This is the first interview in a new bi-weekly feature I call “Let the People Speak”. We will be conducting short interviews with an array of people—writers, fans, arena employees, our friends, a random guy on the street, your mom—typically about offbeat topics. First up is the venerable Ethan Sherwood Strauss to talk about something he has been noticing in basketball writing.
You have mentioned on Twitter a couple of times how the increasing ubiquity of statistics in basketball writing is degrading its quality. What do you mean by that?
I wouldn’t necessarily say it is degrading the quality of basketball writing, but it is making it less entertaining. Baseball writing before the sabermetric revolution was more inaccurate, but more poetic. When we can imbue our words with an element of fiction, without there being a reliable way of divining it is fiction, it is easier to let our creative impulses take hold and let our mythology create whatever we want. What happens is with better information, it is harder to become creative with your pose.
There is another element where numbers are discordant with words. It is a prosaic problem. When you introduce a number to a sentence, your brain operates differently. This is more theoretical: I haven’t looked at neuroscience at all. It is a different way of processing information. It is not impossible to meld that into a good prose, but it is a challenge, and it is a challenge for most writers. John Hollinger is good at it, Tom Haberstroh is really good at it.
Are you worried that with the introduction of new tools like Synergy and NBA.com/stats, more of this writing will appear?
I haven’t worried about it. I don’t worry about it; it is more something I observe than consciously worry about it. I love the NBA.com stats page. I think it is fantastic. I like the video and shot charts and all that stuff. I enjoy having the information, this is just the wages of better information hurting the aesthetics of the writing. Frankly, I don’t know if a lot of people that read sports writing care. They might primarily care about having better information, and in that case this is serving the customers in a better fashion than in the past. I’m not wary of it, I’m not worried about it, I just notice where it can have a dragging impact on what to me is readable prose.
So is this maybe more of an individual problem, that you personally prefer writing that is more literary, than a widespread one?
It can be like reading the instructions to the stereo. There is that sense when I am reading what people write to get better informed, when I am forcing myself to gut it out and ingest information rather than enjoying it. I never felt that way when reading Hollinger’s stuff; that takes a rare talent. Its something I feel when I write, when I am trying to tell a story and numbers are involved. I find it difficult on a basic level to use a lot of numbers, and I see it hurting the writing product.
If you find it so difficult to integrate statistics into your writing, why do you still do so?
It depends upon what I’m writing for. It is unavoidable; you are often going to have to peg what you are saying to your numbers. It is like hyperlinking. I don’t like linking to things, that’s a pain in the ass. I don’t enjoy it, but that’s just good internet etiquette, and you are expected to reference what you are talking about so it doesn’t seem like you are pulling arguments out of your ass. It is just like linking to other stories: ”this is what I’m telling you, it is so, here is the numerical evidence”. When doing this I am thinking “is there a way I can incorporate this that is not boring?” That is the worry.
Do you think you personally, or others, can better develop this skill?
I don’t know I am that optimistic about myself. I can’t say about others.
Is this bleak future avoidable? Will it just take time for basketball writers to develop the skill to better integrate numbers with words?
I guess in theory it could, but I don’t know. I can’t predict the feature. I would ask you, because I don’t pay enough attention to baseball, but it would seem to me that the sabermetric revolution sapped away some of the perceived poetry, and people were saying that sabermetrics were not conveying the grit and the heart. Maybe that wasn’t what was happening, but the problem is we lost the pretty conveyance of this fictionalized heart that was kind of nice to have. I would ask you, do you think baseball writing has gotten less readable? I don’t know that I’m well versed in it enough.
I don’t know that I am well versed enough in baseball writing to answer this question either. I think that, on the whole spectrum of basketball writers, I’m more towards the quantitative, advanced stats, analytic end, and so I enjoy and purposefully seek out writing that heavily employs numbers. I guess that didn’t answer your question either.
It brings up other questions. When we look at things analytically, we ask “when is a thing a thing?” When is a scoring slump not something that will regress to the mean? It has become so complicated. To be a good professional writer, you want to overreact because that keeps the pageviews up. It is not a good story to necessarily say that it will correct itself. We feel that way about the Warriors. They’re probably not as good as they were earlier this season, and probably not as bad as their six game skid. But it is better, if I am telling the story of the Warriors, that when it is great I say everything is great, and in this period I say everything is ruined. It is better for pageviews.
Have you noticed the awkward use of numbers becoming more prevelant in basketball writing, or has it always existed and you are just only talking about it now?
It is such an abstract judgment. Better or worse is tough. I have just noticed I was enjoying fewer trips around the blogosphere, less than I was back in maybe 2008 and a little bit after that, and as statistical literacy increased the wont to talk in terms of statistics had become pervasive. I can’t pin it to any specific writer or piece, but I felt an increasing sense of boredom in reading. You have a finite amount of energy to put into anything. You will either put it into coming up with the best sounding sentences, the most captivating you can; or putting your attention into being the best observer of basketball you can be; or as statistically literate as possible. So I just believe that you are always robbing from one of your skills or tendencies, and then there are rare people that can do it all at once. The irony, maybe not irony, is that I haven’t done a statistical study on it. It is just kinda what I noticed.
Finally, are there any writers who have especially compelling arguments without the use of statistics? I am not talking about somebody like Jonathan Abrams, who usually writes profile pieces, but people who make basketball arguments without “resorting” to statistics.
I love what Abrams does stylistically though, and I have stolen one of the things he has done, the phrase “he claims”. Abrams doesn’t say “he got 15 points and 20 rebounds”, or “he notched 15 points and 20 rebounds”, he writes “he claimed 15 points and 20 rebounds”. I have always liked that. He does have a stylistic flair that does go beyond having an in-depth knowledge of the subject.
Adrian Wojnarowski. I don’t like some of his methods per anonymity, but he does have a literary flair to his prose, and he is always a fun read. I can easily read a Wojnarowski piece, so I would include him into that. And since nobody has a monastic devotion to all prose, I am struggling to think of anybody that can be added.
I enjoy Henry Abbot’s pieces. I don’t think of him as a stat guy, but he is a personable read. Others would think of him as a stat guy though. He was on ESPN with a whiteboard, so maybe my perspective is skewed.
The guy I like most who can meld stats into prose is Rohan Cruyff, unfortunately he’s never going to do this full time. He’s literally a rocket scientist.
I guess Beckley too, even though he will use stats.