We Have A Trade
Earlier this year, on the first day of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, amateur and professional quants packed the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center’s largest room to watch five men talk for 75 minutes about advanced statistics in basketball. It was one of the weekend’s most anticipated panels. The audience consisted largely of people who might have killed someone—or at least modeled a cost-benefit analysis for killing someone—to parse through the same spreadsheets as some of the experts on stage. On one end was Mike Zarren, the Celtics’ assistant general manager, a Harvard Law School graduate who had clipped a shamrock pin to his lapel. In college, at the University of Chicago, Zarren had played quiz bowl, not basketball, and served as the team’s president the year it won the first triple crown of national championships in history. Twelve years later, he was sitting next to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who cut the imposing presence of a billionaire while wearing faded blue jeans and a ring-collared T-shirt that read “Talk Nerdy To Me.” These guys weren’t easily baffled by questions about NBA metrics. In fact, there weren’t and aren’t many people in the world with a better grasp on basketball numbers. But then someone in the audience stood up, took the microphone, and stumped just about everyone on stage.
The Moneyball Generation
Last Wednesday night, in a cozy room inside Harvard’s Winthrop House, a group of 20 students gathered around a table to talk about sports. Wearing sweatshirts and a few days of stubble, they scarfed down Subway sandwiches and foil-wrapped burritos, though with soft green walls and a framed portrait above the fireplace, the space looked more appropriate for afternoon tea. This was the weekly meeting of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, a student organization that describes itself as “dedicated to the quantitative analysis of sports strategy and management,” which is a modest way of saying that the people in this room aspire to one day preside over sports franchises.
They were sliding around a box of miniatured glazed donuts—the club spends almost all of its university funding on snacks—when David Roher, one of the group’s two presidents, called the meeting to order. He asked everyone to introduce themselves and, as an icebreaker, name their favorite sports books. He also added an unusual caveat.
“For the sake of variety,” Roher said, “it can’t be Moneyball.”
“How about the Moneyball screenplay?” whispered someone else.
Roher was referring to Michael Lewis’ 2003 book about the Oakland Athletics, an organization that used sabermetrics to become one of baseball’s best teams with one of the sport’s smallest payrolls. “It’s probably the most important book I’ve ever read,” he admitted afterward.
The book spawned a revolution of its own, lionizing a community of eggheads and enraging the scouts who believed firmly they had found baseball wisdom in the bottom of a spittoon. Other clubs adopted Oakland’s system of analytics, snapping up Ivy League graduates like Paul DePodesta, the brains of Oakland’s front office, a Harvard economics major. The Red Sox and their 30-year-old general manager Theo Epstein, a Yale man, won the World Series in 2004 just months after Larry Summers, then the president of Harvard, cited Moneyball in a speech about heath policy. “What’s true of baseball is actually true of a much wider range of human activity than has been the case before,” Summers said.
It then took a few years for Harvard to be littered with The Moneyball Generation: nerds whose thinking wasn’t just influenced but wholly shaped by the book. These students are the first who were young enough to encounter Moneyball as impressionable teenagers, meaning they’ve hardly experienced sports—all sports, and not just baseball—as anything other than a grand experiment in quantitative analysis.
Maybe they’re too late to infiltrate baseball’s front offices, considering the boom of sports-minded quants and fall of certain icons in the time they took to graduate high school. DePodesta lost his job as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ general manager, Billy Beane’s Athletics have made the playoffs only once since 2004, and even the Red Sox, for all their sabermetric might, wouldn’t have broken their 86-year championship drought without John Henry’s deep pockets. It’s even easier to pronounce Moneyball dead than it was to dismiss it in the first place.
Yet here, finally, are students riding a fresh wave of Moneyball. Some of them, between classes about robot systems and games of beer pong, have already been hired to crunch numbers for professional teams. Of all the long-lingering effects of Moneyball, intentional and otherwise, this might be the most profound. “In the abstract, sure, I thought there’d be lots of job openings and a change in sports,” Lewis said recently, unaware of the group at hand. “But in the concrete, I never really thought that there would be clubs at Harvard training people to work for the Oakland A’s.”
When he was a sophomore at Harvard, like most sophomores at Harvard, Rohit Acharya had no idea what to do with his major. It was 2006, and his concentration was applied mathematics, a cross between the theoretical and practical. He came back from Christmas vacation and his roommate handed over a copy of Moneyball that his mother had given him. It wasn’t long before Acharya was breezing his way through Oakland’s calculations. “It wasn’t that complicated,” he says.
