March 22, 2009

Superstaritis and Selectionism in Basketball

Michael Sokolove's NYT Magazine article "Allonzo Trier Is in the Game" about a rapturously-touted sixth-grade basketball star who has his own clothing line makes a good companion piece to my 2007 American Conservative article on high school football. I wrote:

High-school football continues to be a repository of many of the authority-respecting and communal virtues of the WWII-winning Greatest Generation. On the field, America’s old struggle between nurture and nature—between the faith that winners can be molded out of the common folk versus the ever spreading suspicion that success is mostly in the genes and in private tutoring—can still battle it out on relatively equal terms.

Foreigners have long been astounded by the extravagant number of players on American football teams and by the expensive armor in which they are encased. Yet because only the most carefully rehearsed teamwork can prevent chaos on the gridiron, their numbers and anonymity have helped retard the growth of superstaritis

Basketball, with its fewer and more recognizable players, can be dominated by one or two stars freelancing. Indeed, successful coaches increasingly emphasize recruiting genetic anomalies over training normal kids. USC basketball coach Tim Floyd recently promised full scholarships to two eighth graders!

Sacramento-area basketball coach Brian McCormick lamented his sport’s decline:

Colleges hire the best recruiters, not coaches. High school players enhance their recruitment not by improving their skills, but by being more exposed. And, even youth coaches ignore skill development, focusing on attracting new players with better skills or athleticism. None of it makes sense, but it is consistent. From the top down and the bottom up, recruiting rules American basketball, ruining the game year by year.

On the other hand, I've seen a tremendously talented sixth grade point guard play on a run-of-the-mill sixth grade team, and it was easy to understand why this kid Allonzo Trier and his mom fly around to A.A.U. all star showcases paid for by shoe companies.

About a decade ago, I happened to watch a basketball game between the sixth grade teams of two Chicago parochial schools. The point guard for the visiting team was a black kid at least four inches taller than anybody else on the court. (I don't remember his name.) He'd obviously studied Magic Johnson videos and had his style down cold, such as the high, quasi-palming dribble, and, more importantly, the lighting pinpoint passes. The problem was that he was so much better than his teammates that he was dangerous to them. He'd be dribbling crosscourt at the top of the key, when he'd suddenly whip an astonishing no-look pass to a teammate open under the basketball, only to have the ball bounce off the kid's face because he wasn't expecting the pass either.

Another time, the point guard grabbed a rebound, took a dribble upcourt and then, without even grabbing the ball with two hands, did that John Stockton trick of suddenly shotputting the ball off the dribble 40 feet downcourt to a teammate streaking for the basket. But the long pass hit the kid in the back of the head because he'd forgotten to look back. Hey, the teammate was just a sixth-grader. What would you expect?

This game illuminated odd paradoxes about concepts like "team play." We like to think of everybody sacrificing their personal scoring for the team as the surest way to win, but when there are disparities in talent this huge, the surest way for his team to win would actually have been for the star never to pass, to just shoot the ball on each possession. Or, as a more conventional compromise, he could have played center and had another kid dribble the ball up and toss it to him near the basket.

But, he clearly had his heart set on becoming that rarest and most devastating of all NBA phenomena, the huge point guard, so he constantly passed up shots to throw passes that bounced off his teammates' heads.

So, you can hardly blame kids that good for flying off to find a higher level of competition.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Never watch basketball much (anymore), but it strikes me as the most hunter-gatherer of sports there is, despite having been invented by some late 19th century WASP in a YMCA gym. 5 guys pass around a ball, trying to get it in the hoop. The other 5 are natural obstacles, more or less, and the basket is the creature they're trying to cook for dinner.

Anonymous said...

As usual, Steve shows he's somewhat out of touch with basketball. (Basically stuck in the white-guy-YMCA-ball critique from back in the 80s or 90s). There has been no slackening in team play in basketball, especially at the NBA level. There is more emphasis on defense (the prototypical team effort part of the sport) than ever before. And recent champs like the Spurs, Pistons, and Celtics emphasized the team over the individual. Even the biggest new superstar -- Lebron James -- is a huge team guy.

