Assists aren’t all that, man

Last night on Twitter, people had an epileptic seizure over Flip Pressey’s assist total. The Missouri point guard had 19 assists to go with 19 points in Missouri’s loss to UCLA. It was a remarkable performance. I watched it on the DVR after the fact, and Pressey was spectacular. He might be the best point guard in the country. 

So what I’m about to say is not a reflection of my opinion of Flip Pressey, he just happens to have created the most newsworthy anecdote for this philosophical screed I am about to dump on your head.

Ready?

All you have to do in order to get an assist is throw the ball to someone else. It is the most basic possible action in basketball. It is even more basic than dribbling, in fact, because dribbling was not even allowed when basketball was first invented. At the essence of the game, an offensive player has but two options:

1) Shoot. 

2) Pass. 

Anything else done in basketball — dribbling, rebounding, etc. — is either done in service of (or reaction to) one of those two actions. 

So if your combination circumstance and skill does not allow you to score yourself, you pass it to somebody else who can. That’s pretty much the game. And it’s why the basketball assist is the most overrated sports statistic this side of the RBI. 

This is not to say it is easy to accumulate a great number of assists, necessarily. Anybody who gets more than about 10 assists in a basketball game is clearly adept at getting the ball to advantageous positions on the floor. But he also almost certainly spends the vast majority of the game with the ball in his hands, which may or may not be a good thing. I bet there is a player on every Top 25 team who could average eight assists per game if for some reason his coach told him “I want you to average eight assists per game.”

You have certainly heard the story about Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt, of course, was at the time the most unstoppable force in the history of sports. But because he scored so much and his teams could never win the championship, Wilt started hearing a lot about how he wasn’t a team player. So in 1967-68, Wilt decided to lead the NBA in assists, and that’s then he did. This would change everything, Wilt thought.

Now, this says a lot about Wilt Chamberlain, mainly that in addition to be utterly unguardable he was sadly unable to understand the way public perception works. But it also proves a couple things about the assist, which are that (1) it is not necessarily a selfless act, and (2) a player with the ball in his hands a lot can easily manipulate his assist total.

Any basketball fan can recall a player who seemed to pursue assists for impure reasons. Julian Wright comes to mind for me. I think Julian was probably a good teammate, but he was constantly trying to throw passes when shooting would have been the more efficient and more certain way of scoring the points. A fair number of those passes ended up stuck in a tuba. 

Another reason the assist is a bad statistic is that it fails to account for approximately 90 percent of the reason a basket is scored. The quality of the screen set, the rotation of the defense, the effectiveness of the cut, the position of the other offensive players, and so on. 

Basketball is not a good sport for statistical analysis, because most basketball events lose their meaning when isolated from their context. And no basketball statistic means less than the assist. 

 

 

My grandpa, our hero

My grandfather carried a machine gun through the jungles in Korea and Vietnam. His call sign was “Killer66Yankee.” He wasn’t drafted.

He enlisted in the United States Army when he was just 17. You weren’t supposed to be able to do that, but he lied about his age. He wanted in.

My grandpa had grown up during the Great Depression in Hutchinson, Kansas. When he was a boy he would go around from house to house collecting eggs the hens were laying in people’s back yards, because in those days you could sell your eggs to the neighborhood grocery store.

He was an ornery rascal. There is an underground waterway in Hutchinson, and there’s a story about my grandpa, as a young boy, getting in some hot water for cruising that waterway on an innertube. When he was a teenager, he got his ear pierced. You can imagine how that went over at that time, in the middle of Kansas. He was a boxer, too, and that made sense. Boxing has always been a sport for hardscrabble kids like Arthur Lyman.

That orneriness never left him. Sometimes, at Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’d see him messing around with one of my nieces or nephews or little cousins, and you’d wonder which one the kid was.

And yet this was a man and he did man’s work. He could fix anything except a car; he hated working on cars. But he’d lick anything else. When I was 13, he and I dug a trench along the side of his house deep enough to patch a crack in the basement wall. He laid the concrete that made my grandparents’ back porch. He built a bathroom, from scratch, in the basement. He repaired other people’s lawnmowers. On the Fourth of July, he made ice cream.

Not too far from my home in Houston, he helped build The Woodlands Mall, back when The Woodlands was still kind of a small thing. I drive past The Woodlands every time I go home.

