Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Review: How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius (2021)

By Nick Greene

A quick Google search for the phrase "thinking outside the box" reveals more than 5 million hits. Quite a few trees have been chopped in forests in making the paper for the business books that have been dedicated to the idea of approaching a problem from a unique perspective and coming up with a possible solution. They weren't all part of the "Freakonomics" series, either. 

The idea doesn't only apply to commerce. Writer Nick Greene loves basketball, and decided to look at the game in several different ways. The resulting book is "How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius," and it's fair to say that he has succeeded in his goal.

Basketball is uniquely suited for a rather off-kilter examination, mostly because of its origins. Baseball, football and basketball slowly evolved from other games, and there's no clear line about how and when the actual game that we know had come forward. Basketball was different. Dr. James Naismith needed something athletic for people to do indoors in a gymnasium in December 1891, since calisthenics and gymnastics weren't a great deal of fun. What was needed was a new game - something that could be played indoors safely on a hard court without a lot of body contact. 

Dr. Naismith was well equipped for the job. He took a soccer ball and decided to have people try to place it into a goal. The best part came when he decided to hang the goals - peach baskets - on the balcony of the YMCA. Who could get hurt jumping in the air? Dr. Naismith also thought that he needed to limit the amount of momentum by the participants, so players couldn't run with the ball - they had to pass it. A few other rules followed, and we had a game ... for a while. When basketball was actually played, it was quickly determined that some other form of ball advancement was needed to prevent the game from turning into keep-away ... and dribbling was created. That led to changes in the ball, in order to advance it more easily.

And the game was off, and so is Greene's book. He takes the novel approach of talking to experts in other fields to get their opinions on a variety of subjects about basketball. A professor in games at New York University checks in with his thoughts on basketball's development. New rules came along, which in term emphasized different skills and usually made the game more fun. For example, originally possession of an out-of-bounds basketball went to the first person to retrieve it, causing some spirited and physical sprints. It must have been like outdoor lacrosse, which awarded the ball to the team that has a player closest to the ball when it leaves the playing field. Setting up "cages" around the court solved that problem for a while, and gave us the word "cagers." Was it still basketball when it was done? A Penn State philosophy professor says yes, absolutely. 

And off we go on an adventure. Games like systems often grow more conservative over the time, and basketball hit something of a wall when teams simply refused to shoot the ball by the early 1950s. The elegant solution was the shot clock, which forces players to play the game. A famous 19-18 game involving the great center George Mikan illustrated the problem nicely; a traffic expert says it often takes the equivalent of a crash to take dramatic action. An advertising executive points out that the time limit forced players to be creative as the clock ran down, and thus opened up the game to those who could thrive in that environment.

Those involved in the game are still wrestling with the problem involving fouls by a trailing team at the end of a game. Nick Elam proposed setting a target score in the fourth quarter, as in "first team to 100 wins." The idea sounds like it almost came off a playground, but based on some experiments such as the NBA All-Star Game, it seems to have the desired effect.

One other traditional problem for the game has been the domination of the biggest players, who are closer to the rim than the rest of the participants and often can score and rebound at will. That led to goaltending rules, the creation of the "lane" by the basket, and the widening of that area. It didn't help. Then came the three-point line, which was almost ignored for several years. But some coaches figured out that because of that bonus point, a shot from beyond the arc was more productive than one inside of it. That meant the best ways to score were the dunk/lay-up, because of its high percentage, and the three-pointer, because of the bonus scoring. Centers have either adapted or died.

There are other chapters on such subjects as free-throw shooting, "we've never done it that way" coaching, dunking (a ballet expert checks in here), defense (which calls for a theoretical astrophysicist), passing, and chemistry. The game has a lot of fans among our best and brightest. 

This is all nicely told by Greene, who never takes himself too seriously; the same can be said for his experts. It all doesn't work perfectly, as the insights of magicians and noodle-makers aren't a perfect fit for the book. Even so, the story moves along nicely for the most part. 

It's clear that a book like this is not for everyone. But speaking as someone who once wrote an article about the idea of having four outs per half-inning in a seven-inning baseball game, I enjoyed stretching my imagination. If you qualify, there's little doubt that "How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius" is worth your time.

Four stars

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