You’re here because you like some combination of sports, statistics and economics. On sports blogs you’ll often find us discussing great statistical players. Often left ignored are some of the amazing people that put in the work to make this possible. As I said on my post last week, we live in a stats golden age. So much information is at our finger tips. And while the players that generate this data deserve a lion’s share of the credit, there are others I want to make sure we thank.
Today I would like to shine a light on Lee Meade. It turns out he may be one of the most important figures in advanced basketball statistics. Here’s a recap — with excerpts from Terry Pluto‘s book on the ABA: Loose Balls — to explain.
For those interested in numbers – like us — one of the most important innovations from the ABA was the complete basketball box score. And for that innovation we have Lee Meade to thank. Meade was the first public relations person for the ABA. He also was the person who designed the ABA box score. From Loose Balls, here is how Meade told the story:
When the ABA began, I was amazed at how little preparation went into it. One day I talked to some people I knew in the ABA office and asked them what they were going to do about stats. They said they hadn’t thought about it. I said the league was getting ready to start in a couple of weeks and someone should do something. Finally, I said, “I’d really like to see this league go. If you need someone to help with the stats, I’ll help.” About a week later I got a call from Don Carr, a friend of George Mikan’s who was handling the ABA’s PR for a while. Carr asked me how much I wanted to do the stats for the league. I had no idea how much to charge for that. Finally, I said, “I’ll do it for $1,000 a team and you pay all the postage. I’ll also need $1,000 to get started.” Carr didn’t say anything. I don’t think he knew how much you were supposed to pay for stats. He said he’d get back to me and he did. He called back and said, “Congratulations, you’re our new statistician. The season starts in 10 days—can you come up with a scorecard and stats forms right away?” I had a lot to think about. I wanted the ABA stats to be different, because the league was going to be different, with the ball and the 3-point play. I also wanted to do something with numbers that would get the league some attention. I thought about when I had covered basketball games, how I liked to keep track of blocked shots, individual turnovers, and break down rebounds into offensive ones and defensive ones. I made a list of things that ideally would be part of a complete basketball box score if I could have my own, because that was what I was getting the chance to do—design my own box score. I came up with the following that was new:
1. Rebounds—offensive and defensive. The NBA just kept total rebounds, no breakdown.
2. Individual turnovers. We called them “errors.” The NBA didn’t keep this stat.
3. Steals. The NBA didn’t keep it.
4. Blocked shots. The NBA didn’t keep it.
5. Team rebounds. The NCAA used it, but the NBA didn’t.
Now steals, blocks, turnovers are all standard at almost any level of basketball. But it was revolutionary back then, and a lot of the teams didn’t want to go to the trouble of keeping all those numbers. The NBA didn’t do it, they said, so why should we? Of course, the fact that the NBA didn’t do it was exactly why we should do it. That first year, the stats were a problem. Some teams didn’t complete all the categories on the scorecard. Occasionally, a team wouldn’t send in any box scores. I kept the stats by projections. I took the games and stats I did have and projected them out over the course of the season. So I wouldn’t put much faith in those early ABA stats.
Prior to Meade, analysis of basketball players via the box score was somewhat difficult. Even if one understood statistical analysis, though, the data didn’t exist to completely measure a player’s contribution to wins. As we’ve mentioned before, the modern box score contains a wealth of information that can explain player value. We have Lee Meade to thank for that. It turns out the modern box score is just one of many amazing sports accomplishments in Lee’s life. Next time you’re running down your favorite advanced stat derived from box score data, make sure to remember that it’s possible thanks to the work of Lee Meade.
-Dave with a little help from Dre