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Wonder and awe in the game of basketball

Gabriel Griggs | Wednesday, October 16, 2013

In the opening chapters of “Introduction to Christianity,” Pope Benedict explains there is great human tendency to reduce life to questions of “how” – science and the mechanics of situations – at the expense of “why.” He ultimately draws a distinction between faith and reason: Reason is concerned with, and limited to, questions of “how,” whereas faith is the means by which we are able to answer questions of “why.” This reduction causes us to lose sight of the great mystery of life – and the accompanying sense of wonder and awe. This reductionism plays out in the realm of sports, where the beauty of the game is too often reduced to results-oriented mindset.

Modern sports are experiencing a great emergence of analytics. The very logic and interest in using analytics is that they will have predictive power; it is no wonder that many of the most successful organizations depend very heavily on the merits of advanced statistical and probabilistic analysis. The Oakland A’s and their “moneyball” approach, for example, has been highly successful over the past decade – but as Billy Beane himself said recently, his stuff doesn’t work in the playoffs.

The Oakland A’s were recently knocked out of the playoffs by the superstar-laden Detroit Tigers – playing into our intuitive notion that superstars win the big games. This intuition is what we might call the Michael Jordan effect – or, if we are classically oriented, we might call it the Greek hero affect. From ancient times to modern sports, there exists an intuition that somehow, certain figures are able to transcend pivotal moments of history as though they were fated to become heroes.

Predictive analytics and the Michael Jordan effect lie within the same general worldview that is concerned with the “how”: How are we going to win the next championship? There is a way in which we can boil down both history and the future into both cold, hard probabilities and into the formation of mythic superstars. Using statistics and probability, we arrive at the conclusion that the combination of superstars and a well-assembled cast of players will give us the best chance to win a championship. This, in fact, is the very script that we see currently in the NBA.

In last year’s NBA finals, the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat used this very formula: Get a couple of superstars and surround them with the “right pieces,” as determined through advanced analysis. Both franchises were laden with superstar talent and smart, analytically assembled casts.

Yet this view fails to account for the real mystery of team chemistry, the swings of momentum and the larger-than-life moments of heroism and tragedy – like Ray Allen’s last second three-pointer and Tim Duncan’s failed put-back attempts. There are elements in the game of basketball that cannot be explained by our limited mathematical languages of probability and statistics nor our sense that heroes always win out. If we reduce the game of basketball to mere statistics, we lose the magic of a group of veterans banding together for one last championship run. If we reduce it simply to the Michael Jordan effect, we lose proper appreciation for the role players’ contributions and for team chemistry. There is a mysteriousness to a championship-caliber basketball team that is hard to reduce and explain. There is nothing more that can be expressed than wonder, awe and joy in the beautiful game.

Beyond basketball, though, life is so rich and complex and imbued with meaning that it is impossible to reduce. The Church often refers to the inexhaustible mystery of God, in which we share because we are created in God’s image and likeness. We must always be aware of and take joy in the very mystery that is life itself. This very sentiment is echoed in the Psalmist’s words: “I praise you, Lord, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Gabriel Griggs is a senior living at his home in South Bend, Ind.  He is in the Program of Liberal Studies, and he is also studying applied mathematics.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.