Happy anniversary. Twenty-five years ago today, Larry Bird turned into a fireball, dropped 60 points and had the Hawks going into convulsions on the bench. Greatest random TV night of my life. Let’s celebrate with a two-part mega-mailbag extravaganza. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.
Q: There was a waiting list to attend Dorkapalooza this year? These guys create dozens of fancy formulas to break down sports and can’t master the simplicity of supply and demand?
— Eddie, Brooklyn, N.Y.
SG: Yup. Waiting list. Probably had 1,200 people in all. The place reeked of geek. I had a blast as always. Even thought of an idea that deserves its own column, so I’m going to save that for later this month. But I did want to mention one thing
Conferences like Dorkapalooza (Also known as MIT Sloan Sports Conference) and the NBA’s Tech Summit are indispensable for this reason: How many times do you have a chance to hear dozens of smart/successful/thoughtful people give their take on anything? For the second straight year, I left with my brain percolating like a coffee machine. I hate labeling this as a “statistical revolution” because it implies upheaval to some degree — not necessarily true — and also because it makes it seem like purely a numbers thing. I believe it goes deeper than that.
Three groups are involved
Group A: Smart people with mathematical backgrounds figuring out new ways to evaluate sports.
Group B: Smart people without mathematical backgrounds determining which of these advances are more useful than others.
Group C: Outsiders (fans and media members) figuring out how to digest these concepts without being overwhelmed by them.
Group A desperately cares about winning Group B over and doesn’t worry enough about Group C sometimes. Group B deals with Group A because they want to improve their product to make Group C happy. And Group C is splintered into different sub-groups of people who either love this stuff, tolerate it or openly loathe it. If there’s been a trend over the past few years, it’s that Group A openly resents anyone in Group C who doesn’t embrace them and/or willfully ignores their data (even undeniably useful information like strand rates or BABIP). The Sloan Conference is really about uniting all three of these groups, although there’s probably too much of the first two groups and not enough of the third one. That will shift as the years pass and the event gets bigger. Which it will.
I appeared on Michael Lewis’ panel (“What The Geeks Don’t Get”) with Colts GM Bill Polian (an old-school thinker who believes football is too complex for anyone to say “Here’s the formula that applies HERE”), Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (who embraces statistical evaluation almost to a fault), Patriots executive Jonathan Kraft (middle of the road) and Rockets GM Daryl Morey (the NBA’s most famous number-crunching exec). All of them are extremely successful, even though their philosophies and approaches differ.
For instance, Cuban outspends everyone else, tries to accumulate as much information as possible and constantly looks for new ways to gain an edge, whether it’s with adjusted plus-minus data, referee data, psychology or whatever. Morey figures out ways to find undervalued players and tries to accumulate assets. Kraft believes you can’t pay a player more than they’re worth; once they exceed that value, you let them go and find someone else. (That’s why the Patriots value draft picks so much; they are constantly trying to replenish talent before it gets too expensive.) And Polian believes in building through the draft but then spending enough to keep that homegrown nucleus together. Four separate approaches; all of them work. Although they lean on numbers to varying degrees, it became clear that all of them at least respected the numbers. Why? Because it would be foolish for a business to ignore any conceivable strategy that might help it improve.
That’s where the statistical movement sits in 2010. The previous decade was about sabermetricians winning the respect of the mainstream sports media (a work in progress, but it’s mostly happened) and the teams themselves (definitely happened). You can’t argue with the results, especially in the NBA, in which only eight teams could be currently classified as number-heavy and all of them are winning. Five are contending for a title (Denver, Cleveland, Dallas, San Antonio and Boston, although Boston’s hopes are fading into Rasheed Wallace’s belly button right now); two overachieved despite comically bad luck with injuries (Houston and Portland); and the eighth is gunning to become the first team to win 50 games with a top-four under-24-years-old (the Zombies). Eight for eight? That has to mean something.
We knew something shifted in baseball a few years ago; it’s definitely happening in basketball right now. Whether it transforms the other sports remains to be seen. I do think we could reach a ceiling with performance-related formulas some day soon — if we’re not getting there already — and complicated analysis will shift to less definable quantities like injury recovery and behavior. But that’s a few years away. As I mentioned at the conference, the big challenge for sabermetricians this decade will be learning how to educate a mainstream audience in a relatable and entertaining way. Easier said than done.
