The transcript from this week’s, MiB: Ben Cohen on Streaks, is below.
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VOICE-OVER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: This week on the podcast, I have an extra special guest. His name is Ben Cohen, and if that name sounds slightly familiar, he is the sports reporter covering the NBA for the Wall Street Journal and the author of a new book, “The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks.”
If you’re interested in things like statistics and analytics of sports, how the basketball game is changing, who is driving these changes, what is happening in the world of sports, and why the old days of just hiring a superstar and hoping he can drag a team over — over the line is pretty much over. I really found his book to be quite fascinating, and I think it’s something that if you’re either a myth or a sports geek, you’re going to find really intriguing.
So with no further ado, my conversation with Ben Cohen.
VOICE-OVER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: My special guest this week is Ben Cohen. He is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, where he was the first person to exclusively cover the NBA nationally for the Journal. In 2017, he was named a News Media Alliance Rising Star. He has a new book out and it’s called, “The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks.”
Ben Cohen, welcome to Bloomberg.
COHEN: Thank you for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be on this show because so much of this book is actually based on past episodes of your show. So it’s a treat for me.
RITHOLTZ: I — I have to tell — I have to reveal this, I’m reading the book on vacation in Puerto Rico. And because I’m an information junkie, I go to the sources and acknowledgements at the end, nobody reads that. And lo and behold, there is my name and Masters in Business because of the Tom Gilovich reference. But what I thought was so hilarious was, as I’m reading the book, I’m like guest get had ‘em, had ‘em (ph), you know, it just cracked, oh, that’s an interesting name, I should get him. It was really fun going through all these people who I feel like, you know, you spend 90 minutes or longer in a room with someone, you kind of get to know them a little bit. So let’s get to know you a little bit.
You’re an undergrad at Duke. How do you end up at the Wall Street Journal?
COHEN: Bribery, bribery is always a good thing.
No, I — I — I worked really hard at Duke. I — I — I’ve always known that I wanted to be a Journalist and, specifically, a sports Journalist. It — it’s a deeply uncool thing to say, right? Like there’s some people who grow up dreaming to be astronauts and flying to the Moon, and I …
COHEN: … wanted to like cover Rutgers for the Star-Ledger in Jersey, right?
So I went to Duke like most kids who like sports in New Jersey, and I was the Sports Editor of the Chronicle, which was the student newspaper at Duke. And …
RITHOLTZ: And at — and at Duke, that’s a real position, it’s not like …
COHEN: It’s — it’s …
RITHOLTZ: … most schools.
COHEN: … it’s — it’s a real position. And — and the paper itself is a real newspaper. I mean, it’s a daily. I — I definitely spent more time in the newspaper office than I did in any classroom. I mean, we were working — the top editors of the paper there work like 60, 70 hours a week. It’s a crazy job.
And so when you’re covering Duke basketball, you’re really competing with like everybody on the planet, right?
COHEN: And so that really gave me great grounding. And I got lucky a few times along the way with some internships and some other opportunities. And when I graduated — a couple of weeks before graduation, the Journal was looking for a sports intern. They had just started a sports page, and the person they had hired to be the intern had taken a job elsewhere. And so literally, two weeks before graduation, the Sports Editor of the paper emailed me. We had talked in the past about a potential internship and he offered me an internship. And I kind of kept my foot in the door and didn’t let it close them — and didn’t let them close it on me, and I’ve sort of been there ever since.
RITHOLTZ: The role you now have is NBA Reporter for the Journal. That was not a role before you got there, was it?
COHEN: We did not really have any roles in sports before I got there. We started a sports page around the same time that I was hired. So 2009, Murdoch buys the paper in like ’07 and we talked …
RITHOLTZ: Get that kid Cohen in here to start a sports page for us.
COHEN: Exactly. Rupert and I go way back.
And so for the first few years I was at the Journal, I covered college sports. And in 2014, we didn’t have a national full-time NBA reporter. And I still think one of the reasons why I did get this job was that it was like July 10, 2014 and our sports editor — this brilliant guy name Sam Walker — looked around and said, “Oh, my God, Lebron James is about to choose his next team and we don’t have someone to write the story.”
And he sort of pulled me into his office and said, “I think that you should cover the NBA for us.” And I said, “Sam, you’re just saying this because we — you need someone to write about Lebron going back to Cleveland.”
And lo and behold, the next day, he goes back to Cleveland, I write the story. But it turned out to be this incredible stroke of fortune because, at the time, the NBA was about to enter this like real golden age. So I — I still have never covered an NBA finals that the Golden State Warriors were not playing in, so it’s been five years in a row.
RITHOLTZ: Maybe perhaps this is the year when that could be in play.
COHEN: I — I have that feeling that this will be the year of the Warriors …
COHEN: … to make the final.
RITHOLTZ: So now let’s talk a little bit about how I first found you, which was the article about Joshua Miller and Adam Sanjurjo’s paper on “The Hot Hand.” Tell us what the hot hand is.
COHEN: So the hot hand, there’s really no singular definition, but I like to think of it as when success leads to more success. Now in basketball, for example, the hot hand has always been studied through basketball, which is one of the things I sort of found irresistible about the whole phenomenon. And basketball is when you make one shot and then another shot, and then another shot, and you feel more likely to make your next shot.
RITHOLTZ: He’s on fire, Marv Albert used to say (inaudible).
COHEN: Correct, in the zone, you’re on fire. But it’s not …
RITHOLTZ: He’s unconscious.
COHEN: But it’s really not just about basketball. I — I think of this as about human behavior. I think we are all familiar with this feeling of the hot hand. And what I’ve learned is that if we take advantage, it can really change our lives. So this book really started with two stories in the Wall Street Journal in 2014 and 2015, both calling into question this seminal, classic 1985 paper about the hot hand.
One was by this team of Harvard undergraduates, so not grad students or Ph.D. students or professors, but kids in their college dorm.
