Category: Sports

The politics of why Yao Ming is not a great player.

The crude forms of weight lifting practiced in China — squats, for example, were performed by lifting a teammate on your back [TC: how’s that for the Ricardo Effect?] — were off-limits for Yao…

…the Shanghai coaching staff in fact protected Yao as if he were a priceless Ming-dynasty vase.  During most of his first two years at Meilong, the fragile recruit only joined the vets of the junior team for the low-impact shooting and dribbling exercises.  Once the practices moved into fast-paced drills or full-contact scrimmages, coaches pulled him off the court…"…we gave him lighter workouts to slowly build up the strength of his heart and lungs."

I had not realized that Yao has been prodded, tested, measured, and virtually controlled since his childhood.  There is more:

In Yao, Wei had found the ultimate guinea pig on whom to test his theories about human growth and athletic performance…The rumpled researcher tried to accelerate the usually unhurried processes of traditional Chinese medicine…If those who helped engineer Yao’s growth were proud of the way they harnessed traditional Chinese medicine, they showed reluctance to discuss a much more sensitive issue: rumors of the use of human-growth hormones…

Wei claims to have made Yao several inches taller, while noting, perhaps correctly, that his secret concoctions "would pass any NBA drug test."

That is all from Brook Larmer’s fascinating Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar.  If you want to know where China is headed over the next twenty years, this book is one of the better places to start.

In a related post, Matt Yglesias made a good point:

Yao is never going to be just like Patrick Ewing. He’s taller and skinnier and more Chinese.

I have a simpler theory: being taller than 7’1" is a disadvantage on the basketball court.  My second theory is that Yao will have to retire by the time he is thirty years old.

How to make this year’s NBA season interesting

The standard fantasy is that Antoine Walker is better than his reputation, Jason Williams will fly straight, Shaq isn’t finished, and Miami will flourish.  A more ridiculous fantasy involves Denver, a team with too many green or broken-down players.  When it comes to Houston, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming will fail coordinate their styles.

My fantasy is that Detroit is underrated.  Hardly anyone is picking them and they are running only seven to eight percent in www.tradesports.com.  Two years ago they won the title and last year they took the Spurs down to the wire.  All their key pieces are in place, no one should be worse, and unlike all the other top teams, they do not appear to have potential chemistry problems.  They are more offense-oriented than before, and the defensive influence of Larry Brown will linger for at least the rest of the year.  Why not?

My second fantasy is that Larry Hughes (and not Lamar Odom) is the Scottie Pippen-in-waiting.  LeBron James will continue his path to being the next Michael Jordan.  Donyell Marshall will hold up and they will trade their stiff and slow center (don’t expect me to spell his name) for a dynamic front court player.  Offer up your own NBA fantasy in the comments, if you wish…

Golfonomics

This book presents Stephen Shmanske’s innovative research combining two of his passions, golf and economics. He develops two themes – the use of economics to explore institutional aspects of the business side of golf and the use of golf statistics to shed light on several vexing issues in economics. These two themes are addressed in two settings – the economics of golf course management and the economics of professional golf. Examples from golf course management are covered in separate chapters on golf cart usage, golf course maintenance, and the problem of slow play. Examples from professional golf include the causal relationships from practice to skill to earnings, the tournament compensation model, and the measurement of gender discrimination.

Buy it here.  If the $48 price tag intimidates you, try these two chapters on-line.  Here is a review.

Betting odds for the forthcoming world chess championship

Read them here (scroll down just a bit), the Indian Vishy Anand is favored with implicit odds at 34.8 percent.  Kasparov says either Anand, Leko, or Topalov will win with probability 95 percent, has he stopped buying their shares?

Addendum: The competition starts Tuesday.  I’ve been expecting Topalov to win.  Leko folded in his last game against Kramnik in their match.  Anand is the most talented player but I feel his time has come and gone.  If he had the will to be world champion, he would have achieved it by now, keeping in mind there have been several world championship titles he could have won!

Equity shares in everything

If the new Internet venture succeeds, it will be a whole new ballgame for the gambling-driven pastime of fantasy sports, which already has up to 20 million players.
    ProTrade, which opened for business yesterday, will treat professional athletes like stocks to be bought and sold, initially in a theoretical currency. Cash prizes will be awarded to the most successful investors.
    The value of a blue-chip quarterback such as Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts will be determined by a community of traders competing to identify players most likely to contribute to the success of their real-life teams.
    In this bottom-line approach to sports, teams are known as investment portfolios and the real-life athletes get their own ticker symbols. Manning’s symbol is PMANN…
    ProTrade initially will be confined to trading NFL players, but the San Mateo, Calif., company expects to add the NBA and Major League Baseball after working out licensing agreements.

Is it real money?

At the outset, basically for the first half of the NFL season, no actual money will be exchanged in ProTrade’s market; each participant will get a virtual stake of 25,000 coins to invest.
    But capitalism will fuel the market’s activity, with weekly prizes awarded to the portfolios with the best investment returns. Later this year, traders will be allowed to create their own competitive leagues and set their own entry fees, with a $5 minimum per entrant.
    ProTrade will hold all the entry fees in escrow and then distribute jackpots, minus a 2 percent to 3 percent commission, to league participants who generate the best investment return. ProTrade hopes to make money from those commissions and advertising on the site.

Here is the story.  Comments are open, in case you know more about this than I do.  I like this part of the story:

Former San Francisco 49ers tight end Brent Jones, a member of ProTrade’s advisory board, believes most players will stay away from the site.
    "There are a lot of guys out there who aren’t going to want to see what they’re really worth," he said.

