A Hero Comes

Photo by Pensiero on Flickr

There are many, many logical and sound reasons to conclude that what we call “hero ball” is a terrible way to try to win basketball games. Speaking statistically, paying attention to the ins and outs of advanced metrics, a player working in isolation in the clutch is at best a shakey proposition. At worst, it not only loses the game, but pisses off teammates. And yet it happens all the damn time.

Take the game this past Easter Sunday between the Knicks and the Bulls. Once the Knicks blew their gargantuan lead, they found themselves down three with thirty seconds to play. And they drew up a beauty of a play that you can read all about here, but for now, just watch it:

Just look at that: solid screens, fake action, Melo being generous with the rock, an unexpected player getting a wide open look. And the shot doesn’t go in.

By way of contrast, let’s watch Carmelo Anthony’s game winner in overtime:

This is by any definition hero ball. Just a spot up three-pointer by the team’s best player and it won them the game. This was, by the way, after an earlier Anthony three that was just as flagrantly heroic tied the game to send it to overtime.

And we loved every single minute of it. Anybody who’s ever argued for the sanity and reason of running well-designed plays should admit that they were as floored by this as any casual fan who still judges players by their rings. We loved it because we’re more Kirk than Spock, more Han Solo than C3PO. We don’t want to know the chance of successfully navigating the asteroid field is is approximately three thousand, seven hundred twenty to one. We don’t want to hear that the odds of getting out of here are approximately seven thousand eight hundred twenty four point seven to one. When the game is on the line, we don’t want a fancy plan. We want:

And I’m not citing those pop culture examples just for fun. See, our stories teach us to go against the odds. They tell us that against all reason, one hero must emerge from the rabble and lead the good guys to victory against every expectation we have for failure. When people say they want the ball in Kobe’s hands with the clock winding down, it’s not even really because they think he has a better chance of hitting that last shot than another player. It’s because the story demands that he take and make that last shot.

None of this is to say that attempting to make mathematical sense of the game or indeed that any attempt to bring more reason and clarity to the game is ill-advised. The game needs to evolve, to become something new in response to new ideas. But isn’t its wild ridiculousness what lies at the core of our love for it? Isn’t this ultimately why sports are so great in the first place? Truly great games like the Knicks-Bulls tilt this past Sunday stand on the border between the real world and fiction. The stories inside them lash out at the rules that give the game structure, at the probabilities and plans and diagrams. Hero ball doesn’t make statistical sense, but it makes narrative sense for people who grew up on stories of heroes overcoming fantastic odds. Can it demonstrably be shown to hurt your team’s chance to win? Absolutely, but one need look no further than the trials of LeBron James to see that there are a lot of people who would rather see him lose with the ball in his hands than make the smart play.

Basketball is not just a sport, not just a reflection of percentages and points and metrics. It’s a reflection of our culture, of both its best and worst aspects. Every buzzer-beating three affirms it in our blood: we might take a Steve Novak jumper home to mom and dad, but we want to stay out all night and party with a Carmelo Anthony iso.

Seth Carstens