Anonymous said...

Basketball is so flamingly retarded that I have no idea how anyone can stand to look at it.

Anonymous said...

I was a middle school - high school sports official and asst. coach (football, basketball) for over 20 years in Ohio. Early maturers are overly favored in most sports at these levels (boys anyway). Most ms/hs "superstars" don't really have superior skills if you matched them with persons of equal size, weight, and speed. Also, there is a problem with parents lying about the true age of their boy; it's easier than you think and they think there's money in it.

m said...

Maryland's coach Gary Williams is struggling with the recruiting aspects of his job and alumni are starting to get pissed. It's a tough situation- he's a hardass , old-school, not very personable guy who is now being asked to cowtow to AAU coaches who often have criminal records and shady pasts. For the most part he refuses, even telling the Wash Post that one big time AAU coach was a criminal. Plus the kids are all spoiled prima donnas with people telling them how great they are since 4th grade. Tough situation for a Maryland fan- you want to compete with Carolina, Memphis and Louisville but you also respect your coach (somewhat) for refusing to deal with those idiots. Is it even any fun to win with kids who are aholes? He's the guy that has to coach them every day- maybe he's just looking out for his best interests. All in all I think I'd rather have a Calipari who bends and breaks rules to get the best recruits- Memphis pays their plays for sure- been crooked since Dana Kirk took over in the 70's....it is really fun to have your team go deep in the tourney....only better sport to have a good team is baseball.

BTW-sorry for the Maryland over Memphis pick- I know a lot of you lost a lot of money on that one because you trust my judgement so much.

Villanova will destroy Duke- that is a stone cold lock.

Anonymous said...

I just read that article. The kid's mom looks half Korean, half black (you find a few of those around Ft. Lewis, which isn't too far from the Trier home).

His mother apparently does the lion's share of his coaching. If you know anything about Korean mothers, you might be suspicious about what is going on here. I'd guess the kid will burn out if his mom continues to dominate his play.

"Marcie, who is 33, said she has 'obsessive tendencies...'"

I'll bet she does.

Anonymous said...

"High-school football continues to be a repository of many of the authority-respecting and communal virtues of the WWII-winning Greatest Generation."

I agree with you've written in your essay about basketball, but frankly Steve, when it comes to football I think your comment above is a fairly benign interpretation. Look at the most physically demanding team sports: American Football, Ice Hockey, and Rugby. In addition to the virtues you've ascribed to American football what all three sports have in common is a glaring emphasis on miltarism, to the point that I would argue that Ice Hockey, Rugby, and Am. Football are pre-schooling for European-style warfare(I happen to think that's a good thing).

I can't remember the name of the British historian but he argued that rugby and football in essence, emphasizes up-close, personal, engaged direct combat with the enemy which make Western warfare different even from Asiatic warfare-relying less on personal engaged combat. Perhaps as it was suggested that rugby, football, hockey lay a foundation for teaching the mental discipline and fearlessness in facing direct combat for those who become soldiers. Never mind that Polynesians and American blacks are more prevalent per capita in rugby and football, they are simply conquered peoples who have adapted to Anglo-Saxon culture and taken up Anglo-Saxon sport, in this case rugby and Am. football.

Additionally, look at the spectacle and pagentry at rugby matches or college football games. Aside from their entertainment value, they glamorize militarism and tribalism. The All-Black's Haka is one example, or go to a USC Trojan or Florida State Seminole football game for better examples. All you need is a Leni Reifenstal style documentary to make them appear as militant as Nazi night rallies.

Truth said...

"Never watch basketball much (anymore), but it strikes me as the most hunter-gatherer of sports..."

interesting analogy
















NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOTTTTTTTTTT!

Anonymous said...

I think I've posted story in a previous thread, so apologies, but Moses Malone's high school team played an alumni team in the 70s. Malone would dribble the length of the court and score, or else he would give the ball to someone, post up, get the ball back and score. At halftime the high school team was ahead by 50 points or something, so they switched Malone to the alumni team, and he brought them almost all the way back.

