The Leading Public Intellectuals in Basketball?

Kevin Draper – of the Diss – recently asked: Who is Basketball’s Foremost Public Intellectual?

The list begins with the following names:

10.       John Hollinger

9.         Mark Cuban

8.         Jeff Van Gundy

And then at number 7 we see…

7. Dave Berri – Professor of Economics, Southern Utah University

For nearly fifteen years now, Professor Berri has railed against the over importance given to scoring in the NBA. Through his bookwebsite and peer-reviewed academic articles, Berri has expertly utilized both popular media and academia to spread his message. Many analytics writers keep their methods secret in the hopes of getting hired by an NBA team, or only interact with other analytics practicioners on the APBR message boards. In contrast Berri has always conducted his work in the full view of the public, and his profession has lent credibility to his arguments, making them easier to digest for those that require hearing the opinion of an “expert”.

When I saw this list I immediately thought… “well, that’s pretty cool!”

And I also agree with the importance of making whatever methods you employ as public – and as clear – as possible.  One of the criticisms I have offered of methods like Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, and Adjusted Plus-Minus is that the models are not presented clearly (and/or not well-tested).  Such an approach is not appropriate for academic work, where one is encouraged to make it clear what methods you are employing and what evidence supports your choices.

Beyond that observation, here is the rest of the list:

6. Daryl Morey

5. Bethlehem Shoals

4. Zach Lowe

3. Adam Silver

2. Charles Barkley

1. Henry Abbott

One can quibble with all of this list (except for that choice of Berri!), but I think Abbott at number one makes very good sense.

Here is what Draper said about Abbott:

1.    Henry Abbott – Senior Writer, ESPN.com

Abbott might be basketball’s most patient man, gently guiding his readers forward along the path of basketball enlightenment. He has taken the tack of incrementally introducing new concepts, believing that it is more powerful to communicate small insights to as broad of a readership base as possible than to shove it down the throats of the very few.

Abbott produces a consistently high-level of work, but its in his various campaigns that he has been most effective in impacting the game and educating fans. His annual TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown is the first introduction to advanced stats and advanced stats writers for numerous fans, and is presented in an easy-to-understand and reader-friendly format. HoopIdea takes after Mark Cuban in empowering fans to believe that the NBA can be better, and fans have a voice in making that so. Abbott’s ongoing Working Bodies is the most in-depth look at a variety of health and safety issues in the NBA, and I’m convinced will be looked back at as a pioneer when the NBA has its first performance enhancing drug or health crisis a la the NFL’s concussion crisis.

TrueHoop is also responsible for the career’s of the majority of bloggers who have become paid NBA writers over the last five years. The list of writers who were at one time part of the TrueHoop Network is staggering: Zach Lowe, Trey Kerby, Rob Mahoney, Beckley Mason, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Royce Young, Matt Moore, Kurt Helin, Zach Harper, Jared Dubin, Sean Highkin, James Herbert and probably others I can’t think of right now.

Treating fans with respect. Using his ESPN platform to educate. Advocating for a better and safer NBA. Nurturing a generation of writers.

For all of this, Abbott deserves to be called basketball’s foremost public intellectual.

As Draper notes, Abbott has done quite a bit to enhance the discussion of basketball.  And many on-line people – including everyone associated with The Wages of Wins – have benefited from his work.

- DJ