This didn’t surprise him as much as the two passing references to someone named Carl Morris. Acharya had never heard of Morris, so he wouldn’t have known that this Harvard statistics professor had long doubled as an amateur baseball analyst. In a tucked-away corner of his office, hidden by a row of filing cabinets, Morris stores a small collection of baseball almanacs. Somewhere around here is Bill James’ first Baseball Abstract, purchased for $2 after Morris spotted a three-line advertisement in the back of a Sporting News issue. The forefather of the field even included a handwritten note with the book.
James was hired as a Red Sox consultant in 2003, around the time that Harvard Magazine profiled Morris, who had devised a model that showed the expected number of runs a baseball team would score in every game situation. The alumni magazine’s story about Markovian analysis somehow made it to the desk of Billy Beane, only a high-school graduate. He dismissed it with the all the ceremony he reserved for a used wad of tobacco.
“We knew this three years ago,” Beane says in the book, “and Harvard thinks it’s original.” (“Can I get my side of it?” Morris said recently. “It said in the paper that we were citing work that had been done 40 years ago!”)
Acharya saw this exchange in Moneyball and immediately emailed the statistics professor, hardly expecting a response. He wanted to discuss the possibility of starting a sports analytics club at Harvard. Actually, Morris replied, this was a wonderful idea. Acharya soon was a salesman pitching the club to anyone who would listen. There was one last obstacle: a name. One night, in the dining hall, Acharya and his buddies were kicking around a few possibilities and agreed to start with Harvard Sports Analysis. Someone suggested tacking on Collective. It stuck, for no other reason than it sounded good. Anyway, the first word was probably more important than the last.
About 10 students, tops, showed up to the early meetings, as HSAC focused on producing research papers. But these studies required time and manpower that exhausted the club’s resources, and the pace of academic publishing, which remains as glacial as a July baseball game, didn’t suit college students.
As the group evolved from a circle of wonks to a generalist’s club, mixing pre-professionals with those who just wanted to chat about sports, HSAC’s focus started to shift. It launched a blog, encouraging members to pursue quirky sports problems without spending an entire semester poring through data. This is where the club made a name for itself, with posts like, “Strikeouts and the Anna Karenina Principle, or: Why K’s Don’t Hurt MLB Batters” and “Momentum in College Basketball: Do Late Rallies Carry Over to Overtime?” (Another favorite: “No Less Worth Despite Their Girth,” a study of overweight college-football coaches.) The blog took off. These were provocative questions with engaging answers, and it didn’t matter that they came from undergraduates. These ideas—well, most of them—could help teams win more games and make more money.
In August, the first comment on a post about college basketball came from someone curious about a particular strategy. The commenter was Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. “We’re probably more well-known within the sports analytics community than we are within the Harvard community,” Roher says. He meant it as a deprecating remark before he reconsidered. “Actually, I hope we are.”
The club still convenes every Wednesday night in the same room in Winthrop House, where Acharya lived. At one recent meeting, an economics major invited criticism of her thesis about revenue sharing in Major League Baseball before the conversation moved to college basketball (simulating a mid-major through a power-conference schedule) and then professional football (adding an extra week in the NFL to increase revenue, decrease injuries and—voila!— stave off a lockout). It seemed there were simultaneous conversations, always, until an idea was so tantalizing that everyone else stopped to pay attention. The week before, the topic of this robust discussion was the basketball value of Jimmy Chitwood, the star of the movie “Hoosiers.”
HSAC now boasts about 30 regular members, including six undergraduate officials, a president emeritus and two graduate advisers, former presidents enrolled at Harvard Law School. Then there’s Morris, the interim chairman of the university’s statistics department, who attends as many meetings as he can. He’s the club’s longest-serving member.
One day last week, dressed in a tweed coat, Morris reclined in a desk chair in his sunny office. A pair of turtleshell glasses rested low on his nose, accenting his tufts of white hair. He was talking about how the ambitions of many HSAC members are largely the same, despite the inevitability of long hours, low pay and even less initial recognition.
“Some might be writers, some might be front office, some might be owners, some might be general managers,” Morris said. “Some of them will catch on, and my guess is, they’ll be a force.”
Last month, HSAC elected elected two presidents who will serve until January. They are John Ezekowitz and David Roher, two sports geeks who live in Cabot House, a 10-minute walk from Harvard Yard. For all their similarities—they are the leaders of a group obsessed with quantitative analysis in sports—they couldn’t be much more different.
Even as a sophomore, Ezekowitz comes off as professorial. Last week, he put on a blazer, a striped oxford shirt and khaki pants to meet his summer boss, formerly the assistant secretary of the Treasury, for dinner at Harvard Square’s swankiest restaurant. As a teenager, he was a champion Scrabble player and voraciously consumed sports blogs, another medium that came of age with him. He walked-on to Harvard’s varsity golf team for a year, and sometimes, on Saturdays, he wakes up at 7 a.m. to watch English soccer matches. Also, he doesn’t drink coffee.