COHEN: And one was by Josh Miller and Adam Adam Sanjurjo who — who did this thing where they looked at this very old problem in a new way, and they found something that nobody had seen before. And usually what happens, I have to say, after I spend a lot of time thinking about a story and writing a story is that I don’t want to think about that story anymore.
RITHOLTZ: Done, Leave me alone, right.
COHEN: Right, I’m sick of it. The opposite really happened here. I couldn’t get the hot hand out of my head. And I just thought that there was something bigger here that I wanted to explore and that’s how, you know, I end up spending three years writing a book about it.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s — let’s step back a second. And Tom Gilovich is now professor at Cornell. At the time, I believe was a Stanford undergrad or Brooklyn undergrad.
COHEN: They were grad students, Tom Gilovich and Bob Vallone were grad students at Stanford and a guy The great Amos Tversky was a brilliant professor there. And they looked at “The Hot Hand” because they thought that it was this beautiful way to illustrate this phenomenon of seeing patterns in randomness.
COHEN: And it still is, right? Like I — I do want to stress that, like I find that paper hugely admirable. It’s a brilliant paper, right, because it uses this thing that we all know, this very accessible, digestible example of a cognitive bias.
And they end up publishing this paper in 1985. It’s in the cannon of behavioral economics, right? It’s one of the most famous papers ever written. It’s really easy to understand like there’s nothing really obtuse about it. It’s a great paper. It really holds up.
RITHOLTZ: With one small exception.
COHEN: Sure. If — yeah, exactly. But something amazing happened when this paper came out, which is that it was so unbelievable that people just simply refused to believe it. We had all felt the hot hand and seen the hot hand, and now these professors were coming along telling us there was no such thing. And that was really hard for us to wrap our minds around in the same way that it’s very hard for us to wrap our minds around randomness.
RITHOLTZ: So I love the image of Red Auerbach cigar, unlit cigar kind of hanging out of his mouth, “I don’t care what these professors say. Of course, it’s a hot hand.”
COHEN: And there’s nothing that could have delighted professors more, right? Like this — just believing in the hot hand doesn’t make it any more true. And Amos Tversky used to love to tell this story of when you taught the hot hand, he would tell the story of Red Auerbach because he love the Boston Celtics and like what better way to illustrate this idea that people refused to believe than Red Auerbach saying that it was all a bunch of baloney.
RITHOLTZ: And as much as the conclusion maybe mathematically inaccurate, the underlying premise that people see patterns where there are none, that we’re all subject to our cognitive biases, that still holds up and that’s still a key part of that paper.
COHEN: Completely. And not only that, even if you do believe in the hot hand, like I don’t think it is this exaggerated fireball of our imagination, right, like you can miss when you feel hot. And also, like there are plenty of times when you are in an environment that does not allow for a hot hand. And believing in the hot hand can be disastrous, costly. It could really backfire and burn you. And so I do think that paper is still really important, and we should all read it. I mean, part of the whole fun of this concept, I think, is figuring out what you think about it for yourself, right, and toying around with the idea and seeing where you land.
RITHOLTZ: And — and as a long suffering Knicks fan going back to the John Starks era, where he were just, you know, a streaky player, and whether the shots were sinking or not, he would still reel off seven, eight, nine shots in a row. Whether they fell or not didn’t matter, he would — when he felt it, he heaved it regardless of outcome.
COHEN: The Knicks are familiar with streaks, they’re just not the kind that Knicks fans actually would enjoy.
RITHOLTZ: To say the least. So what I found so intriguing about the original paper about “The Hot Hand,” it was incredibly controversial. What was behind all the pushback?
COHEN: Well, it defied something that we all thought to be true, right? And we are not very good when people tell us something we are convinced of isn’t true.
RITHOLTZ: So my — one of my favorite examples of how easily we’re fooled is you give the example in the book, but we’ve all seen this from personal life experience, a professor assigns a class flip a coin 100 times and write it down, and I want some of you to do it and some you make it up, and immediately identifies these are real these are fake. And the class is always astonished by this. What does that have to do with streaking this and our tendency to see patterns where none are there?
COHEN: So this is an incredible statistician at Columbia named Andrew Gelman who runs is very popular blog, which sounds kind of like an oxymoron, like a popular statistics blog …
RITHOLTZ: A little wonky.
COHEN: Yes, but — but it’s a brilliant website. And, you know, I talked to Andrew Gelman about this, and what he told me about how he is able to tell his classroom to — he splits his classroom into two and he tells them like, you know, one group flip a coin, the other group imagine what it looks like when you flip a coin, and then write the sequences on a chalkboard, and I will walk in and I will be able to tell you which one is real and which one is fake.
And so he leaves the classroom, and he does essentially this magic trick for — for a statistician, right? He comes in and he always knows. And it’s because the real one is the one that looks fake, right?
RITHOLTZ: It has a run of heads in a row that you’re not comfortable. You’ll do heads, tails, heads, heads, tails, but you won’t do seven hits in a row. That just seems wrong.
COHEN: But we all know sometimes when you flip a coin, you get seven tails in a row, right?
COHEN: But you would never do that if you are imagining what a string of coin flips actually looks like.
RITHOLTZ: And now you’ve ruined that trick for him in his first class as well.
COHEN: Yeah, so hopefully everybody at Columbia will read this book so he will not be able to — to pull off that trick anymore.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s talk about the Miller-Sanjurjo paper on why the hot hands is real. First — and — and I think you may have been the first popular press to cover that.
COHEN: I was, yes.
RITHOLTZ: OK, because that’s how not only is that how I — I found you, but when I was preparing for the interview with Joshua Miller and reading all the — all the coverage, yours was the piece I found them like, oh, this does a really nice job explaining …
COHEN: Well, and the reason I remember this is not because I’m bragging, but because I was terrified when that story came out. It was very nerve-racking because the math had been rubberstamped by mathematicians, by Andrew Gelman himself, like the math is accurate.
RITHOLTZ: Oh, really?
COHEN: However, the Journal is really not in the position to be writing full stories about preprints, right, papers that have not been …
RITHOLTZ: Peer-reviewed, right.
