Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Richard Matt and David Sweat: Two-Headed Escape Monster

It was the perfect story: the Great Escape. On June 6, 2015, Richard Matt, a torture killer, and David Sweat, a cop killer, worst-of-the-worst prisoners in the Clinton Correctional Facility—the maximum security prison in Dannemora N.Y.—climbed, crawled, and slithered through a twenty-minute claustrophobic labyrinth of corridors and tunnels until they emerged into freedom through a manhole a block and a half outside the forbidding CCF wall. Now they were killers on the loose. Dangerous understated the matter. They were deadly and desperate.  And that was just the beginning. The story that unfolded had adventure, psychology, sex, depravity and brutality. It was the biggest story of 2015.

As you probably have heard, the pair were helped in their escape by a woman named Joyce Mitchell, a married civilian employee of the prison enjoying an inappropriate relationship with both prisoners, and a corrections officer, who owed the prisoners a few favors and inadvertently helped them escape.

The escapees were expecting Mitchell to show up with a getaway car but she was a no-show so they ducked into the woods, where they led up to 1,200 law enforcement officers on a three-week manhunt, the most expensive in New York State history. The hunt didn’t end well for either of the escapees, but you probably knew that as well.

Here’s something you might not know: It is doubtful that any two other prisoners could have pulled this off. It is unlikely that any other pair could have come up with a workable plan to get out of CCF, much less execute that plan.

When it was decided that, sure, what the heck, Matt and Sweat could live in adjacent cells in CCF’s ill-conceived “Honor Block”, the powers that be at the institution forgot a rule learned the hard way by Adolf Hitler during World War II.

Hitler’s bright idea, like many of his ideas, served not just to alleviate a problem but to prove a point, that point usually involving Aryan superiority. He decided to gather together all allied officers who were prisoners of war and had been caught planning or attempting escape, and put them in one “inescapable prison”, the formidable fortress known as Colditz.

Colditz was a castle prison atop a cliff overlooking the Rive Mulde and the town of Colditz, near Leipzig, Germany. What Hitler did accomplish by putting the escape-savvy officers all in one place, was create a think tank, an escape super-team, and before the war was over sixteen officers did successfully make it out.

One successful effort was led by Lieutenant Commander William Stephens. With socks covering their shoes, Stephens and three others crawled through windows, slithered over roofs, scaled down a wall using knotted sheets and fled to Switzerland disguised as French workmen, getting past checkpoints with forged documents including a leave pass with swastika stamp in the name of an actual French electrician employed by the Germans, and a service pass with photo and stamps.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Stephens’ escape plan was the involvement of the prison band, which would deviate from the score they played to signal the escapees regarding the sentries location. One musical variation meant the sentries were both at the center of the grounds, another signaled they were at opposite ends of the courtyard.

It was the ability of those allied officers to put their heads together that enabled Stephens and others to find freedom. In a smaller sense, that was what happened when Matt and Sweat were allowed to live in adjacent cells. As it turned out, the pair had complimentary skills and were able to pull off a feat that may have been beyond each of them working alone.

Richard Matt was a ladies man and a schmoozer. He could get women to do his bidding with his sex appeal and simultaneously get chummy with other men using his good-ol’-boy, one-of-the-fellas manner.
David Sweat was a three-dimensional thinker, a solver of puzzles, a planner who could read a blueprint upside-down from across the rooms. It would be his job to figure out how to get out. Matt would recruit any help they might need to pull off their plan.

Together they created a two-headed escape machine.

Couple this with the time-honored culture of arrogance and complacency among the corrections officers and civilian employees at CCF, none of whom complied with the rules for the simple reason that they believed escape to be impossible, and a practically impossible escape was suddenly not just possible, but real.

During the wee hours of that Spring morning, Matt and Sweat were able to exit their cells through back doors they had cut for themselves, descend a ladder to the sub-sub basement, chisel through a wall, enter a heating pipe and crawl through it under the prison’s main wall, exit the pipe, and ascend stairs to their manhole exit. It was an astounding accomplishment, one that could have been thwarted in a myriad of ways, but more certainly if CCF had taken a lesson from Hitler’s mistake, and kept the two bright boys as far apart as possible.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

“Hot Hands, Draft Hype & DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths”

By Cory Franklin

If you grew up as a sports fan and gravitated toward others of common disposition, then at some point you found yourself on the playground, in your living room or college dorm, and engrossed in discussions and quite possibly arguments about your sports heroes, their accomplishments, and their teams. Should you fit this profile, then Sheldon Hirsch’s new book Hot Hands,Draft Hype & DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths
is required reading.

