Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Psychology: Self-interest versus collective good

My last post was about how normative practices (such as how players "get next") affect game conditions. I tried to make the point that local rules and norms in pickup basketball profoundly shape the experience of playing.

Thinking about this further, I realized that the specific issue of "next" actually signifies a larger tensionthat between self-interest and collective good. Skilled players who advocate a system of next in which captains can cherry-pick their teammates are acting selfishly because under this system, these good players will tend to end up on strong teams and will get to play longer by winning more. Average and bad players, of course, suffer under this system.

There are many pickup scenarios that highlight this tension. Here's one. Have you ever played in a game where one player made a few ticky-tack foul calls? What tends to happen? That's right, everybody starts calling more fouls! So here, Sensitive Foul Guy's behavior shifts the culture of the game. If others don't react by lowering their foul calling tolerances, then Sensitive Foul Guy has created an unfair advantage for him and his team. Of course, this dynamic almost always leads to a series of "That was a foul! That was not a foul!" arguments that threaten to derail the entire run. Increasing foul sensitivity is a great example of the "tragedy of the commons," where everyone would benefit from playing with reasonable fouling standards, but individual players' self-interests undermine this collective goal and ruin it for everyone.

Here's another, less common example. Lately in my pickup run we've had an organizational problem. When the run is especially busy, players like to get two full games going, with winners playing winners and losers playing losers in a "second round." Sounds good, what's the problem? The problem is that this system cannot accommodate new players. So what happens is that the first round games end and teams switch courts to play the second round. But new players invariably show up during the first round and wait by one of the courts. When the second round games are supposed to start, there is almost always a fight between the new players and the players coming over from the other court to play their second round opponent. (This system is stupid but it sounds cool to a lot of people. They need to get their f*cking heads checked.)

The personal interests of the players are clear: everyone wants to play as soon as possible. But multiple teams, according to completely different logics, have the "right" to play. Who capitulates? I DO. As one of the oldest players (and the only professor) playing in a college gym, I feel a responsibility to set a good example, so when I am caught in this situation, I calmly explain why the tourney system makes no sense, and then offer to wait. My teammates are not always happy about this, but I give them my speech about self-interest and collective good and they generally seem to be somewhat sorta kinda ok with it. What strikes me is the reaction of other players, who are braced for an argument and surprised that someone would willingly sacrifice his own playing time. Last week I did this very thing and a player on the team that was jumping us looked at me with genuine puzzlement and said "Wow, you're so nice." I explained to him that I was not being nice, but rather acting in a way that set a positive example so that we would all eventually benefit. I asked that next time he was caught in a situation like the one we were in, he volunteer to sit and wait. He furrowed his brow and appeared to consider it before checking the ball in and starting play. Baby steps I guess.

Final example. The other day I was ahead of the entire defense on a break. My teammate threw me a great over-the-top pass and I had a clear path to the rim. But as I caught the ball my feet got mixed up and I shuffled slightly before taking two big steps and laying the ball in. I think it looked a little funny, but no one on the other team said anything because it was a marginal situation. I turned right to my opponents and said "I traveled. No basket." They were shocked. My teammates were shocked. In response I simply said "integrity of the game."

I hope that by setting a good example I will encourage others to think of the collective before thinking of themselves. I want to create a culture in which personal sacrifice is normalized, where players are willing to act against their own interests when they recognize that the collective good is at stake. I often talk to other respected regulars about this. I tell them that we all need to think of the good of the game before we think about ourselves. But this is difficult in pickup basketballa loosely organized activity with an ever-changing roster of participants. The problem with asking players to attend to the collective is that the collective is amorphous and unbounded. Still, I feel that if the most respected players actively promote honorable behavior, others will be inclined to follow suit. The players I talk to seem to understand this in theory, but when there's a three game wait next Sunday afternoon, we'll see.

I'll close with some simple but powerful advice. When faced with a self/collective dilemma, we should always ask ourselves: What would Jesus Shuttlesworth do?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The science of next

Ok, let's get a little social sciency up in here. I want to discuss something I've thought about for a long time: How does the process of "getting next" affect the dynamics of a pickup game? I've played in a lot of different games with various ways of doing this, but I think that there are two main procedures in the U.S.

