What % Of 7-Footers Play Basketball?
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Tyler Cowen asks a question of a type that I've often wondered about:
What are the odds that the best chess player in the world has never played chess?

... The more general issues are how well the modern world allocates talent and how much exposure you need to something you eventually will be very good at.

My view is that people who are born into a reasonably good educational infrastructure get exposed repeatedly — albeit briefly — to lots of the activities which might intrigue them. If the activity is going to click with them, it has the chance. To borrow the initial example, most high schools and junior high schools have chess clubs and not just in the wealthiest countries. Virtually everyone is put in touch with math, music, kite-flying, poetry, and so on at relatively young ages.

The idea of taking an economics class in college, or picking up some economics literature, strikes most educated people at some point, even if they squash the notion like a bug. If there is some other Paul Samuelson-quality-would-have-been who didn't become an economist, perhaps he preferred some other avocation even more.

Billions of people are not exposed to quality economics, math, music, etc., but those people also don't have the nutrition, the education, the infrastructure, or whatever, to excel at world class levels. ...

[Chess player] Magnus Carlsen's father suggested that if he hadn't had an older sister, he might not have taken up the game at all. Magnus was uninterested at ages four and five, but grew intrigued at age eight when he watched his father play chess with his older sister. I read this anecdote as suggesting he would have been exposed again to the game, one way or another, probably in school. ...

In sum, I believe that the odds that "the best (modal) chess player in the world" has never played chess is well under fifty percent but probably above ten percent.

Presumably, by "best chess player" in the world, Cowen means the most naturally talented. That raises the question of whether "overwhelming passion for the game" should be considered a talent or not. If somebody has the natural ability to be the best but lacks the urge to practice, they won't be a top chess player.

Generally speaking, the people who claw their way to the top of something are fanatics about it. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were crazy about swinging golf clubs before their second birthdays.

In contrast, Wilt Chamberlain was never terribly enthusiastic about basketball: he always said he would have preferred to be an Olympic decathlete, and he retired from the NBA while still in his prime and played professional volleyball for several years instead. Despite boring easily, Wilt was, however, the best basketball player in the world at some point or points in his career (certainly in 1966-67). This shows how important genetics is to basketball. When Wilt entered the league, he was one of only three 7-footers, and vastly stronger and more athletic than anybody near him in height.

In contrast, it's hard to imagine somebody who isn't passionate about golf being the best golfer in the world — genetics aren't as important relative to dedication as in basketball.

Then there's the question of whether being a screw-up in most of the rest of your life might be considered a talent. Would Bobby Fischer have been Bobby Fischer if he was good at other things? As an exercise, consider Vladimir Nabokov, who for a number of years was crazy about chess (or at least chess problems). Nabokov had the energy, determination, intelligence, ability to hold many things in his head at once (think of the architecture of Pale Fire), competitive streak, and so forth to be a top chess player. But he had other things to do with his life, such as entomological research and writing great novels. Fischer didn't.

One way to think about this issue is to compare different fields of endeavor. For example, what are the odds that the current best polo player in the world has the most natural talent for playing polo of anybody in the world? Low, right? I can't recall anyone ever telling me in conversation that they had even tried polo.

In contrast, what are the odds that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt has the most natural talent for the 100 meter dash of anyone in the world? I don't know what they are, but they are definitely higher than for polo.

Let's think about sprinting.

Sprinting may have the highest exposure rate of any sport in the world. Just about everybody kid in the world gets roped into a running race at some point early in life. (Is that universal? The place I'd be least surprised to hear it isn't is India.)

On the other hand, sprinting has a high loss rate because it's less interesting and less lucrative than some sports with which it directly competes for talent. So, it loses a lot of athletes to other sports. For example, Bob Hayes dominated the 1964 Olympics, then became an NFL wide receiver. Johnny Lam Jones finished 6th in the 1976 Olympic 100m dash finals at age 18, then became an NFL player. Herschel Walker held a sprinting world record for 10 minutes once, until Carl Lewis broke it in the next heat. It's not surprising that the dominant sprinter of our age, Lewis, wasn't very masculine and didn't like football, getting hit, team sports, or machismo.

It's not particularly surprising that the Jamaica has the top sprinters right now: track plays a larger role there than in other countries. Jamaicans love cricket, but they don't play American football, they don't play basketball, and they aren't quite as crazy about soccer as most other countries. So the loss rate of sprinters to competing activities is low.

Then there's nurture: sprinting isn't hugely complicated, but it requires coaching, along with decent quality tracks so sprinters don't get hurt. Jamaican athletes, who speak English, tend to get track scholarships to American universities, where they enjoy good training facilities. And finally, there's drugs: Jamaica doesn't test its own athletes the way Americans and Germans finally do, so it has a big advantage there.

All in all, I'd still probably say Usain Bolt is more likely to have more natural ability than anybody who is #1 in any other sports.

Another way to look at this general problem is to look at men who are close to 7 feet tall: how many of them never play basketball?

There is a lot of effort put into finding very tall men all over the world. In 2007, John Amaechi became the first retired team sport athlete in the U.S. to voluntarily come out of the closet. Amaechi is a good example of how basketball relentlessly trawls for guys with the right body for the game. He grew up in England, a country where basketball is a very minor sport. He was gay and his interests were artistic rather than sports-oriented. But he was 6'10" and 270 pounds, so when he was 17 somebody recruited him into trying basketball, and he wound up getting paid $9.5 million dollars for a truly awful career in which he repeatedly demonstrated his contempt for basketball.

There are very, very few of them. When I was at Rice, there were two 6'11" students, the starting and backup center. (The basketball coaches were perpetually sore at the backup center because he was always sneaking off to the library or engineering lab. They had the nagging suspicion that he was just exploiting his height to get a Rice engineering education.) When I was at UCLA with 35,000 students, there were two seven footers on campus: the starting center (Stuart Gray) and the backup (Mark Eaton).

To a high degree, the best in the world emerges out of a community that's close to the best community for that kind of competitor in the world. If Michelangelo is the greatest artist of all time, for example, then 15th Century Florence was an unsurprising time and place for the best to emerge from.

Consider Michael Jordan emerging out of basketball crazy North Carolina v. Hakeem Olajuwon emerging out of soccer crazy Nigeria. Exchange them at birth and my guess is that Olajuwon, who was a half foot taller than Jordan, would be, by far, the greatest basketball player in history. In our world, Olajuwon peaked in his thirties instead of his expected mid-twenties because that's how long it took him to fully learn the game that he didn't start playing until his late teenage years.

Another interesting phenomenon is the the first person to make a splash from somewhere is often better than anybody else to come from there in his wake for quite some time.

I first heard of Olajuwon in the fall of 1981. I imagine that there had been African college basketball players, but he was certainly the first that I, or most people, ever heard of. So far, he's never been surpassed. The NBA keeps trying to find the next Olajuwon:

By the N.B.A.’s count, 23 Africans have played in the league, including six last season. Three more were drafted in June, including the Tanzanian center Hasheem Thabeet, taken second in the first round out of Connecticut by Memphis.
... and they've come up with some fine players such as Dikembe Mutumbo, but the first remains the best.

That's not uncommon. If there are barriers to entry, such as getting from a continent that doesn't play basketball into big time American basketball, then the guy who breaks through those barriers first is likely to be something special.

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