Ezekowitz knows college basketball probably better than anyone in the club knows any other sport. He’s a total junkie. When his younger brother visited him this month, they caught four hoops games in one weekend, and his laptop was lagging recently because of a spreadsheet with the 35 relevant statistics for every college team since 2004.
This summer, Ezekowitz logged 120 hours manually building an extensive data set that he used in four blog posts that changed his life. This college-basketball study received attention far and wide, and not long afterward, the Phoenix Suns contacted Daniel Adler, a former HSAC president, looking for someone who could help with basketball analytics. Instead of crunching numbers for Harvard’s basketball team on a volunteer basis, Ezekowitz was soon hired as an intern, working out of a remote office 2,000 miles from Arizona. It’s his dorm room.
This is all unexpected, considering Ezekowitz wasn’t much interested in math as a high schooler. He only learned of HSAC when a girl on his hall told him about it a month into his freshman year. He was enjoying his introductory statistics course, and she was headed to a meeting that night, and—
“Wait! You didn’t like math?” interjected Roher.
Roher, a junior, is a baseball geek who might have even founded a club like this at another college. Unlike Billy Beane—or even DePodesta, a baseball and football player at Harvard—he never so much as suited up for Little League. He was born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a muscular disorder that leaves him with limited feeling and partial numbness in his extremities and prevented him from playing organized sports as a child. “All the energy that would’ve gone into being a mediocre high-school baseball player instead went to all this stuff,” he says. “There are a lot fewer people in sports analytics than there are trying to be athletes. Basically, for me, sports are the mathematical abstraction. If I can’t think about something in terms of baseball, I probably won’t be able to solve it.”
In the eighth grade, right after he made perfect sense out of Moneyball, he needed extra credit in a math class and approached his teacher with an idea: What if he established a system of baseball power rankings? The project enthused him, and Roher continued to dabble in sports as he took to computer science in high school. As a senior, he drove to Boston ostensibly to tour Harvard, but also to attend a conference called the New England Symposium on Statistics in Sports, where he spotted a sign for HSAC. It was the first he had heard of such a club. When he arrived on campus, in addition to showing up at HSAC meetings, Roher joined the lightweight crew team as a coxswain, making him one of the club’s only varsity athletes. He jokes that he signed up for the irony of it—“I’m a varsity athlete in the loosest sense of the term,” he says—even if he hasn’t found a way to quantify rowing.
“That would be a nice story, right?” he said recently, walking to an HSAC meeting in a zipped-up hooded sweatshirt. “It’s kind of like the robot that learned to love.”
He had just mentioned at dinner with the HSAC board that he wanted to take a very humble stab at reverse-engineering one component of Watson, the IBM machine competing on “Jeopardy!” The concept was certainly interesting, but no one else at the table was listening. While pitching the idea, Roher had let slip a secret. Like most people at the table, he didn’t exactly love mathematics. The club’s other officials basically choked on their spaghetti when they heard this.
“You’re going home tonight to reengineer Watson,” said Jake Fisher, HSAC’s president emeritus, suddenly leaning on the table. “For fun!”
It was true that Roher wasn’t placed in his high school’s advanced math track, and that he prefers the logical nature of numbers rather than the computations, but he backed down with a conciliatory shrug. That night, he stayed up until about 3 a.m., powered by a large, late cup of tea, and he published his initial thoughts on HSAC’s blog in the morning. “After hashing out the theory, my next step will be to code a Jeopardy simulator that can solve for the ideal buzz threshold in all situations, and perhaps solve for sports-related thresholds as well,” he wrote. “Provided I can get it to work, stay tuned.”
If you scour HSAC’s archives, you’ll find a clever piece by Roher about the effect of old age on college-football coaches. Using a statistic he created, he found that gimmicky coaches typically fizzle out within a decade. “But if there’s a coach who’s really good because he’s constantly innovating and coming up with good ideas,” Roher says, “he’ll get better as he gets older.”
In some ways, while these kids aren’t geriatric or qualified to coach college football, they’re staring down the same problem. They are the first students who have known their entire adult lives that they could work in a baseball team’s front office without having played professional baseball, so long as they possessed the same résumé as, say, an investment banker.
But the benefit of youth was also a curse. While they were consuming Moneyball as Gospel, the market became saturated with wannabe Paul DePodestas. The baseball blogger David Pinto, a Harvard graduate and HSAC visitor, put it another way. “The problem,” he says now, “is that it’s harder to get a GM job than it is to get into Harvard.”