Near the end of the afternoon, I was talking to Polian, someone whom I was hoping would be an a-hole (since he runs my least favorite football team and all) but couldn’t have been a nicer and smarter guy. He’s one of those people you spend 20 minutes with and end up saying afterward, “It totally makes sense to me why that guy was and is so successful.” And again, I wanted to hate him. So we were saying our goodbyes and I asked why he was skipping the last group of panels. He answered that he was doing some scouting with his friend Brian Burke, the GM of the Maple Leafs. Burke had a player he liked. Polian was tagging along.
I was confused. We were less than 36 hours into the NFL’s craziest free-agent signing period ever. We were just six weeks away from the NFL draft. Why would Polian want to spend a Saturday night at a high school hockey tournament in Massachusetts?
“Because I respect Brian and the way he thinks,” he said. “I might learn something.”
Here’s Bill Polian, one of the best football executives of all time, someone hitting the tail end of his career with nothing left to prove and he still felt as though he had something to learn. That’s also why he came to Dorkapalooza, and that’s why Dorkapalooza is here to stay. You can never run out of things to learn.
Q: You missed the most remarkable part of Tiger’s speech. After going on repeatedly about how he cheated, was unfaithful, etc., he then said any suggestion that he used performance-enhancing drugs was completely untrue. You realize he wasn’t apologizing, right? He was boasting! No Viagra or Cialis for Tiger — it was all 100 percent natural.
— Larry, Boston
SG: The funny thing is, I can’t prove you wrong. By the way, I was reading the New York Post’s story about Tiger potentially playing the Arnold Palmer Invitational and noticed this quote: “A second source said, ‘I would be shocked if he didn’t play the Arnold Palmer.'” That got me thinking has any celebrity ever spun off his name into two other completely self-sustained things? Arnold Palmer is Arnold Palmer, but he’s also a PGA-sanctioned golf tournament, and he’s a drink made up of lemonade and iced tea. You can hang out with him, play 18 holes of him or drink him. Conceivably, you could play the Arnold Palmer with Arnold Palmer while drinking an Arnold Palmer. This should definitely be leading his Wikipedia bio.
Q: What was it like to lose Mike Dunleavy from the Clippers and Corey Haim from life within a 12-hour span?
— Randy, Daytona Beach, Fla.
SG: Surreal. The Dunleavy thing went to another level when he admitted to being blindsided by the timing, even though he found out after finishing an afternoon round of golf. The guy had overseen a seven-year stretch in which the Clips lost more than 60 percent of their games, and during a week when every major college conference tournament was launching, he was swinging golf clubs yet he was completely blindsided by the timing? I thought that explained everything.
As for Haim, the poor guy was jinxed until the bitter end — he couldn’t even die in time to make the dead-celeb montage at the 2010 Oscars. I knew it would end this way for him, but that didn’t stop me from yelping in dismay when I saw the TMZ post. There was just something endearing about him; of all the child actors gone wrong, he always seemed like the one who took it the most personally that things went downhill. Corey Feldman launched a singing career and wasn’t even a little self-aware; Macaulay Culkin went into hiding; Joey Lawrence changed his name and his look; Danny Bonaduce and Dustin Diamond bulked up and turned into self-parodies. Corey Haim? It always seemed like he thought he was just one break away from getting it all back. I liked that about him. That’s the main reason two seasons of “The Two Coreys” riveted me so completely. So I will miss him.
But if there’s a silver lining, it’s the thought of Corey Feldman potentially deciding it would be a good idea to sing at the funeral. One of my Twitter followers suggested “Candle In The Wind,” which would be incredible, especially if Feldman switched the beginning of the song to, “Goodbye, Corey Haim ” I hope this happens. It would make me laugh, and it would probably bring tears to my eyes. That was the Feldman/Haim alliance in a nutshell. Vaya con dios, Haimster.
Q: What do you see Dunleavy’s next job being? Used car salesman? Camera man for Vivid Video? ESPN analyst? I see him being a supervisor for a Target and micromanaging the hell out of the break schedule.
— Jake, San Francisco
SG: And maybe even bringing in an ice-cold register girl to handle the last minute of a Christmas rush. That would be fun. I see Dunleavy landing where all failed coaches and GMs seem to land these days television. We’re three weeks away from seeing him argue with Roger Lodge on a “Rome is Burning” panel.