The author provides fascinating and typically unconventional takes on some of the most heated debates in baseball, football, and basketball, while occasionally tossing in intriguing digressions. The book is meticulously researched, and the author’s background as a physician well acquainted with two of sports most important facets—its science and its statistics—makes this an essential part of any sports library.     
The first, and most impressive, portion of the book deals with baseball, which is obviously the author’s first love. He begins provocatively, with an essay diminishing Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, an accomplishment many observers believe to be the most impressive single season record in baseball history.                                            

Without resorting to revisionist history, Hirsch’s criticism centers on the insight that the consecutive aspect of the streak was a statistical idiosyncrasy that did not benefit the Yankees, and that others have performed as well or better in their sports in similar situations. This is certainly a contrarian viewpoint, and has merit.  He counters the opinion of others, including the respected Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who also wrote about sports as an avocation. Gould waxed eloquent on DiMaggio’s streak, calling it, “the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives.” Hirsch graciously acknowledges Gould, but nevertheless dismisses this panegyric as “schmaltz.”  If only Gould had not died prematurely, a roundtable debate on the DiMaggio hitting streak between the two would surely have been something to attend.                                   
The book moves into other baseball trigger areas –whether today’s players are better than those of the past, how we should evaluate players who used performance-enhancing drugs, and the ne plus ultra of all Baby Boomer baseball debates, “who was better Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?” No spoilers here; suffice to say Hirsch’s is a nuanced take on this unresolvable argument.                                                              
While this and some of his other baseball subjects are obviously geared toward a Baby Boomer audience, he does not shortchange younger fans. Included are sections on contemporary debates such as who deserved the 2012 and 2013 Most Valuable Player Awards— the superb all-around player Mike Trout, or the great hitter but one-dimensional player Miguel Cabrera (Cabrera won both times). Along the way, Hirsch examines pitchers’ arm injuries and the over-application of the pitch count today. It is hard to fault his assertion that the Washington Nationals ill-fated decision several years ago to withhold Stephen Strasberg from the playoffs based on his projected pitch counts was, in Hirsch’s words, “absurd.”                                                           

The best discussion in the book is about the statistical revolution that has completely transformed baseball in the past two decades. A baseball game is a series of thousands of events and decisions, and the advent of the computer and high-tech video systems has made it possible to catalogue, compile, and evaluate those events. This has generated constantly evolving statistics and new ways of analyzing players and strategy. Administrative power in the upper strata of baseball has changed hands from grizzled old-line baseball veterans to Ivy League analysts, economists, and “quants.” Most baseball front offices are now filled with people who never played professionally.                             

Hirsch uses his experience with statistics to explain to the everyday fan some of the most commonly used new terms. Unlike many of today’s journalists, he is neither a total skeptic nor a doctrinaire believer; he neatly lays out the strengths and weaknesses of such arcane concepts as WAR, UZR, and DIPS.                

Coincidentally, medicine faces a not dissimilar revolution with its attempts to measure performance. As a physician, Hirsch is undoubtedly aware that just as a baseball player is more than a statistic, so is a patient. The ultimate purpose of statistics is to describe reality, but while they may be able to provide a good approximation, their description will necessarily be incomplete. As the saying goes, “the map is not the territory,” and Hirsch explains why this pertains to statistics and baseball. For the casual reader looking for an initial section to catch his or her attention, I must recommend the section on baseball analytics.                                        
The book moves into basketball, and Hirsch’s knowledge of the sport is no less impressive, even if his topics are not quite as focused. There is less attention to historical debates—surprisingly no Russell/Chamberlain colloquy, the basketball equivalent to Mantle/Mays. Instead, he examines, among other things, various strategies (e.g. three-point shooting) and the popular topic of whether the “hot-hand”— the streak shooter—actually exists.                                                                         

The hot-hand has been examined in depth by many in and out of the sports realm, most notably by the late mathematical psychologist Amos Tversky and his Nobel-winning colleague, Daniel Kahneman. Their conclusion, and the conclusion of most others, is that the hot-hand does not exist, and is simply an imagined phenomenon. I have never been totally convinced that this is true, not because the hot-hand is so obvious, rather because it may be subtle and hard to confirm. It is so ingrained in the thinking of virtually everyone who has played the game that one must discard the notion that it does not exist with caution; ignore local knowledge at your peril. With additional explanation, Hirsch adopts this cautious stance.  