This conundrum will be discussed in detail next weekend, for the fifth straight year, at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most HSAC members will ride over to the Boston Convention Center on a university subsidy to watch the brightest minds in the business analyze metrics in every major sport. The ideas of Moneyball, in short, are no longer limited to baseball by any means.
In 2007, at the first conference, basketball was the only other sport represented, and it’s the game in which analytics have advanced most since then. Already the most progressive analysis originates from NBA front offices, still on the lookout for talent. Last week, the Houston Rockets advertised an opening for an intern with three qualifications: basic knowledge of basketball, experience with statistics and familiarity with programming. Jason Rosenfeld, a Harvard junior and former HSAC president, worked for the Shanghai Sharks on a gap year in China, and there’s Ezekowitz, who won’t discuss the particulars of his job with the Suns. This is partly because the community is competitive about finding and maximizing efficiencies, even if the business side of sports can be more collaborative.
“Three years ago, there were three teams in the NBA doing basketball analytics,” Ezekowitz says. “Now, there are 10 to 12 teams that have full-time stat guys and probably 18 to 20 that have an employee of some kind. It’s hard to imagine over the next three years that it won’t be 95 percent of the league. So let’s put it this way: As compared to baseball, basketball has only scratched the surface of what analytics can do, and the comparative advantage of finding something in basketball, finding something really good, is enormous.”
He went on to give an example.
“The box-score stats that capture defense are woefully insufficient: steals, blocks, turnovers forced, defensive rebounds. Even to say something like defensive plus-minus, which is pretty much as far as the field has gone—it’s nowhere near as good as offense, and nowhere near as good enough. If you were to come up with something that quantified defense better, even if it’s just 50 percent better, that can win an NBA team”—he paused to think about his phrasing—”well, enough games to make that team a lot of money.”
The basketball frontier, in other words, was broached before someone like Ezekowitz even graduated from high school. In four years, or as long as it takes someone to make it through Harvard, it will be swarming with the mathematically inclined. So what’s next?
“Soccer,” Ezekowitz said like someone who’s thought about it. “And after that is golf.” The challenge in soccer, like football and basketball, is the fluid nature of player interactions. Baseball, by contrast, is more mechanical; there are many scenarios, but only so many. (“Cricket is discrete!” Roher added.) Soccer is the beautiful game because it’s almost impossible to model the way a midfielder works his magic. How could such a sport be ripe for quantitative analysis? HSAC recently formed a partnership with an English company that coded hundreds of hours of college soccer into a massive database and turned it over to these Harvard kids, responsible for coding the regressions that will determine a player’s true value. These quantitative statistics in soccer are limited. It will be up to these students, in part, to invent them.
Last week, around 10 p.m. in a quiet hotel lobby, Ezekowitz and Roher couldn’t help but speculate about what the data would reveal. Neither student had parsed through the numbers—this was all very new, and they hadn’t planned to talk about it—but suddenly, without so much as a calculator, they were trading ideas back and forth. How many times, for example, did a midfielder send a cross into the box? That’s something a soccer manager might want to know. But then, how often did that midfielder have the opportunity to hit that cross? This statistic was more specific and probably more valuable. Well, did it matter if the midfielder received a crisp pass himself? The question was complicated. Perhaps it didn’t have an answer. “There are all sorts of factors that have to be quantified,” Ezekowitz said, and Roher nodded. They sounded like they could have kept talking long into the night.
Bringing Showtime To Duke
In the last 20 years, a stretch in which Duke has won four national championships, no program in college basketball has been better, or more polarizing, than coach Mike Krzyzewski’s. Duke was an underdog in the early 1990s, thrilling impartial observers by knocking off the sport’s establishment to win back-to-back NCAA Tournament titles. Those years have long seemed positively ancient. Now, as Duke’s cheerleaders applaud the team’s consistent success, its detractors are just as quick to bemoan its overexposure on national television, not to mention what they perceive to be a general air of smugness. Either way, Duke is college basketball’s marquee draw.
In 2007, though, Duke lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and Krzyzewski convened his entire staff for a traditional end-of-season meeting. His agenda concerned basketball strategy—with its youngest team in decades, Duke had dropped its last four games—as much as the universally gleeful response to Duke’s early demise. Duke’s coaches were accustomed to the team’s role as a Goliath, but they felt there was a difference between rooting against a college and spewing venom at college players. A gradual escalation of vitriol, peaking in 2007, convinced them that something, at long last, needed to change. At that conference, it was decided: Duke’s players needed to have more fun, and for their sake, other people needed to see them doing so.