Q: So what did you think of the Red Sox signing Nomar to the one-day contract? I thought it was a nice touch. The divorce was awfully bitter, but Nomar seems to have mellowed. Just a nice gesture, unless you’re Dan Shaughnessy.
— Mike Barry, Wilmington, Mass.
SG: I’m yes-and-no on this one. I’m normally a sucker for tying up loose ends, especially for the guy who inspired my first ESPN.com column, but the concept of a one-day contract confuses me. Even if Nomar is heading into TV, why wouldn’t he put on the old No. 5 one last time, then pinch-hit in a spring training game for one last round of cheers in a Boston uniform? Isn’t THAT how you finish your career with a team? For instance, if Eddie Murphy said, “I’m retiring from acting, but I want to retire as a cast member of ‘Saturday Night Live’ again,” then they brought him to 30 Rock for a news conference and a one-day contract but he never appeared in a sketch, wouldn’t that be stupid? If you retire with a new team, I think you should be forced to appear for one play, shift or at-bat for them. I’m adding that to the list for my “Tsar of Sports” campaign.
Q: The road is tough, your spirits strong, driving all along. Close shave, America. Close shave, Barbasol.
— Danny B., Bloomington, Ind.
SG: America, you’re looking good, handsome, free and tall. Close shave, America. Close shave, Barbasol. Close shave, Bar-basol!
Q: I saw you at the Clips/Suns game sitting three seats from Donald Sterling. Don’t you know how the curse works with him? Since you sat so close to him, in your next book, it will get lots of hype and people will be lining up to buy it. After they buy it, they will get halfway through reading it, when all of a sudden the book starts to get boring, and the people throw the book away, and are pissed at themselves for spending the $19.99 for this hardcover book! Hope you enjoyed your career so far! It will never be the same! You are now officially part of the Clippers/Sterling Curse!
— Brad, Huntington Beach, Calif.
SG: Not true! See, I made a savvy move: During halftime, I had a chance to be introduced to Sterling and turned it down not because I was afraid of meeting him (I would have loved it, actually), but because I didn’t want to shake hands with him and get that Sterling Stink on me. I just pictured it unfolding like the banker who was touched by the creepy gypsy in “Drag Me To Hell.” As soon as our flesh touched, I would have had to conduct a seance and sacrifice animals to change my destiny. Needless to say, I didn’t meet him.
That reminds me, I heard two incredible Sterling stories in the past month.
Story No. 1: Sterling’s office is located in a six-story building in Beverly Hills. He is the only occupant. Why? He doesn’t like being around people he doesn’t know. Instead of sharing an elevator with a stranger, he’d rather the building was empty. I swear this is true.
Story No. 2: Nobody in Los Angeles believes that Sterling would ever sell the Clippers because, as insane as this sounds, they give him cachet out here. (Sure, it’s “isn’t that the guy who destroyed the Clippers” cachet, but still, it’s cachet because you never know when things might turn around. You should have seen him during the 2006 playoffs. He was wandering around aimlessly with a giddy smile on his face like Kathryn Bigelow after she won the last two Oscar categories.) I did some digging in Dallas to find out if anyone has ever made him a “Godfather” offer for the team. The answer? Yes. In the middle of the past decade, when the economy was still thriving, Sterling was offered a billion dollars for the Clippers by somebody. The only part of this story I couldn’t confirm was the identity of the person who made the offer. But it was definitely one billion dollars. Got it confirmed by an impeccable source.
One billion dollars.
ONE BILLION DOLLARS!
Now you’re saying to yourself, “There’s no way. That’s a ridiculous price. That can’t be.”
Well it’s the No. 2 TV market in the league and a proven basketball market. The Lakers had already established that ridiculous revenue could be generated in Los Angeles, and at the time the Clippers were considered the “up and comers” and the Lakers were considered “Kobe and the Kobettes.” And the buyer knew he had to overpay to get them. The point is this: The “Godfather” offer was made, and Sterling said no. He’s never selling.
Q: We’re approximately two months away from Charles Oakley and a Ghostbar cocktail waitress becoming the new co-owners of the Bobcats, no questions asked.
— Kyle, Chicago
SG: Come on, that’s not fair. That’s at least 10 months away.
Q: On the “Real World” tonight, I heard Ty say he wouldn’t drink anymore for the rest of the time he was in the house. I thought, “Wow, I would take any odds on this and bet all the money I could possibly get together and bet against this.” When will this become a reality? Is there some country where this already happens?” If there is we all need to move there today.
