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The Cardinal Rules

An obscure stat, a mysterious inventor, and the Louisville crew that redefined college basketball statistics

It all began last January in the auxiliary media section at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill. It was halftime of Carolina–NC State, a game the Tar Heels would go on to win 74-55. A UNC staffer came by with the first-half press packet, and one piece of statistical minutia caught my eye. Below the stuff anyone might care about, in a corner, I read the words “Dead-Ball Rebounds.”

I turned to the reporters around me. “What’s a dead-ball rebound?”

A few theories emerged, none of which were correct. The dead-ball rebound proved to be an arcane, minor statistic; something that the average fan had no reason to know or understand. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. The stat helps cast light on the history of basketball statistics, and tracing its invention back to the 1960s led me to a group of men who redefined the way people think about the game, and revealed the origins of everything we know about college basketball statistics.

Let’s start with a man named Al Benninger and this 1981 article from the Reading Eagle out of Reading, Pennsylvania. The key passage reads:

Benninger claims responsibility for the invention of flash stats, which are quickie stats compiled during broadcasts during times out [sic] and distributed to TV and radio broadcasters; the recording of steals; and the creation of the dead-ball rebound, which is a rebound given to the non-shooting team when the first of a two-shot foul is missed …

“With the dead-ball rebound, we think it paints a truer picture of the game. Now, dead-ball rebounds do not count toward team rebounds. The NCAA uses it (in the tournament), but it’s a hard thing to sell. Not every college wants to do it.”

Al Benninger is now 86, and he still lives in Kentucky. He runs a 62-and-over softball league and attends almost every Cardinals home game. In fact, he’s one of those men who maintains a singular devotion to his school,1 and estimates that he’s missed about “five or six home games in 52 years.”

“It’s a goofy story,” he told me. “My wife and I got season tickets in 1959, and when we had our son a year later she couldn’t go to the games. So a friend of mine was on the stats crew, and he says, ‘You don’t need to buy tickets next year. I get to take one person in free each game; you can sit at the press table with me.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful.’ He said, ‘You don’t have to do anything.’”

That promise lasted until the first home game of the season. Someone on the crew played hooky, and Benninger was enlisted to help. He learned on the fly, and six years later, when Louisville’s sports information director quit to become a teacher, Benninger became the head of the stat crew.

As it turned out, Benninger was a gifted statistician and a natural leader. He began recruiting his own team (seven strong at the time, though most computer-aided crews today typically use four). Three of his men came from Lincoln Income Life Insurance, where Benninger spent most of his career as an executive. The others included a GE foreman named Jim Tharp and a math teacher named David Isaacs.

Soon, the crew2 found itself with a huge opportunity — the 1969 Final Four came to Louisville’s Freedom Hall. At the time, the host school’s stat team was assigned to the tournament games. But Benninger and his crew were so good in ’69 — and, more importantly, so fast — that when he jokingly asked the NCAA if the group could travel to College Park, Maryland, for the tournament the following year, it took him seriously.

“And every year,” Benninger recalled, “the NCAA said, ‘See you next year?’”

“It wasn’t just a job,” said Jim Tharp, 83, who started working with Benninger in 1961 after they met at a church function. “U of L paid us, but it wasn’t much. Everybody liked the game, and the NCAA told us we were the best stat crew they’d ever seen.”

Benninger went on to work 40 Final Fours until he retired in 2006, and the Louisville statkeepers are still the official crew of the Final Four. Benninger’s crew was so good, in fact, that it was chosen to work with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels when the franchise began in 1967 and until it folded in 1976. It was so good that when the Miami football stats crew bailed on the Orange Bowl in 1987 after the Hurricanes made the Fiesta Bowl, the Metro Conference asked Team Benninger to take over. (It stuck around for nine years, right up until the game moved to Dolphins Stadium and began using an NFL team.) Today, Benninger enjoys the Louisville title of “statistician emeritus,” and watches games from his courtside perch.

On March 20, 1969, North Carolina played Purdue in the first game of the 1969 Final Four. It was a blowout; Purdue won 92-65 on the strength of Rick Mount’s 36 points.3

Benninger had saved his stat sheets for more than 40 years … until a few months ago, when he threw them all out. Luckily, Steve Kirschner, UNC’s PR man, hasn’t tossed the school’s records. It’s on Kirschner’s copy where you can see it, in the lower right-hand corner below the team stats, set apart in a different font: the words “Dead Ball Rebounds.” The typewriter responsible for adding the new stat, along with the handwriting on the sheet, belonged to the math teacher — David Isaacs.