Of course he was a center, so he didn't have to worry about assisting others.

I had an experience a little like yours w/ the point guard. At one place where I played pickup basketball there was one guy who had been a HS star point guard--nothing as extraordinary as your 6th grader, but still an amazing passer. If you played with him you quickly learned to never turn your back on him when he had the ball. If you played against him you knew you were going to lose.

Anonymous said...

How does this gibe with lessons showing that team play does win. For instance in the NBA and in international competitions?

albertosaurus said...

I'm surprised you didn't make the rather obvious racial observations.

I can still remember when basketball was a largely white sport. The very best team of the day was the Boston Celtics. They had a couple essential black stars like Russel but they played "white". That is to say they ran plays and each sacrificed himself for the team.

Those Celtics had two short white guys neither of whom could probably dunk - Bob Cousey and Bill Sharman.

Many sports writers have commented on how the game changed when it came to be dominated by attention seeking blacks.

Ironically the epitome of self centered basketball was reached by one of the very last of the white stars - Rick Barry. He was the ultimate ball hog. Barry had been responsible for the modern professional athlete's huge salary and he very much recognized the monetary value of fame.

He was the only white player on the Golden State Warriors. Somehow they won the champonship one year but in the finals the next year none of the black players would pass him the ball as the clock clicked down. They willingly lost the championship so as to frustrate and humiliate Barry.

Barry played like a black man forcing the blacks to unite as as team. They countered by playing "white".

Anonymous said...

Are they really that different? They both feature a bunch of large black guys running around shoving each other. The bigger fools are the ones who actually obsess over such drivel.

Anonymous said...

"How does this gibe with lessons showing that team play does win. For instance in the NBA and in international competitions?"

The explanation is simple: The rest of the world beat the US for a while not because of teamplay, but because we didn't field the best players we had. Now we field our best players, now we dominate again. The lesson was a lie.

To the sliver of truth it does have, this was never an issue teamplay in the conventional sense. The US national team was generally pieced together months before the competition, whereas other national (and pro) teams slowly evolve over years. It wasn't so much a question of selfishness as it was of not having an basic team philosophy or a sense of chemistry. The current US team surely has nowhere near the sort of unity that, say, the Spanish team has, or the Spurs have, but the individual play will still carry the day. If this team stays largely together for another few years it'll get even better, of course, but the atleticism is still the key.

Frankly, the most recent US team could've been more selfish. Wade, for example, was completely unstoppable, he could've scored 50 points a game, easily. The endless substitutions sometimes disrupted the flow of the offense, as did an excessive, Globe Trotter esque fondness for fancy passing. More focus on the individual, at least on offense, would likely have made things run more smoothly and efficiently.

Anonymous said...

I was a middle school - high school sports official and asst. coach (football, basketball) for over 20 years in Ohio. Early maturers are overly favored in most sports at these levels (boys anyway).

It's been shown that children born shortly after the age cutoff for sports leagues do better than those born later in the year. For example, if a children's baseball league has one-year age increments that start on January 1, children born in January and February will have an advantage over those born in November and December because they're a bit more mature. According to one study I saw, this early advantage can give a head start that carries over into adulthood.

Peter

Anonymous said...

Basketball is so flamingly retarded that I have no idea how anyone can stand to look at it.

He speaks the truth!

Anonymous said...

How does rugby help in training valiant young bucks to drop phosphorous and bombs and Agent Orange from thousands of feet above and launch missiles from beneath the waves and spread depleted uranium around? Whatever the European soldier once was, he's gone, and you've got a bunch of trashy, economically disenfranchised white kids with tech tools blowing people up for the benefit of plutocrats who hate the bombers as much as they hate the bombed.

AmericanGoy said...

American sports are for the freaks, mostly.

Basketball for tall freaks.

American Football for fat freaks who can't run longer than 5 seconds.

Basketball for idiot savants.

Give me football, where all kinds of guys can play (except for fat ones, actually). A tall freak is usually the goalie or central defender, but that does not prevent a striker from being extremely tall and successful either (Crouch, anyone?).