One basketball debate that Hirsch comes down strongly on concerns the “one and done rule.” He is a firm believer that young basketball players should have the option to turn pro at any time and any impediments, legal or social, to letting them do so are unwarranted and unfair. This is another unresolvable debate, with evidence supporting both sides.       

Hirsch details the careers of a couple of controversial superstars, LeBron James and Wilt Chamberlain. There is little middle ground on either of these two players; each is either a hero or villain, overrated or wrongly maligned, depending on whom you talk to. Hirsch presents a balanced and intelligent assessment of both, coming down on the side, rightly so, that both were in the pantheon of the greatest to ever play. His mention of Steph Curry in the same vein as Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan, however, might be a little gratuitous, a point he concedes, albeit reluctantly.              

In a fascinating (but brief) digression in the basketball section, Hirsch discusses Ernie Vandeweghe, a college All-American, an NBA player with the Knicks in the 1950’s, a physician, and the father and grandfather of eight stars with world-class ability in six different sports. Most amazingly, Vandeweghe attended medical school at the same time he played in the NBA. The physician Hirsch is duly impressed, as am I (although Hirsch neglects to mention in addition to everything else, Vandeweghe also married a Miss America!). Among all the debates in the book, there is no debate that Ernie Vandeweghe was one of the most amazing individuals in sports—something that few before Hirsch have acknowledged.                        

The final section on football is unfortunately shorter, although it includes an excellent piece on head trauma in the NFL and the difficulty in making the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I hope that Dr. Hirsch revisits this subject in his future writings because his insight is extremely valuable.    

While personal disagreement is not generally the domain of the critic, if I had to take issue with any of his ideas, it is the rule changes he proposes in football. Hirsch advises downplaying kicking by eliminating extra points and decreasing the relative value of field goals (by awarding touchdowns with seven points). My bias is that kicking is an essential element of the game, and a skilled kicker in a pressure situation adds considerably to the excitement of the game.                                         

Likewise, he criticizes the “catch/no catch” rule pertaining to receivers, but again, I disagree. Currently, a receiver must hold onto the ball and then make a “football move” to qualify as a catch. Hirsch dislikes the “football move” aspect and would like to do away with it. But I believe that putting greater onus on the receiver to hold the ball longer helps referees make difficult distinctions between dropped balls and catches with subsequent fumbles. However you believe, his discussion of football rule changes makes for interesting reading.                                                                  
The book ends with the author’s profile of the legendary Muhammad Ali. Ali was inarguably one of the most important sports figures of the 20th Century, and after his death most descriptions of his life took on a hagiographic tone. The fact remains that Ali was a controversial figure and not always the saint he is portrayed as, especially in his dealings with his nemesis, Joe Frazier. The Ali epilogue might seem slightly out of place, but it is nonetheless accurate and a necessary historical counterbalance to some of the idealized portraits of the inarguably great boxer.
There are several unstated but important themes in this book. The most significant is the inevitable tension between individual and team performance. Any book that analyzes athletes in team sports must consider the conflict there. This book is no different, and Hirsch does his best to balance it. Did DiMaggio’s consecutive hitting streak really help his team? Should Russell Westbrook play more team-oriented basketball? Do high school players who move to the NBA learn to play team basketball? Ultimately, some fans prefer going to a game and watching an individual performance, others a competitive game. Are you happy if Michael Jordan scores 60 points but the Bulls lose or would you rather see a game go into overtime with no one player standing out? Hirsch acknowledges and respects that sports in general have become more competitive, but one gets the sense that deep in his heart he yearns for the dazzling individual performance.                                 

There is also the matter of prediction. Fans read, watch, and argue wanting to know who will win an upcoming game (gambling playing no small part in this). Hirsch understands and explains why, at its most elemental level, successful prediction is impossible with any degree of certainty, a fact borne out by two singular events that occurred after his book went to press. It’s too bad we could not get his take on the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series after being down three games to one, and the Patriots coming from 25 points down to win the 2016 Super Bowl. I await reading about these anomalies in his next book. He is certain to have a unique perspective.              

I also hope that in his next book he comments on how some of the topics he has discussed subsequently unfolded. For example, his observations on Phil Jackson not realizing success with the Knicks look prescient right now, for exactly the reasons he states. The jury is still out on Allonzo Trier, the fabulous young basketball player he describes who devoted his youth to playing the game. Trier has had some unanticipated troubles in his time at the University of Arizona, and his future is still anybody’s guess. Finally, Hirsch might have a different take today on Cubs manager Joe Madden’s “quirky tinkering” given some of the bizarre decisions Madden made in the 2016 Playoffs and World Series that nearly spelled disaster.                      