By Benninger’s standards, Isaacs is young at 70, and inexperienced with 43 years of service (1966-09) as a statistician and scorekeeper for Louisville and the Colonels.

“I’m not Al Benninger in a lot of ways,” he told me. “Al is a basketball nut. The game has changed so much, and I got too old to keep up with it, but I loved working.”

Like Benninger, Isaacs is a Louisville alum; he graduated in 1965, the year Wes Unseld averaged 35 points and 23 boards for the freshman team. He was teaching math in ’66 when the play-by-play typist for the varsity team quit; Isaacs was picked to fill the role. He worked in that capacity until 1980, joining the Louisville crew for home games, the Colonels beat, and, of course, the Final Four. When the NCAA realized that home scorekeepers for the Final Four would inevitably struggle to keep up with Benninger’s crew, Isaacs took that job, too.4 He stayed on until 1997, and worked as Louisville’s scorekeeper until 2009, when he retired.

But Isaacs was more than just a statistician. By a series of interesting coincidences, the man who crossed the Ohio River in 1970 to live and teach in nearby Jeffersonville, Indiana, became the one to codify — and, in some cases, invent — the college basketball statistics we take for granted today.

Starting in 1972, Isaacs began corresponding with Lou Spry, the NCAA’s assistant executive director for championships. He’d been working the Final Four for four years, and was pushing for the creation of a statistician’s manual for basketball to unify the diverse opinions and interpretations around the game.

“It was like Cook County, Chicago, at voting time,” Isaacs said. “We had Wes Unseld playing for Louisville, and the constant joke was that if there was a rebound and you didn’t know who else to give it to, you gave it to Wes. But we didn’t make up rebounds. At some other places, they had more assists than there were shots made, and more rebounds than missed shots.”

In June 1972, Isaacs wrote back to Spry,5 pitching the stat manual again and asking for authorization to write it with the help of the Louisville crew.

Later that year, a two-page sheet of NCAA rules interpretations came out for the 1972-73 season. It was a cluttered and complicated mess.6 Isaacs and others protested, and in November 1972 National Collegiate Sports Services stated its intention to have a manual ready for the following season. Isaacs wrote a four-page letter to Spry7 in December picking apart the current interpretations, and angled for a hand in devising the manual.

“I want to go through it, point by point, because some of the interpretations have us a little ‘shook up,’” he wrote. “Maybe we are taking ourselves too seriously. Maybe we are overestimating our opinions, maybe we expect to have more influence than we should have, but we do feel that we have a fairly good ‘feel’ for determining what is the fairest thing to do that is still consistent with scoring rules.”

Last, Isaacs took issue with the lack of any note about dead-ball rebounds. “The last note concerning team rebounds does not distinguish Dead Ball Team rebounds … We do record Dead Ball Team Rebounds. We once even wrote a description of what they were to give our local press.”

When Frank Barning at NCSS in New York wrote to Isaacs in January 1972 after getting copies of his letters, he complimented Isaacs on his passion and ideas, and wrote, “our next step, I personally hope, is to come up with a dead ball category to eliminate cheap team rebounds.” He wrote that he was grateful to them, and hoped to use them as consultants, at least, until he could speak “from a more authoritative position.”

Isaacs responded with gratitude. “We are thrilled at your appreciation and support. Though we had hoped to have a part in this project, I don’t think any of us really expected that chance … I am a high school math teacher who will probably be unemployed this summer, and would be interested in working during that time … in general, I do not think it is possible that you could ask more of us than we would be willing to do.”

In February, Barning wrote and asked him to call collect as soon as possible ahead of a presentation set to be made at that year’s championships in St. Louis. Isaacs would end up playing a key role. The Louisville crew arrived to work its fifth straight Final Four, and Isaacs was on hand when the manual was officially pitched. Later that day, a handwritten note came from Jack Waters, the chairman of the NCSS, asking Isaacs to meet with him Sunday night in the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. There, he told Isaacs that the pitch was approved, and gave him one last piece of news.

“I was still flying when I returned to my room,” Isaacs said. “I was overwhelmed that I was actually going to write the manual.”

Isaacs spent the summer of 1973 writing, with input from the rest of the Louisville crew, and the result, published on November 1, began to change how statistics were perceived.