Judith Polgar will compete for the world’s chess championship

That is in Argentina, an eight-person double round robin tournament, coming this October.  Kasparov has retired and Kramnik is no longer formidable, so the winner of this tournament will be regarded as the world champion of chess.  Does Judith have a chance?  Here is an interview with her.  Note that the old stereotypes of female chess players no longer hold.  Here is a complete directory of photos, totally safe for work.  (Call me sick, but I find these pictures more fun than "real" pornography; there is at least an element of surprise each time you click.  Plus they make you doubt the predictive capacity of evolutionary biology)  Nor could Bobby Fischer beat Judith at "knight odds" and, these days, he probably could not beat her at all.

Tantrums as Status Symbols

Once upon a time one’s social status was clearly signaled by so many things: fragile expensive clothes, skin not worn from work, accent, vocabulary, and so on.  As many of these signal have weakened, one remains strong: tantrums.

CEOs throw more tantrums than mailboys.  Similarly movie stars, sports stars, and politicians throw more tantrums than ordinary people  in those industries.  Also famous for their tantrums: spoiled young wives, bigshot patriarchs, elite travelers, and toddlers.

These patterns make sense: after all, beautiful young women and successful older men are at their peak of desirability to the opposite sex.  If you are surprised that toddlers make the list, perhaps you should pay closer attention to the toddler-parent relation.  Parents mostly serve toddlers, not the other way around.

Of course, like a swagger, the signal is not so much the tantum itself as the fact that someone can get away with it.

Addendum: Todd Kendall has a data paper on this for NBA players.

Is the new NBA age limit a good idea?

Here are the data.  The conclusions?

…college education does not appear to diminish the probability of a player getting in trouble with the law. In fact, some of the most notorious NBA players are those with college degrees, while many others have three years of a college education…actually, the data suggests that premiere high school seniors might be better off skipping college altogether, perhaps in order to avoid the disturbing external influences that afflict many college basketball programs…

No matter the interpretation, it doesn’t appear that the recent decision by the NBA and NBPA to raise the age of NBA draft eligibility from 18 to 19 (or one year out of high school) will improve the overall law-abidingness of NBA players. If anything, actually, this data suggests that it might have the opposite effect.

Second, players appear more likely to get in trouble with the law towards the middle and end of their careers than at the start. This could be interpreted in a number of ways. For instance, it might suggest that the “pressures of being an NBA player” are more manageable at the start of one’s career, perhaps because the player is less autonomous and more reliant on the team. This interpretation is bolstered by the financial stake of NBA teams in facilitating the transition of their players from life as an amateur to life as a pro. Second, and related to the preceding interpretation, new NBA players are often surrounded by veterans in their late 20s and 30s who can monitor them and serve as de facto “big brothers.” The presence of these veteran players is obviously something distinct from the college experience, where the “veterans” are often just 20 or 21-years old, and are thus not likely to be as well-equipped in steering their 18 and 19-year teammates away from nefarious influences. Alternatively, the data may suggest that as the player accumulates wealth and notoriety, he is more likely to succumb to these “pressures.”

Thanks to Todd Zywicki for the pointer.  Here is my earlier post on age limits in sports.

Scary political threats

Many ownership worries are circulating, and not just about Maytag in the hands of the Chinese:

Major League Baseball hasn’t narrowed the list of the eight bidders seeking to buy the Washington Nationals and some Republicans on Capitol Hill already are hinting at revoking the league’s antitrust exemption if billionaire financier George Soros, an ardent critic of President Bush and supporter of liberal causes, buys the team.

"It’s not necessarily smart business sense to have anybody who is so polarizing in the political world," Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) said. "That goes for anybody, but especially as it relates to Major League Baseball because it’s one of the few businesses that get incredibly special treatment from Congress and the federal government."

Rep. Tom M. Davis III (R-Va.), who was a strong supporter of bringing a baseball team to Virginia, told Roll Call yesterday that "Major League Baseball understands the stakes" if Soros buys the team. "I don’t think they want to get involved in a political fight."

Here is the full story.  I am also appalled that this kind of political threat is not viewed as a) a major scandal, and b) headline news.  It is time to seize back the Republic, no?

The greatest basketball team ever?

These Spurs are so quiet, but it should be asked whether they are the best NBA team to have walked on the planet Earth.  A few points:

1. Since 1997 they have a winning percentage of over .700, the best in any sport.  This includes two previous championship rings, but the current incarnation of the Spurs is believed to be the best.

2. They have absolutely crushed a variety of strong teams from the West, even when Tim Duncan had sore ankles.

3. Their best player, Tim Duncan, should at this point be MVP every year.

4. They are one of the best defensive teams, ever.  Bruce Bowen is a first-rate stopper.

5. They are one of the best-coached teams, ever.  They have an amazing variety of offensive plays and defensive set-ups.  They can play in many different styles, including run and gun fast break, when needed.  They are far more than the sum of their parts.

6. They do not appear to have problems with personalities or dissension.

7. They have a very strong bench.

8. You would rather have Manu Ginobili than Kobe Bryant.

9. In any sport where performance is measurable, quality rises over time.  Yes there is dilution but overall the best basketball teams are getting better.  And the use of foreign players — prominent on the Spurs — is overcoming the dilution problem rapidly.

Can you imagine Bruce Bowen holding MJ to thirty points and Duncan going around Bill Cartwright at will?  Could they keep the fast break of the Showtime Lakers in check, while exploiting the relatively weak defense of that team?  How would they match up against the 1989-1990 "Bad Boy" Pistons, or the Celtics with Bill Walton?

We should put the low TV ratings aside and start asking these questions.