COHEN: … peer-reviewed or published by like Journal that you can trust. And so this paper was floating around the Internet and had been uploaded to SSRN. And Andrew Gelman had written a blog post about it and people were talking about it.
But like if — if this paper had been published in Econometrica, which it has been now, it’s very easy for the Wall Street Journal to write a story about that, right?
COHEN: But when it hasn’t, suddenly it’s — it’s just these two guys, these two young American economists in Europe and a statistician with a blog saying that it’s right. Is that enough for the Wall Street Journal to write a story about?
RITHOLTZ: All right. So …
COHEN: I decided that it was — we decided that it was.
RITHOLTZ: So let me tell you why you were right because the worst-case scenario is that Econometrica does the math and says this is wrong. But at the time not only is this a really interesting thesis that identifies a fundamental floor — floor in the Tversky-Gilovich paper, but it’s really a whole new area of analytics for datasets. It’s not just the hot hand, these guys figured out something really, really interesting, and lots of people were buzzing about it.
And it’s not just a blogger, it’s Andrew Gelman of Columbia who is a widely respected mathematician and statistician.
COHEN: He is their peer review, right?
COHEN: He’s peer review before peer review.
RITHOLTZ: So — so I don’t think you were that far out on a ledge. And the worst-case scenario is some of the smartest people in math would have gotten it wrong also.
COHEN: And I have to say the funny thing about this is that I, let alone Josh and Adam, got the same reaction that Gilovich, Vallone and Tversky did, which is there’s no way this is true.
Over the course of 35 years, that paper, which was so counterintuitive at the time, became conventional. It was …
RITHOLTZ: It was (inaudible).
COHEN: … you know, was the way we thought about the hot hand.
And so now here was this paper threatening to overturn that result in this strange mathematical way that takes a lot of thinking, tried about like — there was a reason that nobody have seen this, right? This — this very subtle statistical bias that some of the world’s brightest statisticians had missed for many years. It was this bias hiding in plain sight. And if it had been obvious, we would have seen it many years earlier.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about that bias because it is very intriguing.
COHEN: It’s very trippy, it’s also intriguing.
RITHOLTZ: Explain why — so normally, if you’re going to flip a coin, hold the gambler’s fallacy aside, every flip of that coin should be 50-50, heads or tails.
COHEN: But it’s not.
RITHOLTZ: But — but you’re not just flipping a coin, you’re looking at it after the fact, the ex post, and — and saying, “Of the flips that follow two heads in a row, it’s not 50-50.” Explain why.
COHEN: Well, I will say the one thing I’ve learned in thinking about this book, in writing this book and talking about this book is that I’m not great at talking about this part of the book. It’s very — it’s — it’s hard even for me as like — the best thing I could do is like say, actually, go back and listen to your episode with Josh Miller because he does a better job of explaining it than anybody.
But what I will say is that it has to do with — with sequences and — and — and sampling without replacement, right, and — and figuring out when you look at a sequence of even three coin flips, if you look at the — the average chance that you will get a heads after a heads, it’s not 50 percent as our brains are conditioned to believe. It’s actually lower. It’s — it’s biased in a negative direction.
RITHOLTZ: So you start with the — you flip a coin one million times and now you have a dataset. And if you pull out all of the heads and heads in a row, you’re not just pulling out half the heads, you’re pulling out more than half the heads relative to what’s left over. So what’s left over is going to be a little tail-heavy. Is that — is that a fair way to describe it?
COHEN: Yes. And then the next obvious question is like, well, what does that mean for the hot hand? And really what it means is that, for many years, for 35 years to be precise, we thought that if a 50 percent shooter was shooting 50 percent when he had the hot hand, when he felt like he couldn’t miss, that was evidence against the hot hand, right? There was no difference. He wasn’t any more likely to make his next shot.
What it actually was was evidence for the hot hand all along because when you are shooting 50 percent and you take out those heads and tails and you look at what happens heads after heads, you should be shooting lower than 40 percent.
RITHOLTZ: Forty — 42 percent, right?
COHEN: Forty-two percent like roughly, right.
RITHOLTZ: And I believe somewhere in either your book or the Miller paper is the advantage of the hot hand is something like 13 percent.
COHEN: Yeah, I mean, if you look at the difference like if — if — if you look at the difference of what we thought to what we think now or what some people think now, it’s like 12, 13 percentage points. And the difference is huge, like in the NBA, the difference between — in the NBA, the difference of 12 points is the difference between Steph Curry and a league-average shooter. So — so we now, you know, have reason to think that, you know, not only can we believe in the hot hand, but it actually might be a pretty sizeable effect.
Now, you know, this is — I think there are reasonable people on both sides of this debate, and that is what was so intriguing to me is that we have very smart people, brilliant minds who have been thinking about this for a very long time. And, you know, you could come out to — to — to thinking about this in different ways. And I think we still are like — I think we are still trying to think about what we should think about the hot hand.
RITHOLTZ: So I spent a lot of intellectual energy thinking Gilovich and Tversky were right. And then when Josh and Adam’s paper came out, I was skeptical and then I read as much as I could up until the formulas, which is incomprehensible …
… and then had a conversation with him and then had him on the show. And suddenly, it’s like, you know what, he convinced me the hot hand is real. And now that I’ve spent so much mental energy on this and I’m committed to this, at this point, my cognitive dissonance is I don’t want it anyway.
COHEN: It’s crazy. And I …
RITHOLTZ: I don’t want to — I don’t want to — I can’t flip again. I’m locked in. If you could prove that it’s not real, best of luck to you, but I’m tapped out of the debate.
COHEN: Well, imagine writing a book about it. But …
… but — but that was actually what was so intriguing to me about all this because, you know, at the Wall Street Journal, what I’ve learned is that every great story needs tension, right? Tension is really what makes stories.
And I just couldn’t believe how much tension there was in this fight over an idea, right? Here was something that we all thought to be true …
RITHOLTZ: A belief.
COHEN: … only to be told that it wasn’t, only to be told that actually maybe it was, and that there were just so irresistible to me.
