Sometimes when you’re looking for other stuff, you stumble across an old article in which Michael Jordan is quoted giving thanks to a computer …
… and then you gotta go figure out what the deal was there. So this is that.
I’m fascinated by the first chapter of Michael Jordan’s career. Before Jordan enjoyed the company of any star-level teammates, before his Chicago Bulls came even close to a championship, MJ’s statistical profile described a superstar performing basically alone. Jordan’s third season, 1986-87, represents the peak of this era. The year he turned 24, Jordan recorded the fifth-highest single-season usage rate in Basketball-Reference’s database, which goes back to 1978. And Jordan didn’t crank up his usage by hunting triple-doubles; Michael shot. His 3,041 points on 2,279 field goal attempts in ‘86-’87 are the single-season records for any NBA player not named Wilt Chamberlain, and that data goes all the way back to the beginning. No other Bull that season came close to even half of that production. Jordan scored more points than any three of his ‘86-’87 teammates combined. This is, perhaps, not the most sustainable path to success, as evidenced by those Bulls winning just 40 games.
Still, Jordan warranted some sort of recognition for dragging a team to the playoffs by himself. Some people thought he deserved to be named the NBA’s 1987 Most Valuable Player. Just not enough of them. When media members voted on that award, Jordan received ten first-place votes, and a pretty substantial share of the overall vote total … but a distant second-place to Magic Johnson. Magic won his first regular-season MVP by leading the LA Lakers in scoring, but mostly by distributing a historically notable number of assists to a supporting cast vastly more talented than the one surrounding Jordan. Johnson enjoyed the company of two future Hall-of-Famers and 1987 Defensive Player of the Year Michael Cooper. Jordan’s best teammate was … I dunno, Charles Oakley? Those Lakers would eventually win their fourth championship of the decade. The Bulls got swept in the first round.
Jordan didn’t dispute Magic’s MVP status, though he did wonder what more a player in his own position could do to demonstrate elite value. MJ raised the ever-present question of how much “most valuable” honors individual excellence vs. team success:
“I’m not saying they (the media) don’t know how to decide,” Jordan said, “but I don’t think anyone knows what credentials should be used. I wish I knew what they were. I guess it goes back to history. The MVP has always gone to the winning team.
Well! Michael! As it turned out, the Seagram company wondered the very same thing. Yes, the people who make ginger ale and wine coolers. Back then they weren’t just an imprint of Coca-Cola. They were a huge conglomerate with entirely too much money, and they spent some of it on advanced sports statistics — a beverage magnate competing with the nascent SABR.
In 1974, Seagram began issuing its “Seven Crowns of Sports Award” — a computer-generated measure of the best individual performance in each major sport. As statisticians kept more and more detailed records, Seagram endeavored to analyze, weigh, and collate all those discrete play-by-play stats into a single “efficiency” number that would help them determine the best overall individual athlete, even allowing them to compare athletes from different leagues, if not different sports.
You got a trophy and $10,000. Not bad!
Seagram’s first basketball award — and a $10,000 prize — went to Julius Erving, who played in the ABA at the time, instead of 1974 NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A UPI report described the methodology:
How did the computer arrive at Erving being better than Abdul-Jabbar? The carefully programmed system took into consideration such areas of individual performance as points scored, field goal percentage, assists, steals, rebounds, and blocked shots. Dr. J., the New York Nets’ brilliant forward, received a 33.06 efficiency rating to 31.56 for Milwaukee’s Abdul-Jabbar, who wasn’t even second in the standings.
If you, like me, have wasted any of your precious Government-Allotted Free Time reading about basketball statistics, you’ll recognize that those particular individual stats invite all sorts of problems, and so, generally, does the practice of collating tons of stats into one all-purpose stat soup. But hopefully you’ll also acknowledge that sports statistics were immature in the ‘70s, so this is a good effort. Plenty of present-day dummies with much better information at their disposal have promoted worse all-encompassing stats than the one invented by the makers of Crown Royal whiskey.
I’m also a big fan of anyone describing man-made algorithmic analysis by assigning agency to “the computer,” as if a PC is just sitting on a desk farting out sports takes unprovoked. If it’s the computer’s fault, then you can get mad at the computer, like this writer threatening violence against whatever machine snubbed O.J. Simpson in 1975:
That same computer hopped on the MJ bandwagon remarkably early. In 1985, Jordan won Rookie of the Year, made the All-Star team, and ranked sixth in the MVP race, including a couple first-place votes. It’s pretty amazing for a rookie to get that much recognition from voters, but those human media members didn’t love him nearly as much as the ol’ booze computer.
According to the algorithm, Jordan’s statistical profile was better than the veterans who surpassed him in MVP voting: Bird, Magic, Kareem, Moses Malone … all of ‘em. The 22-year-old sounded dismayed and even embarrassed to have won something over the actual MVP:
“I can’t compare myself to Larry Bird. I still feel he’s the best in the league. I guess I can say computer-wise I beat out Bird.”
Two years later, our more experienced, less bashful Jordan got another Seagram trophy, beating out the official 1987 MVP, Magic. Even if human media members wouldn’t divorce Jordan’s record-setting excellence from his team’s mediocrity, a distillery and its algorithm had his back from the beginning.
Said Michael upon winning it again in ‘87: “I’d like to thank the computer. If it wasn’t for that, I might not have gotten an MVP award this year.” Nor that $10,000 check!
Jordan would go on to win actual MVP the following season when the Bulls won 50 games. And then the Bulls would, ya know, improve a lot more than that. Things turned out fine for Michael Jordan, is what I’m saying.
But in 1987, Jordan was still just a record-setting one-man show worried he’d be known only as a scorer, disappointed that reporters wouldn’t acknowledge his historic performance in adverse conditions. Michael needed some validation. So, hey … thanks, computer.