December 28, 2009

What % of 7-footers play basketball?

Tyler Cowen asks a question of a type that I've often wondered about:

What are the odds that the best chess player in the world has never played chess?

... The more general issues are how well the modern world allocates talent and how much exposure you need to something you eventually will be very good at.

My view is that people who are born into a reasonably good educational infrastructure get exposed repeatedly -- albeit briefly -- to lots of the activities which might intrigue them. If the activity is going to click with them, it has the chance. To borrow the initial example, most high schools and junior high schools have chess clubs and not just in the wealthiest countries. Virtually everyone is put in touch with math, music, kite-flying, poetry, and so on at relatively young ages.

The idea of taking an economics class in college, or picking up some economics literature, strikes most educated people at some point, even if they squash the notion like a bug. If there is some other Paul Samuelson-quality-would-have-been who didn't become an economist, perhaps he preferred some other avocation even more.

Billions of people are not exposed to quality economics, math, music, etc., but those people also don't have the nutrition, the education, the infrastructure, or whatever, to excel at world class levels. ...

[Chess player] Magnus Carlsen's father suggested that if he hadn't had an older sister, he might not have taken up the game at all. Magnus was uninterested at ages four and five, but grew intrigued at age eight when he watched his father play chess with his older sister. I read this anecdote as suggesting he would have been exposed again to the game, one way or another, probably in school. ...

In sum, I believe that the odds that "the best (modal) chess player in the world" has never played chess is well under fifty percent but probably above ten percent.

Presumably, by "best chess player" in the world, Cowen means the most naturally talented. That raises the question of whether "overwhelming passion for the game" should be considered a talent or not. If somebody has the natural ability to be the best but lacks the urge to practice, they won't be a top chess player.

Generally speaking, the people who claw their way to the top of something are fanatics about it. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were crazy about swinging golf clubs before their second birthdays.

In contrast, Wilt Chamberlain was never terribly enthusiastic about basketball: he always said he would have preferred to be an Olympic decathlete, and he retired from the NBA while still in his prime and played professional volleyball for several years instead. Despite boring easily, Wilt was, however, the best basketball player in the world at some point or points in his career (certainly in 1966-67). This shows how important genetics is to basketball. When Wilt entered the league, he was one of only three 7-footers, and vastly stronger and more athletic than anybody near him in height.

In contrast, it's hard to imagine somebody who isn't passionate about golf being the best golfer in the world -- genetics aren't as important relative to dedication as in basketball.

Also, the more obvious your genetic advantage at a particular sport, the more likely you will be steered toward it. Nobody can tell just by looking at somebody if he'll have a talent for golf, so there are no doubt people with tremendous golf potential walking around who never seriously tried golf (two of the more successful golfers of the 1980s, Calvin Peete and Larry Nelson, never tried golf until they were in their 20s). But every 7 footer gets prodded about basketball.

Then there's the question of whether being a screw-up in most of the rest of your life might be considered a talent. Would Bobby Fischer have been Bobby Fischer if he was good at other things? As an exercise, consider Vladimir Nabokov, who for a number of years was crazy about chess (or at least chess problems). Nabokov had the energy, determination, intelligence, ability to hold many things in his head at once (think of the architecture of Pale Fire), competitive streak, and so forth to be a top chess player. But he had other things to do with his life, such as entomological research and writing great novels. Fischer didn't.

Similarly, Michael Crichton was big enough (6'9", which would have been listed as 6'11") to ride the bench in the NBA in the 1960s, but he had other things to do with his life, such as graduate from Harvard Medical School, write bestselling novels in his spare time, and become a movie director.

One way to think about this issue is to compare different fields of endeavor. For example, what are the odds that the current best polo player in the world has the most natural talent for playing polo of anybody in the world? Low, right? I can't recall anyone ever telling me in conversation that they had even tried polo.

In contrast, what are the odds that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt has the most natural talent for the 100 meter dash of anyone in the world? I don't know what they are, but they are definitely higher than for polo.

Let's think about sprinting.

Sprinting may have the highest exposure rate of any sport in the world. Just about everybody kid in the world gets roped into a running race at some point early in life. (Is that universal? The place I'd be least surprised to hear it isn't is India.)

