days, if your team is really good). But I’ve learned that we do this to quarterbacks because we also do it to ourselves. We spend an astonishing amount of our waking hours establishing, mundanely, the foundations of a few happy moments. We expend massive chunks of time on our apartments or houses so that when we arrive home each day, the first 30 seconds will be slightly more pleasant. If we are lucky to have jobs we enjoy, these still mostly involve positioning ourselves for the comparatively few moments of triumph that make them worthwhile. We work to make money, and deprive ourselves of certain things to save more, so that we can travel someplace nice every few months, or eat an especially satisfying meal every couple of weeks, or buy someone we like a nice gift for her birthday. Yet it’s all worth it, partly because it has to be. When Lacob (not Jewish, alas) or Cuban or Okrent or Epstein or Schatz or you or I treat sports as though it is any other immaterial, bottom-line discipline—all while maintaining the crucial double consciousness that sports are one of life’s pleasures, and something we do “just for fun”—we are not making sports into something just as joyless as the rest of life. We are making sports into something just as joyful as the rest of life.
A top Obama Afghanistan adviser reviews a new book examining the end-of-days pulp novels popular in the Islamic world, potboilers that mix Western science-fiction tropes with classic anti-Semitism