Through democratic selection. The next five players to show up get next game, regardless of who they are. In general, those who have been waiting the longest are the next to play. If there are fewer than five players waiting, losing players engage in a shooting contest to fill the available spots. This is the most common form of next.

Through conferred authority. The next player to arrive becomes team captain. The captain has the liberty to accept or reject other players who ask to play with him. If the captain wishes, he can even select players from the losing team to join his squad, despite the fact that they are "jumping over" players who have not yet played. This is a less common arrangement, and I've mostly seen it practiced on the east coast.

Now I'm going to argue that the conferred authority method is worse on all counts. For years in Boston and New York, I played in games that used the conferred authority method, and it never made sense to me. Why not?

1. It lacks consistent internal logic. This method causes massive confusion. Who has next? Can I play with you? Why not? If I can't play next, can I play with the team waiting second next? Third next? Where is my place in the queue of nexts? At its worst, the conferred authority approach can produce a long string of captains with no teammates, each waiting to cherry pick the best players from losing squads. When games get crowded, the system's vague logic and players' intense desires to play spark a conflagration of arguing.

2. It unfairly stacks teams. This method eventually creates extreme team inequalities. Next teams are invariably getting stronger and stronger because they are selecting the best available players. Weak players, meanwhile, are being sent to the back of the line. When these weaker teams finally make it onto the court, they are quickly dispatched by the high quality team that currently owns the run. Ultimately, the weak players leave because they keep losing and then they have to wait an hour to play again.

3. It changes the culture of the game. Winning becomes the primary goal of playing. This is because the conferred authority method essentially changes the game's supply and demand of players. Since some players are in more demand than others, the likelihood of playing after losing is variable across players. Those who do not expect to be picked up by a next team must win to keep playing, or they will be subject to the humiliation (and long wait) of finding a spot amongst the sea of nexts. The need to win is a direct reflection of self-interest, which runs rampant under this system. Average/bad players who do not advocate for themselves will not play very often. (Good players will get picked up again no matter what their personality.) Thus, all average players must seek above average teammates to increase the chances of victory, and at the same time, above average players seek to avoid playing with the average players.

4. It encourages shady behavior. For all the reasons described above, players (especially captains) must use deceptive tactics to keep their teams strong and avoid relegation to "last next." This usually involves dissuading or refusing subpar players who ask to play. The most common form of shady behavior is when a waiting captain targets a star player who is currently playing and holds a spot for that player, even though others are coming up and asking to play. Again, this is technically allowed, but it just seems unethical. Many times, I'd approach a waiting captain and ask to play, only to be told that "his friend was in the bathroom." Of course, when the next game started, the "friend" turned out to be a star player who just lost. When shady behavior is built into the norms of the game, the norms of the game should be questioned.

Overall, the conferred authority method produces more competitive games, but also more stress, conflict, and unhappiness among players. I also feel that it compromises the integrity of the pickup game because it is so profoundly undemocratic. The larger point here is that the structural conditions of play can exert significant effects on who plays, how the game is played, and how players relate to the experience of playing. The conferred authority approach leads to a competitive environment structured rigidly around a hierarchy of skill. On the other hand, the democratic method mitigates this hierarchy and fosters a fair-minded approach to the game where playing time is freely available, regardless of how good you are.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a baller!

I finally got around to watching the 2011 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, which had been buried deep in my DVR. I know it's pathetic, but I'll watch anything with basketball in it. I saw Space Jam in the theater.

I was pleasantly surprised at how competitive the game was this year. The requisite former NBA-ers like Scottie Pippen, Jalen Rose, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin did their thing. Other standouts included Romeo Miller aka Lil Romeo, Common, and yes, Justin Bieber, who took home the MVP award (based on fan voting) and showed decent skills along with an annoying, self-absorbed personality.