I figure football is probably the best sport for kids to play, as it forces them to be outside (and not in a stuffy gym), promotes constant movement (sport is about moving off the ball and positioning than moving with it) and promotes constant awareness of what's happening on the whole field, making the kids pretty sharp all around.

But no, we gotta make our kids suit up and ram into each other, or play stickball and watch our kids get hit by very fast but uncontrollable (at that age, certainly) pitches and give them head trauma.

Sigh...

Anonymous said...

The kid's mom looks half Korean, half black (you find a few of those around Ft. Lewis, which isn't too far from the Trier home).

The article says she was born in the "Pacific Islands," and later was adopted by a family from the Midwest. She doesn't look Samoan or Hawaiian. Maybe Micronesian?

Peter

m said...

Very disappointing when the dorks come out and bash real sports.

Soccer was invented by European women to keep themselves busy while their husbands made them dinner.

Anonymous said...

ironrailsironweights said...

The kid's mom looks half Korean, half black (you find a few of those around Ft. Lewis, which isn't too far from the Trier home).

The article says she was born in the "Pacific Islands," and later was adopted by a family from the Midwest. She doesn't look Samoan or Hawaiian. Maybe Micronesian?

Peter


Could be Saipan or Guam, both of which have significant populations of NE Asians and American military bases.

She is definitely not Micronesian. Korean or possibly Japanese, but not a native islander. Note the obvious epicanthic fold on Marcie. This is not characteristic of Pacific Islanders, but rather NE Asians.

To me, she looks very Korean. My bet is that she's the daughter of a Korean woman and a black American sailor.

Truth said...

Rick Barry averaged 5.1 assists as opposed to 2.5 turnovers for his career, solid for a point guard and outstanding for a small forward (which he was).

To say that he was a selfish player is probably dubious. Rick Barry probably shot the ball a lot because he was good at it, and it helped the team.

Steve Sailer said...

Right, Rick Barry was an outstanding passing forward during the second half of his career, widely considered the best passing forward in the NBA. He also was one of the greatest free throw shooters ever. And three of his sons played in the NBA. He was just really all-around good at basketball.

m said...

Steve said "He also was one of the greatest free throw shooters ever."

I would rather shoot 50% from the line overhand than 90% granny style..... he must have caught a lot of sh#t for that, or maybe not bc it was a different time....why has no one ever tried to duplicate Barry's style?

Always thought Golden State had the best logo in sports, and best colors- not now of course but in the 70's early 80's

Anonymous said...

Foreigners have long been astounded by the extravagant number of players on American football teams...

Actually, our football teams and theirs have the same number of players: eleven per side. What's astounding is the difference in non-players: two on their bench; forty-two on ours.

They have limited substitution, and no reentry. 90-minute players are the rule. Have we had any 60-minute players since the late Sammy Baugh?

... recruiting rules American basketball, ruining the game year by year.

But that was built into the sport from the beginning. Basketball (and football) rewards the genetic extremes more than the industrious student of the game; the grasshopper gets more than the ant. Compare that to baseball, soccer, hockey, cricket, lacrosse-- real "normal kid" sports.

(Football's apparent diversity is only due to its diversity of functions, variously requiring speed, size, height, brains, whatever; at all but a few positions that diversity disappears.)

Basketball and football share an obsession with recruiting over development. No doubt that's why neither sport has the minor-league systems (independent or "farmed") of the others, preferring instead to raid universities.

Anonymous said...

I used to coach a grade school-age Boys basketball team. We landed the most sought after kid in the league, a tiny black point guard. He was a year younger than everyone else but dominated every game. We went undefeated that season and won the championship, and I'll have to admit that our strategy was to get the ball in his hands.

The point is taken that these types of recreation leagues should be more geared towards teaching the kids and allowing them to play, but at the same time, the kids and their parents want to win. For this reason, most leagues adopt minimum playing time rules for the kids and coaches tend to encourage each kid to get "touches", mainly to appease the parents.

Basketball is easily the most easily altered sport. As pointed out before, there are fewer players on the court and the ball is more easily controlled by one player.

