Monday, November 26, 2012

Numbers Don’t Lie, But They Aren’t Always Truthful

By Bob Ekstrom

The road out of central Delaware is long. Longer still when you're driving alone and your son's football team just got knocked out of the NCAA tournament after a 57-point trouncing. There is little to do other than to search out license plates from each of the 50 states, play those CDs your wife won't let you listen to when she's in the car, and reflect on all you have, which is apropos on a trip during Thanksgiving week.

Passing through radio markets that complained of Andrew Bynum's knee, Mark Sanchez's arm, and Ilya Kovalchuk's St. Petersburg address, I had much to be thankful for. Walmart would be open on Thanksgiving night, Hostess was in mediation to save Twinkees, and I was heading back to the home of two of professional sports' hottest records book chases, as Tom Brady looked for his 43rd consecutive game throwing a touchdown pass and Rajon Rondo his 37th consecutive with double-digit assists.

Never mind that six weeks ago I couldn't tell you who held the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, and six days ago I didn't even realize anyone was counting such arcane things as consecutive games with double-digit assists. But the prominence of individual achievement within the guise of team sport was never more shamelessly exhibited than by Celtics coach Doc Rivers in Detroit last Sunday.

When Rivers learned through a broadcast duo that Rondo was holding at 6 assists and his 33-game double-digit assist streak digging its grave as the clock wound down, he reinserted his point guard with 8:40 remaining. Granted, the 14-point deficit at the time was not insurmountable, but things didn't improve over the next four minutes as the Pistons went on a 13-8 run, and that's when sublime met ridiculous. With Rondo stuck on 8 assists, Rivers called a timeout and instructed his squad, "If we can get him two more, let's do it."

They did, and in a selfish act of unselfishness, Rondo's assist streak escaped Detroit to live another day, ensuring it a spot on my list of the ten most ridiculous individual record shams in the history of sports. All that's left is to figure out which of these it should replace:

* Willie Mays' selection to the 1973 All-Star Game with a batting average of .214 and 4 homers, making him the second player in MLB history to become a 20-time All-Star.

* Vinny Testaverde's insertion into the final game of the 2006 NFL season. With a 10-point lead and the clock running inside of 2:00, Testaverde throws a TD pass on 1st-and-goal from the 6, marking his 20th consecutive season with at least one TD pass, a new NFL record.

* Nykesha Sales on crutches, starting a 1998 game against Villanova and being allowed to score an uncontested two points to become UConn's all-time leading women's scorer.

* Rafael Palmeiro's 1999 Gold Glove at first base, despite playing only 28 games at the position.

* Each and every one of Brett Favre's 45 starts after the Corey Webster interception in the 2008 NFC Championship Game, which should have ended both his playing days and his consecutive starts streak at 252.

* The three bullpen calls to Dave Righetti during the meaningless final series of the 1986 season. Two appearances were for only the final out, including one with a 5-run lead. Righetti saved all three to establish a new MLB single-season saves record.

* Atlanta Hawks guard Bobby Sura's 2004 quest to get his third straight triple-double, requiring his teammates to feed him rebound opportunities and ultimately culminating in his rebound of his own intentionally-missed shot.

* Gordy Howe's 1997 one-shift appearance for the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League, making him the only six-decade professional hockey player ever.

* "Sir Jack" Taylor's 108-shot, 138-point assault on NCAA men's basketball sensibilities last Tuesday night as his Grinnell College teammates stood idly by.

* Brett Favre's 2002 flop at the feet of the oncoming Michael Strahan, giving the latter the NFL single-season sack record that still stands today.

Rondo's advance on the record books is now all the rave on local sports airwaves. At home against the Spurs on Wednesday night, he collected another 15 assists. Within Celtics Nation, Magic Johnson's 46-game double-digit assist streak has taken on the ethereal lore of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, so should the two be in the same conversation elsewhere?

DiMaggio got four or five chances a game to accomplish something a Big-League hitter does less than 3 of every 10 times on average. Statistically, there was only a 24% chance that Joltin' Joe would fail to get one hit in any four at bat stretch.

On the other hand, a point guard handles the ball on virtually every possession, and the C's are averaging 95 of those a game. Setting aside his 10 minutes of bench time and the 11 possessions that end with him taking the shot himself, Rondo has maybe 64 possessions. Turnovers take away assist opportunities the same way walks took away DiMaggio opportunities, so they cancel. Throw in the fact that the C's are shooting 48%, only 57% of all NBA baskets come from assists, and 20% of all shot attempts lead to fouls that void assists, and it sure seems harder to receive credit for 10 assists in 64 NBA possessions than for one hit in 4 MLB at bats.

Then there's the subjective factor. You knew when DiMaggio got a hit as the event was pretty black-and-white. Aside from an occasional error-vs.-hit ruling, there was no place for DiMaggio to hide. Not so for Rondo. Since Magic Johnson's arrival into the NBA, official scorers have been handing out assists like they were candy on Halloween. The assist event does not abide by the same high standard we use to adjudicate pornography; namely, we don't necessarily know it when we see it.

And finally, there's the matter of accountability. DiMaggio's streak went from May 15 to July 16, 1941. Magic Johnson's streak, which has been alternately reported as 44 and 46 games, is said to have started late in the 1982-83 season, and ended during the 1983-84 season. Game box scores substantiate 10 or more assists for Johnson in each of the first 41 games of the 1983-84 season, but he recorded only 9 assists on April 12, 1983, the last game of the 1982-83 season. So, which is the real streak: 46 games, 44 games, 41 games?

As we settle in to watch tonight's NBA action, there will be a decided enclave of us wearing our greens and whites who will have one eye on the court and one on the scorer's table. We'll root for Rondo to get his 10 assists. Beyond that, we're not sure where to go. We'll just wait for someone with a pencil in his hand to tell us Rondo did something real good.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2009