On the other hand, sprinting has a high loss rate because it's less interesting and less lucrative than some sports with which it directly competes for talent. So, it loses a lot of athletes to other sports. For example, Bob Hayes dominated the 1964 Olympics, then became an NFL wide receiver. Johnny Lam Jones finished 6th in the 1976 Olympic 100m dash finals at age 18, then became an NFL player. Herschel Walker held a sprinting world record for 10 minutes once, until Carl Lewis broke it in the next heat. It's not surprising that the dominant sprinter of our age, Lewis, wasn't very masculine and didn't like football, getting hit, team sports, or machismo.

It's not particularly surprising that the Jamaica has the top sprinters right now: track plays a larger role there than in other countries. Jamaicans love cricket, but they don't play American football, they don't play basketball, and they aren't quite as crazy about soccer as most other countries. So the loss rate of sprinters to competing activities is low.

Then there's nurture: sprinting isn't hugely complicated, but it requires coaching, along with decent quality tracks so sprinters don't get hurt. Jamaican athletes, who speak English, tend to get track scholarships to American universities, where they enjoy good training facilities. And finally, there's drugs: Jamaica doesn't test its own athletes the way Americans and Germans finally do, so it has a big advantage there.

All in all, I'd still probably say Usain Bolt is more likely to have more natural ability than anybody who is #1 in any other sports.

Another way to look at this general problem is to look at men who are close to 7 feet tall: how many of them never play basketball?

There is a lot of effort put into finding very tall men all over the world. In 2007, John Amaechi became the first retired team sport athlete in the U.S. to voluntarily come out of the closet. Amaechi is a good example of how basketball relentlessly trawls for guys with the right body for the game. He grew up in England, a country where basketball is a very minor sport. He was gay and his interests were artistic rather than sports-oriented. But he was 6'10" and 270 pounds, so when he was 17 somebody recruited him into trying basketball, and he wound up getting paid $9.5 million dollars for a truly awful career in which he repeatedly demonstrated his contempt for basketball.

There are very, very few of them. When I was at Rice, there were two 6'11" students, the starting and backup center. (The basketball coaches were perpetually sore at the backup center because he was always sneaking off to the library or engineering lab. They had the nagging suspicion that he was just exploiting his height to get a Rice engineering education.) When I was at UCLA with 35,000 students, there were two seven footers on campus: the starting center (Stuart Gray) and the backup (Mark Eaton).

To a high degree, the best in the world emerges out of a community that's close to the best community for that kind of competitor in the world. If Michelangelo is the greatest artist of all time, for example, then 15th Century Florence was an unsurprising time and place for the best to emerge from.

Consider Michael Jordan emerging out of basketball crazy North Carolina v. Hakeem Olajuwon emerging out of soccer crazy Nigeria. Exchange them at birth and my guess is that Olajuwon, who was a half foot taller than Jordan, would be, by far, the greatest basketball player in history. In our world, Olajuwon peaked in his thirties instead of his expected mid-twenties because that's how long it took him to fully learn the game that he didn't start playing until his late teenage years.

Another interesting phenomenon is the the first person to make a splash from somewhere is often better than anybody else to come from there in his wake for quite some time.

I first heard of Olajuwon in the fall of 1981. I imagine that there had been African college basketball players, but he was certainly the first that I, or most people, ever heard of. So far, he's never been surpassed. The NBA keeps trying to find the next Olajuwon:

By the N.B.A.’s count, 23 Africans have played in the league, including six last season. Three more were drafted in June, including the Tanzanian center Hasheem Thabeet, taken second in the first round out of Connecticut by Memphis.

... and they've come up with some fine players such as Dikembe Mutumbo, but the first remains the best.

That's not uncommon. If there are barriers to entry, such as getting from a continent that doesn't play basketball into big time American basketball, then the guy who breaks through those barriers first is likely to be something special.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Berkeley High May Cut Out Science Labs

The proposal would trade labs seen as benefiting white students for resources to help struggling students.

Berkeley High School is considering a controversial proposal to eliminate science labs and the five science teachers who teach them to free up more resources to help struggling students.