But let me tell you, I was most impressed with 46-year-old U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Before dedicating his life to public service, Duncan was schooling overgrown blue bloods as captain of the Harvard basketball team, and then took a 4-year walkabout in the Australian pro league. So the dude can obviously play. But in the Celebrity Game, Duncan played with a particular poise that should make all of us aging ballers proud. He didn't try to do too much like the boy-idiot Bieber. He wasn't trying to be a star. He played within the flow of the game, setting solid screens, making nice crisp passes, and never forcing shots.

Duncan clearly had some serious game as a younger man, and while he doesn't have much speed or hops left, he has become a cerebral, efficient old-timer. Check out this nasty behind-the-back dime. No cutter left behind!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Psychology: Intraracial rivalries

"Is he better than me?"

That's the first thing I asked when I heard about a guy my old NYC running mates were calling "Jeff 2.0." Jeff 2.0like mewas an undersized, pass-first point guard with good handles and a decent jumper. He was also Asian.

In December, I got together with my NYC basketball friends to play in their regular weekly game. Jeff 2.0 was there and it was the first time we had met each other. He seemed like a very nice guy and he definitely had some game. We ended up guarding each other for most of the night. I played my ass off against him and at the end, I felt that I had done respectably, especially since I had just come off major knee surgery. But it got me thinking about intraracial competition. Jeff 2.0 and Jeff 1.0 (me) were the only two Asians in the gym that night, and I felt that we were both subtly trying to capture the "Best Asian in the Game" award. Unfortunately, as we know, there is no such award.

I think that an easy hypothesis here would be: Players will play harder against same-race opponents.

But I don't think it's that simple.

The better hypothesis is actually: Players will play harder against same-race opponents when their race is relatively rare in the game.

Growing up in upstate New York in the 80s, I didn't know any other Asian ballers. In most games I played in, I was the only one. Going to college in Boston, I met a few other Asian players, and I definitely played harder against themwanting very much to be the best Asian around. I mean, there was no way I was going to be the best player on the scene, but I had a really good shot at being the top Asian (and I think I was). I moved to NYC for grad school in the late 90s, and found myself in a tough situation. I played with quite a few Asians at the gym and in the parks, where there was no guarantee that I'd be anywhere near the best. There were definitely some Asian ballers at NYU who could easily bust my ass back up to Poughkeepsie. I would play SO HARD against them, but they were just better than me. I remember one of the "kings of the gym" (a black guy) coming up to me one day and saying something like "You're the second best Asian brother here. You've got a good game, but [the other Asian] is the best." I couldn't disagree, but I was stung by the truth of what he had said. I hated that anyone else knew what I knewthat I wasn't the best of my kind.

But then I moved to Berkeleyaka the Land of Asians. I started balling at the UC Berkeley gym and at various parks around town. Now, instead of being one of a few Asians, I was one of many. In fact, some of the games I played in were all Asian. Suddenly, being the top Asian player didn't seem so important anymore. For one, there was no way that this was going to happen. There were too many Asians playing in my games now, and too many of them were clearly better than me. But more importantly, the social structural conditions of the game had changed my perceptions. I found that with so many Asians to compare myself to (and to be compared amongst themselves), I didn't feel that same intraracial rivalry.

So I believe that racial uniqueness plays a critical role in this dynamic. When there are only a couple of you, you see an opportunity to gain status in the eyes of the local hoops community. As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I like it when good players give me a racist nickname ("Yao," "Ichiro," "Duck Soup"), as it means that I am noteworthy, despite the general disadvantage of my race. But when your racial category reaches a certain tipping point, this status competition becomes more or less moot. You'll never get a cool racist nickname if there are fourteen of you.

Thinking about this suggests a further complication, which is that overall racial category statuses also matter. For example, if two relatively skilled black players are playing with eight white guys, do they feel the same pressure to be the best of their race? Maybe, but maybe not, as black players tend to have higher status generally in pickup basketball culture. For those with high hoops status, being the best of their kind may take a backseat to being the best, period.

Thus, I think that the best hypothesis of all is: Players will play harder against same-race opponents when their race is relatively rare in the game, and they are in a relatively low-status racial category.

And of course, here's the question we really want answered. Does intraracial rivalry affect the highest levels of play? Do Kirk Hinrich and J.J. Redick get insanely pumped up to guard each other?

