Basketball: Odd that even numbers are considered so important

By Kris Shannon

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Photo / AP.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Photo / AP.

Russell Westbrook will next week finish the NBA season averaging a number greater than 10 in points, rebounds and assists.

A triple-double, in other words, exceeding double digits in three statistical categories.

It's historic, it's been done only once in the history of the league and, yet, why does it matter?

The exact relevance of the triple-double is worthy of debate, as is any milestone celebrated only because it matches or surpasses a nice, tidy round number.

Liam Messam, for example, last weekend played his 150th game for the Chiefs. Excuse the flippancy, but so? Should we need that particular number to appreciate Messam's longevity, to celebrate the way he continues to dive into rucks and crunch into tackles no matter what toll those actions have already taken on his body?

If Westbrook somehow fell short of the benchmark Oscar Robertson set in the 1961-62 season - perhaps, say, recording 30 points, 10 rebounds and 9.8 assists throughout the 82-game campaign - does that make the Oklahoma City guard's achievements any less significant?

The answer, on face value, is an obvious no to both of the above questions. But considering the feting of Messam, considering the compulsive watch of Westbrook's stat lines and our own shared experiences, there is certainly an obsession towards numbers divisible by 10.

And to answer why, we have to steal a page from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and revert back to The Dawn of Man. Simply, we have to ponder the number of digits our ancestors had on their hands, forming the most primitive of counting systems before language and mathematics were developed.

That reliance on 10 fingers has hugely impacted our psychology and nowhere is that more clear than sport. That's the chief reason we care about a batsman accruing 50 runs or a sprinter cracking the 10-second barrier, about a rugby player reaching 150 games or a basketballer averaging a triple-double.

Big numbers ending with zero are easier to remember and take less time to recognise or contextualise. It's why in retail, prices are set not at $20 but $19.99 - a study found rounded prices are processed more easily by the brain and therefore lead to less spontaneity in purchasing decisions.

And, as another study discovered, that numerical lure can change our behaviour in ways extending beyond the department store - high school students who took college-admission tests in the United States were more likely to retake the exam if their score fell narrowly below a round number than if it barely surpassed one.

But given we no longer rely exclusively on our fingers, given we're now blessed with language and mathematics, should we still be such slaves to those numbers in sport?

Yes, cracking a century in cricket is impressive, and the number of times a player manages three figures helps position them among the all-time greats. But that feat is only marginally more impressive than making 90. About 10 per cent more impressive.

There's no substantial reason one score is greeted with a standing ovation and another with a shake of the head. And "because that's the way we've always done it" doesn't count as a substantial reason.

Similarly, Westbrook's accomplishments this season are jaw-dropping not because they exceed double digits but because they have been so singularly pivotal in winning games for the Thunder.

The point guard has been a one-man wrecking crew, an all-round force the likes of which the NBA has rarely seen. His destruction will likely produce an aesthetically pleasing line of 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, but it remains odd those even numbers still mean so much.

- NZ Herald

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