xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

The ins and outs of playing hero ball

In the gym or on the driveway, the scene plays out the same — a kid, alone with a basketball counts down, "3…2…1…" and lets go of a jump shot.

If it goes in, (s)he celebrates, hands in the air. (S)He's won the game. If (s)he misses, the clock resets, and the countdown begins again, "3…2…1…" until (s)he hits that game winner. Until (s)he can celebrate being the hero.

Advertisement

It's hard to work on your passing when you're alone in the gym or on the driveway. But, you can work at being a hero for hours.

After Charles Barkley sounded off, sharing his thoughts on the role of analytics in sports — particularly his opinion on the place for analytics and the "nerds" that insist on using them to build better basketball teams — a slew of responsorially-styled pieces were published, defending analytics and the "nerds."

Advertisement
Advertisement

Side-stepping my own personal opinion on how best to incorporate the role of analytics into sports for now, there is a silver lining to the increased role of analytics in sports; particularly in basketball: demonstrating that playing "hero ball" is inefficient.

It's funny, some of my friends who are the most "guilty" of playing basketball in the style of "hero ball" are the same people who pretend not to know what "hero ball" is.

First, what "hero ball" is not is probably best demonstrated by the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs famously, successfully, effectively, and notoriously, "pass up a good shot to get a better shot." So much so that the phrase has been coined by opposing teams as becoming the Spurs' unofficial motto.

"Passing up a good shot to get a better shot" is the antithesis of basketball in the style of "hero ball." But, that does not make the Spurs or any unselfish player that plays within the team system and for the betterment and greater success of the team an anti-hero — quite the opposite.

Advertisement

Hero ball is epitomized by the uber-isolationist, the ball hog, the selfish ball-dominant player that freezes out, looks-off, and all-but-ignores his or her otherwise open teammates — the ones with better shots — choosing instead to shoot the shot themselves.

It doesn't take advanced analytics or an advanced scout to understand that good ball movement, particularly making the "extra pass," increases a team's chance of scoring, and ultimately of winning. "Passing up a good shot to get a better shot" is good basketball, whether you ask a long-time student of the game or a long-time student of algorithms and game theory.

Sure. Somebody has to take the last shot, and everyone on the court wants to be the hero. But, and particularly at the end of a game, mistimed "hero ball"-styled antics can be frustratingly fatal to a team's chances for success.

I've watched a lot of basketball over the past two days. What I've noticed, particularly in comparing the instances where upsets happened against those where near-upsets were avoided by higher seeds, is that for each instance where end-of-game "hero ball" works, there are four or five instances where it doesn't.

What I've noticed, is that when and where "hero ball" works is, more often than not, where the play is drawn up for a particular player to be that hero; a coach drawing up a particular play for a particular player to take a particular shot. A player being put in a position to become a hero, not a player trying to insert him or herself into the role. Buckets. Game-winner. "GOAT." Hero.

Conversely, where "hero ball" fails is when a player, wanting to thrust himself into the spotlight, takes an ill-timed, ill-advised, often contested shot, out of rhythm, and not like the coach drew it up. Brick. Game over. Goat.

End-of-game "hero ball" is "hero ball" in all its glory, and all of its agony. What I noticed about "hero ball" in its failed-fashion is just how selfish and out of sorts it makes the wanna-be hero look. His or her team has fought so hard — together — to put themselves in a position to pull of an upset; tied, down one or two with the ball and less than 30 seconds on the clock. Their destiny in their own hands.

It's no secret that good coaches and good teams practice end-of-game scenarios. Unfortunately, some teams that have fought hard to be in a position they're not supposed to be in are not prepared. Some coaches have used all their time outs fighting to be in a position just to be in the position to have a chance to have a shot to win the game.

Some players just want to be the hero. In most instances, at least at the college level, the want to be the hero is not caused by the dangerous trait of hubris. It's just youthful exuberance. Even more so it's excitement and nervousness that combine in a uniquely challenging way when we're put in a position to succeed on a stage we're not used to being on.

Whether you're a kid on the driveway, in the gym by yourself, or playing on the game's biggest stage, the countdown of the clock, "3…2…1…" inspires us all to want to be heroes.

Matt Laczkowski is a former Division I basketball player, and coach, who writes a Monday column for the Times. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or coach@with-character.com.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement