Contingencies in Life and Basketball

Life 

History repeating itself is a claim that the world operates in a deterministic way, in other words, the world is predictable. To know how and when this predictability arises is like having your own personal crystal ball revealing the cyclical nature of history. It is to the advantage of the economist who, seeking to profit on this predictability, knows these cycles. Of course, this is easier said than done, or else we’d all be rich. Even the savviest economists are prone to the perturbations in this predictability. Another field that wrestles with this idea is evolutionary biology. The evolution of species, as presented by Stephen Jay Gould, relies on historical unpredictability that he coined as contingency. That is, evolution is contingent on the steps (mutations) that occurred prior to a certain point in time. In contrast, Simon Conway Morris, held the notion that evolution is deterministic in that history is predictable and given certain environmental conditions, species have an evolutionary destiny that they will eventually arrive at. Modern day experiments with E.coli have tried to study which idea is more true and it turns out both are equally valid. It is currently accepted that natural selection paves way for deterministic evolution between closely related lineages. However, contingencies can arise by chance, and these can be acted upon by natural selection to fuel evolution. Gould presented a thought experiment that illustrates these two paths of evolution: if life as we know it today could be rewound and replayed, would it look the same? If so, then determinism is more prevalent than historical contingency. Narrowing the scope of this question to the sport of basketball, I believe, changes the answer to the revised question: If a game of basketball could be replayed, would the outcome be the same? I would answer no because basketball is full of contingencies. Let me explain. 

Basketball – A Game of Runs

A sporting contest is often decided by which team keeps the momentum going. The winner often seizes it during the last couple minutes of the game. Also, the momentum often switches from one team to the other throughout the game. This is why basketball is commonly called a “game of runs.” Sometimes the run seizes full control of the momentum and the game turns into a blowout. Other times the run comes about at just the right time to give the team an edge right before the game is about to end. The former situation isn’t that exciting but the latter one is why millions enjoy sports. Runs involve contingencies because a team with a successfully made basket will often perk up on defense, get a stop, and go on to score during the next offensive possession. A 18-3 run by the 2011-12 Miami Heat in the semi-finals against the Bulls to send them home is my favourite example of a game clinching run happening at the right time. I’m not going to bother linking highlights to a 30-point blowout which eventually culminate in television screens being shut off. 

Credit: NBA

It is hard to predict when these runs will start, but often easy to spot when they are occurring. Contingency in basketball plays a huge role on this as the present play is contingent on what happened on the other end of the court. For example, say the man Steph Curry’s guarding hits a three in his face. It is not uncommon for him to dribble up the floor and lead his team to a reciprocated three ball to get those points back. This stops the momentum from accumulating and causes it to exist in a pendulum-like state, going back and forth from team to team. Contingency also arises where calls made by the referee stop the flow of the game, or where the outcome of the game is contingent on one crucial call. I think the most evident form of contingency during a game of basketball is when one player goes on a momentum gaining run known as a heat check. Heat checks are events where a player’s previously made basket results in a subsequent basket the next time down the floor. 

Credit: Team LeBron
Your Crystal Ball 

Contingencies are important because they dictate what will happen in the future. A keen observer can profit if they are diligent at spotting them and predicting what will happen as a result. They are what make historians great at predicting future events based on what happened in the past. It is argued that they also play a role in the history of life on earth, which partly results in evolution that is contingent on past events. In a much simpler scope, these contingencies exist in sporting events all the time. This is mainly why outcomes are easier to predict during the “game of runs” rather than before tip-off. Learn to spot contingencies because what happens after them may be the closest thing to predictability that basketball (and life) can offer.

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