Get your geek on

TrueHoop reader Jonathan e-mails:

Honestly, it's getting really obnoxious with you referring to to the people who study analyze basketball statistics as "geeks" or "dorks." Whether intentional or not, you bring a stigma to the people who study it and just make it sound like these people are above us and very snooty. Just read Hollinger's last article about the future of analytics and how teams are hiding their information. Not once is the word geek or dork used, yet he does a wonderful job getting his point across. In fact, it is much more pleasant to read his articles than basically anytime you mention advance statistics.

People who are into sabermetrics are not known as geeks or dorks, and it should be no different for basketball. All they are doing is analyzing statistics. In fact, all fans are constantly doing that. When they compare points, assists or blocks per game, everybody is doing their own version of statistical analysis. It just so happens that what the people studying advanced statistics are doing is more complexed analysis that generally yields better results. Please, please stop using the words dork and geek every time you mention advanced stats. I really like your work, and appreciate that you are doing a large part in opening people's eyes to advanced statistical analysis -- but you are also making many people dislike it, and find it to be something obnoxious, and grow to resent it. I hope you take my e-mail seriously.

Not that it matters, but I could hardly be more blatantly pro-geek, even saying earlier this week that it's clear the geeky NBA teams were right all along. (When I left the house for the MIT Sloan conference, my wife said, "Don't be too geeky!" I replied, "That's a promise I can't keep.") The idea that Jonathan has been reading TrueHoop, yet suspects I'd throw around those words thinking they might demean, makes me feel we're having, as they say, a "failure to communicate."

Of course, my sunny intentions matter not at all, if, as Jonathan suggests, the effect of saying "geek" is, in fact, harmful. And it's not just Jonathan who thinks they are. Notably, one of the titans of the field, Dean Oliver, says that he finds designations like "geek" and "jock" to be misguided. And I have to respect that, I really do. I know that those words have been part of the bullying of brainiacs for decades, and I hate that.

I do it anyway, though, out of a certain geeky calculation:

  • To build credibility with the old guard who would never read an article about "quants," but know what geeks are.

  • To show a blatant lack of shame in the word "geek."

The NBA is a big business where success is determined, in many cases, by one man being bigger, stronger or tougher than another man. It is physically difficult to move Shaquille O'Neal, and that fact alone played a major role in building an NBA dynasty. The default, throughout the history of the game, has been to think of the challenge of sports as one that was primarily physical.

In that world, it's an outsider's bold theory that people who only know Excel could really make a difference. (Michael Jordan, in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, spat on the idea that even his general manager could have had a major role in winning games. What about his general manager's number cruncher?)

My point: Yes, statistical analysts have come a long way very quickly in this game, but at the same time, they're also facing marginalization, for sure. They are the new kids, judged with suspicion. Should stat geekery fail in some way, there would be plenty of people ready to say, "I told you so."

Preaching to the converted is fun and all, but if that kind of closed-mindedness is to be addressed meaningfully, the only dialogue that matters is with those old-guard skeptics. And to them, the people we're talking about are, simply, geeks. Or nerds. Or dorks. They just are. Those people aren't going to think "ooh, let's go to TrueHoop to read about quantatative analysis." But they might read about geeks -- at least that makes sense.

Does that mean that using those words is capitulating to bullies? Hardly. I think the fastest way out of the insult "geek" is to turn the tag into an honor. (May 25's Geek Pride Day is coming!) Make it a rallying cry! Remember when the word "gay" was in insult? What's better -- getting people to stop saying that word, or making clear anyone who ever used it as an insult was always wrong? I'll choose B. It's a longer term play, and it stirs up some trouble, but anything else strikes me as dishonest.