Sitting on my sofa with a beer next to me and the battle for a seat in the Final Four of college basketball unfolds seems to be as near as an ideal setting for writing a review of Freedarko's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History as it gets. Before discussing the book though, I must explain why a review of the book is appropriate on a blog devoted to analytics, I mean no where in their 223 pages do they even give so much as a shout out to Dean Oliver and the only advanced metric they utilize is the Jazz-O-Meter. The motivation is to remind the analytic minded among us, that there are elements of the sports we analyze that we can't get at with our metrics. There are stories that lie outside of our experiences and a richness to the sport that can be forgotten when we focus solely on the data.
My adventure with the Undisputed Guide began on my trip to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference earlier this month. As I was packing, I look at the ever growing stack of books that I need/want to read and whittled it down to two choices: The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy or FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. Deciding which hardcover book to slip into my computer bag was an easy choice, as Simmon's book would have required me to pack my back brace along with my computer, while FD's slim 223 page tome was significantly more portable. Once the decision was made and I found myself taxing for takeoff, I opened it up to soak in the knowledge.
What I got was an entirely unique view into the history of professional basketball. Starting with the inception of the sport, the FD team brings the reader from the barnstorming years (as a side note, some day there has to be a movie that features a game between the All American Red Heads triumphing of over the Terrible Swedes, has to happen) to LeBron with a unique point insight, humor, and totally original visualizations.
The visualizations are truly the key that separates FD from the rest, not just because of what each individual graphic communicates (ex. 20 years of draft history color coded for college experience and post-draft value) but how their inclusion drives home the point that what FD provides is the color. I am an analyst and I live in the data. FD brings the game outside of the data and reminds me that it is not just about delving deeper and deeper into the data to find the right answer, but that what we often refer to as "noise" is actually full of great stories, if not definitive answers.
One near perfect example from the book of this is the chapter on the ABA that is subtitled "What the Hell Was the ABA?". This is a provocative question, and it largely goes unanswered, mostly because there is no definitive answer. The ABA had a profound effect on the NBA in terms of salary and style of play, but it was also fueled expressly by business men looking to cash in. Large contracts were mirages and while the league was often at the cutting edge of marketing, they could also be as hokey as it can be. As an analyst I am used to asking questions and delivering the best answer that I can. FD presents a host of interesting questions, and reminds us that some of them are so mutli-dimensional, they really don't have answers.
After reading a serious of analytics and related books, settling back into the wonders of sport is a welcomed reminder of my original motivation for being involved in sports: the fun of it all.