“At this point, given the value of the data… and the promise that it holds for unlocking some of the secrets for what makes great basketball teams, both for our basketball operations people and for our fans at home, we thought it was the right time to make it a league-wide effort,” NBA executive vice president of operations and technology Steve Hellmuth on installing the STATS SportsVU motion sensor cameras in arenas. (New York Times)
Unlocking the secrets. At its most wondrous, big-time sports produces those rare awe-inducing moments after which spectators can only look at each other and mouth: Did you see that? There has always been an unreal, dreamlike quality to these miraculous athletic moves. A Pelé bicycle kick that stings the corner of the goal from 26 yards away? Barry Sanders caught in the backfield with no options, until a freakshow display of ethereal agility causes a whole team of defenders to tumble over like dominoes? Michael Jordan switching hands mid-leap as casually as you pick up your fork? Venus Williams nailing the line with a backhand she seems to have hit from the parking lot? Tiger Woods navigating a distant putt that moves in more directions at once than John McCain on Wednesdays? Did you see that?
But of course you have. A zillion times. We’ve grown used to the replay, which takes magic out of its specific moment in time. (But in return allows us endless, if temporally diluted, enjoyment–once or twice or a thousand times removed.) Now the deluge of data accompanying every incredible play threatens to take not just the moment out of time, but the magic out of the moment–as analysis and data replace shock and awe. Or maybe not: Penn and Teller have proved that we can appreciate a show even more when we see not just the trick, but how the trick is done. Arnold Palmer in his heyday was, considered as data, just a long-hitting swashbuckler in a sweater, contorting powerfully to his fans’ delight–but the nuances of his swing were a mystery. (Today watching Rory McIlroy you see not only the super slow-motion impact as his clubface compresses the ball–you also know the clubhead speed, the swingpath, the launch angle, the ball speed after impact, the trajectory and the distance it travels to the inch.) A recent documentary on Julius Erving described how the legend of Dr. J was especially potent because there was so little evidence of it on film! Word spread and grew, as in that game where you pass a story around the table and it comes back big and unrecognizable. Basketball great Isiah Thomas facetiously tells how he once heard a story of Dr. J on a playground in Harlem jumping and never coming down. Of course, the natural follow-up to the question did you see that was always How’d they do that? The question, too, is about to become moot. Where replay took care of the first question (everyone sees it eventually), data will answer the second (he did it like this). Whether we’ll appreciate these incredible feats more once they’ve been analyzed and explained to us is hard to say. It may be that, as with the story of Santa Claus, some of will prefer to marvel in relative ignorance. Others will eat up the data like Bill James, the famed baseball sabermetrician, and will hardly be able to see the game sans data. Fewer and fewer things, it would seem, will cause awe as they are analytically explained away. But then you could analyze Usain Bolt’s running until both the cow and Michael Jordan together jump over the moon–and you’ll still have to say: How’d he do that?