LZ Granderson wrote a column on ESPN.com’s Page 2 on Nov. 6 on the topic of Basketball IQ. The theme of the article, entitled “Dumb Words About Hoops Smarts”, was that there were social and racial connotations when a player was categorized as having a “high basketball IQ”. I found the column to be thought-provoking on a number of levels, but I can’t completely agree with the argument that Mr. Granderson has made.
Here’s a link to the article if you haven’t seen it yet: Dumb Words About Hoops Smarts
Granderson argues that when players like Gilbert Arenas, Jason Kopono, and Thabo Sefolosha are labeled as having high basketball IQs, it means that the people making those assessments are either knowingly or unknowingly making a judgment that this is a rare occurrence. He quotes Robert Thompson, the founding director for the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse with the following evidence, “The term ‘high basketball IQ’ suggests two things: that the athlete is only smart about basketball and nothing else, and that there are players in the NBA with a ‘low basketball IQ,’ which is silly.”
In setting up the column, Granderson asks, “Shouldn’t every player in the NBA have a high basketball IQ?” The answer to this question is my point of contention with the column.
Yes, every player in the NBA should have a high basketball IQ, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they all do. I don’t have any experience in working with NBA players, so I’m not qualified to make an assessment on how much variability there is in knowledge of the game between players in the NBA. But I can tell you with great certainty that professional baseball players differ on their Baseball IQs, a term I believe most people use to mean their specific knowledge of the game and application of that knowledge in the appropriate game situations. I have a few thoughts that might help Mr. Granderson investigate the concept of Basketball IQ, but mostly, I’m interested in explaining my thinking on Baseball IQ in hopes that there are some similarities between baseball players and basketball players so that a player who has been told that he has a high basketball IQ can accept this as the compliment I believe it is meant to be.
I started studying Baseball IQ in 2005, my first season as Mental Skills Coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. As I was getting familiar with players in the system from Rookie Ball all the way up to the big leagues, I assumed when a player threw to the wrong base, or tried to beat an inside fastball hitter with an inside fastball, he was so affected by the pressure of the moment that he made a poor decision. My assumption was that professional players should know that they should throw to second on a single with a man on first and no real chance to get the runner going from first to third because that trail runner would advance to second on such a play if they threw to third. But I kept seeing mistakes like this happening. As I surveyed coaches and scouts, I kept getting the same answer…that players today don’t really know how to play the game the right way. It wasn’t that players needed to make better decisions under pressure, it was that they didn’t have the answers to make good decisions.
Most players had grown up practicing the game, but they hadn’t played catch with their friends, hadn’t played pick up games on sandlots like the generation of kids before them. So while they knew the mechanics of hitting and they threw bullpen after bullpen with a private pitching coach, they hadn’t faced enough hitters, hadn’t had to improvise on the field, hadn’t learned the valuable lesson of throwing to the right base to keep a buddy from advancing.
We decided to begin a program to measure just how much our pitchers and position players knew about the game and we focused on teaching situational awareness in drills, meetings, and intrasquad games. We tested players specifically on their Baseball IQ, creating an exam for pitchers and one for position players made up from critical information the coaches in the organization thought was important to know if a player were to be ready to play in the big leagues. We found great variability in Baseball IQ levels between players. Of course, there are also great differences in the experience levels of professional players, with some being drafted from high schools, some from junior colleges, and some from colleges. But the greatest determining factor in our results seemed to be years of experience playing professional baseball. So a Caucasian infielder who had just been drafted from a Pac-10 school the year before might have a lower Baseball IQ, according to our measures, than an African-American outfielder who had signed out of a high school in North Carolina and had two years of professional experience. These results gave us evidence that the teaching our coaches were doing in the organization was having a positive effect.
A quick note to mention that we did not cross-reference scores for race, but that most of the players sampled were Caucasian (we created a test for Spanish-speaking players, but chose not to score their results as educational standards are different between the US, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, which are the two countries the majority of our Latin players hailed from.) It is widely known that fewer African-Americans are playing baseball and making it to the big leagues than a generation ago. As an estimate, I thought that the Pirates had more African-American players in their system than the professional averages. And there could be pages and pages of sociological discussion on reasons why there are fewer African-American players in the game, a trend I hope is being reversed as more attention is drawn to it. The relevant point in reference to Mr. Granderson’s column is that we would not hesitate to label a player of any race as having a high or a low Baseball IQ and that there certainly is a knowledge base for playing baseball that can separate one player from another in terms of on-field performance.
So in returning my thinking to the article, here are some questions I considered while reading:
1. What do the experts think?
Has anyone asked NBA coaches if they think the general Basketball IQ of players is lower today than it once was? Has anyone asked if they experience frustration during games because they have players who don’t know what they are doing on the court? Do most players become smarter as they gain experience in the league? Maybe Gilbert Arenas DOES have a higher Basketball IQ than the average NBA player. Maybe he finds a way to avoid getting picked off his man on defense or knows how to disrupt the triangle offense better than most of his peers. Maybe he knows how to find an open spot on the floor when his opponents have game-planned specifically to stop him. Maybe he has learned Flip Saunders’ system faster than any player Flip has ever coached. Just because there are people in the world who may let their prejudices bleed through in their description of players shouldn’t diminish the possibility that there truly are some basketball players who demonstrate greater knowledge of the game day in and day out on the court.
2. Pick up Games
Maybe the same reason coaches think there are differences in Baseball IQ levels is an explanation for why there would be similarities in Basketball IQ levels. If there aren’t differences, I would wonder if the amount of time basketball players spend playing pick up games gives them the understanding they need to play the game at the highest level. But without answering my first questions and finding out if there really is a difference in Basketball IQ levels among NBA players, we couldn’t explain why there is or isn’t.
3. A Paradox in the Argument
I don’t mean to diminish Mr. Granderson’s argument with respect to racial judgments, as I would not deny plenty of overt and implied racism still exists in our country. But if his reference to the history of African-American quarterbacks in football followed, wouldn’t coaches and analysts only be mentioning the high Basketball IQs of Caucasian players? Granderson notes accurately that historically NFL coaches and executives had described “black quarterbacks in terms of their physical skills, while white quarterbacks are described in terms of their intellect.” This is a horrible disservice and I am certain it kept many African-Americans from playing QB before great players like Warren Moon and Doug Williams led a change in culture. But if the term “high Basketball IQ” were being used in a similar fashion, why would it be used to describe Gilbert Arenas and Thabo Sefolosha?
My gut tells me that when people are using the term “high Basketball IQ”, they are doing so with good intentions. I’m not naïve enough to believe that some people in the world aren’t comfortable with people whose skin color is different or whose religious beliefs or political views aren’t the same as theirs. But I don’t believe we should deny smart basketball players (who I’m sure are also smart people when they are not playing basketball) the credit they are due as smart basketball players. I think that athletes in every sport should be celebrated for their dedication to studying their games, for their willingness to learn, and for the balanced approach they take in working just as hard on mental skills as physical skills. If we truly valued the IQ of our athletes as much as we did their stats, maybe there wouldn’t be so much controversy. I look forward to continuing my research in baseball and I hope that others will question my thinking as well…so we can all continue to learn together.
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