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October 24, 2014

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Ron Kantowski:

Maybe numbers don’t lie, but statisticians do

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When I was in high school, girls were just becoming interested in playing sports. Most of them, quite frankly, weren’t very good. So a lot of them kept statistics. Most of them weren’t very good at that, either, but some were quite good at being cute, and so we didn’t mind having them around. Especially on road trips.

A girl named Debbie was our official baseball scorekeeper. She was actually pretty good at it, but if I waited an inning or two, I could usually convince her the routine ground ball I had hit to the shortstop in the bottom of the first was actually a lot harder play than it looked and that was probably why he didn’t field it cleanly.

You know, lot of backspin on the ball. Too hot to handle.

And I’d tell her that although I wasn’t suggesting she change that “E6” next to my name into a “1B,” a lot of times in the big leagues that’s what they do when the shortstop doesn’t field cleanly a ball that has a lot of backspin on it.

This would largely explain my career .305 high-school batting average.

In a roundabout way, it also explains why Nick Van Exel of the Los Angeles Lakers wound up with 23 assists in a 1997 game against the Vancouver Grizzlies.

There’s a lot of gray area with sports statistics, especially when it comes to subjective matters such as whether a ground ball to the shortstop was too hot to handle or a pass from a point guard led directly to a basket.

I recently came across a story on the Deadspin.com Web site in which a former NBA statistician admitting to fudging numbers, sometimes even with the organization’s blessing. Usually, it was the assist totals that would wind up a chocolate-covered mess.

The story, and a copy of a letter of recommendation written on behalf of the stat guy on official Vancouver Grizzlies letterhead, referred to him only as “Alex.” He was Nick Van Exel’s “Debbie.” I can’t speak for his cuteness, but in this case, cuteness probably wasn’t a factor. Unless, perhaps, “Alex” is short for “Alexandra.”

Anyway, at first Alex took his job seriously. In his mind, he was sure of what constituted an assist, and it wasn’t the point guard throwing the ball to the small forward, who would stand there holding the ball, then dribble it for five seconds and make three shake-and-bake moves and a double-pump jackknife before scoring on a reverse layup.

But a lot of time, those were assists when a Grizzly did it. The Deadspin story ran with charts that showed how skewed NBA statistics are for the home teams in interpretive areas such as assists, steals and blocked shots.

Did Rodman get a finger on that ball? He might have. He already has eight blocked shots. That would give him nine. One more, he’d have 10. With 10, they’d probably mention it on SportsCenter.

That was the vibe Alex was getting. When you are the Grizzlies, you take publicity any way you can get it. Even if it’s somebody from the other team lighting you up.

Alex became disillusioned. So one night, “for the hell of it,” according to the story, he decided Nick Van Exel was going to become Bob Cousy reincarnate. We’re gonna get killed anyway, Alex thought. Why not? He’s getting a boatload of assists. Then we’ll see what happens.

I’m exaggerating just a little here. But Alex was of the mind-set that night that if a basket was scored within a fortnight of the last time Van Exel touched the ball, that was an assist.

As Van Exel’s assists climbed to Cousy-esque proportions, Alex was sure as satin shorts he would get caught. He could hear Chick Hearn, the Lakers’ legendary announcer, at courtside:

“Van Exel’s having a great game! He’s moving the ball exceptionally well!”

At the end, Van Exel had 23 assists. He was like a one-man Katrina relief fund. Afterward, a management guy approached Alex. He thought he was busted for sure.

Instead, the suit congratulated him. It’s a lock the game will get mentioned on SportsCenter now, Alex was told.

Maybe you don’t find this as interesting as I did, but it’s one of the reasons I take a lot of sports statistics with a box of salt.

And while I have no idea of whatever became of the terminally cute and almost as gullible Debbie, Alex, according to the story on the Web site, is now an officer in the Navy.

So the next time you hear about one of those hotshot fighter pilots closing in on a triple-double, you might want to check the black box for verification.

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