The proposal to put the science-lab cuts on the table was approved recently by Berkeley High's School Governance Council, a body of teachers, parents, and students who oversee a plan to change the structure of the high school to address Berkeley's dismal racial achievement gap, where white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse.

Paul Gibson, an alternate parent representative on the School Governance Council, said that information presented at council meetings suggests that the science labs were largely classes for white students. He said the decision to consider cutting the labs in order to redirect resources to underperforming students was virtually unanimous.

agnostic said...

I get about 7%.

Avg US male height is 5'10", and S.D. is 3", so that 7' is 4.67 S.D. In a US male population of 150 million, we expect 300 7-footers.

Avg NBA height is 6'7, don't know the S.D. but will pretend it's also 3", so that 7' is 1.67 S.D. In an NBA population of 432 players, we expect 21 7-footers.

So about 1 out of 15 7-footers, or 7%, is in the NBA.

Given all the estimating, I'd say it's on the order of 10% in reality, or maybe the upper 1%. Probably not lower than that, like 1 out of 1000. Probably not above half.

Cinco Jotas said...

For example, what are the odds that the current best polo player in the world has the most natural talent for playing polo of anybody in the world? Low, right?

I know plenty of Argentines who would dispute this assertion.

Steve Sailer said...

Standard deviation in male height is more like 2.5" for blacks and and 2.25 for whites.

White males 20-39 average 5'10.4" and black males 20-39 average 5'10.0".

I imagine that there are fat tails to the height distribution because otherwise only one 6'10.5 man would be born in each year.

LemmusLemmus said...

To put another twist on it: Presumably you are more likely to continue an activity (i.e., practice), the more obvious it is that you are more talented. The more important talent is relative to practice, the more obvious it is going to be. Hence it is more likely you'll find the most talented individuals in the fields in which talent is particularly important (all other things equal).

Related: Soccer players who don't like soccer, including one world class player (Batistuta):

jody said...

a topic i know a lot about, as i deal with it every day. heck, understanding talent pools and participation rates is a basic part of understanding human performance.

hence my utter dismissal of woods as any kind of great athlete. around the world, almost nobody plays competitive golf. the best player in the game is just not that good at it compared to how good he could be if golf was a major sport. which it absolutely, positively is not.

landon donovan, for instance, is dramatically better at soccer than woods is at golf, yet donovan is so far down the recognition list in the US that he's basically off the radar.

today, in 2009, the most broadly tested for ability, the ability which is measured and evaluated in the largest possible sample size, is math ability. since every person must go to school, every person MUST do math. we now get a very good handle on everybody's math capability.

the rate at which math ability is measured and gauged is far higher than the rate at which people are evaluated for capability in any sport. as being tested for math ability is compulsory in first world nations, the rate at which people are measured is probably 99%.

so, we can probably tenatively conclude that the guys doing the most difficult high IQ jobs, are probably the best guys available out of the entire population, and that there aren't a bunch of guys in other fields who could change fields and do better than the existing guys. this is a situation that simply does not exist in most sports. in science and engineering, the movement of talent from one topic to another is really the only change that can be made. you can't bring in lots of guys from other professions and get better results.

jody said...

another thing i have considered, is introducing real instruments into public school instruction. let kids pick guitar and piano instead of stupid instruments that have no place outside of a symphony and which the kids generally don't want to learn.

once you get a talent pool of 1 million public school students PER YEAR, who have the option of taking guitar or piano every day for 12 years, i think there will probably be an explosion of good commercial music.

Ray Sawhill said...

Great posting.

Let me suggest another element that might deserve to be taken into account: Not just a talent for the activity but a taste for, or maybe an aptitude for, living the life.

I see this all the time in the arts: the people who succeed professionally sometimes aren't the people who have the most raw talent for a given activity. Many people have artistic talent, some people have quite a lot of it. But the arts life -- the life you have to lead if you want to play the arts game at a high level -- is a very, very peculiar one: very uncertain, rather dreamlike, highly irrational in terms of its rewards and ups and downs ... You generally have to either like it a lot (as a few people do) or you have to feel you have no other good option. Why put up with the craziness of a life in the arts if you might plausibly live a relatively sane and comfy life doing something else?

