The Genetics of Basketball Part 3

Exam Slams and Slam Dunks

Joe Fortenberry

Academic papers on genetics rarely cite Vines as evidence, which is a pity because there is one Vine, produced by the Olympic Games, which is very revealing indeed. It shows an extraordinary difference in speed between basketball played in 1936, and that of 2012.

And then there is dunking. Joe Fortenberry (above), a member of the US team of 1936, is sometimes credited as the inventor of the slam dunk. This might not be correct – there are earlier claims – but, even if he was, he used it sparingly, as though it was a trick shot.

But it would get worse for the slam dunk. It would be banned from college basketball for 10 years in the 1960s and 70s. What is now a routine play was once highly controversial.

Rules Changes and Changeable Weather

Scorelines have improved over the years, helped in part by innovations like the 3-point line, but more slowly than might be thought. Players did not originally have the skills to take advantage, and expectations have now been thrown even further by Stephen Curry.

Basketball players have simply got better and better, in every single aspect of the game.

The US won that 1936 Olympic final, by a feeble 19 points to 8. The match took place outside, in pouring rain, which didn’t help. But the enormous increase in scores since then should be credited, more deservedly, to overhead passes than to a roof overhead.

Yao Ming (3048979621)

See also China. Yao Ming (above) undeniably knew how to dunk, but this was not always the case for his compatriots. There too, the manoeuvre had been viewed with suspicion.

Communism probably played a part in the disdain for individual brilliance but it cannot be a complete explanation. China needed to work through the same slam dunk anxiety which had afflicted the United States – it was just decades behind in beating the phobia.

There is little doubt that the China of 2012 would have thrashed the United States of 1936. So, if the spring-loaded shoe had been on the other foot, and China had improved first, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that it would have become a world beater.

Intelligence Testing

IQ tells a surprisingly similar story. Intelligence researcher James Flynn has discovered that, in the West, over the last 115 years, IQ scores have increased by nearly 30 points.

Flynn’s point is that historical forces have a major effect on intelligence, even when the gene pool remains constant. Therefore, where IQ differences exist between groups, in different parts of the world, they will be better understood by history than by genetics.

The same reasoning applies to basketball. China has always lagged behind the United States, and it is tempting to attribute this relative failure to fixed biological factors like height. However, many of the claims about short Chinese players turn out to be myths.

Students have learned to study more, under cultural pressure, and have benefited from technical changes, such as the development of computers. Equally, basketball players have been training harder and have been learning new tricks. China has now overtaken the United States when it comes to IQ, and it might one day do the same in basketball.

Next week: Flynn’s explanation of the IQ rise, and the amazing parallels with basketball


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