You watch the games, so what?

Most of this train of thought comes from the great book The Invisible Gorilla, I highly recommend checking it out

You watch every game. You know everything about basketball. That’s going to be your main argument against me quoting the stats. I’m here to tell you that your game watching isn’t anywhere near as helpful as you think.

You can’t see the “Invisible Gorilla”

It turns out our attention is actually limited. We can’t focus on many things at once. In a study that aptly had people count the number of times a basketball was passed, observers MISSED a person in a gorilla suit walking by. We have a limited attention we can use. When we focus on one thing we can miss others. When you watch a basketball game, you’d like to think you’re focusing on everything. News flash: you’re not! You’re focusing on the guy with the ball and while you’re doing that you’re missing tons of other things influencing the game — including potentially a gorilla attack.

Your memory is limited

Seven plus or minus two, that’s magic range for short term memory. When people are asked to remember a list of things they will progressively get worse as you up the number.  If I asked you to remember a list of 20 items you probably wouldn’t even bother as you’d realize the futility of it. There are ten active players on a basketball court. Even attempting to pretend your short term memory could contain all of the needed information long enough to hold it in long term memory is a joke. What’s more, your memory can be fooled.

Your memory is ruled by emotion

The availability heuristic is a problem we have that means things that stand out in your memory will seem more important or more likely than they are. See that thunderous dunk by your favorite player? It will probably stick with you easier than that routine layup or simple tip in or even worse a boring rebound. What’s more, the fact that instant replay and Sports Center will play that again and again will help engrain it. And that prays on something else: we’re more likely to trust a memory if it is tied to strong emotion. Exciting plays, or plays that decide the game (clutch plays) will seem more relevant to us. And while all of this is happening we’re fooled into thinking they’re more common than they are. Of course, all of these points don’t even beat the kicker of it all.

Your memory sucks

At Sloan Bill James talked about basketball (see here around the 26:45 mark). While he admitted he would not be entering basketball stats, he did recount a memory of an interesting game (paraphrased below):

In 2003 the Kansas City Jayhawks lost a title game to Maryland. In this game Juan Dixon scored 23 points. He was guarded primarily by future Chicago Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich. In the thirty-seven minutes Kirk Hinrich guarded Juan Dixon he only scored four points. For the six (or seven) possesions that Keith Langford guarded Juan Dixon he scored 19 points.

There are a few problems with the story (boxscore here):

  • Maryland didn’t play Kansas City in 2003, they played them in 2002.
  • They did not play them in the title game (it was in the Elite 8 Final Four).
  • Juan Dixon scored 33 points not 23
  • Hinrich only played 29 minutes (making guarding a player for 37 minutes difficult)
  • Dixon was already up to 10 points by the 11:40 mark of the first half.

What makes this tale interesting is that Bill James prefaced it by saying he watched it multiple times. He also tells the shocked listeners to find the video, implying he had confidence in his memory. This is not actually meant to be dig on Bill James. I consider Bill James to be one of the best people in sports statistics. But even he is not capable of properly remembering one basketball game (and that is with multiple viewings.) This is a simple point. We do not remember things as well as we’d like to think. In fact, we can point out that one of Bill James’ biggest contributions was to help make sure many people were keeping track of stats and using the right stats. He did not advocate all of us finding the several people that watch all of the games for each team and getting an assessment from them. As I mentioned above, while you are watching your attention is divided. There is too much information for you to possibly hold and your emotions (and instant replay) are making the decision of what to highlight for you. And even after all that, your brain isn’t going to be able to store all of that information perfectly.

Summing up

I used to watch every Nuggets game. In Colorado we have a station called Altitude that plays every game. Years back I lost my job and cut my cable to save money. I stopped watching the games and started following the box scores; a decision that may have worked out for the better or worse, depending on your perspective.

But I’ve been there. I’ve been where I think I’m the expert because I see every game. I could explain why we lost despite Carmelo Anthony scoring 25 points. I could even explain that while the stats showed his shooting was poor that he actually played well. But it was all a lie, a beautiful lie crafted by my flawed brain. It’s OK to accept that we’re not perfect. It’s OK to accept that small things will influence our perception. In sports though, we luckily have tools that let us make sure we can actually see what’s going on. Of course, what I tend to see is many people ignoring these tools. It’s very much like saying you don’t need glasses because your eyes are fine. The truth is most of us have terrible vision when it comes to sports, but many of us won’t admit it. And all I’m saying is that it’s hard to convince me you’re watching the game when I know your vision is flawed.


P.S. I’d like to review a completely meta-moment in regards to the Bill James story. While he was talking I had my laptop out taking notes. I attempted to look up the Kansas game he was talking about (there was wi-fi). It turns out my notes weren’t 100% right (because my attention was divided trying to look up data and take notes). It also turned out I incorrectly remembered a few things he said. In fact, I decided to wait until there was a video of his talk to write this post, as I knew my memory was likely off.

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