The Breaking, Keeping and Manufacturing of Records
USA Today Sports
It’s March and we’re suddenly breaking records like Bo Jackson broke bats, attacking the annals of achievement like overzealous customs agents seizing Wilt Chamberlain 100-point game footage on grounds of obscenity masked in fear. We’re so obsessed with records that we find achievement in the most random of stats.
Data has become so deep and vast that on a nightly basis someone is doing something that’s never been done before – or hasn’t been done since 1965 or 1955 or 1995, depending on what filter you apply. This is a byproduct of being able to slice data across multiple dimensions with filters that allow us to isolate combinations of data into statistical lines unique to history. The Elias Sports Bureau, the official statisticians for MLB, the NFL, the NBA, the WNBA, MLS, the NHL and most major sports networks is the primary source for these records. On a nightly basis, Elias’s twitter feed (@EliasSports) tweets out records and statistical trends applicable to whatever sport happens to be in season. Did you know this year’s New York Knicks gave up back-to-back triple doubles for the first time since the 1965-66 season when Wilt Chamberlain had a pair of triple doubles against them? It was a couple days ago when Steph Curry and Joakim Noah hit them up in consecutive games. Or did you know Carmelo Anthony’s the fifth player to score 35+ points in three straight losses? The other four infamous counterparts? Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Dominique Wilkins, and Bernard King. In addition to the Twitter feed, Elias has a daily Elias Says section on ESPN that presents a series of statistical trends and anomalies that most of us couldn’t unearth – assuming we had the motivation.
These stats are frivolous and fringe-worthy to the point that even the biggest NBA trivia geek you associate with on Twitter or in the physical world is unlikely to be familiar with them. He might act like he is and pull one of those, “Oh, wait wait wait, don’t tell me” acts, but don’t be fooled by these charades, their minds are as clueless as anyone outside of the Elias database.
That this level of uselessness has such a prominent place in our sports/entertainment culture speaks to our fascination with the unique and out-of-ordinary – particularly in sports where it seems like these random variables act as a digression from what can, at times, be a monotonous 82-game NBA season. Elias has essentially cornered this market. By owning the Official Statistician moniker (and contract) for each of the most popular American sports leagues and ESPN, Elias is able to define what’s noteworthy and what is not. And while advanced stats will continue to evolve and gain in popularity and adoption, the majority of sports fans still fixate on the traditional stats that Elias has dominated since its inception back in 1913.
But even in this world of random achievement, there are still performances that speak to our sensibilities on both an aesthetic and statistical level. There are still games we can deeply enjoy within and without historical context.
- Let’s start with LeBron James’s 61-point performance the other night. As he picked up steam with three after three after three in what would become a 25-point third quarter, the Miami announcing crew made sure to remind us, repeatedly, that the Miami Heat record was 56 points by Glen “G-Money” Rice. The historical context added to the drama, but the elevated level of play we saw in that third quarter was enough to make the most unfamiliar of hoop fans understand they were seeing an elite performance. LeBron ended up besting his own career-high and Rice’s team high, but even if Coach Spoelstra pulled him after the third quarter when he was at 49, we would’ve known what we …. Witnessed.
- If Elias is the all-seeing, all-knowing resource of the corporate sport world, then the Sports-Reference sites are an egalitarian source of sports data for the common fan. On the same night James disintegrated the Bobcats with fireballs from on high, 20-year-old Andre Drummond was encroaching on his own record against the Knicks. Drummond, at 20 years and 205 days became the second youngest player to grab at least 26 rebounds since Dwight Howard accomplished the same feat at 20 years and 128 days. I know that Drummond is the second-youngest player to accomplish this since 1985-86 because Basketball-Reference.com provides users with a nifty Player Game Finder feature that allows users to zero in on highly specific game data via assorted filters like which players 22 and under have grabbed at least 20 rebounds, and then sort those results by player age. (Nifty as a description is probably a drastic understatement.)
- Finally … the stat line that motivated me to write this piece: Russell Westbrook’s triple double in 20 minutes on Tuesday night. For real, who grabs 10 rebounds, puts up 14 assists and 13 points in 20 minutes of play? Using the tools at my disposal (Basketball-Reference), I found out that since 1985-86, only Fat Lever has had a triple double in at least 25 minutes. You can imagine my surprise when I started seeing references to Jim Tucker, a 6’7” power forward who played for the Syracuse Nationals for three seasons in the mid-1950s. According to Elias, Tucker, who had career averages of 4pts, 3.5rebs, and less than an assist/game, had a triple double in 17 minutes on February 20th, 1955, but this is data to which I have no access.
Part of the value proposition Elias offers to its clients is that they have stats that no one else has. I found zero references or sources for Jim Tucker’s 17-minute masterpiece. There’s absolutely no context available beyond a limited box score on NBA.com/stats. Tucker’s Nationals won by 20, but didn’t pull away until the fourth quarter when they outscored the Knicks by 13 points. Unless you’re an enterprising writer/reporter with the time and resources to look through old archives, you’re unlikely to find anything about this game so in a sense, Elias owns its history which is a powerful thing. There’s a helplessness that comes along with being accustomed to having something available (in this case, stats) and suddenly finding yourself empty-handed and dependent on someone else to disseminate information with or without a historical lens or context. In the other cases highlighted above – LeBron, Drummond and Westbrook – context is ours. We know, understand and have watched accomplishments unfold with our own eyes and have stats as a complementary piece. In the case of Tucker, and who knows how many other performances, we’re at the mercy of Elias or ESPN to provide us with insight and context. Elias’s website is wholly unusable for any fact-finding information. There are no filters, no databases, no nothing … unless you count the phone number and soft call to action on the home page. I don’t begrudge Elias for holding the keys to the kingdom of sports data, I just wish I could at least ask for access.