An example: I've known loads of talented young actors. The ones who make it professionally are often the ones from tough or screwed-up backgrounds. Acting, they feel, is their one good chance. Meanwhile, other kids, who are from the middle class and upper-middle-class, might well have as much or more talent, but few of them make it professionally. Why? Because most of them have other options, and don't want to put up with the life of a struggling actor (which is a tough one).

jody said...

also, i don't think track has that a high loss rate at the top of the sport, although field definitely does.

there's never been an NFL player who was faster than tyson gay, nor will there ever be one. nobody who did not participate in track at the international level will EVER be as fast as him. the fastest NFL player will be, i think, trindon holliday, who ran a 100 meters in 10.02 one time.

ESPN and the like strangely talk about usain bolt and "What if he played american football?! He would be awesome oh my godz!" yet they never even mention tyson gay, who is ridiculously, ludicrously faster than anybody who has ever even put on an NFL uniform. tyson gay ran 9.69 at the 2009 world championship, a superhuman time that made him the second fastest 100 meter sprinter ever, and hilariously faster than carl lewis.

guys like trey hardee, the 2009 world decathlon champion, don't even register in their minds anymore. this is a huge difference from only 30 years ago, when a decathlete like mark malone was turned into an NFL quarterback. it's double stupid, because not only is hardee the WORLD CHAMPION in decathlon, he runs the 100 in about 10.3, which is much faster than almost any NFL player.

now, if trey hardee was black...

Steve Sailer said...

"let kids pick guitar and piano instead of stupid instruments that have no place outside of a symphony and which the kids generally don't want to learn."

Re: High school band. My late father-in-law, who won three terms as president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians union, said the prevalence of band in high school was basically a make-work plot to provide work for the enormous number of professional horn-players created by the Swing Era of 1935-45.

robert61 said...

Any speculation on why blacks have a higher standard deviation in height than whites? Is it due to, say, higher avg testosterone levels or more significant variation in diet?

Felix said...

there are lots of guys who get good at chess and then give up because they want to pursue other activities

(it happens from master level down to high school champion)

two other points

it's been argued that - like music or languages - you can't really become expert in chess if you learn it after you turn 12 or 13

and, also, much depends on the emotional vibes. In chess, a lot of the reinforcement comes by winning or if your friends all take it seriously

turning to math, sure, everyone learns it in school. But many with real capacity are turned off by teachers who can't teach it properly

so, while almost every middle class kid gets exposed to chess at some stage, not that many get motivated to pursue it with the talmudic-type study needed that mastery requires

Ross said...

"otherwise only one 6'10.5 man would be born in each year."

That would certainly be painful for the mother.

Julian said...

" ... ability to hold many things in his head at once ... to be a top chess player."

Do air traffic controllers make good chess players?

Most of the bright young men I knew as a kid fancied themselves as future chess geniuses. We all gave it a try and mostly found out we were not that great.

The appeal of fantasy careers like top mathematician, chess grandmaster, champion sportsman, seems to me to be partly that these are easily quantified, one-dimensional abilities, that simplify life. Most real careers require a broad range of abilities and success is hard to measure. But it you are the best chess player around, you have nothing else to prove.

Anonymous said...

ESPN and the like strangely talk about usain bolt and "What if he played american football?! He would be awesome oh my godz!"

Not really- I despise ESPN but the Skeets Nehemiah experience showed it takes a lot more than speed to be a great wide receiver.

Dan in DC

Anonymous said...

Great fucking article man. Lam Jones, now there's a name that jolts my memory. Checking out his wiki entry, her replaced another blast from the past - Houston McTear, who was injured - at the 1976 Olympics. Jones is now suffering with myeloma cancer that affects bone marrow in the legs. bye the bye.

"It's not surprising that the dominant sprinter of our age, Lewis, wasn't very masculine and didn't like football, getting hit, team sports, or machismo."

Ha, remember the T-Shirt Daley Thompson wore at the Olympics? "Is The World's Second Greatest Athlete Gay?" Good times, man, good times. Here's how the Guardian reported it:

"Bang goes Daley Thompson's chance of a knighthood...The next stop was a press conference. He unzipped his GB tracksuit to reveal another T-shirt, which read: 'Is the world's second greatest athlete gay?' a reference to rumours about the alleged and denied sexual preferences of Carl Lewis, the American track star.

