Kathy Goodman: Basketball is not math
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I am in faculty meetings this week to get ready for the new school year starting soon, so forgive me if high school curriculum is floating through my head. Tonight, for example, as I was getting ready for our game against the New York Liberty, all I could think of was the transitive property. Everyone remembers this from Algebra I. It is the property in math that states if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.
Basketball is not math. Basketball is chemistry. Basketball is physics. Basketball may even be psychology. But basketball is not math.
A month ago, we beat the New York Liberty in Madison Square Garden by nine points without Lisa Leslie. The night before last, we beat the No. 1 team in the league by 12 points. Last night, with our full team finally healthy and available and playing at home, the transitive property says we should have won. We lost to the Liberty by four.
The game started slow — with five turnovers by the Sparks in six and a half minutes and only a combined 10 points by both teams in the first seven minutes. I did not think this was making for a very watchable game on ESPN2. But in those seven minutes, there were two steals and two blocks (all by New York, unfortunately), so maybe there was something to recommend it if you had waited up on the East Coast to watch it. (By the way, if you have only seen a WNBA game on television or the Internet, but never live, you really have only seen the shadow of a WNBA game. You need to get yourself to an arena and see this game in person — it’s an entirely different product.) In the last three minutes of the quarter, though, New York and L.A. scored a combined 19 points, so the game warmed up, and the Sparks pulled ahead.
The second quarter was very close. The two teams tied on almost every stat. Same rebounds; N.Y. had two more assists, but one more turnover; we both shot three of five from the three point line and we made one of two free throws and they missed both their attempts. We shot eight of 17; they shot nine of 16. A very close quarter. At the half, we went into the locker room up by four. I would have preferred to be blowing New York out, but there was good news. Betty Lennox had played a brilliant second quarter in her first game back from injury (scoring 11 points in 10 minutes) and, although Candace and Noelle had been held scoreless, I found that curiously comforting because, if my math was right, that meant they were due for a big-scoring second half.
I had thought about the transitive property while driving to the game, but at halftime I started thinking about other mathematical predictors. For example, players getting awards or recognition during games always seems to bode ill. Everyone talks about the “Curse of the Ring Ceremony.” I wonder what the all-time record is for home teams on the night they have their ring ceremony. During halftime, our Olympians, Delisha Milton-Jones, Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker and Tina Thompson, were recognized by USA Basketball for their gold medal win in Beijing and given Olympic rings. That seemed like maybe a bad idea, given the math.
We started the third quarter like so many third quarters this season. It made me wonder what our third quarter plus/minus is this season. Tonight was definitely minus. We racked up a whopping eight turnovers (leading to 10 of the Liberty’s 18 points in the quarter), scored only 13 points and collected no offensive rebounds. Candace showed some life by eking out three points, five rebounds and a block, but that was the best we had. By the end of the third, we had lost our lead and were losing 50-51. I wasn’t despondent, though, because of the transitive property. Indiana had beaten New York, and we had beaten Indiana, so we should beat New York.
Turns out, basketball is not math.
The fourth quarter was somewhat tragic. We shot two of 19. For those of you who prefer percentages, that is only slightly better than 10%. (That might be a record — but one I would like to never break.) We had no assists. We made none of our three-point attempts. OK, maybe there’s a little math involved — you do need to add points to the scoreboard to win. Transitive property or not, we didn’t win.
But then I thought, maybe I am just looking at the wrong stats. I think the Sparks probably have the worst all-time television record in the league. It may be just my imagination, but I think we have an all-time losing record when on ESPN/ABC. (Or maybe it just feels that way, since I know that everyone I know — and a bunch of people I don’t know — are watching us lose.) And it was the second game of a back-to-back. I wonder what the league-wide win/loss record is for teams on the second game of a back-to-back series. And we had 18 turnovers and eight assists. What’s our record when we have that kind of assist to turnover ratio as a team? And then there were those Olympic rings at halftime. Maybe I just need to know more math. After all, I teach English.
-- Kathy Goodman, co-owner of the Sparks