For years, Duke had produced a recruiting pamphlet called Blue Planet. It was mostly informational, meant to entice prospects and inform boosters, but eventually, it would transform into a full-color monthly magazine, complete with a hefty Web presence. The new site started in earnest, with rudimentary highlight packages, occasional blog posts and public-service announcements touting the team’s commitment to community service. Soon, the videos evolved in frequency (more) and formality (less). Something strange happened: Blue Planet was a smash hit. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that last season, even Krzyzewski sat in front of a camera for a weekly question-and-answer session. This year, the program put out its first viral video, a compilation of increasingly preposterous trick shots by the senior Kyle Singler. It’s been looped almost one million times on YouTube.
Even three years ago, when Duke hit the nadir of one of college sports’ most remarkable runs, the goal of this effort was to showcase a side of an impenetrable program that no one ever glimpsed. The unfettered access offered to Blue Planet was part of Duke’s larger plan to humanize its players, who, at least outwardly, appeared to enjoy basketball as much as a morning chemistry lecture.
This is a classic ploy of public relations, but for an enterprise as tightly controlled as Duke’s, it marked a monumental departure. At the time, it was mostly aspirational—an acknowledgement that Duke’s basketball prowess relied partly on sentiment and image. And last April, for the first time in 10 years, Duke’s basketball team capped this unlikely reinvention with its most improbable national championship yet.
Cameron Indoor Stadium, the home of college basketball’s most iconic program, looked young in old age. This was last October, six long months before Duke would reign atop the sport and almost 70 years after the first game in the quaint arena, no larger than a high school’s gymnasium. The seats in the upper bowl, once the color of an overcast morning, had been painted dark blue. The buttresses between sections were washed to look less like cement. It was only the year before that a video monitor replaced the scoreboard suspended over midcourt, and with all of the lights out, it gleamed in the dark. Even the sound blared unfamiliar, with the announcer Michael Buffer asking a capacity crowd if it was ready to rumble. ”It was a new beginning,” Nolan Smith said recently. “A fresh start for the program.” He was referring to the occasion for the physical makeover: the basketball team’s first practice, an event that combined spectacle with sports. While other elite teams appealed to their fans with a lavish, late-night event called Midnight Madness, Duke typically opened its season with a practice behind closed doors. Finally, Duke spurned the subdued tradition and joined the crowd with its version, Countdown to Craziness.
Nolan is a senior guard at Duke, suddenly the team’s finest player, though he wasn’t when Buffer called his name that evening. “A 6-foot-2 junior from Upper Marlboro, Maryland—” Buffer bellowed, and the place filled with the tinny bass of a Jay-Z track that begins, “Allow me to reintroduce myself.” The spotlight settled on Nolan, back to the court, reveling in the attention. His eyes were covered with plastic blue shutter shades. He turned around and started to strut, shaking as he stepped. He was shimmying! Even he was trying, not very hard, to hide his clenched teeth with his upper lip, and the 9,314 spectators roared in equal parts delight and surprise. It had been a long time since anyone but a brash visitor had danced so proudly in this arena. No one had worn short shorts here for many years, either, yet in the slam-dunk contest later that night, Nolan slipped out of his jersey to reveal a 1980s getup underneath. After his tomahawk jam, he posed, hands on his hips, like Superman.
“You remember that night?” I asked him one day last week.
So much had happened since then. Duke had beaten North Carolina, twice, en route to the 2010 ACC crown, ACC Tournament title and, of course, the national championship. This season, as a senior, he’s on track to lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in points and assists. He would be the first player ever to do so. But all those accomplishments, like the latest basketball renaissance at Duke, depended first on a private developmental process that took place in public. This school has churned out better scorers, better passers, better players, better heroes and better villains, but not someone like Nolan, who’s injected an unexpected charisma into Krzyzewski’s program.
“Of course I do,” Nolan said, leaning into his wide grin.
Nolan arrived on campus in the fall of 2007, a few months after that fateful staff meeting, and it took him nearly two years to flash the pizzazz that earned him the nickname Showtime. He labored through a lackluster freshman season, playing just 15 minutes a game, and he almost left Duke before Krzyzewski convinced him to stay in a 30-minute phone conversation. His sophomore campaign proved more difficult. Duke climbed to No. 1 in the polls with Nolan starting at point guard, but by February, the Blue Devils fizzled, and Nolan found himself relegated to the bench. Three games after his demotion, he bounded into a blind screen and crashed to the floor with a concussion.
Around this time, with Nolan recovering from dizziness, headaches and a general aversion to bright lights and loud noises, Krzyzewski pulled him aside for a conversation that changed the tenor of his career. ESPN had just published a long story about his relationship with his father, Derek, who died of a heart attack in 1996, when Nolan was eight. Derek had been a fan favorite at Louisville, where he won a national title in 1980—he’s even credited with popularizing the high-five—and in the photos that accompany the 7,000-word piece, the physical similarities between the two are striking.