Friday, February 11, 2011

First day in the brace: Outclassed

I couldn't wait until this weekend. Yesterday I went to the gym in my new knee brace to "shoot around and do drills." So I shot around and did drills--for about an hour. Then players started showing up. The first time I was asked to play I politely declined. But the second time I was asked I eagerly accepted. How many times can you put drugs in front of an addict and expect him to refuse?

The main reason I decided to play was that the game looked soft. Most of the players were undergrads and they were not particularly good. If there was any game I was going to be able to play in, this was the one.

My stat line from that game: 0 points (0 for 0 shooting), 0 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 turnover. I assisted on every one of our team's baskets in a losing effort. One of the assists was a sweet behind the back pass through two defenders. I take responsibility for the turnover, although a better big man would have caught it and laid it in.

This game was both encouraging and frustrating. I was encouraged to realize that I could still defend, handle the ball, and pass. But I was frustrated to realize that I was not able to get any decent looks because of reduced mobility and psychological issues related to my knee. I decided to try playing in another game.

But the game suddenly changed. All the mediocre undergrads left and better players took over. This happens a lot at our school gym. The goofy games run from 4:00-5:30, but then all the grown-ass men get out of work and show up. Between 5:30 and 8:00, the games are very competitive. Still, I wanted to see what I could do against better players. The answer: basically nothing.

My stat line from the second game: 0 points (0 for 0 shooting), 0 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers. It wasn't that I was tired. The game just got too good for me. My defender was significantly better than the kid who had guarded me the first game. My teammates were also much better this time around, pushing me far down the offensive hierarchy. Everyone was much better this time around. I was simply outclassed.

I am ok with this. I'm just coming back after a two month layoff. I have spent a lot of time learning to accept age and infirmity. I play because I love to play. Despite feeling limited and old yesterday, I had so much fun. And last night, for the first time in a long time, I dreamed about playing basketball.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Equipment: Bracing myself

I've suffered a setback on the path to recovery from ACL surgery. In December I was playing pickup in NYC and, on the very last play of the entire night, tweaked my surgically-repaired knee. It didn't feel that serious at the time, but some swelling persisted and for a few weeks after, it just felt weird. I went to see my ortho doc, who examined my knee, told me that it seemed loose, and ordered an MRI. The MRI showed some fraying and stretching of the ACL, but my doc did not recommend surgery. Instead, he suggested I "brace it" and gently return to basketball.

At first I was happy with this diagnosis. Another surgery was the last thing I wanted, never mind the ensuing rehab. But today I went and got my brace. This thing is a f*cking monster! (The pic on the left is the actual model I got.) It's pretty light, but I've been wearing it all day and it definitely lets me know that it's there. It also makes me feel like a character in a sci-fi movie who's been partially reconstructed with robot parts.

Over the years, I've seen many aging ballers wearing these big-ass braces (including Old School after his own ACL repair). To be honest, my opinion of these players was a mix of admiration and pity. I admired them for gutting it out after their bodies had failed them, but pitied them for having those same failing bodies. When we are young, it's hard to imagine a time when we will need such equipment to continue playing a child's game. It's easy to scoff at the old guys doing everything they can to keep up. But soon enough, we are those old guys, and we are faced with enormous, pressing questions.

-Should I keep playing?
-Should I retire?
-What can I expect from myself on the court now?
-What skills must I develop to keep playing effectively?
-What exactly is this "golf" that ex-ballers seem so obsessed with?

The brace serves as a constant reminder that I am on the steep part of the downward curve of hoops ability. It also suggests that I've taken basketball to a certain logical endpoint in my life. When I'm sacrificing my future health for a few moments of adrenaline on the court, I'm not so sure my priorities are in order. In a way, bracing my knee means bracing myself for the inevitable.

Still, I'm going to keep playing. I'm lugging this brace over to the gym this weekend and testing it out. Even though I'm older, slower, and partially robotic, I can't let go of the game that easily, especially after the surgery and rehab I've gone through in order to keep balling. There's got to be a few kids I can still cross up, right?

Setshotters: Please share your knee brace stories with us.