Addicted to gambling and living too far from casinos.
— Mike, Fort Worth, Texas
SG: I see it happening on the Internet some day when gambling becomes legal: a head-to-head wagering site that operates almost like stubhub.com. Everyone with an account would be able to post head-to-head bets they want to make, along with the odds for that bet. For instance
“I’ll bet you that Corey Haim gets the hammer for the 2011 Oscars Telecast Dead Person Montage. He will be the last celebrity shown. 35-1 odds, $100 wager. If I’m right, you pay me $3,500. If I’m wrong, I pay you $100.”
So another user could either accept that bet or counteroffer: something like “I’ll do that bet, but for 20-1 odds.” And if both sides agree, the bet gets filed and goes live during the 2011 Oscars. Now THAT would be cool. You know, if gambling were legal. Had this site existed last week, I would have bet you that Patrick Swayze was the last person shown in the 2010 Dead Montage, and I absolutely would have accepted whatever odds you wanted me to take on Karl Malden not being last. And I would have gotten crushed.
(By the way, is it wrong that I get more excited for the Dead Montage than any other part of the Oscars? On Sunday night, it was going head-to-head with the end of a Celts-Wiz nail-biter and I didn’t even think twice: I kept the channel on the montage. Five things I wish they would change about it. One, no clapping during the montage. It’s distracting, it’s wrong and I always feel bad for the families of the people who get tepid applause. Second, don’t waste big-name dead celebs at the beginning when there’s a wide shot of the theater. Poor Swayze kicked things off this year and you could barely see him on TV because they were going wide. That was inexcusable. I couldn’t even tell what picture they picked. Was it “Red Dawn” Swayze, “Point Break” Swayze, “Ghost” Swayze or “Dirty Dancing” Swayze? Third, no live performances during the Dead Montage. We’re fine with tape. Fourth, if someone gets their own tribute in another segment — like John Hughes during this year’s show — that doesn’t mean he then gets bumped from the Dead Montage. That’s not fair. You should be able to posthumously double-dip. And fifth, the hammer celeb should be voted on by the Academy just like all the other major awards. It’s that important. I’d like to nominate myself as the VP of Dead Montages. We need to take these to the next level.)
Q: It’s been a month and I still can’t figure out if “sexual napalm” is a compliment or an insult. Since you’re an authority on pop culture, I entrust you to make the proper judgment call.
— David, Tucson Ariz.
SG: Compliment. No question. Remember, John Mayer also compared Jessica Simpson to “crack cocaine” and said, “Have you ever been with a girl who made you want to quit the rest of your life? Did you ever say, ‘I want to quit my life and just snort you?” That sounds like a compliment to me. What’s really amazing: Did you ever think Jessica would become the LeBron of a “What Celebrity Sex Tape Would I Want To See” fantasy draft? She’s gotta be the no-brainer first pick, right? There’s something you would rather see than sexual napalm?
Q: Do you realize the Kardashian clan now holds an Olympic gold medal, Super Bowl ring, NBA ring and Heisman Trophy?
— Faruk, Rochester, N.Y.
SG: Just think, if Kourtney starts dating A-Rod and Brody Jenner starts dating Venus Williams, they could add a World Series ring and Wimbledon/U.S. Open titles to the mix. By the way, I just watched a rough cut of our “30 for 30” documentary about the day of the Bronco chase — “June 17, 1994” — and forgot that Robert Kardashian read what seemed to be O.J.’s suicide letter a few hours after the Juice was on the loose. In fact, O.J. escaped from Kardashian’s house. So really, it’s an Olympic gold medal, NBA ring, Heisman trophy, Super Bowl ring and O.J.’s failed-suicide note. Is there anything this family can’t do?
Q: Can you tell me how Canada justified excluding Bret “Hitman” Hart from the Vancouver opening ceremonies? Is there anyone who has done more to promote Canadian pride and self-esteem in the past 20 years? He should be recognized on nicknames alone: “The Excellence of Execution” and “The Best There Is, the Best There Was, and the Best There Ever Will Be.” Does Steve Nash or Donald Sutherland even have a nickname? It’s akin to a Ugandan Olympic opening ceremony excluding Kamala, right?
— Mark, Madison, Wis.
SG: (Nodding vigorously.)