The first question, from a British tabloid journalist, concerned what the Queen's daughter said to him. He replied: 'She said I was a damn good-looking guy.' He side-stepped questions about the T-shirt by saying that in England gay meant happy. Asked who was the second greatest athlete in the world, he replied that he may be Lewis or Jurgen Hingsen, second in the Decathlon. "

Regarding 7 footers, there don't appear to be any up here in Canada. We have a very different racial stock; you folks are primarily German and English, we are more Scottish and Irish and of course French, none of whom are especially noted for height. And then there are blacks.

Re: Michael "Gimme three steps, gimme three steps, mister" Jordan, I'm not sure he even makes the top ten list of greatest players, although I concede I'm alone in that assessment. Kareem was better, to name one.

Anonymous said...

LOL re Amaechi. Know an artsy guy who is probably 6' 10", late 30s. Will not even look at b-ball on TV. Gets a mouth if you mention the game.

David Davenport said...

... he prevalence of band in high school was basically a make-work plot to provide work for the enormous number of professional horn-players created by the Swing Era of 1935-45. ...

Maybe the arrow of causality points the other way around.

Marching bands with lots of wind instrument players existed before the Swing Era. For examples, refer to the bios. of John Philip Sousa or Louis Armstrong.

"Soul" music of the 1860's and 1970's funk emphasized brass horn sections. It's been said that the decline of funk was caused by the decline of big city high school marching bands.

Anonymous said...

If I can make a Saileresque point. The man who was probably most responsible for introducing basketball to England was Mick Jagger's father. He didn't do a good job but he tried.

Anonymous said...

John Derbyshire recently posted on something like this, but involving lawyers:

"Here was a sample from our high cognitive elites — our smartest, best-educated, best-read, best-of-breed (as they say at dog shows). And they are lawyers....

There's no doubt we need some of this kind of work, but do we really need so much? Don't all these expensively-tailored, suited'n'tied retribution-exacters and authority-confronters and underdog-championers in their tastefully paneled and book-lined offices, don't they represent a colossal drag on the productive portion of the national economy, even in addition to the effect of their having chosen to remove themselves from that portion? If, as our politicians tell us, we are living in a competitive world, aren't these smug suits subtracting massively from our competitiveness?"

Peter A said...

"i think there will probably be an explosion of good commercial music."

No. It's very easy to get access to a guitar at almost any income level, and has been for the past 50 years. Access to guitar and recording equipment has in fact led to an explosion of mediocre commericial music. In the 1920s you actually had to have some real training before you got up and played in front of people, now amateurs rule. What we need is more disciplined musical education in schools, not guitars and pianos for the masses.

Aretae said...


I disagree with your focus on talent, and argue that Tyler's question is misguided at my blog. Roughly, I think that your lines about Olajuwon, Nabokov, and Jamaican sprinters is basically right. But I draw very different conclusions. Talent is MOSTLY practice. The innate ability of Hakeem Olajuwon, Manute Bol, Bobby Fisher, Richard Feynman or any of the unreasonably talented people we see that we see basically works out to the fact that practice >> innate ability for almost all cases (once a certain innate ability threshold is passed).

Anonymous said...

Re: math and golf, Jody is 100% correct.

Re: NFL speed, not so much. Look at, e.g., John Capel who ran under 10 flat but washed out as a pro receiver.

People improve significantly through world class training and technical improvements, like start or stride mechanics. An NFL player who ran in the low 10s as a raw kid who only moonlights in track does have world class potential, and there are many of those. Just look at the times Gay (or Bolt) ran when he was in HS or an underclassman in college. He didn't start out < 10s.

Anonymous said...

Basketball and Football are sports where you can get by at most positions on size and/or speed alone.

Football players have to stay in shape and lift weights, maybe learn "the system" - but you can be great Defensive Lineman or LB and have zero hand eye coordination and you don't need to be intelligent or even practice that much. You just run and knock people down. Even WR don't do that much, they just run the pattern and catch the ball.

OTOH, Baseball requires hand-eye coordination and athletic ability. Golf and Tennis require huge amounts of practice. Even if everyone had access to Golf/Tennis/Baseball, the necessary hard work would discourage most from trying to play at the top level.

