Larry Summers and Glenn Hubbard Shooting Hoops

This week’s New York Times magazine features an article by Adam Davison about economists Larry Summers and Glenn Hubbard. Forgive me for being superficial and ignoring the weighty macroeconomic topics discussed in the article; instead I’m going to offer three thoughts about the basketball tie-in.

On Scrawny Moderately Athletic Kids

The article begins with Larry Summers shooting hoops:

One cold late-winter afternoon, Larry Summers was standing by the free-throw line at Lavietes Pavilion, on the Harvard campus, somberly shooting a basketball. In the past couple of years, Summers has sworn off Diet Coke, gluten and junk food and lost a fair amount of weight. As a result, his gray White House T-shirt billowed over his loose gym shorts. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and celebrated economist, is well known for his cutting wit and laserlike focus; he is less well known for his jump shot. But Summers, who recalls with anguish being cut from his high-school basketball team, never let his gaze wander as he took, and missed, nearly every shot. Two Harvard players ran down his rebounds.

Reading this—after getting over the image of Larry Summers playing ball—I was reminded of a quote from an autobiographical account by Duke economist E. Roy Weintraub:

But for those who can’t dunk a basketball, who cannot run the 40-yard dash in 4.1 seconds on their way to tackling a frightened quarterback, for those who can’t run a mile significantly faster than four minutes, for those particularly unendowed with physical beauty, or riches, jets, jewels or private islands, what scope might ambition take? For a scrawny moderately athletic Jewish kid growing up in the 1950s in America’s northeast corridor, a kid with academic father, uncle, aunts, great uncles, etc., with rabbis and lawyers and doctors in the extended family in great profusion, ambition had to mean taking a place in that professional milieu. And if both one’s father and mother believed, and argued, that doctors are quacks who kill people who fail to prepay for surgical operations, glorified butchers and technicians who earn too much money and act self-important, and if one’s parents also believe that lawyers are either crooks who defend people for money not principle, or else who screw up the economy by passing laws about subjects of which they know little or nothing, the professional path appears clear. Approval from those parents, and internalization of parental values, required my becoming a professor.1

As a fellow scrawny moderately athletic Jewish2 kid who eventually gave up high school sports that I loved—the basketball for which my height and lack of jumping ability served me so poorly, and the cross country which suited my abilities but not my knees slightly better—in favor of a more intellectual extracurricular pursuit, the school paper, I could relate. Certainly, this quote has to apply to Summers, who had two Nobel prize-winning uncles. This, I think, is a key quote in understanding a certain part of the American Jewish experience.

How Your Ph.D. Dissertation Can Change the NBA

Summers’s antagonist in the article, Glenn Hubbard, also brings up basketball:

As he wrapped up, Hubbard pointed to the good news: results can change when the right adjustments are made. This is where he brought up basketball. By the 1940s, he said, the sport had become boring, dominated by extremely tall players who planted themselves next to the rim. Then a Columbia University graduate student who also coached basketball wrote a Ph.D. dissertation arguing that the game could be saved by innovations, like the 3-point shot, which created an incentive to move action away from the hoop. It took decades for the N.B.A. to adopt the 3-pointer, but since its implementation, it has helped make basketball one of the most popular and lucrative sports on earth.

I was curious to find more. After a bit of searching online, I discovered that the graduate student was Howard Hobson. From his New York Times obituary:

Mr. Hobson said in a 1985 interview that his biggest contribution to the game was a 13-year study of basketball that took the form of a doctoral thesis at Columbia University in 1944. The study eventually was published as a book, “Scientific Basketball.”

He said his study led to several rule changes, and the national publication of shooting percentages, rebounds and turnovers. His analysis included proposals for a 3-point field goal, a shot clock and wider free-throw lanes, all of which eventually became part of the game.

Mr. Hobson staged an experimental game between Columbia and Fordham, using all three innovations, in the 1940’s.

Unfortunately, the University of Michigan library’s copy of “Scientific Basketball” is missing (though isn’t it wonderful that old libraries would have such a thing!), so I’ll have to wait for inter-library loan to take a look. A bit more about Howard Hobson is available here.

Update, 5.10.13: I’ve now gotten the book from the library. After skimming through it, here are a few nuggets:

  • The shooting percentages were incredibly low. In each of the 13 years he examined (in the 1930s and 1940s), the shooting average was less than 30% from the field.
  • Free-throw averages were a bit better, 59%; perhaps Shaq was born in the wrong decade? Hobson compares the three most common techniques, underhand, chest, and one-handed, and concludes that underhand—“granny” style was what we called it in the schoolyard—is most successful.
  • Perhaps Hobson is the source of the phrase: “Championships are won at the free-throw line.” (p. 62)
  • Recent studies have suggested that most of home-field advantage is due to the pressure on officiating crews. Back in 1949, Hobson had already noted this: “Coaches, players and home fans who attempt to intimidate the officials also give the home team an unfair and unearned advantage.” His suggestion:

    Therefore, coaches and directors of basketball should eliminate, so far as possible, improper conduct of spectators, players and coaches that in any way intimidate players or officials. This means that booing and other similar tactics must be eliminated. It means also that officials must have, and use, the right to dismiss players and coaches from the game or bench, when the occasion calls for such action. (p. 89)

The Resurgence of Harvard Basketball

Finally, followers of NCAA basketball might wonder as I did whether Larry Summer’s interest in basketball had something to do with the resurgence of Harvard’s team (something that I fear as a fan of my recently struggling (although now recovering) hometown Princeton Tigers). As far I can tell, the answer is no. According to this extensive article from The Crimson (see Joshua Levin’s article in Slate if you want a shorter read), the change took place at the end of the 2006-2007 season, a year after Summers had been ousted.

The only evidence I could find online about Summers’s attitude towards college athletics while he was president comes from a November 2005 Boston Magazine article that suggested that Summers wanted to increase admissions standards and decrease admissions slots for athletes.3 One thing Summers did as president, though, did help lay the groundwork for the basketball team’s success: by increasing financial aid to the point where students from poorer backgrounds went for free, he offset the disadvantage Ivy League teams—which cannot offer athletic scholarships—face in recruiting basketball players against academic powerhouses like Stanford that do offer such scholarships.4

  1. From How Economics Became a Mathematical Science, Duke (2002), p. 250 
  2. Well, half-Jewish in my case. 
  3. From the article:

    But other observers have expressed skepticism about Summers’s
    ability to pull off his grand designs—or whether they might conceal a
    less palatable objective. Considering Harvard already attracts more
    than 20,000 applications, intellectual diamonds in the rough may be
    hard to unearth, and Byerly Hall may not be able to boost the
    representation of such disadvantaged kids without tinkering with an
    admissions preference on their behalf. Summers has not proposed doing
    so; on the contrary, the president has dedicated himself to raising
    Harvard’s academic standards, battling grade inflation, and
    spearheading a 14 percent Ivy League-wide cutback on football recruits
    (a fruitful source of “socioeconomic diversity,” Fitzsimmons has said).
    This could make the admissions process even more daunting for students
    whose lesser opportunities have translated into lower scores. “Summers
    loves those Korean kids in Flushing,” says Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test
    and dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “They’re
    working their butts off, their parents are, they want a chance. But in
    most cases, that kid is going to show up worse than the kid from
    Scarsdale on standard admissions measures.”

  4. Harvard wasn’t alone in doing this; other Ivys also greatly increased their financial aid to lower and middle-class families in the 2000s.