And so the narrative itself is great. And then what I tried to do in this book is apply the lessons of that narrative very widely, right, because that’s why these people have been studying the hot hand for so long. It’s not because they wanted to argue about whether or not the hot hand is real, it’s because it has these implications far beyond academia, farther beyond basketball, right, like they sort of apply everywhere.
RITHOLTZ: It’s quite fascinating. So I mentioned to you I read this book on vacation, I plowed through it in a day and a half. I really enjoyed it. It fits in well in the sequence of sort of related to “Moneyball” and related to some other things that are about sports, the — the first chapter of “The Undoing Project” about Daryl Morey. So I got to ask you some questions about the book because there’s some really, really interesting things in here.
COHEN: Please. And also you called it wonky beat treating, which I think is the best description of the book I’ve heard so far. It really tickles me to hear that.
RITHOLTZ: I — I mean, that’s what it was to me. I was sitting on the beach. I’m like this is good wonky fun.
COHEN: And I wanted it to be — I wanted it to be something that like anybody could read, right, like if you understood …
RITHOLTZ: Right, you don’t need to be a mathematician.
COHEN: … (inaudible), right, exactly. And — and you could read it on a beach, which — which I love reading books on the beach.
RITHOLTZ: So — so first question is the — first of all, I like the ark that you tell. This is told as a story throughout time where there’s this belief and then an academic research challenges the belief, and then subsequent research challenges the challenge. Why in the beginning did it seem like they were the academics on one side and everybody else on the other?
COHEN: Because the academics were the only people who are saying that everybody else was wrong, right? And, you know, that was the beauty of their paper was that it challenged something that is so universal. There is this fundamental belief in the hot hand that’s in the original paper. They pulled basketball fans and NBA players.
And like — something like 90 percent of them said, of course, that there is such a thing as the hot hand, right? Like if you had asked me the one time in my life that I was not completely terrible at basketball was in high school, and I scored more points in one quarter of one game than I had in my entire career combined. There was something magical about that day that I still remember now. And it would never have even crossed my mind that this thing didn’t exist because I — I thought that I knew what I felt and not until reading, you know, hundreds of papers over the course of like four decades that I realized that like everything I thought I knew might be wrong.
RITHOLTZ: So — so let’s talk about some real specific examples from the book that are fascinating, and let’s start with Spotify and Apple iTunes. Their random shuffle is much better when it’s less random. Explain that.
COHEN: That’s right. So a few years ago, Spotify had this problem, which is that they kept hearing from users that the Shuffle function was broken. The problem is that it wasn’t actually shuffling their music. So sometimes you would hear the same artist twice in a row or you will hear the same song twice in a row sometimes. And people got so mad about this that they accused Spotify of almost being corrupt of like trying to curry favor with record labels by playing their artist more.
And the very curious thing about this is that Apple actually had the same problem a few years before that. And there’s this clip of one of Steve Jobs’ keynote speeches when he is introducing a feature called Smart Shuffle. And like what they had to do essentially was change the randomness algorithm. People thought that it simply couldn’t be random when it was. The fact is though that pure randomness is hard to understand. And sometimes pure randomness means you hear the same artist twice in a row or the same song twice in a row, and that’s …
RITHOLTZ: It’s like — like getting six heads in a row …
RITHOLTZ: … flipping a coin, and it’s the same thing.
COHEN: It’s actually not what we want out of our playlist, right? And so what Spotify did was they tweaked their code. They evenly distribute songs and artists over the course of a playlist so that it’s random the way that we think about random. So really what they did was to make it feel more random. They actually had to make it less random.
RITHOLTZ: Make it less technically random. But as a listener, randomness means that after — and you used the Billy Joel example — but after Billy Joel song — instead of hearing another Billy Joel song, I want to hear U2 or Push Stars (ph), or Prefab Sprout, or Elvis Costello or — or Non-Revealing Maya (ph) play list. But you don’t want to hear the same artists twice in a row.
COHEN: And what the company had to do was wrap their minds around the way that humans really think, right? Like there was no amount of money or engineering talent that could solve this problem. There is something about the way that randomness paralyzes the human mind that the company had to come to grips with. And so they could have been stubborn and said, “No, of course, this is random. This is how randomness works.” But what they did was they gave their users what they wanted.
RITHOLTZ: Right. People don’t want randomness, they want variety. And whether it’s random or not is — is almost irrelevant.
Let’s talk about the NBA Jam. The people who created that game took advantage of the hot hand and streaks. Tell us a little bit about that.
COHEN: So NBA Jam was developed by this game designer named Mark Turmell. And when Mark Turmell was a kid, there were three things that he loved. He loved basketball, and he loved video games, and he loved fire. He was actually a bit of a pyromaniac.
And he was able to combine these three childhood loves into the biggest hit of his life. So I grew up playing NBA Jam. I am right around the same age as Steph Curry, and so I know that NBA Jam machines were sort of ubiquitous in our childhood. They were everywhere.
And what I did not know while we were both playing NBA Jam is that NBA Jam was one of the most lucrative successful arcade games ever made. In the first year of its existence, it made a billion dollars in quarters.
RITHOLTZ: And this is, by orders of magnitude, bigger than anything else before?
COHEN: Ginormous, to the point that like the people who are running the company, when they saw the numbers in the test arcade, they just refused to believe and they thought this has to be a typo, like there’s no way that these kids are playing NBA Jam so much, and yet they were. And part of that is because it was a basketball game and it was fun, and you could do crazy things like somersault over the basket and throw down breathtaking slam dunks and (inaudible) anybody you wanted.
But really what we wanted to do was catch fire. So in NBA Jam, if you make a few shots in a row, you hear the announcer for the game say, “He’s heating up.” And then if you make your next shot you hear, “He’s on fire,” and the ball turns into a fireball. And what happens when you’re on fire is that you cannot miss. And that was …
… compelling to so many people like it was this amazing example of Mark Turmell, the childhood pyromaniac, still playing with fire.
And to me, I think he’s sort of single-handedly brainwashed this generation of impressionable young minds into believing the concept of the hot hand because when you are heating up, when you are on fire, you can’t miss.
