Basketball Culture 101: Is There a Correct Way to Watch Sports?

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Matt Gordon, a student in Professor Yago Colás’ “Cultures in Basketball” class at the University of Michigan , and research contributer at, has generously agreed to share his experience of “Cultures in Basketball” on our blog. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @matogo18.

Last week, I read the fascinating new book Scorecasting and also watched the legendary basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. Now, these two pieces of work are pretty much as diametrically opposed as they come. Scorecasting is essentially a Freakonomics for sports, taking the reader on a psychological/statistical journey inside many different sports phenomenon, such as the myth of the hot hand in basketball, the real reasons behind home-court advantage in all sports, whether the Chicago Cubs really are cursed (spoiler alert: no, they’re just bad), and more.

On the other hand, Hoop Dreams is like the Titanic of basketball documentaries – a 3-hour in-depth, moving glimpse inside the life of two wannabe NBA players from Cabrini Green (the projects) in Chicago. The directors began filming when the boys, Arthur Agee and Williams Gates, were only in 8th grade, believing they would be doing a 30-minute PBS special. Of course, they ended up following both boys through their emotional, divergent paths throughout all of high school. The documentary is rife with examples of socio-economic, class, and racial problems in America. Viewers receive a truly frightening image of how much pressure there is for those that who want to succeed athletically, let alone how much more difficult it can be to find success when you have no money and are given no chance.

With all that in mind, let’s return to my original question: is there a correct way to watch sports? There are clearly numerous different options for viewing. Maybe you prefer focusing on a favorite player or rooting unabashedly for your favorite team. Maybe you prefer the subtle nuances of a game, watching the footwork or teamwork displayed in amazement. Maybe you love statistics and watch to enhance your ability to grasp the achievements of certain players, so they can then be compared to historically relevant athletes. Maybe you are driven by the unscripted excitement produced by games, addicted to the adrenaline rush of victory or the agony of defeat.

Unquestionably, there is no one right answer. Some may choose to combine most or some of the methods listed above, while others disregard them all. Regardless, I was really struck by the juxtaposition between Scorecasting and Hoop Dreams, which in turn led to me this question. The difference between the two can be classified in many ways, including: objective vs. subjective, head vs. heart, statistics vs. emotion. With the rapid growth of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, the spread of uber-intense statistics across the Internet (see…), and the growing accessibility of every game live through NBA League Pass, MLB Extra Innings, etc., every fan has a greater opportunity to dictate his or her own viewing experience than ever before. So what do we choose to do with all of this power?

I think statistics hold great value but can be dangerous, as in my opinion; much of the beauty of sport lies in its general ambiguity. 10 different people can watch the same play at the same time and have 10 completely unique reactions. Thus, part of my problem with the Scorecasting approach is that it essentially refuses to take anything at face value. Instead, you must search for hidden meaning/causation behind every action, inevitably making you incredibly hypercritical and too far removed from the emotion of the game. In some ways, life is much easier and more pleasant when you can accept things with your own explanations or ideas (as opposed to feeling like there is always a meaning behind an action that you are not aware of or need to do more in-depth analysis to discover). It almost makes me feel left out when I hear others having a surface-level, non-stats based conversation trying to describe a phenomenon that I feel like I KNOW the answer to or explanation behind. So maybe there really is no such thing as the “hot hand” in basketball and over a big enough sample of shots players will either regress or progress to the mean. However, aren’t sports fun because we subscribe to these myths? When you have an answer to every question, what else is left to do?

This last statement leads me back to Hoop Dreams. Think about how difficult it is to make it to the top of any professional league. The emotional, personal struggles experienced by Arthur and William throughout the documentary reminded me why I began to love sports in the first place – the raw emotion. In society today, with all of the increases in technology and everything else I previously mentioned, it almost becomes difficult to remember that games are not played on paper, but on the court (or field, rink, etc…).

Thus, what are we supposed to do? We cannot run from statistics as in reality, many of the more complex or “new” stats do lend further insight into the tangible contributions of players and teams. However, I am somewhat scared of the statistical revolution taking over sports and replacing human emotion with efficiency ratings. I think there needs to be a balance – a healthy use of statistics and new methods to better analyze or understand the game, but also the ability to forget about everything else and simply fully immerse oneself in the experience of a game.

As usual, I would like to end with a question. How do you prefer to watch a basketball game? Do you like diving head-first into stats and numbers or do you prefer to simply “follow the ball,” riding the wave of emotion created by your own ties to the game? Is there a way that statistics can be utilized to improve the emotional experience or understanding of watching a game? Ponder those questions, until next time…