Anonymous said...

The freakishness of the NBA is shown by the large number of men 6/7 and over. The '87 Celtics had Parish at 7/0, McHale at 6/10, and Bird at 6/9. The Lakers had Jabbar at 7/4, and Magic, and the two forwards at 6/9 each.

So in the '87 Championship you had 70 percent of the starting players at 6/9 and over. How many men are 6/9 or over? One percent at maximum.

Polymath said...

Even for math there is a distortion. Those with the most mathematical talent may end up working as quants on Wall Street or in software or some other kind of industry job that pays much better than a University position. Being familiar with both the academic and industrial sides and having hired mathematicians for industry, I can tell you that academic mathematicians *tend* to be the ones with lower social skills and business aptitude, for whom an academic math job represents the best they'll be able to do. Since social skills and business aptitude are not negatively correlated with mathematical ability, pure math research does not get the best talent it could due to the lure of higher-paying jobs outside of academia.

At the very very very top, where talent is so high that a very successful academic career is practically certain, this filter is weak, but there are only a handful of mathematicians born each year who are that good (who are collectively responsible for a very disproportionate amount of mathematical progress but by no means the majority of it); thus the effective universal screening for math talent still does not ensure that we get the best mathematicians.

Glossy said...

"Billions of people are not exposed to quality economics, math, music, etc..."

It always cracks me up when economists desperately try to convince others that their field is just like other fields that have some proven value. "Quality economics", "Paul Samuelson-quality-would-have-been"... I bet the whole point of that paragraph was to try to make us think that there are objective standards of quality in economics.

Glossy said...

Jody said:

"in science and engineering, the movement of talent from one topic to another is really the only change that can be made. you can't bring in lots of guys from other professions and get better results."

Well, I would imagine that if rewards were lower on Wall St. than they are currently, or if Wall St. didn't exist, more natural talent would go into science and engineering than does currently.

Same thing for the higher reaches of the legal profession.

Unfortunately a lot of smart guys also go into philosophy, economics and other soft disciplines. Perhaps some of them are simply predisposed to subjectivity and wouldn't be interested in rigouroiusly objective intellectual pursuits in any case. But that can't describe all of them.

Finally there ARE super smart people in intellectually undemanding jobs. Stuff happens.

Anonymous said...

But without a strong marching band culture, we wouldn't have all those great ska bands!

C. Van Carter said...

"There is a lot of effort put into finding very tall men all over the world"

So whatever happened to the the Cashmere Giants?

Anonymous said...

All in all, I'd still probably say Usain Bolt is more likely to have more natural ability than anybody who is #1 in any other sports.

1) Bolt is dirty.

2) Even if Bolt were clean, he would still be pretty fast - it would be interesting to know how fast a clean Bolt could run, but since he's dirty, we'll never know.

3) Do NOT underestimate what Michael Phelps is accomplishing in the swimming pool - that guy has completely revolutionized our conception of what can be accomplished in the sport.

[And just like "everyone" has had to sprint at least once in their lives, so too "everyone" has had to participate in a swimming race, so don't immediately discount the talent pool (no pun intended) at work here.]

Anonymous said...

You guys who have never played in band or youth orchestra shouldn't diss it.

By the time I was about a junior in high school, band was the ONLY reason I showed up for school every day.

PS: Band chicks are, hands down, the hottest chicks in the whole school.

Plus they are friendly and smart and VERY easy [IYKWIMAITYD]...

PPS: Obligatory shout out to The One.

John Seiler said...

Cowen's example of Paul Samuelson was misleading. The world would have been better off if Samuelson had taught remedial math to 8th graders instead of taking up economics. More than anyone he advanced the Keynesian whim-wham of deficits, debt, inflation, and high taxation that have brought America to its current economic ruin. In his famed textbook he also sang the praises of Soviet socialism up until the day it collapsed.

But Cowen's analogy holds up if we use some better economists: Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Roepke.

Steve's example of Crichton moving from medicine to writing is instructive. Here's another one: Ron Paul moving from delivering 50,000 babies to politics, where he is leading the forces of freedom.