RITHOLTZ: That’s really quite fascinating. Let me go over a couple of other issues of the hot hand I have to ask you about. Shakespeare capitalized on the plague. You have to explain that.
COHEN: Well, this is oddly timely now, right …
COHEN: … which is kind of terrifying.
Shakespeare was never a metronomic writer. So scholars for a very long time were not exactly statisticians, believe it or not. And when — when they would look at like 24 Shakespeare plays, if he wrote them over the course of 12 years, they said, OK, Shakespeare wrote two plays a year.
In fact, that’s not remotely true. Shakespeare ran hot and cold. He wrote in streaks. And one of the great hot streaks of his career was when he wrote “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Anthony and Cleopatra” in a very concentrated amount of time. Some scholars believe as short as two months, which is crazy, right?
And — and the reason he was able to write those plays and the reason those plays were such a success was that it happened to be a plague year. And the plague actually worked to his advantage in very odd ways, but the plague was this force that shaped Shakespeare’s life from the very beginning, like he probably should have died when he was a kid of the plague. It was — it was just always around in London.
And to me, that it — it spoke so neatly of the hot hand because the hot hand is not this random occurrence, it’s this collision of talent and circumstance and a little bit of luck. And sometimes circumstance appears when you least expect it, sometimes it’s the plague.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about that luck, creativity and circumstance — collision. Some people have put forth the theory that even human careers, you will have creativity in bunches, and most people or many people’s most productive work over the course of their lifetime comes in a very narrow sort of era. Explain that.
COHEN: And not only their most productive work, their most memorable work. There’s a statistical physicist at Northwestern named Dashun Wang who tried to look at this idea, like is creativity clustered? Do our hits come in bunches? And that’s really hard to do in a lot of industries because there’s just not great data, right?
And so what he tried to do was tried to put some objective numbers too subjective issues of taste, right? So for movie directors, that’s IMDB ratings. For scientists, that’s Google Scholar citations. For artists, it’s auction prices. Now these are not perfect metrics, but they’re like about as good as we could do given what we have.
And what he found was that if you tell him what your best work is, what your highest rated movie or what your paper that was cited the most by other academics was, he can find the second and third best work. And it’s because those works come together like they build on top of each other, and we have these hot hand period in our careers. And in those periods we tend to produce the work that endures and that other people remember.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about movies. You used the example of Rob Reiner who has written or directed some of my favorite films. He had a streak that was really quite astonishing, didn’t he?
COHEN: The first few movies he made were Spinal Tap, and the Sure Thing and Stand by Me. And those were all successes in their own way, whether it was critically or commercially. And it’s sort of earned him the runway to make a fourth movie.
Now, all three of those movies were movies that nobody wanted him to make and they were huge hits regardless. They were these delightful contradictions. And he had this conversation with a studio executive around this time when he’s trying to figure out what he wants to make next. And the studio executive says, “We want to do anything you want to do, right?” Basically, like you’re hot we want to be …
COHEN: … in business with you.
RITHOLTZ: Caught blush.
COHEN: What is it that you want to do? And he says, “You don’t want to do what I want to do.” And she says, “No, really, just tell us what movie do you want to make next.” And he says, “No, really, I’m telling you you’re not going to want to make this movie.”
And she says, “Just name the movie.” And he says, “The movie I want to make is the Princess Bride.” And she says, “Anything, but the Princess Bride.” And that sounds crazy now because …
COHEN: … The Princess Bride is the cult classic and one of the most beloved movies ever made, right? It was written by William Goldman who have written Butch Cassidy. He had written All the President’s Men, like you could take his grocery list and — and win an Academy Award if you make him.
RITHOLTZ: Didn’t he write Marathon Man also?
COHEN: He’s just (inaudible) …
RITHOLTZ: He’s got like run of. And — and if you’ve never read …
COHEN: His screenwriting book, right, and his Knicks book.
RITHOLTZ: The — the screen — “Confessions of a Screenwriter” or the “Screen Trade”? He’s the guy who has popularized the phrase — he’s no longer with us, but he popularized the phrase “nobody knows anything.”
COHEN: Which is a good thing to think about when you’re trying to write a book about people who think they know everything, right?
RITHOLTZ: So — so following those three movies, The Princess Bride does really well. And then what was next, Harry Met Sally, a giant smash.
COHEN: Misery and a Few Good Men.
RITHOLTZ: Misery was a Stephen King book that nobody expected that to be a great movie, absolutely. And then A Few Good Men is just a — and he still continued to make movies that are still well-liked beyond that.
COHEN: He — he was able to elevate his career to another level, right? And I have to say like I have run this theory by Rob Reiner. He doesn’t exactly agree. What he remembers from this period is it was still so hard to get The Princess Bride made. But to me, that’s actually a proof of the hot hand that was shaping …
COHEN: … everything because if he remembers, it was still so hard and it was that hard, it simply would never have been made if you are on top.
RITHOLTZ: The Princess Bride had been attached to a number of other producers and directors, including some really giant names in Hollywood, and it was almost a cursed screenplay. It just couldn’t get done.
COHEN: It was the great white whale …
COHEN: … of Hollywood. I mean, Truffaut tried to make it, Norman Jewison. Robert Redford tried to direct it and star in it, and still nobody could get it made.
Goldman liked to tell the story that one studio had bought the movie and was fired the next weekend.
Like — nobody can get this movie made. And you could argue that like if Rob Reiner knew about this, if maybe he wouldn’t have. And even when he went to Goldman to try to get his permission to make The Princess Bride, he was terrified, and Bill Goldman opens the door and says, “The Princess Bride is my favorite thing I’ve ever written,” like don’t screw it up. And he was able to get permission and he was able to make the movie. And I think we are all luckier for it.
RITHOLTZ: Quite amazing. Let’s talk about how the NBA is adapting to the idea of a behavioral economics. You wrote a really interesting column about, quote, “The renegade executives of Houston who shook up sports management.” Tell us about those guys.
