Basketball Rah-Rah

8 January, 1996

The NBA News is the weekly newsletter sent by the league to all the media outlets that cover the NBA. It provides cumulative season stats, scores from the past week, transactions, TV schedules, and contact information. It also has a fair share of feel-good articles, building up mediocre players and mounting praise on the league's stars. I don't mind a little bit of this, but sometimes the "Up With People" tone of the NBA News can drive me crazy. Actually, for a long time, the NBA refused to publish individual player turnovers (in such things as the NBA Guide) because, as I was told, they didn't want to publish negative statistics. Ick.

So what am I going to do in this article? I'm going to (objectively?) say why basketball is so great.

I'm no psychologist, but I know from observation that people like a fair fight. That's why parity is a goal in pro sports. When the two opponents in a game have a 50% chance of winning, people will watch. If we accept that people are curious by nature, I could be technical (which is my nature) and say that they have an innate desire for information. And, taking this technical thing further, there is more information in the result of a 50-50 game than in an 80-20 game. The winner of a 50-50 game is guaranteed to tell us that one of the two teams looks better. If the winner of the 80-20 game is the 80 team, that doesn't tell us much.

OK, so why does this make the NBA better than other sports? The reason is that the offense and the defense are very evenly matched in basketball, as opposed to, say, soccer, which is brutally defensive. The percentage of possessions on which the offense scores in basketball is just over 50%, about 53% for the past couple seasons, down from 54-55% in the mid 80's. Thus, every time the offense has the ball, we get information. That's why Hubie Brown (and all those other guys) are so prone to saying that the momentum is swinging on every possession. Thus, we don't have to wait as long in basketball as in soccer to revise our odds of the winner. It can change quite a bit from possession to possession. In soccer, it dramatically changes with every goal, but almost none from possession to possession (or from minute to minute). Basketball is an emotional roller coaster, taking you constantly through the highs and lows of winning or losing. Other sports, like soccer or football or baseball or hockey or tennis, don't change so rapidly. So if basketball is a roller coaster, one might say that watching other sports is like riding a monorail. One might say this, but I didn't. I actually like other sports, so don't write to me complaining.

A few years ago, a Stanford professor told me about some proof he did that said that all sports were equally exciting. I didn't buy it then and I honestly didn't understand the mathematics he was using to prove it. This is my friendly retort to that proof.