But here's a counter-example: Bill Frist moving surgery to Senate Majority Leader, in which post he led Congress to rubber-stamp Bush's ruination of the country. Frist should have stuck to medicine.

SF said...'+Gheoghe...-a018096640
If this source is correct (one in a million) there would be about 150 male giants in this country with a serious pituitary problem, most of whom wouldn't have the stamina for basketball.
I do remember a 6'11" kid in high school who was so skinny and awkward that they hardly ever put him in a game. But he must have matured, because he did play quite a bit for Grinnell Collge--probably Div II.

walter condley said...

Steve, I think that in regard to sports, you are missing the most interesting undiscussed question, which has to do with blacks and baseball. The question is, to what extent do blacks who possess the requisite athletic ability pass on or drop out of baseball because it requires taking instruction from whites? It's obvious that in football or basketball this predilection presents fewer problems. In the '70's Bay Area alone, I knew 2 shortstops with Larkin-like skills who just blew the whole thing off. I think you should essentially put out a questionnaire to blacks males asking: "would the prospect of taking hitting or fielding instruction from whites, many with "redneck" accents, alone cause you to pass up this prospective career track?" Presubably these questionees are not Crightons who are just more interested in biology.

greenrivervalleyman said...

Just happened to search on theoretical physicist (and probably smartest man alive) Ed Witten's Wikipedia article today:

He received his bachelor's degree in history (with a minor in linguistics) from Brandeis University. Witten planned to become a political journalist, and published articles in The New Republic and The Nation. He worked briefly for George McGovern's presidential campaign.

So it seems that only by a hair's breadth did the most important physicist of his generation decide to squander his talents on fluff like string theory instead of working on something that actually matters- like adding his own gloss to neocon foreign policy at The New Republic!

Polymath said...

Witten is the smartest at physics, which is probably the most difficult thing to be smart at, but he isn't world-class in any other area. Aptitude for theoretical physics is not the same as mathematical aptitude which in turn is not the same as general intelligence.

And as John Derbyshire has pointed out, political stupidity is uncorrelated with other kinds of stupidity.

greenrivervalleyman said...


Witten also happens to have already won a Fields Medal (aka the Math Nobel) so he has most decidedly demonstrated world-class mathematical aptitude.

That said, there is no need for us to get defensive about his political preferences. Politics is more about wisdom (synthesizing intelligence & intuition) than the sort of high-octane, analytic intelligence required for advanced particle physics. Brainiacs tend to be both autistic (to one degree or another) and technocratic, so it is no surprise they end up voting for the party of planning and regulation (Democrats) over the party of laissez-faire (Republicans). Yet when it comes to topics of social concern, understanding the ins and outs of some abstract (and necessarily imperfect) model is no match for common sense and a strong grasp of human nature. Which is why the pointy-heads at the Bulletin of [Lefty] Atomic Scientists, who could only understand things like MIRV-counts and ICBM throw weights, were made fools of by the decidedly non-pointy-headed Reagan, who grasped the much more important fact that Communism was anathema to the human spirit.

Polymath said...

Point taken about Witten's Fields medal, but he was an extraordinarily unusual and controversial choice precisely because he had not published any mathematics (of the standard type where theorems are precisely stated and then rigorously proved). His mathematical contributions consisted of inspired conjectures and original suggestions which were followed up sufficiently fruitfully by traditional mathematicians that he was considered (rightly in my opinion) to have been indispensable. He was really rewarded by two different professions (mathematicians and physicists) for doing the same thing, rather than being world-class at two different things.

Anonymous said...

Communism was anathema to the human spirit

I don't know that I agree with that assertion anymore.

If I've learned anything from my studies of history and culture and "HBD" in the last few years, it's that the circumstances necessary for the flowering of a free republic based on the rule of law [not to be confused with the tyranny of legalism] are exceedingly rare in human history.

Svigor said...

So why the fuck don't they just lower the basket and get something other than giant clods playing?

Anonymous said...

So why the fuck don't they just lower the basket and get something other than giant clods playing?

Actually, the conjecture used to be that RAISING the basket [to, say, 12 feet] would help the little guy.

Also enlarging the court [and especially increasing the amount of court area BEHIND the backboard].

Jokah Macpherson said...

