Free throw defense
- Foul Play
How a Slate scientist changed the NBA forever-or at least a week.
By Daniel Engber
Posted Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005, at 4:01 PM PT
If you're a scientist, you don't get many opportunities to work in
professional basketball. I don't have any illusions about my chances of
becoming a player, a head coach, or the Phoenix gorilla. But I have held out
a tiny bit of hope that some day I'd be able to use my grad- school
education to help some woebegone franchise shut down opposing free-throw
shooters. Last week, my dream came true.
In today's NBA, there's no subtlety to free-throw defense. Hometown crowds
try to unnerve enemy shooters with rally towels, pompoms, clackers, rhythmic
chants, balloons, and signs that say "BRICK." It doesn't take a scientist to
see how poorly this stuff works. In the 2003-2004 NBA season, free-throw
percentages at home and on the road were identical to within one-twentieth
of 1 percent. One hundred ninety-four players shot free throws better at
home; 192 did better on the road.
Undeterred by the facts, NBA teams hand out special distracting equipment to
fans behind the backboards. Some get foam "wiggle sticks," or "thunder
sticks"-those long, skinny white balloons you wave in the air and smack
together. Others get signs with particularly distracting words printed on
them. These tools might be effective, but they don't come with instructions.
That's where the staff neuroscientist comes in.
Last week, I wrote to the NBA owner I deemed most likely to consider
applying the scientific method to free-throw shooting, Mark Cuban of the
Dallas Mavericks. I told Cuban that the assumption that waving balloons
wildly will produce the biggest distraction is just plain wrong. Given how
the brain perceives motion, randomly moving balloons aren't very
off-putting. When you see a lot of little objects moving crazily back and
forth, all the different motion signals that get sent to the brain cancel
each other out. In the mind of a free-throw shooter, a crowd of people
waving wiggle sticks looks like a snowy TV screen. This sort of white noise
might make it harder to see the rim, but the stats show that isn't a big
deal for the pros.
Read the rest at http://slate.msn.com/id/2111939/
"I ain't the world's best writer, ain't the world's best speller
But when I believe in something I'm the loudest yeller."
- Woody Guthrie