As opposed to rec leagues, AAU-type development leagues are geared towards the cream of the crop. As such, playing time is less egalitarian. I see the pitfalls of both, but an AAU league is the best one for sifting out the best players. Those that succeed benefit the most, and those kids in lower leagues don't have to compete against kids much more skilled than them.

How does this all translate to college and pro basketball? I think it has to make pro ball better. Stiffer competition will only yield the best of the best over time. And people who argue that college bball coaches are merely super recruiters forget the fact that if their teams don't win with these star recruits, they will shortly be out of a job.

A good coach merely takes the best available players and builds around that guy.

Anonymous said...

"How does rugby help in training valiant young bucks to drop phosphorous and bombs and Agent Orange from thousands of feet above and launch missiles from beneath the waves and spread depleted uranium around? Whatever the European soldier once was, he's gone, and you've got a bunch of trashy, economically disenfranchised white kids with tech tools blowing people up for the benefit of plutocrats who hate the bombers as much as they hate the bombed."

I'll say! Those lucky bastards in the planes and on ships have it easy. Me, I've got to trade shots with a bunch of assholes on the ground. And Agent Orange is a great band.

Anonymous said...

I can still remember when basketball was a largely white sport. The very best team of the day was the Boston Celtics. They had a couple essential black stars like Russel but they played "white". That is to say they ran plays and each sacrificed himself for the team....Many sports writers have commented on how the game changed when it came to be dominated by attention seeking blacks.

This is a bunch of BS and shows you don't watch or follow the NBA much. As I said in the second comment above, the game is more intense and in many ways more team-oriented today than ever before. The NBA in the 60s through the early 80s basically had a conspiracy going on not to play defense. Also, nostalgia for "running plays" is ridiculous, and perhaps just based on a general nostalgia for hierarchy and authority. NBA players are too smart, quick, and athletic to rely on being able to run a lot of predictable plays against them. Basketball is a flow sport. The modern counterpart of the designed play is something like Phil Jackson's triangle offense, where players have clearly defined roles but then improvise within that.

The NBA season is way too long, so players have to restrain their effort during the regular season. But playoff basketball is very high-intensity and team oriented.

A lot of the negative stereotypes about the NBA (the ones that don't come from pure racism) come from overfocusing on one period when the only answer to extremely physical team defense was relying on isolation offenses for superstars who you could be sure would get the foul call. The handchecking rules helped a lot with that, and the game is undergoing a bit of a renaissance as high-intensity defenses have remained but the offenses have loosened up and flow better. The crop of great new superstars (Lebron, Wade, etc.) and euro imports have helped too.

Anonymous said...

Basketball (and football) rewards the genetic extremes more than the industrious student of the game; the grasshopper gets more than the ant. Compare that to baseball, soccer, hockey, cricket, lacrosse-- real "normal kid" sports.

Baseball on the MLB level has become a large man's sport, if not quite to the same extent as football or basketball. I'd say that the average height is an inch or two over six feet and the average weight is somewhere north of 200 pounds.

Peter

Anonymous said...

in basketball, there used to be a huge problem with fast maturing black americans who, at 18, looked like they might become awesome players by age 25.

so, about 15 years ago, the NBA restarted the process of drafting teenagers straight out of high school. none of them were ready to dominate NBA play right away, but the thought was, how could you afford to miss on the next great player? better to get him now, than let some other team get him. during this era, lots of NBA-ready players were drafted lower than the next high school freak.

it turned out more than half of them were just fast developing black americans who could barely play at the NBA level 3 years later. hundreds of millions of dollars and dozens of draft picks were wasted on these guys, and only a few of them panned out. it caused the level of play in both the NBA and NCAA leagues to decline. guys who should have been in NCAA basketball were sitting on NBA benches, not doing much, tying up team money.

today, the NBA does not allow teams to draft players unless they are 1 year out of high school.

the NBDL has helped, but basketball is still not like baseball. there is not much of a minor league for the dumber guys who really have no business being in college. so NCAA basketball is still where lots of the best prospects go for 1 year after high school. this system mostly works though, and has restored the level of play in both the NBA and NCAA.

