Who is Basketball’s Foremost Public Intellectual?

Who is America’s foremost public intellectual? That was one of last week’s internet mini-controversies du jour, set off when The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates contended it was MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry. Gawker commenters put forth their own nominations and the discussion was off.

I don’t have a strong opinion on the question, but it got me thinking: who is the foremost basketball public intellectual?

The answer depends a lot upon your definition of public intellectual. Coates writes about Harris-Perry, “Her show brings a broad audience into a classroom without using dead academic language and tortured abstractions,” defining a public intellectual as somebody that teaches the public in a common language. It’s a broad definition, and not everybody agrees. New York Times Book Review editor Barry Gewen prefers the New York Intellectuals definition of a public intellectual as, “someone deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large.”

When it comes to choosing a basketball public intellectual, it seems necessary to subscribe to as broad of a definition as possible. Basketball isn’t really pursued on nearly the same intellectual terms as things like economics, politics and the like, and the venues to write about the sport intellectually are few. The world of those that have a public platform related to basketball numbers only a couple of thousand as well: the pool to draw a basketball public intellectual from isn’t that deep.

It is also important not to necessarily equate “intellectual” with “stats”. Yes, advanced statistics are helping fans understand the game better, but that isn’t the only role of intellectualism in basketball. My broad-based definition of “intellectual” in this context is anything that deepens our collective understanding of any significant part of the game of basketball.

Without further adieu, the top ten basketball public intellectuals.

10. John Hollinger – Vice President of Basketball Operations, Memphis Grizzlies

If this list had been written two years ago Hollinger might have topped it; as it is he just sneaks in. As an ESPN employee for seven years, Hollinger was easily the most high-profile writer utilizing analytics in his writing. He didn’t reach this status by being the best at math necessarily, but because of the way his work was able to connect with and influence how the common fan thinks about the game. While he hasn’t been that “public” since his hiring by the Grizzlies, that in of itself was a huge milestone, perhaps the biggest acknowledgement that a new wave of analytics-savvy writers had firmly taken over the league.

9. Mark Cuban – Owner, Dallas Mavericks

Cuban’s reputation as an owner, partially a product of his own careful cultivation, is that of a common guy that struck it rich and bought an NBA team. This depiction belies his true intelligence and impact upon the game. His conscious lack of filter—whether in the form of his condemnations of the state of refereeing, his long-running blog or interaction on stats-heavy sites—has let fans somewhat into the exclusive club of NBA owners. Cuban has taken on the grievances of the basketball fan and given them legitimacy, and advocated for them in the highest levels of the sport all the while teaching us how the sport is managed in the league office. Cuban was also one of the first owners to hire and give a significant decision-making voice to a practitioner of advanced analytics.

8. Jeff Van Gundy – TV Analyst, ESPN

It seems unfair that Van Gundy hasn’t had a coaching job since he was fired by the Rockets in 2007, but some team’s loss is the fan’s gain. Van Gundy is a rare bird among color commentators, one of the few not prone to hyperbole and word vomit. Instead, Van Gundy treats the viewer as an intelligent, mature person and provides the right mixture of levity along with a lesson or two about basketball. He will criticize players when it is warranted, and stick up for him—and here’s the important part—while explaining his rationale when he feels they’re being unfairly attacked. At the very least you leave a Van Gundy-called game entertained; most of the time you leave it a little bit smarter too.

7. Dave Berri – Professor of Economics, Southern Utah University

For nearly fifteen years now, Professor Berri has railed against the over importance given to scoring in the NBA. Through his book, website and peer-reviewed academic articles, Berri has expertly utilized both popular media and academia to spread his message. Many analytics writers keep their methods secret in the hopes of getting hired by an NBA team, or only interact with other analytics practicioners on the APBR message boards. In contrast Berri has always conducted his work in the full view of the public, and his profession has lent credibility to his arguments, making them easier to digest for those that require hearing the opinion of an “expert”.

6. Daryl Morey – General Manager, Houston Rockets

Morey isn’t the only smart general manager in the league, but he’s by far the most public and outspoken about his methods. Morey founded the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which in just eight years has grown into an event that attracts practically every single North American professional sports team to present, listen and recruit for front office positions. Morey is also known to be generous with the media, participating in articles like Michael Lewis’ famous one on Shane Battier that showcase his methods to the public. He is the figurehead for the new wave of Ivy League-trained economists entering the league.

