Performance When It Counts? the Myth of the Prime Time Performer in Professional Basketball

By Berri, David J.; Eschker, Erick | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Performance When It Counts? the Myth of the Prime Time Performer in Professional Basketball


Berri, David J., Eschker, Erick, Journal of Economic Issues


The neoclassical vision of the world rests upon the notion that economic actors "know that which they do." In contrast, as James Peach and Richard Adkisson (1997) have noted, the work of such institutionalists as Thorstein Veblen, Clarence Ayres, John R. Commons, and John Kenneth Galbraith are driven by a desire to expose the mythology people employ to explain the world observed. Within this tradition, we consider the words Veblen offered on professional sports. (1)

   This peculiar boyishness of temperament in sporting men immediately
   becomes apparent when attention is directed to the large element of
   make-believe that is present in all sporting activity. Sports share
   this character of make-believe with the games and exploits to which
   children, especially boys, are habitually inclined. Make-believe
   does not enter in the same proportion into all sports, but it is
   present in a very appreciable degree in all.... Except where it is
   adopted as a necessary means of secret communication, the use of a
   special slang in any employment is probably to be accepted as
   evidence that the occupation in question is substantially
   make-believe. ([1899] 1953, 170-171)

Contrary to the neoclassical vision, in which economic actors base their actions upon reality, Veblen saw the world of sports as make-believe. To illustrate the make-believe nature of professional sports, we turn to the National Basketball Association (NBA). Fans have asserted that some NBA players can choose to elevate their performance in the postseason. (2) Consider a typical quote from a sports writer:

   Even if one despised the Los Angeles Lakers with an indefatigable
   passion, their history of making devastating, huge shots with
   games, series and seasons on the line cannot be ignored. Robert
   Horry, Derek Fisher and, of course, Kobe Bryant have all
   displayed the ability to consistently toss pressure aside and
   stroke game-changing shots. (Martin McNeal, "Bryant Takes Turn at
   Hitting Big Shot," Sacramento Bee, June 9, 2004)

The NBA's official Web site even ranks what it calls "prime time" players by posting player career differentials between points scored in the playoffs and points scored during the regular season.

The largest "prime time" mythology has most likely developed regarding Michael Jordan, who has often been labeled the greatest basketball player in the history of the game. Consider the dramatic story told about game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. The Bulls led the series three games to two but needed to win one of two games in Utah to win the NBA championship. With twenty seconds remaining, it appeared that a seventh game would be necessary to decide the outcome of the series. The Utah Jazz had both the ball and a one-point lead. The Jazz still needed to score, so the ball went to one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, Karl Malone. Jordan, though, proceeded to steal the ball from Malone. On the subsequent possession, Jordan had the ball and the following unfolded:

   The defender (Byron Russell of the Utah Jazz) loses his footing
   and falls to the court as he tries to keep the best player in
   the game from blowing past him. Michael Jordan seizes the moment.
   He stops on a dime, elevates and lets fly with the shot that will
   win or lose the game. Nothing but net. (Sporting News NBA Guide
   1998-99, 117; italics added)

The above story suggests that Jordan was able to elevate his game at the moment the Bulls needed to score in order to win the game. The box score from the same contest, however, reveals a different story. Prior to the game-winning shot, Jordan had taken thirty-four shots and made only fourteen, a success rate of 41 percent. Had Jordan just converted at a rate of 47 percent, his regular season performance, he would have already made two additional shots before the final seconds of the game and the game winning shot would not have been necessary. …

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