Last week Carl Bialik of FiveThirtyEight wrote about the legend of Dick Pfander, who started clipping NBA box scores in the late 1940s, and whose trove was obtained in 2012 by Basketball-Reference.com.
During his many years of doing this, Pfander, now 79, hooked up with Harvey Pollack, who was parsing numbers before there was an NBA and at age 92 remains the stats director for the Philadelphia 76ers.
As time marched on, and new technologies emerged, Pfander transferred his collection to a computer disk. The challenge for Basketball Reference proprietor Justin Kubatko was placing an estimated 20 years of box scores into a database (game-by-game data his own site went back only to mid-1980s) with the help of an expert typist.
It was an arduous process, but as Bialik writes, once it was completed, the expanded Basketball Reference site became an indispensable source of NBA historical data:
“Part of the fun of sports is measuring today’s players and teams against their predecessors, and you can’t do that without a complete record of what past players did. Every sport’s fan base includes completists, people who feel unsettled by the lack of certainty in the records.”
There remains an 18-year gap (the current box score data on Basketball Reference goes back to the 1964-65 season), but Pfander’s initial scissors-and-newsapaper hobby, lovingly preserved in digital form, has significantly added to a growing collection of valuable information about the NBA.
While the league doesn’t have the volumes of stats-related books devoted to it that baseball does, the NBA’s comparative newness may be a boon to efforts to blend stats and history. Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper,” published a decade ago, remains the primer for advanced stats. Oliver’s involved formulas for “tempo free” stats make my head explode — I’m still a newbie. But his respect for the game’s past, and his embrace of new offshoots including the WNBA (for which he once worked) make it enjoyable to absorb.
Sports media impresario and pro hoops maven Bill Simmons has become an eager adopter of advanced stats, but I wish “The Book on Basketball” had contained more of this and fewer pop-culture references. I know that’s how he rolls, and he undoubtedly has the history down cold, but I find it maddening.
It’s even more disappointing to see another baseball stats dust-up, this one involving the estimable Bob Ryan, an acquaintance whom I respect tremendously. Last week he wondered aloud if fans really care about sabermetrics, which naturally brought out the sabermetricians: Here, here and here.
This is getting old, and writing about these spats (here and here) was enough for me to conclude: No more. As much as I understand what Ryan is trying to say — can numbers freaks really enjoy the game? — he’s conjured up another unfortunate zero-sum argument.
Baseball’s deep-rooted narrative historical past may be a drawback for some traditionalists. I finally joined the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR, hence sabermetrics) over the winter, and it’s been around for more than 40 years. Its draws those who love the lore of the game and its numbers, and most members, like me, are history nerds more than numbers heads.
I don’t think casual hot dog-chomping fans are as hostile to new-fangled numbers as the aging gatekeepers want us to believe. Stats evolve, just as developments in how the game is played on the field change. As David Schoenfeld of ESPN.com’s Sweet Spot sabermetrics blog wrote in response to Ryan:
“We love the numbers because we love baseball. And when I go to a game as a fan, I’m not going all sabermetric while watching it. I’m having a cold one and bad ballpark food and appreciating a nicely turned double play.
Dick Pfander started out as a fan, and what a timeless gift has he bestowed on others like him, who deeply love the NBA.