In short, Hot Hands, Draft Hype & DiMaggio’sStreak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths is a wonderful, well-written book that you can pick up and start reading on almost any page. And, as a bonus for the erudite sports fan, Hirsch quotes, among others and to good use, Tversky and Kahneman, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, A.E. Housman, Robert Browning, and Alexander Pope. Who imagined, for example, a link between Vonnegut and LeBron James?

Hirsch’s book is meant to enlighten and entertain rather than simply settle barroom sports debates. However, in that respect you will be smarter after reading it and certainly better prepared for those debates when and if they arise.  Whether on your night table, your coffee table, or your bookshelf, keep this great book handy for reading and reference.

Cory Franklin is an Editorial Board contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the author of Chicago Flashbulbs and Cook County ICU: 30 Years of Unforgettable Patients and Odd Cases

Reblogged from realclearbooks.com with the permission of the author

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Triple-Double Is Overrated. Kawhi Leonard Is Not.

Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder has received enormous acclaim for averaging a triple-double this season, a feat that has been accomplished only once in NBA history—by the all-time great Oscar Robertson 55 years ago. A New York Times reporter recently gushed that Westbrook’s triple-double run is  “a performance as aberrant as anything any of the primordial basketball legends (Wilt, Oscar, Bill Russell, Pistol Pete) ever did.”
But while Westbrook certainly has played great, let’s not get carried away with this specific achievement: in reality, the triple-double is overrated.

Nothing magical happens with the tenth point, rebound or assist. As the ninth is simply one more than the eighth, the tenth is just one more than the ninth. In that regard, Westbrook’s 31.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game (as of the all-star break) barely differ from James Harden’s 29.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game and are not much more than Lebron James’s 25.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. Indeed, James’s complete statistical line, which includes fewer missed shots and turnovers and a high proportion of assists on three-point shots, may be superior to Westbrook’s and Harden’s.

I would not rank Westbrook over Harden, James or others for reaching three unrelated numbers of no specific value; nor, in turn, should triple-double runner-up Harden rank over James and others for that reason; nor, should Westbrook or Harden necessarily rank above Kawhi Leonard, even though Leonard has never had a triple-double.

Why the fascination with the triple-double? Why the game-by-game Westbrook drumbeat?—did he or didn’t he?—and melodrama (“He passed Bird! Wilt is next!”….“primordial legends”)?

Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim (Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games Are Won) explain the outsized allure of statistics like the triple-double: “we are slaves to round numbers.” They cite examples outside of sports—this is a widespread phenomenon—but their most pertinent discussion concerns baseball’s .300 batting average. A .300 average is essentially the same as .299, yet the authors found that “In the last quarter century, no player hitting .299 has ever drawn a base on balls in his final plate appearance of the season.” Not once! These hitters expanded their strike zone in order to keep alive the chance of hitting .300.

Furthermore, players hitting .300 on the season’s last day are much more likely to take the day off (to ensure their .300 average) than are players hitting .299. (Memorably, Ted Williams played on the final day of the 1941 season despite entering the game with a .400 batting average. He ended up at .406; his willingness to risk falling short went down in baseball lore as testimony to his greatness.) Not surprisingly, the same holds for batters who enter the final day of the season with 99 or 100 RBIs: the latter take the day off far more often than the former.

Most importantly for present purposes, players are paid more money after they hit .300 rather than .299, or drive in 100 runs rather than 99, or hit 30 home runs rather than 29. General managers over-and undervalue players who just reach or just miss round numbers.