I received the awkward assignment of covering a guy in the 7 foot neighborhood (hard to gauge but he was at least 6'10") in pickup basketball a couple weeks ago. Since I am only 6 feet tall it seemed unfair but he sucked so bad at basketball aside from his height that he only got a few baskets. Basically I just had to keep him as far from the rim as possible and hope that someone else would step in to pick up the rebound.

I think that height helps enough that a huge portion of 7-footers have what it takes but there's certainly plenty who don't as well. This guy was so uncoordinated and unaggressive that I don't think he could have ever mastered the finer points of playing center like establishing position and not putting the ball on the court when it's passed to you.

David Davenport said...

So why the fuck don't they just lower the basket and get something other than giant clods playing?

How low?

Tall players might benefit more than short players if the baskets were lowered a foot or two.

Anonymous said... guess is that Olajuwon, who was a half foot taller than Jordan, would be, by far, the greatest basketball player in history. In our world, Olajuwon peaked in his thirties...

So did Kareem. He only beat Unseld and Monroe in '71 because of Oscar.

On the hardwood, the veteran Robertson still proved he was a valuable player. Paired with Abdul-Jabbar, two more division titles with the Bucks followed in the 1971–72 and 1972–73 season. In Robertson's last season, he helped lead Milwaukee to a league-best 59–23 record and helped them to reach the 1974 NBA Finals. There, Robertson had the chance to end his stellar career with a second ring. The Bucks were matched up against the Boston Celtics, but powered by an inspired Dave Cowens, the Bucks lost in seven games.[3] As a testament to Robertson's importance to the Bucks, in the season following his retirement the Bucks fell to last place in their division with a 38–44 record in spite of the continued presence of Abdul-Jabbar.[13]

His championship years were with LA from '80 onward when he was 33. Olajuwon did not dominate early, despite being paired with the 7'4" Ralph Sampson, because he faced the greatest white players in the game: Bird, McHale and then in '86 Bill Walton, who dominated the "O" despite his miserable feet.

Anonymous said...

> Aptitude for theoretical physics is not the same as mathematical aptitude which in turn is not the same as general intelligence. <

Draw some sets. Both aptitudes, while overlapping only partly, are 100% within GI.

Svigor said...

Actually, the conjecture used to be that RAISING the basket [to, say, 12 feet] would help the little guy.

Also enlarging the court [and especially increasing the amount of court area BEHIND the backboard].

Heh, yeah, the first thing I thought after posting that was, "dumbass, wouldn't that mean the tall guys could dunk without even jumping?" My second thought was, "dumbass, this is basketball, you don't give a shit about basketball, why are you even reading the thread?"

Anonymous said...

Olajuwon's performance in 1993, 1994 playoffs are on par with anyone ever. The Dream Shake was as good as it gets.

Dan in DC

Paul Mendez said...

I'm surprised that nobody on this string has acknowleged the importance of an OCD personality in excelling at sports!

(Some came close when they stressed the importance of "practice")

I'll give myself as an example. I'm a damn good shot with a rifle, shotgun or handgun. A "natural," if you will. Scored "Sharpshooter" my very first highpower match.

I love shooting, and compete regularly in rifle, pistol and shotgun matches.

But I'll never make "Master" in anything. I'd love to shoot better, but I don't have the personality to be a Master. After a certain point, talent gives way to the willingness to make significant expenditures of time, money and mental effort to figure out what you need to do to eke out those last few points.

To make Master, I'd have to concentrate on just one shooting sport, ignore the rest, and spend lots of time and money on coaching, gear and practice. That's just not me.

There are guys at my club that shoot bettet than me only because they work harder at it. I know, because they started out pretty lame but soon worked their way past me simply because they cared more about winning.

There's zero money in club-level shooting, so you can't say they made an economic decision to invest in their shooting skills. They simply are more obsessed with getting good scores than I.

I have a geeky teenaged nephew who is pretty OCD. Once something gets his attention, he over-does it and quickly masters it. He's smart, but it's his ability to obsess 100% on the topic at hand and ignore everything else that makes him such a fast learner.

So, if there were three 7-footers, one who was naturally athletic, one who wanted to make a lot of money, and one who was OCD about being the world's greatest basketball player, I'd pick the OCD one every time!