“There had been a football manual,” said Isaacs, “and I borrowed from the way they laid out the concept. There were certain basic interpretations you used as guidelines. I may have created something that wasn’t in there, but I had a rationale for each rule. I put, ‘Here’s the rule, now here’s the philosophy.’ Because if you understand the philosophy of the rule, it makes it a lot easier to apply the rule.”

The NCAA gave Isaacs free rein, and a press release sent out in November 1973 outlined the changes made in the first edition. Among the finer points:

• “For the first time, the word ‘turnover’ has a definition, and will be used rather than ‘error’ to describe a team’s mistakes.” The turnover, Isaacs explained, could only be charged to the offense when it sacrificed a scoring chance. “You might say that turning the ball over to the opponent is the ‘Cardinal Sin.’” (The 1975 Final Four stat sheets were the first that existed without the word “error” listed anywhere, and it has never reappeared.)

• Dead-ball rebounds became an official part of the game. “The distinction between Team Rebounds and Dead Ball Rebounds will be important because only Individual and Team Rebounds will be used to rank teams nationally. Both of these involve some skill on the part of the team, whereas Dead Ball Rebounds do not.”8

• Offensive goaltending and lane violations no longer resulted in field goal or free throw attempts being charged to a player or a team, and for the first time, shooting percentage became a pure measure of skill.

In later editions, Isaacs tackled the issue of assists and steals, cementing them in the discourse. Steals were another ABA invention that trickled to the NBA and NCAA, while assists were more common, but routinely misused. (Steals were first recorded in the Final Four in 1973.) And underlying it all was that crucial bit of logic, the philosophy, that made the entire thing rational. For example, under assists, Isaacs wrote:

Philosophy. An assist should be more than a routine pass that just happens to be followed by a field goal. It should be a conscious effort to find the open player or to help a player work free. There should not be a limit on the number of dribbles by the receiver. It is not even necessary that the assist be given on the last pass. There is no restraint on the distance or type of shot made, for these are the crucial factors in determining whether an assist should be credited.

The language clarified one of the most widely misinterpreted rules of the game. Some statkeepers would give an assist only if the shot was taken within a certain number of dribbles, a by-the-book blindness that ignored what an assist actually means. Here’s an example from Isaacs: A player with an open fast-break layup throws an alley-oop to a teammate rather than score himself. In the NBA, that player gets the assist. But in the NCAA, the proper ruling would be to give the assist to the person who passed the ball downcourt before, because it was his pass that led to the basket.

Philosophy. Or, as Isaacs put it: “What is it exactly that we’re trying to reward and not reward?”

It’s fair to call Isaacs the godfather of college basketball statistics, and to this day he’s acknowledged by name in the annual statisticians’ manual. (In the late ’80s, the NCAA mandated that an employee write it, ending Isaacs’s tenure.) Still, he wouldn’t take credit for the dead-ball rebound.

“We did not create it,” Isaacs said. “I’m sure it was already there in some form.”

Benninger stuck by what he told me: Isaacs was the inventor. So did John Cecil (“I’ve always been under that impression”). So did Jim Tharp (“I think our stat crew came up with the idea”). And so did Paul Marquess, who began in 1965 and is still an alternate team statistician. But they all hedged their statements, if only slightly, and none of them could pinpoint the moment of invention.

“I’d be afraid to say we ‘invented’ it,” Marquess told me, laughing. “But then again, there’s nobody around to say we didn’t, so I guess we can claim what we want.”

Yet Isaacs insists he’s not the inventor. But if they didn’t invent the stat, they were the first to use it in a Final Four in 1969, and they formalized it in print via Isaacs in the summer of 1973. It’s been used on Final Four box scores from 1972 onward. (It took a hiatus in 1970 and 1971, when the Final Four was away from Louisville and the crew used old stat sheets created by the NCAA.)

“As far as it being there in ’69 and not in ’70 or ’71,” said Isaacs, “it tends to make me think it came from the ABA before 1969.”

Kenny Klein, Louisville’s sports information director, checked the archives, which revealed that the school’s crew first used dead-ball rebounds on February 13, 1969, in a Cardinals 83-81 overtime win against Tulsa. Kline sent me a scan of the stat sheet, which marks the first time the dead-ball rebound was ever used in an NCAA game:

As you can see, Isaacs wrote “dead ball rebounds” by hand in an open space in the stat sheet, which lent credence to the idea that this came from somewhere else. And where else could it have come from, with this group, than the ABA? Isaacs dug up an ABA stat sheet from 1972 — Kentucky Colonels vs. San Diego Conquistadors — with dead-ball rebounds in their assigned space. But he didn’t have anything that preceded it.