5. Nathaniel Friedman – Founder, Free Darko

You probably know Friedman better as Bethlehem Shoals, the brilliant mind behind basketball’s most brilliant-ever blog, Free Darko. Though he only occasionally writes for GQ these days, the legacy of Friedman’s project lives on. Partially it lives on through the FD contributors that are full-time writers—Tom Ziller, Eric Freeman, Chris Ryan, Brian Phillips, Paul Flannery, Dan Devine, David Roth and probably others—but also through the concepts of liberated fandom and the positionality revolution. Friedman practically created an entirely new form of basketball analysis, merging disparate concepts or those used in other fields to think about the game in an entirely new way. He and the Free Darko crew challenged the conceptions of an entire generation of basketball writers and fans, and we’re all smarter for it.

4. Zach Lowe – NBA Writer, Grantland

Lowe’s writing has become so ubiquitous that its easy to forget that less than a year and a half ago he was writing for Sports Illustrated. That Lowe’s brand has grown so quickly is partially a credit to his boss Bill Simmons and Grantland, but mostly it is due to Lowe’s unique abilities. There are writers that can break down plays and explain strategies, and there are writers who are are well-sourced. Lowe is just about the only writer, however, that is both.

A typical Lowe piece can be quite long, but only because it gives more insight to both processes and outcomes than anybody else’s work, and is thoroughly researched and documented. He also breaks stories of basketball concepts on the leading edge—SportsVu data, the Raptors “ghost” players, the draft wheel—and explains their important concepts to his readers. He consistently churns out high-quality, intelligent work, and has attracted perhaps the biggest audience this side of Adrian Wojnarowski for his hard work.

3. Adam Silver – Deputy Commissioner and COO, National Basketball Association

Admittedly Silver almost certainly fails the “public” criteria, but who cares? Silver will become the NBA commissioner in less than a month, and is frequently described as a smart, capable and even visionary leader. Silver lets Stern work the public while he lobbies behind the scenes, and deserves at least partial credit for a number of fan-friendly decisions: deciding not to force video sites to pull NBA clips that has allowed an entire “play breakdown” genre of writing to develop, and ponying up the money to install SportVU cameras in every arena and releasing some of that data to fans. Look for Silver to interact more with the public as he grows more comfortable with his role, and look for him to put his firm impact on the sport sooner rather than later.

2. Charles Barkley – TV Analyst, TNT

Barkley is the jester-in-chief in the court of clowns that is TNT’s Inside the NBA, and he plays that traditional role to its perfection. Barkley makes people laugh the entire broadcast, but in-between slips in the truths that others can’t or won’t speak. The simple fact of the matter is that Barkley is one of the only people who can credibly talk about topics like race, power and image in the NBA. Whether its his famous assertion that athletes aren’t role models or straight up telling white people why he is allowed to use the N-word and they aren’t, Barkley forces his viewers to think and have conversations that they otherwise would not.

1.    Henry Abbott – Senior Writer, ESPN.com

Abbott might be basketball’s most patient man, gently guiding his readers forward along the path of basketball enlightenment. He has taken the tack of incrementally introducing new concepts, believing that it is more powerful to communicate small insights to as broad of a readership base as possible than to shove it down the throats of the very few.

Abbott produces a consistently high-level of work, but its in his various campaigns that he has been most effective in impacting the game and educating fans. His annual TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown is the first introduction to advanced stats and advanced stats writers for numerous fans, and is presented in an easy-to-understand and reader-friendly format. HoopIdea takes after Mark Cuban in empowering fans to believe that the NBA can be better, and fans have a voice in making that so. Abbott’s ongoing Working Bodies is the most in-depth look at a variety of health and safety issues in the NBA, and I’m convinced will be looked back at as a pioneer when the NBA has its first performance enhancing drug or health crisis a la the NFL’s concussion crisis.

TrueHoop is also responsible for the career’s of the majority of bloggers who have become paid NBA writers over the last five years. The list of writers who were at one time part of the TrueHoop Network is staggering: Zach Lowe, Trey Kerby, Rob Mahoney, Beckley Mason, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Royce Young, Matt Moore, Kurt Helin, Zach Harper, Jared Dubin, Sean Highkin, James Herbert and probably others I can’t think of right now.

Treating fans with respect. Using his ESPN platform to educate. Advocating for a better and safer NBA. Nurturing a generation of writers.

For all of this, Abbott deserves to be called basketball’s foremost public intellectual.