COHEN: Well, they haven’t had a great few months since that story came out. But a couple months ago, my colleague at the Journal, Jared Diamond and I — Jared covers baseball, I cover basketball. We went down to Houston to have lunch with two really smart executives there. One is named Daryl Morey, and he’s the General Manager of the Houston Rockets. The other is Jeff Luhnow who was the General Manager of the Houston Astros.
And we just thought it would be fun to get them together and just talk about how much their sports have changed. And it was fun that it made for a really interesting story. And about a week later, Daryl became the most interesting man in geopolitics. He was already …
… the most interesting man in sports. And I love to Daryl, but he set off this feud between the NBA and China with this tweet supporting Hong Kong.
RITHOLTZ: And back up a little bit, so he got his graduate degree from MIT, and MIT has a really deep relationship with Hong Kong, including lots of students. And I think they have a satellite school there as well.
COHEN: Well, and also the NBA has this long-running financial relationship with China, right? I mean, China is the engine that is powering the future growth of the league. It’s …
RITHOLTZ: The global growth outside of the U.S.
COHEN: Oh, yeah, it’s the most important foreign market. And like the league has always cultivated China like over the course of three decades or so, and like this one tweet imperiled that relationship overnight. I mean, to this day, I mean, the NBA is still not on CCTV, so a lot has changed. But, you know …
RITHOLTZ: Was it really a $200 million or $300 million tweet?
COHEN: It — it was a lot of money. I mean, this — the — the — you know, Adam Silver …
RITHOLTZ: They canceled the preseason games, right?
COHEN: They played the games, but — but …
RITHOLTZ: They weren’t broadcast.
COHEN: Right. And — and — and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that he thought the loss could be about like $400 million, so — so it’s a lot of money. But like, you know, that — it was a very fascinating issue because it pitted like American democratic norms of free speech against like trying to do business in China. And …
COHEN: … I think this is something that like every company is going to have to be dealing with …
COHEN: … at some point. And it was just sort of this like dry forest. And I think Daryl’s tweet turned out to be the kindling that nobody really thought would blow everything up, but it kind of did.
RITHOLTZ: So we were talking about film earlier, I think a lot of people don’t realize how much of American film is now funded by foreign investors, including China.
COHEN: Especially China.
RITHOLTZ: And so what — what happens is you end up with the bad guy being the Russians, never the Chinese, and that’s a direct function of who’s writing the check.
COHEN: It’s — and — and to me it was just — it was — it was — of course, Daryl Terrel was involved because Daryl is …
… I mean, I — I — I — I love the guy, I’ve written about him as much as I’ve written about anybody in the NBA. He is so smart and so interesting, and he’s this real renaissance man of the NBA.
If you would ask me like which MBA executive would unwittingly start something like this, like, of course, it would be Daryl because …
… Daryl is in the middle of everything.
RITHOLTZ: And he was twice NBA executive of the year. I don’t think he’s going to win that this year.
COHEN: Well, he might. I mean, it — it — it — it depends. I mean, it’s voted on by other executives and — and …
RITHOLTZ: I’ll take the other side of that bet. I’ll leave it like two to one odds.
COHEN: What percent are you betting on it? Forty percent?
RITHOLTZ: Yeah, I’ll give you two to one odds. Forty percent, that’s right.
COHEN: The — the interesting thing about Daryl winning that award is that that’s an award voted on by your peers. And for a very long time, I think there was resistance among NBA general managers to acknowledge that Daryl is this really smart guy and he was using statistics, and analytics and information in really interesting ways.
RITHOLTZ: You can’t argue with success. Speaking of success, let’s talk about Steph Curry. I — I love the story in the book how …
COHEN: He’s pretty good at basketball, have you heard?
RITHOLTZ: Not bad.
RITHOLTZ: And I — I understand he’s taking more shots from behind the line, so that’s a thing. The story about how he lights the Knicks up …
COHEN: Do you remember that game?
RITHOLTZ: No, no, I don’t. And if I saw that game, I have suppressed the memory like so many other losses the Knicks have suffered over the years. But he’s a guy who’s essentially on the bench or — half the time — half the game. He doesn’t have the green light to just toss up three pointers. What happened in that one game with the Knicks?
COHEN: Yeah, the true line of Steph Curry’s career into a certain point of his life was that nobody really thought that he could be as good as we now know him to be. He was lightly recruited out of high school. He went to tiny Davidson College. Even after coming out of Davidson where he had this incredible unforgettable run in the NCAA tournament in 2008, you know, he was the seventh pick in the NBA draft. There were lots of questions about whether someone who was as small as him and shot three pointers as much as him could really be like a force in the NBA. And those questions kind of lingered until this one night in February 201three-point
RITHOLTZ: Let me interrupt you before we get into that night. So as a Knicks fan watching Jordan and the Bulls dismantle them season after season, the — the Bulls always had somebody Steve Kerr, Hodges, somebody who was an assassin from behind the three-point line, and it forced the floor to be spread so they couldn’t — if you’re going to collapse on Michael Jordan, he’s going to find the open man and it might be a three-pointer, so think twice about it.
That was a very specific tactical decision. Now tell us what happened with Curry and the Knicks that night.
COHEN: So — so Steve Kerr was the three-point shooter around Michael Jordan. What if Michael Jordan were the three-point shooter, right? That’s sort of the question that has become prevalent in the NBA over the last few years. This was a night that nobody thought would be Steph Curry’s breakthrough, his coming out party.
The night before the Golden State Warriors had played in Indiana, they’ve got into a fight. Steph Curry was actually involved in the fight. And if you watch the clip now, it’s kind of amazing because he charges this guy named Roy Hibbert …
RITHOLTZ: Twice his size.
COHEN: … seven foot two and …
… weighs two of Steph Curry’s, right? And what happened is exactly what you might think happened, which is Roy Hibbert just sort of brushed him aside.
For his entire life, Steph Curry’s great disadvantage was — had been his size, right? But for this one night it was his improbable advantage. He was too small to do any real damage in a fight of NBA players. So they fly to New York that night.
