As the #NBARanks war rages on, fans and players hurl insults and hurts at the NBA writers of America, pontificating relentlessly of the value of “playing” or “watching” over stats.
Here is my great confession: I am a professional NBA writer who is bad at basketball. I’m 50 years old. I have one lung. And I would probably lose a game of one-on-one to Riley Curry.
If all you’re going to evaluate my ability to understand hoops on is my playing ability, I’m guilty. Here’s my unabashed story of the highlight of my playing career.
It was my ninth-grade team, and I played on a school roughly the size of Hickory High. It was one of those teams where if you “tried out,” you made the team, just because we needed players to fill uniforms.
Now, in the 9th grade, I was 5’2″ and 105 pounds. My vertical was “phone book, ” and I was about as fast as a turtle jetting its way through frozen molasses. Alright. No one was confusing me with being an elite athlete, including me.
Still, I loved the game, and I loved to play. I went to practice and tried my heart out. I learned the playbook and conceptually how things were supposed to work. I knew what to do. My body just didn’t execute the commands that my brain gave it.
So I became the backup point guard, more because I understood what was supposed to happen than for my ability to make it happen. That was also convenient because our best player was our starting point guard, and he stayed in until the games were meaningless.
So one day, we’re in this tournament, and it’s the finals. We’re playing this other “Hickory High” type team that literally only had six players. But their point guard could win a race with light itself–while dribbling.
We’re going back and forth, and it’s a heck of a game. I’m on the bench screaming for Chad (our starting point) for all I’m worth. And then he fouls out. They have the ball, but we’re up one point with like 15 seconds or something on the clock.
So, Chad fouls out. And the coach is telling me to get in there, and I’m like, “I am so screwed.”
Their point guard eyeballs me like, “Yeah, I know why you’ve been on the bench the whole game.” And he drives straight at me. I’m petrified.
He jukes right.
I stand petrified.
He feints left.
I stand petrified.
He comes straight at me.
I stand petrified.
Next thing I know, I’m hurling backward on my keister across the floor, and the ref is blowing the whistle.
Game over. I’m the hero of the game. I literally get carried off the floor with everyone screaming “great defense!” And I keep to myself I was just too terrified to move.
That’s the apex of my playing career, right there. I admit it. I’m not a great player.
But like I said. I loved the game. Have since I was nine. And of course, since I loved the game, I always watched.
And I spent a lifetime, whether it was on the bench or the couch, watching basketball.
My first, favorite player was Dr. J. Then I watched the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson era unfold. When Magic retired, Michael Jordan took over. Then I watched the Kobe and Shaq Lakers dominate the league.
I watched the David Robinson/Tim Duncan era turn slowly into the Tim Duncan/Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili era.
I watched the rise of LeBron from high school to MVP to champion.
I rejoiced when “League Pass” became a thing and have subscribed every year since 2000.
Somewhere around 2004, I started blogging as a hobby, and that took my “fan game” to another level. The more I wrote, the more I dug into the numbers. The more I dug into the numbers the more I watched.
Stats and watching (contrary to what some would have you believe) are not inherently in conflict. They enhance one another; they don’t fight each other. You don’t question whether a player averages 20 points per game. If he does, he does.
But you might question why he does and watch to see that happen. If it’s because he’s jacking up 28 shots per game, you might not be as impressed.
As I started down this writing road, the emerging field of analytics caught my attention because that enhances the understanding of the “whys.”
As different metrics emerged and got hashed out by the writing community, I learned about what they do and don’t say and how to use them responsibly.
As I learned, my writing matured. Eventually, it ripened to the point that Bleacher Report (early Bleacher Report) offered me a job, which was just splendid. But that came after six years of writing, learning and watching games.
League Pass started to make games available online after they were played. It’s convenient because it cuts out commercials and halftime so that you can get through it quicker.
So I started watching games in the afternoon as well as the evening.
As my writing career grew, I got to know some of the other writers. Some of them have gone on to get jobs with NBA teams. (Shout out to Seth Partnow who mentored me more than he knows both through his writing and advice).
I learned more from them, not just about knowing what stats were out there, but how to interpret them and check them against the eye test.
Learning how to watch basketball–not as a fan, but as an analyst–was a big step forward for me as a writer. I started to recognize some of the “homerism” in my writing.
Not only that, it expanded my understanding of the game. I started paying more attention to things like how well a player set screens or ran through them. It’s easy when you’re passively watching to focus on just the ball and not the whole court.
I found different sites that would layout and explain different plays. As I watched, I would consciously try to identify the play sets, looking to understand what different players (both offense and defense) were “supposed” to do with different actions.
Synergy came along and that was money! I could watch a player on offense or defense as long as I wanted. I could notice patterns–whether a player fought to go over screens or not, whether he saw them coming…things beyond basic “can he stay in front of the dribbler” type stuff that you might not notice when you’re just “watching the game.”
Synergy went away and came back at an exorbitant price which I happily pay because the video is worth far more than the numbers alone.
And so I still grew as a writer, and as I grew as a writer, the number of sites I write for and the amount of money they’re willing to pay me has also grown. Now I make a decently comfortable living doing nothing but writing about basketball.
Not bad for a kid whose greatest play ever was being too terrified to move.
There’s this kind of sophistry that gets spewed on Twitter that says something like “Just because you have a blue check doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about.” Or, “you never played so what could you know?”
(Also, most of the people who present this challenge don’t know about how I once saved the tournament with my great defense, but I digress).
I’m not claiming I know everything.
And I’m not saying there’s no benefit to playing at an organized level beyond high school.
But what I’m trying to convey in a long-winded way here is that yes, I do watch games.
I watch a lot of games. I think a lot about the NBA. I learn and grope and grow.
And the more I know, the more I know what I don’t know.
Among the things I don’t know is that I don’t know what it is to be a player. I try and compensate for some of that lack by studying plays and play types, but I understand it’s not the same thing as making the right decision on the court.
That doesn’t mean I can’t understand what the right decision is.
And it doesn’t mean I don’t know what I do know.
I don’t think I know everything, and I have learned something.
And speaking on behalf of all the 100-plus writers that voted in ESPN’s ranking (though, I’m not one of them) and every verified writer I’ve ever known.
We do watch games. Probably more than most.
And yes. We do know something about basketball. We don’t write because we got the blue checks. We got the blue checks because of our writing. And our writing got noticed because at least someone thought we knew what we’re talking about.
So before you set aside the opinion of over 100 paid professionals who write and study…and watch games far more than you probably do, consider one thing: Maybe you’re the one who is wrong.
Do you know what you don’t know? Or is that your confession?