“Oh, man, this kid’s going to be an emotional wreck,” Krzyzewski recalls thinking after the story’s publication. He called Nolan and asked him to come to his office to chat about it.
“No, Coach,” Nolan said. “I feel great about it.”
“It was almost a relief that someone else could tell the story,” Krzyzewski says. “He was proud of the story, and it was a burden that was lifted from him. Really, it was a huge event.”
Not long afterward, Krzyzewski sought out the sophomore with some advice. “Just be you,” he told him.
In college, Nolan had tried to fit himself into the mold of a serious-seeming, pass-first point guard. But in high school, at the basketball factory Oak Hill Academy, Nolan found his niche as an aggressive, carefree combo guard, comfortable curling off a screen or isolating himself at the top of the key. That had never been his role at Duke. After his chat with Krzyzewski, he reverted back to his natural position. Jon Scheyer took over the point-guard duties and bumped him off the ball, relieving him of all its pressures. The Blue Devils won the ACC Tournament, and though they lost in the Sweet 16, when Nolan was hampered by a flu that he didn’t reveal in public, Duke had finally found a permanent fix. “That’s when Coach K realized who I was going to be as a player,” Nolan says. “We both realized it at the same time.”
One day last week, I met Nolan for lunch at the sort of eatery germane to a college campus, where he might share an outdoor table with four people he had never met. He walked up to the restaurant wearing a long black jacket, hood down, and a fitted Washington Nationals cap, high enough on his forehead so that it didn’t obstruct his eyes. It took him three minutes to make it fifty feet. Another student approached him, fumbling in his pocket and grasping for an iPhone. He held it out in front of them with his left hand, as if they were a couple in Pisa. Nolan asked to see the photo—they squinted their eyes to approve—and the kid took a few more chatty steps with Nolan before moseying off the other way. Wonderful! Time to eat. Nolan was interrupted again, this time by a well-wishing employee at the hot-dog cart across the way, who accompanied him to the glass door. Finally! Let’s chow down. But just as we took our place in line, there was the student from the walkway, again, dressed in a white T-shirt with the words Duke Basketball emblazoned over his heart. “This looks stupid,” he confessed as he handed me the phone to snap an identical photograph.
When I relayed the interaction to him, Krzyzewski acted as if he had just seen a similar encounter. “He’s had more outward fun than any player we’ve had,” he said, “and he’s touched, in a very personal way, more people than anyone who’s played here.”
Krzyzewski was in his office, on the sixth floor of the administrative building adjacent to Cameron, wrapping up a media blitz that might have made his mentor Bob Knight hurl a chair across a gym. His suite was messy with plaques, posters and trophies, while other mementos—framed newspapers, commemorative chairs, signed basketballs—were scattered on the floor. A potted plant grew on his desk. Krzyzewski, clean-shaven without a hair out of place, wore ash-gray fleece sweatpants, dressed for practice directly afterward. He is a busy man. Already he was 15 minutes behind schedule. And yet here he was, lounging in an upholstered chair, explaining carefully why he refers to his All-American as a modern-day Pied Piper.
“He brings joy into people’s lives, and that’s a hell of an attribute,” Krzyzewski said. He realized how fickle that might sound, and he elaborated by poking fun at the description. “It’s, like, ‘What do you do?’” he asked, acting as his own interrogator.
Then Krzyzewski, who will soon own more wins than anyone who’s ever coached college basketball, sheepishly raised his hand, smirking like a grade-school student. “Oh,” he deadpanned, “I bring joy!”
In the summer of 2009, after the position switch but before he emerged as an All-American, Nolan reserved the name @NdotSmitty on Twitter. Almost instantly he exhibited a personality that had been absent in his first two years. He soon would benefit from an unexpected effect, silly though it sounds. Starting with Countdown to Craziness, the event that kicked off his junior season, he looked looser and smiled more. He was attacking the basket, warding off defenders in the half court and draining his long-range shots, all with a certain levity. He was playing like he tweeted.
The timing couldn’t have been more ideal. Duke was newly committed to a lighter atmosphere, and after Krzyzewski coached a collection of NBA players to the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, the staff believed even more in this ethos. But Twitter, a medium that allows anyone to publish on a whim, tested the philosophy. Even now, some two years later, universities are banning their players from social networks. It was only a matter of time before Duke’s coaches backed down, but they never did.
“He’s changed,” Nolan said when I asked him if, two years ago, he would have thought Krzyzewski would permit him to tweet. “One thing he knows is that we want to show people our personalities. On the court, we play hard—all business. We’re fun-loving guys off the court.”
