Jul 09, 2020
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When numbers lie

AS A SPORTS WRITER, IT IS REALLY EASY TO get caught up in the statistics of any given sport.

It wasn’t too long ago that I bombarded Fresno State men’s coach Steve Cleveland with questions about points, rebounds and assists.

On one particular night, Cleveland had enough of the statistics questions from me and my media cohorts. He let me know that sometimes the stats can’t tell the tale of the game; he was done answering those questions.

I made the rookie mistake of simply focusing on the numbers, and I wasn’t really watching the game.

That episode with Cleveland opened my eyes. It allowed me to bask in the emotion of basketball. It is interesting to track patterns in statistics, but the raw emotion of basketball is what makes the game what is.

It is easy to write a story about a player that scored the most number of points and led his team to victory. Points, assists and rebounds are tangible concepts that make the game easy to explain.

What about the intangibles you can’t see on paper? Where do you find heart, hustle, desire, tenacity, fear, fearlessness and love? Where do you find the human aspect of sports?

You also can’t count the little things that happen in simple strategy. There is not a way to give credit to a player that moved away from the rim to open up a lane for a teammate.

How do you credit a screen?

There is no way to give credit to players who make good decisions.

What about when a player hits a big shot that leads to a momentum swing?

A player can literally hit one shot that could change the face of a game and all people would see in a stat line is that one point he scored. There would be no context.

Like any topic, context is an important aspect to consider.

The best example I can muster is the Hall of Fame Basketball player Bill Russell.

By today’s standards, Russell was not the type of player you would particularly call a superstar. Russell was the ultimate role player. He wasn’t flashy, he wasn’t the first scoring option and he definitely wasn’t offensive minded. He was a player that focused on defense and rebounding.

Russell was a monster around the rim, and blocked everything that came near it. Sure, you can count the number of blocks that Russell had at the end of the game, but you would never see the respect that he demanded in the paint.

“The idea is not to block every shot,” Russell said. “The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot.”

I don’t believe there is a statistic for respect.

There also isn’t a stat that illustrates the style and flair of Muhammad Ali.

Which stat tells the story of Michael Jeffry Jordan’s impact on sports?

What stat tells the legend left by George Ruth?

There is no doubt that the men I just named had fantastic careers and statistics to go along with them.

They are regarded as some of the greatest athletes to play in their respective sports, but at a certain point these men outgrew their careers and became something more.

That something cannot and will not be given a number.

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