Turn on an NBA playoff game right before tip-off and you’ll see ten men who have no idea what’s about to happen. Their individual activities—their crossovers, skip passes, air balls, rotations, floaters, closeouts—will soon produce something genuinely new, something that transcends any single player’s intention and each team’s careful game plan. The game they will play, on a court whose general dimensions haven’t changed in a century, will have a distinct narrative, one that will differ, ever so slightly, from that of every other basketball game in history. The ingredients of that narrative—miraculous comebacks and heartbreaking collapses, individual masterpieces and stunning feats of team cooperation—are composed of the tiniest moments, split-second decisions that require the coordination of innumerable elements. A no-look pass in a critical fourth-quarter possession is a highwire act. Will the pass’s intended target slide into the corner to receive it? Will he get his shot up just a tenth of a second faster than his defender can close out? The greatest players seem able to bend the history of their sport before our eyes, but they never act alone.
Professional team sports in the United States are, first and foremost, commodities: entertainments that generate ticket sales and foster the consumption of Budweisers and Buffalo Wild Wings. But, viewed through another lens, sports convey a kind of democratic insight: that collective activities possess remarkable power, and that human action is irreducibly contingent. It is precisely that contingency—the fact that our initiatives cannot succeed without the cooperation of others, and that our activity produces effects that we can’t anticipate—that makes both greatness and tragedy possible. At its best, political life offers us the hope that, within the constraints we’ve inherited, we might exercise the freedom to do something new. Athletes, on much less consequential stages, perform that freedom in every game they play.
We’re in the midst of a revolutionary epoch in American sports—upending both in-game tactics and the economics of professional athletic leagues—and two new books offer a snapshot of recent changes in basketball and baseball. In Spaced Out: How the NBA’s Three-Point Revolution Changed Everything You Thought You Knew About Basketball, Mike Prada offers an ode to the players, coaches, and executives who have made pace and space central to modern basketball. In Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess, Evan Drellich narrates the tragic fall of a group of Houston Astros executives who rose to the heights of baseball success before a cheating scandal disgraced the franchise and the league. Both of the revolutions described in these books aim at efficiency, but the way Drellich’s revolutionaries make sense of efficiency and randomness, contingency and creativity, is very different from the way Prada’s do.
The central figures in Drellich’s book do not embrace contingency as the source of baseball’s greatness. Rather, these executives aim to master randomness—understood as the unpredictable elements of the game that seem to elude statistical modeling—and wherever randomness resists mastery, they regard it warily, as an embarrassing testament to the limits of human understanding. Before arriving in Houston, the members of the Astros brain trust worked in some of the shadiest zones of the U.S. economy. Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman had been a young investment banker at Barclays, where he worked on a project pricing the collateralized debt obligations held by Lehman Brothers. Owner Jim Crane, a logistics CEO, saw two of his employees serve prison time for war profiteering during the beginning of the Iraq War. Visionary general manager Jeff Luhnow, the great villain of Drellich’s book, had worked at consulting giant McKinsey & Company, as well as at a company acquired by Pets.com—one of the iconic casualties of rampant financial speculation during the dot-com bubble.