Honorable Mentions

Roland Beech – Founder, 82games.com
Yago Colas – Associate Professor, University of Michigan
Tom Haberstroh – NBA Analyst, ESPN
David J. Leonard – Associate Professor, Washington State University
Dean Oliver – Director of Production Analytics, ESPN Stats & Information
Jalen Rose – Analyst, ESPN
Haralabos Voulgaris
Bill Walton – Analyst, ESPN
Tom Ziller – Writer, SB Nation

About Kevin Draper

Kevin “Franklin Mieuli” Draper was born and raised in Oakland, California, and loves it more than you can possibly imagine. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmdraper
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6 Responses to Who is Basketball’s Foremost Public Intellectual?

  1. Ray says:

    My vote goes to Zach Lowe. Every day at Basketball Intelligence, we post any NBA stories that meet out “four I” test (informative, interesting, insightful, intelligent). Zach leads everyone else by a mile for # of stories linked to. He is the LeBron James of NBA journalists.

    Check his stories and others of note at basketballintelligence.wordpress.com

  2. Brian says:

    It seems to me that it depends on what you want to gain from your “basketball intellectual.” If you just want insight about the game and the skills and tendencies of its players, then Zach Lowe definitely gets my vote (doing an awesome job of making up for the loss of Hollinger).

    But if you want to gain new ways of seeing what the game reveals about human society and human nature (as pretentious as that sounds), I don’t see anyone filling the enormous void left by Free Darko.

  3. Jonah says:

    Agree with Brian that basketball writing should be about more than cerebral, quantifiable analysis. I appreciate Zach Lowe’s work, but it often feels like he’s assigning praise and blame without feeling much passion. When I read a profile by Jonathan Abrams, I actually get the human element. I try to write with that in mind myself. Tom Ziller and Paul Flannery do a great job as well.

  4. djbtak says:

    This is a great premise for an article and well done, but I think there’s a lot of variance in the swing between “this person is influential” and “this person reaches people” that could be opened up. Who is the public in online journalism? So many different styles of production being thrown together here. A big name missing for me from the list at the geekier end is Kevin Arnovitz, who not only provides Lowe-level play by play and team analysis but has also kicked in some important (and widely-read) stories on the sexuality of NBA players, which is surely one of the most ingrained and difficult to discuss social issues in the league. At the mass audience end, I think Bill Simmons is clearly more influential than Henry Abbott, both in providing a platform for writers and reaching a large audience. And he wrote a big book of basketball, book-writing is also an important thing for intellectuals. Abbott is good at what he does, but who would buy his book? [On most basketball matters I'd agree with Abbott more than Simmons, but I'm trying to assess this according to your public intellectual criteria.] Also, even though she doesn’t concentrate on the NBA, I think Jemele Hill’s work counts because a public intellectual to me is one whose persona is linked to their ideas in an indivisible way, and what her journalistic persona endures in the online world of racist dickheads expressing their opinion is far more of a challenge than anything Hollinger et al have to deal with. Thanks for the stimulating post!

  5. Kevin Draper says:

    Thanks for the great comments everybody. You’re all grappling with similar questions I did when trying to define “public intellectual” to have at least something of a guideline to go by. I decided to adopt as broad of a definition as possible and take a “I’ll know a public intellectual when I see them” approach instead of having strict rules about it. To address individual candidates:

    Jonathan Abrams – I absolutely love Abrams work, but to me his personal profiles don’t fall on the “intellectual” part of the spectrum.
    Paul Flannery – One of the last people cut from “honorable mentions”
    Kevin Arnovitz – KA might be my absolute favorite NBA writer, and probably should’ve been on the “honorable mentions” list. He loses point on the public end, where he only publishes once or twice a week, and they’re often game stories.
    Jemele Hill – I don’t know her work well, but I like what I’ve seen. I decided to keep the list to people that do 90% basketball, or else I would’ve had to grapple with people like Nate Sliver, Will Leitch, Tommy Craggs, Dave Zirin and a whole lot more.

    Bill Simmons – I thought long and hard about Simmons, but in the end I thought it was a disservice to intellectualism to call him an “intellectual”. It’s important to note that “intellectual” is different than “intelligent”, as Simmons is clearly a very intelligent, clever guy who practically invented the most widely mimicked style of sports writing today. But his entire shtick is built on fans being smarter than GMs, getting dumb letters from readers and saying “yep, those are my readers”, comparing sports to some lame 80s movie you’ve never seen etc. His book was very good (if also way too long) and shied away from some of these things, but it still isn’t what I would call an intellectual approach to the game.

  6. Ceebee says:

    *rationale

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