Michael Moynihan: Courting some new perspectives on the same sport

'LeBron James was a free agent and everyone was running breathless coverage of his options... My idea was call smart people in other fields and talk to them about it - wine critics and so on'
Michael Moynihan: Courting some new perspectives on the same sport

'LeBron James was a free agent and everyone was running breathless coverage of his options... My idea was call smart people in other fields and talk to them about it - wine critics and so on'

My question to Nick Greene was pretty straightforward.

“What makes basketball basketball?”

His answer?

“What makes basketball basketball proved to be a harder question to answer than I originally anticipated.

“When you look at the original rules of the game... It might be better not being able to see one of those early games because it would look so different to the modern game.”

I was chatting to Greene, a contributing writer for Slate (slate.com), about his book How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius.

With so many sports coming back on stream at all levels, I thought a fresh perspective might be handy. The book originated with a piece Greene wrote a few years ago: “LeBron James was a free agent and everyone was running breathless coverage of his options, and where he was going to go.

“My idea was, ‘I don’t have any NBA contacts but why don’t I call smart people in other fields and talk to them about it - wine critics and so on’.

“In doing that I realised I liked talking about basketball with random smart people, and I learned a lot. I had a lot of assumptions about the game, as someone who watches a lot of it, but those conversations helped me to look at the area with fresh eyes.”

I mentioned Green’s book to a pal and explained what it was about: the pal asked if it was my platonic ideal of the perfect sports book.

Close enough.

Making a jaded subject come alive is a tall order in any genre. By talking to theoretical physicists and ballet dancers, Greene’s provides a fresh perspective on basketball.

For instance, he spoke to game designers about the rules of basketball: they pointed out that “making rules that open up possibilities and allow people to play, that’s the aim of game design.”

Think about that one - how many sports rules are based on what participants are not allowed to do?

It’s not all theory, either. The vexed question of improving free throw accuracy gets a hands-on examination courtesy of a dynamicist Greene spoke to, “who’s run thousands -maybe millions - of computer models to work out the perfect free throw.

“He knows the vectors and angles which make it perfect, but the hard thing is getting humans to do that.

“He says it’s more advantageous to shoot free throws from above your head if you can remember that motion perfectly well and do it under stress - but shooting underhand is so easy.

“The pendular motion of your arms, there’s not much you need to remember and less room for the human being to mess up.”

Why don’t professional players use this option, then? You’ll have to read the book to find the answer.

James Naismith, the inventor of the sport, is a key figure in the book. Greene gives him huge credit him for “relinquishing control” of basketball - for understanding others could improve the game he had invented. He also points out the importance of luck, which is “something that doesn’t speak to the philosophical nature of how basketball is always basketball, but which is very important.

“Take the fact the balcony he hung the original basket from in the YMCA gymnasium was 10 feet from the floor. That has been the one standard through line in the sport, the basket being 10 feet from the floor. As long as that’s there everything else will fall in line - and the game will be recognisable.”

True enough. And thanks for the template.

How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius: What Game Designers, Economists, Ballet Choreographers, and Theoretical Astrophysicists Reveal About the Greatest Game on Earth by Nick Greene.

Concussion data is still needed

A couple of weeks ago I was writing here about the lack of data when it comes to gauging concussion in female sportspeople, and there was a reminder of the urgency of the issue during the week.

A study in Michigan which compared teen girls and boys playing soccer suggested that girls may face double the risk of concussion while playing the sport — and may also take up to two days more than their male equivalents to recover.

Another finding from the same study suggested girls were one and a half times less likely to be substituted than boys having sustained a suspected concussion.

That data gap is enough in itself to underline the importance of more research into the perils of concussion, but it also points up the importance of acknowledging that basic difference in male and female physiology when it comes to sport.

Understanding this difference will become more and more important as female participation in sport grows: if the only lesson learned is that women are not slightly smaller men when it comes to injuries, fitness and training, then call it a start at least.

Find that ancestry, find those funds

When news broke during the week that Shane Lowry was to back Offaly GAA, there was a curious duality to the reaction.

Shane Lowry announced he will sponsor Offaly GAA
Shane Lowry announced he will sponsor Offaly GAA

Most people your columnist is acquainted with went with a variation on the theme of, ‘well, fair dues to him for putting his money where his mouth is’. A lot of the same people then moved to a variation on ‘where is the person doing the same for my county?’ (Smug throat-clearing from Limerick will not be acknowledged.)

I don’t cover golf but I’m well aware of Lowry’s standing in that sport, and his genuine love for the GAA — unsurprising, given his pedigree. As a model for other counties, though, is this approach sustainable? Find a sports hero and lasso them with an appeal to the heartstrings, and thence to the purse-strings?

This could lead to an explosion in amateur genealogy if nothing else, with all sorts of connections to Ireland, from the true to the tenuous, being teased out in the coming months.

Kudos to Ross Carr of Down being quick out of the blocks on social media, nudging Rory McIlroy with his fellow golf pro’s example. Going back the years you’d do well to beat the legendary PD Mehigan for exploiting celebrity roots.

In the twenties Mehigan once secured an exclusive on-air interview with then-heavyweight champion of the world Gene Tunney by playing on the reticent boxer’s knowledge of his roots. Tunney didn’t show any interest in talking to 2RN, RTÉ’s predecessor, until he was told that every household in Cork and Mayo — where his family originated — would be listening. After that he wouldn’t shut up.

If only his equivalent were as easy to find today, eh?

A pandemic read you might enjoy

Is it too soon to read about the pandemic? This is a question that’s harder to answer than first appears. Our daily diet across all media has been non-stop corona for months, which may have slaked the thirst for more in the immediate future.

There may be a couple of exceptions to this rule based on quality alone. Lawrence Wright coming book expands his New Yorker megastory, which I’ve mentioned before. Already with us, almost, is Michael Lewis’s The Premonition: A Pandemic Story. Lewis’s immense gifts — the fluent storytelling, the guiding hand through complex subjects — make this a can’t-miss.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

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