An Assist For Nick Van Exel: How An NBA Scorekeeper Cooked The Books

Illustration for article titled An Assist For Nick Van Exel: How An NBA Scorekeeper Cooked The Books

In January 1997, the Lakers' Nick Van Exel handed out 23 assists in a 95-82 victory over Vancouver, a feat less attributable to his sharpshooting teammates than to the numbers-fudging Lakers fan working the Grizzlies' scorer's table.


Last month, someone on the APBRmetrics forum — an APBRmetrician, for the uninitiated, is a sabermetrician in a Wes Unseld throwback jersey — posted a friend's account of life as an NBA scorekeeper, mostly as an illustration of all the bias and sanctioned bullshit afflicting even the most straightforward basketball statistics. It's fascinating. This fellow says he was formerly the Grizzlies' head "stats accumulation guy," and, to hear him tell it, the teams and the league see their official statisticians almost as an arm of their marketing departments. Plump up some numbers, and SportsCenter might just bring itself to show a Grizzlies highlight.

At one point, the guy reviewed his colleagues around the league. He found that the typical NBA stat crew averaged about 20 unintentional errors per game — "missing events, wrong players getting credit unintentionally."

Anyway...on top of that ~20 errors per game, you have over double that in intentional errors. By intentional errors, I mean events that never happened (eg. loose ball rebound is deflected out of bounds by visiting team, instead of correct call - team rebound home team - you award the rebound to a home player in the viscinity...or fake blocks - among the easiest things to make up, next to steals and assists)...or events that are awarded to the wrong player (rebounds, steals, turnovers are the most common). The intentional errors are organizationally sanctioned/encouraged - they increase national media coverage/interest and increase your franchise's and player's visibility. There is also league pressure to protect/enhance the stats of the elite players. For example, I would guess that Stockton got between 1 and 2 assists per game for free.

Which is how, one night in Vancouver, Nick Van Exel nearly tied Magic Johnson's team record for assists in a game.

Partly because I disagreed with the blatant stat manipulation (that I did) and partly because I'm a Laker fan, I gave Nick Van Exel like 23 assists one game. If he was vaguely close to a guy making a shot, I found a way to give him an assist. Afterwards, I fully expected someone to talk to me about it. Indeed they did. A senior management guy - "great job Alex, that'll get this game on Sportscenter tomorrow morning!" We (VAN) lost badly, of course.

This went both ways. The anonymous scorekeeper reports that he once penalized Dikembe Mutombo simply because he didn't like him. Man does not block in the house of the vindictive scorekeeper.

I also got bitched out by an Atlanta management guy because he felt I hadn't hooked Mutombo up enough w/ blocks in a particular first half. (I hadn't - I didn't like him because he was partly responsible for beating the Sonics and because I thought he was a bit of a punk so I made sure he didn't get a singly block that I wasn't sure he'd gotten - which was one in that half.) I told the management guy that the box score reflected the game and if Mutombo wanted more blocks, he needed to earn them. About 5 minutes later, Deke walked out for pregame warmups, asked the official scorer (the person who enters fouls and points in the archaic official scorebook) who does stats, she kindly pointed him to me, and he proceeded to glare at me for about a minute (which is, imo, a really long time for a gigantic man to glare at you). I want to say he blocked three 2nd-half shots and after each one, he made a point of, um, ensuring that I'd gotten them.


Now, if any of this is true and as widespread as the guy suggests, it's obviously a problem for a league working assiduously to convince fans it's not some rigged carny game. Otherwise, everything gets called into question. Did Scott Skiles really hand out 30 assists? Did Elmore Smith really block 17 shots in a game? Did Don MacLean really have an NBA career, or was he just some scorekeeper's generous fudge?

Update: We spoke at length with the scorekeeper in question.


Scorekeeper story [APBRmetrics Forum]