Q: You wrote before 2004 that the two weeks of 1980 U.S. hockey was the best “ride” of your life. What about the two weeks starting with the 2004 ALCS and the Dave Roberts steal and ending with the World Series victory? Didn’t that top it? I don’t care that everyone on the Red Sox was roided out.
— Matthew, Vermont
SG: (Nodding sadly.)
Q: How does Jim Caldwell rank on the coaching emotionality scale with 1 being “Larry Bird the entire time he coached the Pacers” and 10 being “Jimmy V after he won the 1983 NCAA title”?
— Matt A., Jefferson City, Mo.
SG: Come on, Caldwell has to be lower than Bird. I’m positive that Larry Bird blinked hundreds of times when he was coaching the Pacers. I saw it with my own eyes. I like this idea, though the Coaching Emotionality Scale! Here’s how mine would look:
0.0: Art Shell
Same vibe as Caldwell, except he made you say things like “Is he dead?” and “Wait, is he dead?”
1.0: Jim Caldwell
An actual e-mail from Matt in Verona, N.J., last month: “So in my history class today, we are talking about how during the early stages of the Cold War, Stalin was blocking out all the other allied forces from entering Berlin, since they were in control of the part of Germany that contained the capital city. So America, knowing the Soviets couldn’t shoot at us and start war, flew in supplies from the air to American troops stationed in Berlin. They did this until Stalin and the USSR stopped blocking us from Berlin. My teacher described this standoff as a “Who would blink first?” situation. I called out, ‘Definitely not Jim Caldwell.’ Nobody laughed.”
2.0: Larry Bird
A little more lively than Shell or Caldwell, although he did have the greatest non-reaction in coaching history: after Reggie Miller’s game-winner in the 1998 playoffs (Game 4 versus Chicago), when the Legend didn’t pump a fist, move or even blink.
3.0: Tony La Russa
Always looks like he’s wearing a Tony La Russa Halloween mask, sunglasses and wig from 1992. At least he does cool hand signals, though.
3.5: Phil Jackson (post-Shaq version)
If he didn’t whistle every once in a while, it would be impossible to tell him apart from the celebrities sitting courtside.
4.0: Mike Shanahan
Signs of life only due to pulsating temples and bulging eyeballs. He always looked like he was telepathically screaming at everybody.
5.0: George Karl
Either he’s standing near the scorer’s table with his hands in his pockets and a frozen, semi-sarcastic smile on his face or he’s screaming at a referee. No in-between.
6.0: Every hockey coach
I hate to stereotype here, but aren’t they all basically the same guy? Same reactions, same cheap suit. Can you even name five NHL coaches? I watched the entire Winter Olympics and can’t even remember who coached Team USA or Team Canada, yet I could name about six curling coaches at this point.
7.0: Earl Weaver
Every time they showed him in the dugout, you just sat there waiting for the grenade to go off. In my lifetime, the single most exciting person to watch argue with an umpire or referee. There was always real danger in the air.
8.0: Sean Payton
Lots of fist pumps, lots of screaming encouragement, very intense, almost coiled on the bench. He narrowly edged Jeff Fisher, Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh for this spot after a phenomenal playoff run. In fact, if I had to pick a replay of any football coach celebrating a fourth-and-1 stop, I’d go with Payton’s.
9.0: Tommy Heinsohn
When I was researching my basketball book, Tommy was the one who jumped out: He flew into a frenzy after every bad call, stomped around on the sidelines like a little kid, berated officials like they were meter maids and, on rare occasions, dramatically sank back into his chair like he’d just been shot. If Tommy was coaching in 2010, he would be a YouTube sensation. I’m giving him a Tommy Point just for all the joy he brought me during my research. Honorable mention for this spot to Frank Layden.
9.5: Hal McRae
When he nearly killed every reporter in his office, that was like the Bizarro Jimmy V moment.
10.0: Tommy Lasorda, Jim Valvano (tie)
Jimmy V has become the go-to reference for overcelebrating coaches; meanwhile, Lasorda’s reaction after Gibby’s homer in the 1988 World Series is routinely forgotten. Remember Tommy crammed into that Dodgers uniform, looking like he was about eight months pregnant with a 10-pound meatball, leaping off the dugout bench then joyfully waddling toward home plate to greet Gibson? And if that’s not enough, anyone who gave us multiple “Tommy dropping an insane amount of f-bombs in a very short time to someone who angered him” audiotapes has to grab a slice of the top spot.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller, “The Book of Basketball.” For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.