Anonymous said...

I'm a high school and AAU basketball official in the Seattle area, and I reffed one of this kid's games about a month ago. The game was photographed and video taped by NYTimes Magazine. I even had to sign a release, (alas, no photographs of me made it into the magazine). My impressions were that he's a little smallish. His Rotary Style team (mostly Seattle inner-city kids)was beaten soundly by a team from the suburban east side, and he was not the best player on the floor that day. If he doesn't develop athletically, he'll just be a decent college point guard, not and NBA superstar. He's NOT LeBron James!

Anonymous said...

"...the WWII-winning Greatest Generation."

Golly, if only Stalin's Red Army had this greatest generation mojo you speak of, they could've contributed some to the Allies victory.

Anonymous said...

Golly, if only Stalin's Red Army had this greatest generation mojo you speak of, they could've contributed some to the Allies victory.

They weren't too anxious to contribute in the Pacific Theatre were they? And they were great allies to Hitler in 1939-40 (extra points for the first mass atrocity: "KatyƄ). Golly Gomer, how'd we win dat war without 'em?

Anonymous said...

g eugene said...

I'm a high school and AAU basketball official in the Seattle area, and I reffed one of this kid's games about a month ago. The game was photographed and video taped by NYTimes Magazine. I even had to sign a release, (alas, no photographs of me made it into the magazine). My impressions were that he's a little smallish. His Rotary Style team (mostly Seattle inner-city kids)was beaten soundly by a team from the suburban east side, and he was not the best player on the floor that day. If he doesn't develop athletically, he'll just be a decent college point guard, not and NBA superstar. He's NOT LeBron James!


I suspected as much after seeing his photo. This is a case of an overly ambitious parent pushing her son to the limit. A future pro generally has more meat and sinew than that kid. Also, as a ref you probably know that kids' games are more strictly supervised in terms of physical play. That always bothered me as a kid, because despite the fact that there were other kids with better moves than me, I thrived on contact.

I've got a very talented cousin who's signed with the Seattle Sounders, but I'm not sure he'll ultimately make it because he isn't solid enough (I'm rooting for him, but not if it means he keeps getting fractures). Being a pro athlete is about more than finesse -- you've got to be able to take some serious punishment.

Anonymous said...

His Rotary Style team (mostly Seattle inner-city kids)was beaten soundly by a team from the suburban east side, and he was not the best player on the floor that day. If he doesn't develop athletically, he'll just be a decent college point guard, not and NBA superstar. He's NOT LeBron James!

Well, Lebron James is one of the greatest pure athletes ever to play in American sports and will be one of the best players in basketball history, so it's no shame not to be Lebron James. Say he's a gym rat with a good work ethic, solid athletic ability, a superb jump shot and a great feel for the game. Someone like that could reasonably stick in the NBA for a couple of seasons. Even doing that can get you millions of dollars. Then there's the Euro leagues.

Anonymous said...

Teamwork works only when the members of the team are comparable in talent. This is a rare thing, which is why good teams (in any field) are relatively rare.

As Steve points out, if the disparity is too great - say, if Shakespeare is in an improv group - it's better that the team break up and reformulate itself without the great man. He is better off on his own; and so is the team.

Of course, he could stay but the "team" mentality would have to be jettisoned and a hierarchical system put in its place. He would have to be the leader, and the others would have to defer to him. Sort of like fascism, as opposed to communism.

Most of the greatest human achievements came from the boss/workers or leader/helpers model, or else the model where the great man is turned loose on his own.

In order of increasing effectiveness:

1. Mediocrities not working together.

2. Mediocrities and some superior talent(s) not working together as a team.

3. Mediocrities working together as a team.

4. Superior talent(s) working individually.

5. Superior talents leading mediocrities.

6. Superior talents working with other superior talents.

("6" is about as volatile as some unstable chemical element - and potentially as explosively powerful.)

Anonymous said...

A funny part of this story is that the kid is named Allonzo. Even a distinctively black name like Alonzo isn't enough. Can you now find people named DeShawwn or Lakkisha in the ghetto?