The point of a good HoopIdea

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
4:42
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Could the 3-point shot be the key to a better life? Yes. At least that’s what some of the nation’s leading minds think.

As we know, the engine of success is innovation. At HoopIdea, we’re trying to make sure that the right kind of innovation takes root and improves the game we love.

It wouldn't be the first time.

The cover of this weekend's New York Times magazine features a big story about the United States economy. Writer Adam Davidson does a masterful job of laying out many key issues, and then convincing leading economists from each side of the debate -- Larry Summers and Glenn Hubbard -- to sit down together and articulate our best thinking about how to solve the future.

And you know what comes up again and again?

Basketball, of all things.

We get to hang out with Summers as he shoots hoops, and learn that he grew up in the same school district as Kobe Bryant. And that's not even the heavy-duty basketball part.

Then we meet Hubbard:
Before a crowded lecture hall at Columbia University, the economist and former adviser to both Bush presidents, Glenn Hubbard, wrote a series of words on the blackboard. Among them: Milton Friedman, Yeats, basketball. Hubbard, a mild and genial man, looks as if he entered the world fully formed, wearing a conservative suit with a side part in his hair and an accountant’s pair of thick eyeglasses. Close your eyes and picture an economist — that’s Hubbard. For the next hour, he maintained an oddly cheery tone as he laid out a dystopian vision of the United States’ economic future. He ticked off a series of empires — Rome, medieval China, Spain, 19th-century Britain — and argued that they fell because their leadership ossified and squashed free trade, technological progress or other forces of economic growth.

Hubbard fears that the United States is also veering away from the forces that made it grow into the world’s most powerful economy. Rather than corrupt Roman senators or courtly Spanish twits, he argued, our culprits are myopic politicians who are creating a middle-class entitlement state. If those politicians don’t make fundamental changes to lower our debt — especially by changing the rules governing increasingly expensive Social Security and Medicare policies — the United States may collapse, too.

As he wrapped up, Hubbard pointed to the good news: results can change when the right adjustments are made. This is where he brought up basketball. By the 1940s, he said, the sport had become boring, dominated by extremely tall players who planted themselves next to the rim. Then a Columbia University graduate student who also coached basketball wrote a Ph.D. dissertation arguing that the game could be saved by innovations, like the 3-point shot, which created an incentive to move action away from the hoop. It took decades for the N.B.A. to adopt the 3-pointer, but since its implementation, it has helped make basketball one of the most popular and lucrative sports on earth.

The U.S. economy, in other words, desperately needs to find its own 3-point shot.

Four big HoopIdea points:
  • A near-perfect illustration of the HoopIdea motto, that basketball is the best game on earth ... now let's make it better. Hell yes, changing the game makes sense ... if the idea is right.
  • Is wondering about how the game could be better a waste of time? According to Hubbard, people doing just that have already saved the sport once -- and are role models for the leaders of the free world.
  • The best thing leadership can do is make sure it doesn't become "ossified." What was the cost of coming to the 3 decades after the idea emerged? How many mistakes like that can the league tolerate?
  • Don't you love the idea of basketball being open-minded and nimble in a way a leading economist says the whole nation should emulate?

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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