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In Hoops, Is a Hot Hand Hot?

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Anyone who's played a fair amount of basketball knows the thrill of the "hot hand." You hit two or three in a row and soon even the longest of long shots finds its way into the hoop. (For mere mortals, hot hands are quickly followed by "cold feet," extended periods of time when the ball becomes a block of concrete and even the simplest layup turns into an airball.)

Yet decades of research on professional and college shooting stats seems to have indicated that believing in the hoop hot hand is as foolish as having faith that a coin toss will come up heads because the previous one did. If the so-called "hot hand fallacy" applies, then anyone who ever "got hot" -- in a half-court pick-up game, a high school intramural contest or the seventh game of an NBA championship -- has been conning him or herself. (This mass delusion would cover all b-ball fans too.)

I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in a world where scientists can "prove" that my felt experience of a hot hand is all in my mind. Next thing you know, they'll say there's no such thing as a planet on a hot streak.

But hold on. News that Humboldt University scientists recently confirmed the hot hand (sort of) is as welcome as recent evidence of the healing powers of wine, coffee and chocolate. Their deep analysis of free-throw stats from 2011 found that the "probability of success following a success is higher than the probability of success following a failure." Somewhere in the timeless realm, Marv Albert is screaming, "Yesssssss!!"

Not so fast. Just when common sense appeared to make sense, results from another, even broader study of NBA stats ratchets up the crazy. Here, we learn that a player who hits one shot is more likely than chance would suggest to take the team's next shot. So far, so good. But, this study purports to show, that player is also more likely to miss it!

All may not be lost, however. The to-and-fro of these surveys suggests that the variables of human experience are so vast that one statistician's hot hand may be another statistician's coin toss. Most of these studies don't include non-free-throw shooting, where the hot hand seems much more relevant, at least to this non-statistician. And what about defense? Ignoring these aspects of the game is like leaving out love in a survey of why people get married.

"All you need to do to see that the hot hand exists is to watch Kobe Bryant heave up brick after brick during a Laker game, only to see him just as suddenly start making every shot, from every impossible angle. When this happens--and it pretty much happens at least every other game--households like mine sound like this when Kobe rises up off one leg for a 24-footer with two guys in his face: 'No Kobe! No Kobe! No Kobe! Yeeeees Kobe!'" said Steve Lowery, a former Los Angeles Times sportswriter who claims to have twice experienced having a hot hand as an adult. "In both cases, I suddenly became aware that I could not miss. I mean, could not ... and believe me, I tried."

There's no denying that we tend to desire and imagine patterns where they do not exist. That too is common sense. And some day in the dystopian future, when bots rule the courts, bot statisticians may draw more accurate conclusions. Unless, of course, they develop their own free will.

If all this makes your head spin faster than a Globetrotter's flourish, sit quietly, breathe in and out, and, with the concentration of a Steve Nash at the free throw line, focus on the time-tested Zen koan, "Is a Hot Hand Hot, or What?"

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