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It Doesn’t Take Genius to Understand Basketball. But It Helps.

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You didn’t speak with many actual players for the book. Why?

Primarily, this is a book about watching basketball. I’m a terrible basketball player. I can’t dribble to my left. I’ve never been good at it. But I’m great at watching basketball. It’s one of the things I have more practice at than anything else.

Part of it also is learning the history of the game. So much of the sport was influenced by nonplayers. Naismith himself played basketball only twice in his entire life. He wasn’t even a good coach. Danny Biasone, the guy who invented the shot clock, never played basketball. But these people watched. He knew what made the game entertaining and made it fun.

What’s the value of asking an astrophysicist about basketball defense?

Good defense is invisible. It’s something you really can’t see because it’s the absence of good offense. It’s the ability to plan ahead of your opponents and prevent them from doing what they want to do. The best defensive possession will be a 24-second shot clock violation. Yes, you’ll see individual moments that are obvious, like a steal or a blocked shot. But good team defense is near invisible.

Talking to a theoretical astrophysicist, he specializes in far-off cosmic events — supernovas and distant galaxies. Things we can’t actually see. But he’s able to intuit and understand from patterns and looking at data. Talking to him, I wanted to get how he uses that skill set to look at defenses. Turns out, he does look at defenses in a weird, visual way. He considers them to be like an iridescent turtle: They’re sort of cycling, spinning. “Conductive cells,” he calls them, working in unison to push the action out to the perimeter.

There are multiple connections between art and basketball, you note.

It’s hard to watch top-level basketball and not find some artistic value in it. Bodies moving through space. That’s why I talked to a ballet choreographer, because I couldn’t think of any other comparison of grace and fluidity. The dunk contest is a celebration of beauty for beauty’s sake. Who can create the most beautiful piece of art with their bodies?

I think back to Naismith, and he would have never imagined that as a possibility, which I think is sort of the true genius of the game, that it was able to sprout from such humble, simple beginnings into something wholly unpredictable.

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