ESPN columnist J. A. Adande suggests that the NBA needs sociology:

In the rush to get ahead of the game, NBA general managers might be overlooking that old freshman year standby: sociology.

Adande’s argument in his article, “Theory in practice: Applying concepts from Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’ to the NBA proves enlightening,” is that the sociological insights provided by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers can be applied to the NBA. (For an earlier post about Gladwell, Outliers, and its connection to the sociological imagination, see: “Outliers: A Hamburger Is a Miracle.”)

Adande knew that NBA player Ray Allen had read Gladwell’s book and asked him what he thought of Gladwell’s argument about the significance of social forces on success. He quotes Allen as saying:

“We’re not outliers among ballplayers, but we’re outliers amongst the people that we grew up around. I started analyzing why that is. What made me successful? I was successful because of the opportunities that I had, outside of the other opportunities that people had, the breaks, people pushing me forward. The communities I grew up in, people were always adding an extra five bucks to get me to camp. The same thing that Bill Gates went through with the computer access. I had access to a gym, just the same. Once I started going there, people started seeing my passion for it, they started helping me.

Ray Allen“That’s why I always tell people, no matter what sport you’re in, whether it’s team or individual, everybody has a team. There’s a crew that helped get you where you are, no matter how you see it, how you look at it. You start thinking about it, analyzing situations. Anybody in this locker room, people helped you achieve your goal.”

Adande also makes mention of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule about the importance of developing mastery over skills:

And winning is a logical function of age, if you consider the hypothesis in “Outliers” that 10,000 hours of practice is the threshold for greatness, whether the person is a pianist or a programmer. If dedicated basketball players begin practicing at a high level in an organized manner as teenagers, then spend three hours a day working out, doing drills or competing, they reach that 10,000 mark in their late 20s, right around the time their bodies are maturing.

Bird, Magic, Shaquille O’Neal and Garnett each won their first MVP award at age 27. Kobe Bryant, Charles Barkley and David Robinson won at 29. With a subjective award such as the MVP, some of the timing can be explained by voters’ wanting players to “wait their turn” and cede to the league’s hierarchy. But there’s an understanding of the game, an ability to predict what happens next, a gradual extension of the shooting range that comes with time.

Adande concludes his consideration of the success of the 2008 Boston Celtics this way:

The secret behind the “instant” success of the 2008 Celtics was that it was actually years in the making, that the folks in Boston reaped the benefits of the evolution of three key players, fused by the unique history of that franchise. But all winning teams are the products of the collective pasts of the individuals. And “Outliers” tells us those individual successes were forged by a community.

Interaction, he suggests, is the key to understanding such success.

[Hat tip to Bob]

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