He’s tweeted almost 8,500 times, and his tweets then were the same as they are now. They range from collegiate (“Just seen a great play on campus put on by Duke students!”) and absurd (“wicked witch of the west still scares me!!”) to pensive (“I’ve been sitting in the dark for about 4 hours now, just chillin and thinking!! #newfocus coming soon!!”) and resilient (“Today is a new day! And guess what I’m built to win! I’m about to have a great day!”). He even proclaimed in October, on Twitter: “I’m about to change my name to Ndotsmitty that will be on the back of my jersey!! Lol that’s all people call me now!” So many people respond to his tweets—and he responds to so many of those responses—that he carries an extra iPhone just to scroll through mentions of his name, cradling the mobile device on his BlackBerry. He owns an iPad, too. Sometimes, on a long trip, he invites his 24,000 followers to ask him questions, and he answers all of them. On the morning of every Duke game, he tweets something like, “It’s Gameday!! Yessirrrr!!!” and during last year’s NCAA Tournament, it seemed like this daily announcement boasted a larger readership than the campus newspaper.
Before long, as a junior, he was carrying a digital video recorder around campus to film his typical Saturday for Blue Planet’s website: driving on Towerview Road to Cameron; asking Ryan Kelly to name his favorite teammate (Nolan, naturally); walking through the aisle of the local Super Target to buy Scooby-Doo fruit snacks; singing in the car to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”; challenging a student to a game of H-O-R-S-E in the municipal gym on the freshman campus.
Few people outside the team’s tightly shielded circle had seen a Duke player act so candidly. Pretty soon, everyone else saw a transformed Nolan on the court. He averaged 17.4 points per game and rounded out a triumvirate, with Scheyer and Singler, that was the most potent in the nation. His 3-point clip surged to 39 percent, and as adept as he was shooting, his ability to drive in the lane was even more vital. His regular season peaked when Duke’s did, at home in March against North Carolina, in the most lopsided win in the rivalry’s history. He poured in 20 points, including a ferocious dunk off a hesitation dribble in the first half. In the game’s waning minutes, he lobbed an exclamatory alley-oop that all but ignited a celebratory bonfire, which he dutifully attended.
In the NCAA Tournament’s Elite 8, he posted a then-career-high 29 points to propel Duke to its first Final Four since 2004. The dagger was a 3-pointer that he attempted inches away from Krzyzewski, standing on the sideline. (They slapped hands as soon as the ball swished, even as Nolan backpedaled to play defense.) More people started to follow him on Twitter, and instead of holing up in a hotel room, he tweeted more than ever. The Blue Devils then throttled West Virginia in the Final Four with basketball that was simultaneously pretty and perfect, and they beat Butler two days later in one of the sport’s classic championships.
That evening, with scraps of confetti still dotting the hardwood, Nolan walked back out to the court. A national championship cap rested sideways on his head. He didn’t need to search long to find what he was looking for: a logo emblemizing the 1980 Final Four in Indianapolis. This was the same city where his father, Derek, had won his NCAA title. Carrying his new trophy in one arm, Nolan crouched and pointed down, right at the ‘80 etched in paint. A Duke staffer snapped a photograph and, the next afternoon, uploaded it online for anyone to admire.
Nolan considered bolting early for the NBA Draft—he was projected to be a second-round selection, at best—but he and his co-captain, Singler, returned for their senior season to defend their title. His decision wasn’t a surprise. Even Nolan’s mother, Monica Malone, cops to enjoying college hoops more than she does the NBA, and when I joked that her opinion might change next year, she snapped back quickly. “The NBA’s a job for Nolan!” she said recently. “This is fun.”
The public spotlight shined even brighter once the season started. By this year’s Countdown to Craziness, the second-annual season-opening bash, Nolan needed little time to choose his introductory anthem. He settled on another Jay-Z song called “Encore.” Then the Blue Devils, a near-unanimous No. 1 in the preseason, unveiled Kyrie Irving, the freshman dynamo who combined with Nolan to form a backcourt so explosive that murmurs of an undefeated season reached fever pitch. Yet that seldom weighed like a burden, as it used to.
“Nolan’s able to develop a lighter atmosphere about winning, which doesn’t wear a team out,” Krzyzewski said.
Even as Irving’s out indefinitely—his injury prompted fans to start the support website Save Kyrie’s Toe—Nolan’s filled in with the panache he previously lacked. “My first two years, I wasn’t comfortable,” Nolan said recently. “It was business, business, business. Now, we have personalities like mine, and that’s rubbed off on some of the other guys.”
He’s carried Duke so far, averaging 21 points and 5.6 assists per game as a fringe national player of the year candidate, and his charm is just as transparent as it was last March. Nolan receives the most fan mail of any player—around the holidays, he tweeted his address for people who wanted autographs—and every so often, he rides up to the fifth floor of the basketball office to collect his haul, even though the program’s administrative assistants offer to sift through the letters for him. Tent No. 2 in Krzyzewskiville, the tent village that pops up before Duke’s annual home game with North Carolina, even baked brownies for its number’s bearer.
The outside image of Duke has shifted, too. Through Twitter, his connections to Washington, D.C. basketball players and a summer stint with USA Basketball, Nolan appears to know almost everyone he guards. And on the court, no longer do Duke’s games resemble Big Ten football slugfests, let alone bantamweight boxing matches. It was just in 2006, after all, that the team’s road losses were celebrated with court storms so raucous that Krzyzewski once pulled his starters before the buzzer out of caution.
“Teams don’t come at us like that,” Nolan says. “They respect us more than in the past.” What about fans? ”It’s a lot less hostile now. They still want to beat Duke, but it’s not the same.”
After Nolan told me that, I asked Krzyzewski if he, too, thought the perception of Duke has shifted. “I don’t know how people perceive the program. There are some people who perceive the program to be the best thing that’s happened to this planet, and there are some who see it as the evil empire,” he said. “But other players on other teams, they all like Nolan. He’s one of the really great people people that we’ve had in our program, and in that way, he’s touched people in a different way. Maybe those people who want to look at something negative, they can see the program in different light. And the people who do support the program, and do love it, they also can see the program in a different light.”
On a cold January afternoon, after milling about all day, I walked into Cameron around 5:45 p.m. for an 8 p.m. tip. I hadn’t been to the arena since March. It was, as always, awfully bright and empty. It was not as warm as I remembered, with drafts of wind rushing in through open doors. A crew of technicians tinkered with broken bulbs on the video board, which had been lowered to the level of the floor for late repairs. Otherwise, in this empty space, it was positively serene.
At 5:54 p.m., before any other player, Nolan walked out to the court wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt, white practice shorts and blue socks, which he would replace come tip, pulled midway up his legs. With a walk-on rebounding, standing underneath the basket and facing him, he glided around the perimeter, canning jumpers, then 3-pointers, methodically moving clockwise, counter-clockwise and clockwise again. After 20 minutes, he cut to bank in layups. He switched sides to float looping shots, higher every time, the basketball equivalent of the Eephus pitch. He started to sweat at his upper temples. At 6:21 p.m., he threw down an alley-oop and jogged into the tunnel, silently acknowledging a man in a Windsor-knotted necktie and shaking hands with a Durham police officer. There were still no fans in the arena.
Watching him, and only him, was sublime in a way I had never before experienced basketball—a sort of single lens with panoramic capabilities. I saw him swipe at his ears, chatting with Irving, to make sure he had deposited his diamond studs in the locker room. I saw him quibble with a referee about a missed foul call, only to apologize, with subtle hand gestures, after a timeout and roll his eyes at another call on the very next play. I saw him, on a fast break, take off three steps from the rim, move the ball from his right hand to his left, initiate contact and spin the ball off the glass and through the hoop. I saw him cross up a defender by snapping the ball violently behind his back, take three steps in the lane and dish across his body to a forward, who flushed the dunk. I saw him point in appreciation to Singler after a 3-pointer, and I saw a teammate return the thanks right back to him. I saw him start in front of Duke’s bench, wheel his way through the right side of the lane and scoop the ball, with his arm extended, for a contested layup. I saw him laugh greedily after a missed layup that would’ve registered him an assist, and on the ensuing dead ball, I saw him ignore a fan, in the first row, who shouted, “Ndot, you’re unstoppable, baby!” I saw him throw on his shooting shirt and a headset to answer questions from the broadcasting booth. When I saw him slap a few hands before disappearing into the tunnel, I saw no one left in the bleachers.
I couldn’t have picked a better night to watch him. It was a marvelous performance—spectacular, Krzyzewski said afterward—with Nolan racking up 28 points, eight assists and one turnover, all while reducing his defensive match to his worst output of the season. This might have been the clinic that cemented him, even in January, as the ACC’s player of the year.
That night, though, one moment lingered with me long after Cameron cleared out. It had nothing to do with basketball. At the very end of the game, an 84-68 Duke win, Nolan was matching strides with his assignment on Boston College right after a quick timeout. The two guards were almost bumping into each other, they were so close, and yet they weren’t chatting, just shuffling their feet in step. The official scorer was ready to sound the horn, the referee poised to blow his whistle. In this lull lurked a strange silence. Walking the way of the four title banners in the rafters, Nolan glanced at press row to his left, one last time, like an instinct. He paused. His eyes widened, ever so slightly, and—yessir!—there it was: the sly hint of a smile.