The triple-double is not alone in failing to adequately rank players. All basketball statistics, from basic numbers (points, rebounds, and assists totals) to advanced analytics, have significant limitations.
Ideally, any statistical evaluation would eliminate all variables other than the performance of the athlete being measured. Unfortunately, basketball contains a myriad of important variables, including the considerable effects of the nine other players on the court, varied team paces and styles, different responsibilities assigned to players, and more. With that degree of player interaction and overall complexity, basketball simply does not lend itself well to numerical assessments of individual players. 
Context is key in evaluating players. For example, Kevin Durant’s exit led to the near-complete reliance of Oklahoma City on Westbrook—an NBA all-time high “usage percentage” —and to Westbrook’s increased scoring (also, turnovers and missed shots). In addition, Westbrook’s career high in rebounds owes in part to Durant and Serge Ibaka being replaced on the front line with poor rebounders; Westbrook filled a void. Westbrook deserves credit for everything he’s done this season—every last point, rebound, and assist—but he is not a better shooter, rebounder, or passer than last season. 
Similarly, although Durant is now shooting his highest percentage ever from the field, his shooting skills have not improved. Instead, he’s getting better shots from Golden State’s constant movement offense than he did with Oklahoma City’s isolation-emphasized style. On the other hand, sharing the offensive load with sharpshooters Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, he’s taking the fewest shots per game in his career and his scoring average is down.
Variables and context plague measurements of defense even more. Defense is always team-schemed and it’s nearly impossible to isolate a single player’s contribution (even though more cameras, shot charts, and other sophisticated strategies have been brought to bear on the attempt.)
Consider the publicly available overall defensive evaluations, which fail in two critical ways. First, they do not distinguish adequately among players. Second, they too often yield plainly ridiculous results.
For example, in Basketball-Reference’s defensive ratings (a complex analytics formula that yields the points allowed by a player per 100 possessions) the twelve rotation players on the Cleveland Cavaliers currently fall in the narrow range between 105 and 112. Measures of error are not provided but it may be that the formula finds no statistically significant difference between any of the players. (For comparison, Cavalier offensive ratings span from 97 to 127.) At best, any distinctions here are minimal.

Bizarrely, Kevin Love ranks as the Cavalier’s best defender. NBA cognoscenti (and anyone else who has ever watched a Cavs game) consider Love a poor defender.  His high defensive ranking indicts the methodology, as does Basketball-Reference’s assessment of Klay Thompson as the Warriors’ weakest defender. Worse yet, consider Harden, a notoriously poor defender; numerous internet videos document his self-acknowledged problem with concentration and his comic lapses into fugue-like states at the defensive end. Yet two seasons ago Basketball-Reference ranked him equal defensively to the hyper-energetic, focused, and more athletic Westbrook. Forensic pathologist Henry Lee quipped in the O.J. Simpson trial that if you find one cockroach in a bowl of spaghetti, you toss the entire plate; cockroaches abound in Basketball-Reference’s defensive ratings.
And since any composite statistical player evaluation must include defense as a significant component, none of them (i.e. WAR, VORP, and others) inspire any confidence in their value. Statistics alone, whether simple or complex, cannot adequately rank basketball players.
Most analysts still consider James the NBA’s best player, but his reign is nearing its end. At 32 years old, he now rests on some defensive possessions and will soon decline. Who is his heir apparent among perimeter players? With apologies to Durant and Curry, who have also hit their peaks and are now difficult to evaluate (playing together on a team that would win at least 60 games without either one), the major candidates for the NBA’s top dog over the next few years are Westbrook, Harden, and Leonard.
Westbrook and Harden both sport gaudier basic statistics than Leonard: more points, rebounds, and assists. But the inability of these statistics to establish Westbrook’s and Harden’s superiority becomes apparent when we imagine the three players switching teams. In the more egalitarian and far slower paced San Antonio system, Harden’s and Westbrook’s points, rebounds and assists would all decrease, with their points and rebounds nearing or reaching Leonard’s current numbers. Harden and Westbrook, as point guards, would still have more assists than Leonard, but also more missed shots and turnovers. Leonard shoots more efficiently than Harden and (especially) Westbrook. With these advantages cutting in both directions it would be hard to claim significant overall offensive superiority for any of the three over the others.
In contrast, we can make clear distinctions at the defensive end. To start, you don’t need anything more than your eyes to know that the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year Leonard dominates the blooper film star Harden, even if Harden has improved somewhat. Down goes Harden.
Furthermore, Westbrook is a solid defender but still falls short of Leonard, who is probably the NBA’s best perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen (or even longer). Westbrook cannot match Leonard’s defensive versatility, his ability to guard anyone from point guards to power forwards. Nor can he match Leonard’s extraordinary reach. Announcer and ex-coach Jeff Van Gundy appropriately calls Leonard “by far the best defender of the three.”
Thus, we can choose among these players simply by watching Leonard defend. That may seem odd in the modern analytic era, but his obvious defensive superiority trumps any fine distinction (statistical or otherwise) that can be made among the three at the offensive end.
Leonard is the least flashy of the superstars. He has no triple-doubles or other eye-catching achievements. There’s no statistical basis to affirm him as the NBA’s best player.  He won’t win MVP this year. Nevertheless, with his superb all-around play, I’d take Leonard over Westbrook and Harden.