Friday, February 27, 2009

"That guy is better than he looks": Appearance vs. ability

Here's a topic I think about all the time: What factors most affect opinions about players' skills, and by what process do those opinions change? In pickup basketball, there are often unknown players rotating into the playing roster. For purposes of team selection, shot distribution and defensive assignment, other players must evaluate them quickly and make uninformed assessments about their prospective abilities. It's like speed dating.

In my view, the following characteristics carry the most weight in these initial evaluations:

Height: The taller the better.

Fitness/build: Overall, the fitter the better. Moreover, players who have a "basketball build" (lean and athletic) also experience an initial status upgrade.

Age: The age-status curve is shaped like a bell. Players who appear to be in their early 20s to early 30s have the highest status, as they are believed to be mature enough to have absorbed necessary knowledge of the game, but young enough to still run and jump effectively. The very young and the very old have the lowest status.

Race: In general, black players get the most credit. Asian players get the least credit (believe me on this one).

Attire: This is complicated and multifaceted. Length of shorts is key. Tightness of shirt and style of sneaker are also important factors. Players who wear NBA jerseys, or worse, full NBA uniforms, lose credit. Players who wear the jerseys of teams that they appear to have actually played on get a lot of credit.

Language: Players who speak competently about basketball (e.g., "screen and roll," "going left") will get credit. Those who obviously lack hoops vocabulary will lose credit.

Certainly there are others, but these, in my opinion, seem to be the main criteria by which new players are judged. However, what's even more interesting to me is the process by which players rise and fall in status as their actual abilities become known. Specifically, I think that initial status characteristics are integrally related to status mobility. Here, I propose two interrelated hypotheses:

H1. Players who look like they'll be really good, but who turn out to be average or bad, lose status much more quickly than players who look like they'll be bad and actually turn out to be bad (the "worse than he looks" hypothesis).

H2. Players who look like they'll be average or bad, but who turn out to be good, gain status much more quickly than players who look like they'll be good and actually turn out to be good (the "better than he looks" hypothesis).

Evidence for these propositions can be found in almost any pickup game. I feel like players who "look the part" but don't have the skills to match are severely denigrated (e.g., "waste of height"). Conversely, players who look ordinary but who exhibit great skill come to be held in extremely high regard. My favorite example of this was one of my hoops mentors in college. Pete was this tiny Vietnamese guyliterally 5 feet tallbut he was lightning fast, passed like Stockton, and had insane handles and deeeeep range. He would also pick your pocket if you stopped paying attention for any amount of time. Guys were always underestimating him and getting their asses busted. I was guilty of this as well. The first time I guarded him during my freshman year, he got the ball on the perimeter and pump faked. I went up thinking I was going to swat his shit into oblivion, but found myself way up in the air as he ran through my legs and laid the ball in. (Spectators and other players, of course, went crazy.) Then, because I was scared to bite on any more shot fakes, he proceeded to hit about 500 threes in my eye over the course of the night. Over the years, I saw Pete victimize countless suckers like this, and he was considered a legend in our college gymthe prototypical "better than he looks" baller.


Ben said...

That's some good theorizin'.

I laughed out loud when Pete ran through your legs. That is awesome.

Jeff said...

What's truly amazing is that back then I could jump high enough for someone to run through my legs.

Yago Colás said...

I realize this is an old post, but I just recently discovered your excellent blog. Awesome piece! As a 5-8, 45 year old, white male (baggy nike shorts and nike shoes, but no NBA gear), I just benefited from the better than he looks phenomenon in a game of Buckets against some teenage and twenty-something african-americans at the local gym. Though I never got beyond high school ball (and yesterday played no better than a good high school player), the BTHL phenomenon had these kids swearing that I must have played college ball somewhere.