RITHOLTZ: No — so no suspension for him.
COHEN: He is not suspended. Other players on his team are, however. Steph Curry is fined $35,000. And nobody has ever been so fortunate to lose so much money.
COHEN: The Warriors get to New York, and they just don’t have their full team, right? They — they’re — there are only a certain number of guys who can play.
Now, something else happens before they get to Madison Square Garden, which is very funny in retrospect. Steph Curry, during Warriors road games, always takes the second of three buses from the team hotel to the arena. There are three buses. Steph is always on the second one.
RITHOLTZ: Is that just superstition or science seeks (ph)?
COHEN: It’s also timing so like …
COHEN: … he wants to be at the arena a certain time and he wants to warm up at a certain time and getting there on the first bus is too early and the third bus is probably too late.
This day, for some reason he can’t remember, he misses the second bus, he takes the third bus. What happens when the third bus leaves the team hotel? He gets pulled over by New York City cops on the way to Madison Square Garden. So now he’s missed his normal bus.
His now bus — he’s missed his normal bus. His third bus get pulled over on the way to the Garden. He’s rushed, he is late, he’s gotten into a fight the night before, he’s down $35,000. And what happens that night is that he has the single greatest shooting night of his career? He scored 54 points. He plays all 48 minutes. He doesn’t come out of the game. He makes 11 of 13 three-pointers. Nobody in the history of the NBA — let alone him — had ever taken so many threes and made so many of them in the same game.
And this was really an epiphany for Steph Curry and for the Warriors generally and, actually, for the whole NBA because what they were able to do after that night is build a team around Steph Curry’s remarkable ability to shoot a basketball.
RITHOLTZ: And he’s only gotten better behind the — behind the line …
COHEN: Oh, my God, yeah. So …
RITHOLTZ: … since then.
COHEN: … before that game he averaged like 18 points and took five threes a game. Since then, he averages 26 points and he takes 10 threes. He’s won two MVPs. The Warriors have won three championships.
And the most remarkable thing about all of this is that it took the NBA so long to figure this out like three is worth more than two. It’s in the name of the shot, right? It’s three pointers …
RITHOLTZ: It’s 50 percent — it’s not just a little, it’s worth 1.5 times a regular shot, but it’s not 1.5 times as difficult or — or is it?
COHEN: There’s a huge incentive to shooting three pointers. Now it is more difficult, but not for Steph Curry, right? Steph Curry is a 45 percent shooter from three. And the name of the game now is shoot as many three pointers as possible. And the game was sort of going there anyway, but whether or not the warriors would have built around Steph Curry, I’m not sure they would have without this game.
RITHOLTZ: Are we going to have to move the three-point line?
COHEN: We might. You know, I — I think that there — there is talk about like a potential four-point line. There is talk about moving …
RITHOLTZ: That’d be absurd.
COHEN: … the three-point line. But we’re getting to a point now where about 10 years ago the number of three pointers in the NBA game accounted for about 22 percent of shots. Now we’re at about 35 percentage of shots. The number of threes per game has doubled over the course of 15 years.
I was at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference recently and asked someone with a team like what is the upper limit here, like when — when do you get to a point of amazing returns?
RITHOLTZ: Fifty percent?
COHEN: Well, the Houston Rockets are taking 50 percent of their shots now.
COHEN: So like for a single team, how high could you get? And this person really smart, wonky, analytical, mathematical says that he has studied the numbers, and he thinks that it’s 65 percent …
COHEN: … on team shots as threes. So like, by those standards, we’re nowhere even close to the end of this.
RITHOLTZ: I’m trying to think of how you would move the line back with — without, unless you make the line, you give up the corner shot …
COHEN: So …
RITHOLTZ: … which is the best location shot …
COHEN: … the corner shot — the corner three-pointer is the most efficient shot in basketball …
RITHOLTZ: You’re the closest and it’s the most amount of points.
COHEN: … the closest and it’s still worth three points, right?
COHEN: I mean, there are some funky things that you could do like you could …
RITHOLTZ: Make an arc.
COHEN: … you can make an arc, you could — you get out of four-point line, but move the three-point line in so that you actually make every shot worth the same amount of points.
Right now there is a huge incentive against shooting mid-range shots …
COHEN: … because there were two points and you just shoot …
RITHOLTZ: But they’re hard …
COHEN: … them at the same rate …
RITHOLTZ: … right.
COHEN: … as three-pointers, right?
RITHOLTZ: Yeah, makes no sense.
COHEN: So how could you sort of incentivize people to take their shots is that you change the value of that. Now, I think there are people in the NBA who are encouraged that even though teams are shooting a whole bunch of threes now, and all of the good teams are shooting threes, there’s not really a homogeneous style of play. They’re getting those three pointers in different ways so …
COHEN: … there is some variety, but the end result is the same, like the name of the game now is how many three pointers can you take and how many of them can you make.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about somebody that you — you wrote about after Kobe Bryant’s passing, but I’m familiar with from Michael Lewis’s book, “The Undoing Project,” and that’s Shane Battier. He is a guy that would be assigned to cover the best score on the other team. And if you look at his stats, they’re really nothing. What does a guy like Shane Battier mean to the new version — and, of course, he was on the Houston Rockets under Daryl Morey — but what does a player like that mean to the new version of basketball’s equivalent of “Moneyball”?
COHEN: Just about everything, yeah.
COHEN: I mean, to me, the beauty of Shane Battier is that he was someone who the NBA did not value properly because he did not have great stats, right? He didn’t score a lot of points, he didn’t grab a lot of rebounds, he didn’t do shot a lot of assists. But when he played, his team was better when he was on the floor, right? And there was no relationship that embodied this better than anybody Shane Battier when he tried to guard Kobe Bryant.
And so I talked to Shane after, you know, the tragic death of Kobe Bryant a few weeks ago because I wanted to know like what did he remember from those games when they played each other. And, you know, what he — what Shane says is that when they played, he always felt like he was Captain Ahab and Kobe Bryant was his Moby-Dick, and he was always chasing him. And they had this strange cat and mouse game where it was not only physical, it was not only on the court, it was psychological.