When, in his final days, some work needed to be done on the house and he was too weak to do it himself, he insisted he be wheeled out there to watch the repairmen work. He wanted to make sure it got done right.

He supposedly retired sometime in the 90s, but he never really stopped working. He was that kind of guy.

But he was also this kind of guy: My mom says that never, in her whole life, did she see him not clean his plate of whatever her mom served him, whether it was any good or not. Never heard him complain. My mom must have told me that 20 years ago, which would have been about 20 years after she moved out. It’s such a small thing, but look at the impression it’s made.

Grandpa had a Jeep I used to ride in. When he took trips he always had to have Jelly Beans. That Jeep smelled like cigarettes — Winstons, the hard stuff. He quit years ago, but they still got him. He’d been getting treatment for lung cancer. Last night it took him.

A couple of years ago on Veteran’s Day my sister and I posted a couple things on Facebook about our grandfather and our appreciation for his service. He wasn’t on Facebook, of course, but my other sister e-mailed him what we’d written.

He wrote back: “I served my country for you.”

What doesn’t kill you probably makes you a moron

For a long time, I have wondered why anybody ever uses the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It is supposed to be empowering, I suppose. But there are lots of other choices when it comes to empowering little sayings, and most of them are at least kind of true.

This one isn’t even the least bit true. At the risk of being pedantic and obvious, I am going to explain why, because apparently this actually does need to be explained.

A nonexhaustive list of things that wouldn’t necessarily kill you but definitely would not make you stronger:

  • Losing a leg.
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Muscular atrophy.
  • Alcoholism.
  • A donut.
  • Anxiety.
  • Cataracts.
  • Bullet in the leg.
  • Bear trap.
  • Etc.

I know this saying is supposed to be partially metaphorical. Seems that it is most commonly used by young women who are making a vague reference to a romantic relationship. I am painting with an awfully broad brush, here, but in my personal experience the people most likely to apply this saying to their love life are the people who are constantly experiencing destructive relationships. In other words, they do not seem to be getting any stronger, and certainly not any smarter. They do, however, write things with MiSplaCeD CaPiTalS (for some reason) and take self-portraits in the bathroom mirror.

These kinds of people are especially fond of this saying for two main reasons: (1) It allows them to perceive their self-destructive behaviors as a type of delayed-gratification self-improvement, a tearing down in order to build back up, like they’re lifting weights, and, (2) they’re morons.

Most people can see that this saying is inaccurate and mostly meaningless, but the people who can see that aren’t the ones who need it to be true and meaningful, because they can view their own experiences with at least a marginal degree of objectivity.

Most of us (if we find any sort of inspiration in little sayings at all), can get by on more realistic, practical sayings, like the following;

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson.

“Keep sawin’ wood.” — Mark Mangino.

And

“Remember to always be yourself, unless you suck.” — Joss Whedon.

The Ironic Athlete is coming

Sometime soon, there will be a true hipster basketball player. He will be a point guard from Brooklyn, and he’ll be one of the top 25 players in his class. His recruitment will be a national story. He will take visits to all the big schools. Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, etc. And he will take lots and lots of other visits to schools he has no interest in attending whatsoever. Miami, Seton Hall, Washington, etc.

And then, on signing day, he will have a “press conference” in the library at his high school. When it comes time to announce his decision, he will pull out a Nebraska letterman’s sweater.

Someone will ask him why he chose Nebraska.

“I just thought it would be hilarious,” he will say. “Like, me at Nebraska. It’s so funny to me.”

He will be the first player to choose a school for its ironical impact.

Athletes and irony do not (intentionally) mix well. Beginning in the latter stages of the Reagan administration, American culture started becoming ironic and hasn’t really stopped since. We are a highly ironical people.

But athletes are, generally speaking, the exception to this. It’s remarkable. Athletes and grandmas are the most earnest people in America. Just listen to how they talk. They are so serious. They are so tuned in. This thing they do is an Important Thing.

I could easily make fun of this, but I shouldn’t, because earnestness is a good quality and irony is a dead end. Irony only begets more irony. It’s a response, not a prescription. In this way, we should all be more like athletes. (Can you tell I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace?)

That said, I think that day is coming, and when it arrives I will love it.