“They were such a loose group in terms of people coming and going,” Isaacs cautioned. “They may have given it to us, but they didn’t tell us exactly how it was supposed to work.”

I contacted statisticians, ABA coaches, people loosely connected with the NBA, ABA message boards, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Elias Sports Bureau, ESPN, and even Mike Storen, father of Hannah Storm and former commissioner of the ABA. Nobody had any idea where dead-ball rebounds started, who might know, or why the hell I wanted to know.

Finally, I was directed to Lloyd Gardner, the man who organizes the King of the Bluegrass Holiday Classic high school basketball tournament and a Kentucky Colonels historian who wrote a book about the franchise. He didn’t have any old stat sheets, but he thought the NBA teams that came from the ABA might.

I struck paydirt with the Pacers. David Benner, director of media relations, and Krissy Myers, public information manager, cracked open the old tomes from the 1967-68 season, the maiden voyage of both the Pacers and the ABA, and produced the sheet for November 1, 1967. Pacers vs. New Jersey Americans. It was the third home game in franchise history.9

Isaacs was right. Dead-ball rebounds in the ABA preceded their use at Louisville. As Benner and Myers showed me, the Louisville crew didn’t even start keeping DBRs until the 1969-70 season, after they’d already brought the idea to the NCAA.

John Zoni, an ESPN statistician, helped me find an excerpt from the book Loose Balls on the website Wages of Wins. It detailed how a Minnesota native and ex-journalist named Lee Meade talked his way into becoming the official ABA statistician.

Meade is a fascinating sports journeyman, and Sports Illustrated later ran a story on his involvement with failed start-up leagues (including, incredibly, the ABA, the World Hockey Association, World Team Tennis, the International Basketball League, Major League Volleyball, and the CFL’s failed expansion into America) in 1990. From Loose Balls, here are the innovations Meade created to differentiate ABA statistics from the NBA:

1. Rebounds — offensive and defensive. The NBA just kept total rebounds, no breakdown.

2. Individual turnovers. We called them “errors.” The NBA didn’t keep this stat.

3. Steals. The NBA didn’t keep it.

4. Blocked shots. The NBA didn’t keep it.

5. Team rebounds. The NCAA used it, but the NBA didn’t.

That last entry — team rebounds — suggests that Meade might have been the progenitor of dead-ball rebounds as well. Unfortunately, he passed away at age 82 in 2010, and conversations with his family turned up no new leads.

And that’s where it all fell apart. Calls went unreturned, numbers came up disconnected, e-mails bounced back. Which leaves us with this: This unknown man — maybe Meade or maybe someone else entirely — cared an awful lot about basketball statistics and recognized the need to distinguish the different types of rebounds, if only to hold everyone accountable and mitigate fraud. Whoever he was, we can bet he was a perfectionist and an obsessive, because that’s the kind of person who would feel the pressing need to balance every box score down to the last missed shot. He could sense the chaos that existed just beyond his box score, and could visualize the boundaries needed to keep that force from corrupting the game.

So he finds a willing ear in the ABA. It catches on in some places, like Indiana, but not immediately in others. It never catches on with the NBA, because Harvey Pollack and others don’t believe that team rebounds mean anything. It would have died in 1976, with the ABA, but a man with the Kentucky Colonels decides that he likes the idea. It’s an accountant’s trick, maybe, but a useful one.

This man, Isaacs, works at Louisville, too, and knows the same ache of a disordered universe that pained the inventor. He used that impulse to fix assists and field goal percentage, and define turnovers, and redefine steals. Statistics make more sense because of him, and therefore so does the game. Without knowing it, the rest of us — players, coaches, fans — need him. He’s a kind of guardian, and basketball’s statistical integrity depends on him.

Isaacs is too honest to claim the dead-ball rebound for himself, but he’s a worthy heir to the stat. He can understand the need for its creation. To the rest of us it may appear arcane and of ambiguous practical use, but not to him. He knows the stat sheet needs to be squared, and he knows this is an important piece of the puzzle. He’s not the kind to leave any stone unturned, so when he eventually writes the first statistician’s manual for the NCAA, reinventing college basketball statistics with every word, he brings the dead-ball rebound along for the ride. He’ll never know the inventor, but the inventor would be pleased, because his stat fell into sure hands. And when a Louisville crew works the games in Atlanta this weekend for the 45th straight year, it will be there, on the bottom right corner of a beautifully balanced stat sheet.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Sports

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere