By David Roher
[vimeo 21101866 w=400 h=225]
If I asked you who the best athlete in history was, none of you would hesitate before saying “John Daly.” But the best fictional athlete? That’s a bit tougher. Rocky? Roy Hobbs? Lou Gehrig? While this question has already been adequately answered via Bleacher Report slideshow, I think we should take a closer look using some advanced statistical methods, because why the hell not?
Today, with apologies to Wezen Ball, I’ll put Jimmy Chitwood and Hoosiers under the microscope. Hoosiers, for those of us born after its release, is based on a true story of what Indiana high school basketball was like in the 1950s when imagined by white people in the 1980s. Despite the lackadaisical approach to accuracy (Barbara Hershey and Gene Hackman? Please), the film is a classic of the sports genre, and Jimmy a celluloid hero. His imaginary plaque in the Fictional Athlete Fictional Hall of Fictional Fame notes his distinction as the only movie protagonist with fewer than 10 LODPMS, or Lines of Dialogue Plus Missed Shots.
To determine whether Jimmy has a claim at being the greatest who never lived, I charted as many plays from the movie as possible, ignoring scrimmages and rapid-fire montages (you can watch every possession in the video above). I came up with roughly 100 possessions, 60 while Jimmy’s Hickory Huskers were on offense and 40 while they were on defense. Here are the individual stats:
Jimmy: 40 points, 20-23 FG, 2 assists, 3 steals
Rade: 20 points, 10-12 FG, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 turnover
Flatch: 8 points, 4-4 FG, 2 assists, 1 turnover
Merle: 8 points, 4-4 FG, 1 offensive rebound
Buddy: 6 points, 3-4 FG, 3 steals, 1 assist
Strap: 6 points, 3-3 FG
Ollie: 2 points, 2-3 from the line, 1 turnover
Bill Simmons once attempted to do something similar, constructing a hypothetical box score of the state final while also keeping track of Chitwood’s makes and misses throughout the film. But by keeping track of every possession in every game, my method allows us to examine Jimmy’s greatness in context: How much better were the Huskers when Jimmy was on the court than when he was off?
The stats I’ll be working with are called Offensive and Defensive Rating, invented by Dean Oliver. They measure how many points a team scores and allows per 100 possessions, respectively. It might not sound too different from points per game, but it’s a lot better because it adjusts for pace. It would otherwise be tough to compare offensive efficiency across teams and periods, from Jimmy’s era (which didn’t have a shot clock) to the ’80s (which had a shot clock and also cocaine) to the basketball of my childhood (which had a shot clock, cocaine, and Anthony Mason).
The first thing to notice is that Hickory’s commitment to defense might be even worse than its commitment to diversity: the team’s Defensive Rating was 133.16, or about 20 points per 100 possessions worse than the worst defense in NBA history. However, Hickory more than made up for it with an Offensive Rating of 155.08. To put that in perspective, if a team shot three-pointers on every possession and made half of them, their rating would be 150. And three-pointers didn’t even exist back in Jimmy’s day, and neither did a foul limit — violations not in the act of shooting resulted in only one free throw, followed by the fouling team getting the ball back. This means that the Huskers’ opponents would have been better off fouling every time — by at least 55 points per 100 possessions.
So how much can we credit Jimmy for his team’s offensive dominance or blame him for Hickory’s defensive incompetence? Before Chitwood agreed to return to the team, Hickory’s Offensive Rating was just 100. After, it was a scalding 163.6. That’s not too surprising, but he was almost equally valuable on defense: The Huskers had a Defensive Rating of 175.0 without Jimmy, but 126.2 with him. That’s 49 points prevented per 100 possessions. This makes Jimmy worth about 112 points over the course of an entire game in which each team had 100 possessions. You don’t need me to put that in perspective, though I’ll note that no NBA player is currently worth more than 20 points using the same metric.
Some of you might point out the selection bias here: The film “chose” to include possessions with successful results. You are no fun. You are also wrong. The players really were that efficient. Take a look at the scoreboards in the movie. The final scores are high for 32-minute games; a couple regular-season games ended 60-58 and 64-62. Those scores aren’t a product of pace, either: Without a shot clock, most possessions (whose length I could definitively track based on the scoreboard) lasted over 25 seconds. The 42-40 title game was lower-scoring, but also more slowly paced, with possessions hovering around 45 seconds in length. Also, over 40 possessions from that game were shown in the movie; what we see on screen is a pretty representative slice.
So, to answer the initial question: while it’s impossible to know for sure without doing similar studies on other movies, Jimmy Chitwood’s Net Rating of 112 would be hard for any athlete of any era to top. We won’t ever see anyone quite like him again, at least not after Jimmer Fredette graduates.