Shane Battier knew that like trying to trash-talk Kobe was the worst thing that you could do because it would get him wild up.
RITHOLTZ: They’ll motivate him, right.
COHEN: So he would like purposefully be modest. When he walked on the court with Kobe, he would like basically say like, “I don’t even belong on the same court as you, Man, like I’m this unathletic cluts like you’re going to kill me tonight.”
What Kobe knew …
… was exactly what Shane Battier was doing, so like Kobe wrote in his book like, “Yeah, I knew Shane was like being modest because he thought that that one fire me up.” Ando so they were going back and forth, and they were so deep into each other’s minds.
RITHOLTZ: That’s funny.
COHEN: And so their match-ups were just these classic match-ups. I mean, what Shane says is that nobody challenged him more than Kobe. He was like the pinnacle of challenge in his profession.
The great thing about their relationship, the thing that I love was that they had no relationship. They never talked outside the arena. There was …
COHEN: … nobody who each of them respected more in terms of offense and defense and get it with all on the basketball court, like they never got a chance to like have that beer and just reminisce about all of these incredible match-ups that they had.
RITHOLTZ: So the plus and minus measurement is, is your team scoring more point when you’re on the court? And is the other team scoring less points? What is your contribution? Battier turned Kobe Bryant into a negative for the Lakers.
COHEN: Sometimes, right? And so …
COHEN: … so — so plus/minus is a stat that like over the course of one game, maybe a little bit noisy, sometimes like — sometimes it’s not, sometimes it actually shows a lot. But over the course of a season and over the course of a career …
COHEN: … it’s like hugely informative. And so like for the last few years who has had the best plus/minus in the NBA? It’s Steph Curry.
COHEN: And that sort of shows his impact on the game?
RITHOLTZ: Quite, quite interesting. So one other person I have to ask about, the number one draft last year, Zion Williamson, how is he turning out? He was supposed to have a huge impact on the NBA. He got hurt in the beginning of the season, and now he’s back. Is this guy going to be worthy of a number one pick or is it another top pick that goes bust?
COHEN: He’s fantastic.
He — there — there are not many rookies in the NBA who changed the portions of their team immediately, like you could probably list them on one hand over the course of …
COHEN: … the last two decades. Lebron James, of course.
RITHOLTZ: For sure.
COHEN: Maybe Kevin Durant, maybe Anthony Davis. What Zion Williamson has done after missing the first few months of his rookie season with an injury is that he turned New Orleans Pelicans into like a real playoff …
RITHOLTZ: Playoff contender, right? Yeah.
COHEN: So like if you look at the numbers, even the plus/minus numbers, when he’s on the court, they’re destroying other teams. And so …
COHEN: Yeah, like they are — they are going to be excellent building around him over the next few years. And so he sort of lost some of his momentum because he didn’t play for a few months and everybody sort of forgot about him. And yet we see him now, and it’s like you are — like you’re seeing a superstar in the making, like they’re — he’s going to lose weight, his body is going to change, he’s going to learn how to play the game like you watch him on defense, he doesn’t know what he’s doing yet.
COHEN: He’s a rookie, he’s 19 years old (inaudible).
RITHOLTZ: But he’s quick and he can jump.
COHEN: And he has brilliant vision. He can pass. He — he — everyone knew that he was this incredible dunker, but like his game is so well-rounded. He is like going to be a sublime basketball player.
RITHOLTZ: So — so let’s violate one of Daryl Morey’s rules and compare him to somebody else, who is Zion more like? Is he Giannis or is he going to be more like Lebron?
RITHOLTZ: And you wrote a column, Giannis is now hitting from the outside, which makes him even more dangerous of a player.
COHEN: So he’s probably been compared more to Lebron.
RITHOLTZ: Giannis? I’m pronouncing his name wrong. Is — is he going to be more like Giannis or Lebron?
COHEN: Well, he’s always been compared with Lebron because their body types are kind of similar, right?
RITHOLTZ: Lebron is a little bigger though, isn’t he?
COHEN: Oh, yeah. Well, but — but Giannis is …
RITHOLTZ: Taller, bigger, beefier.
COHEN: … Giannis is thick.
COHEN: Oh, my God, he’s like Gurthie, right?
The thing I think that makes him like Giannis is that they’re closer to the same age and they belong to similar generation so …
COHEN: … the amazing thing about Giannis this year is that he’s probably going to win the MVP award for the second year in a row. He’s averaging about 30 minutes per game. There are 48 minutes in an NBA game …
COHEN: … which means that he’s only paying 30 minutes and he’s putting up stats that he’s going to win the MVP.
In his first few years, Lebron played like 42 minutes a game.
COHEN: And I think what makes Zion more like Giannis and Lebron is that his minutes are always going to be monitored for his career. Because of his body type, because of his age, because of the way the NBA has played today, he’s going to play like 32, 33 minutes. And that means that like in the playoffs, hopefully, he will be fresher.
RITHOLTZ: So fresher, you also want to maintain the ACL is a problem, maintain the Achilles — like when you look at the injuries that people in the NBA tend to get, they seem to come in different waves as the game changers over time.
COHEN: Yeah, they’re overused injuries, right?
RITHOLTZ: Yeah, yeah.
COHEN: We’re not used to seven footers jumping out and trying to guard three-pointer …
COHEN: … having to be as mobile as you do now. So I’m I think we’re still learning a lot about that, like I think even the smartest teams know that they don’t know all that much about injuries and injury prevention, and like wearables and biometrics, like this, in some ways, is the next frontier of all of this stuff.
RITHOLTZ: So who do you think is the most interesting person in the league? And I’m going to ask you that for players and for coaches or executives.
COHEN: Interesting in what sense?
RITHOLTZ: In any sense you choose. Interesting in terms of their impact on the game, interesting in their potential.
COHEN: Well, you know, the real answer is Steph Curry because I just love watching him. I still find him just thrilling to watch. But — but I — actually, the most interesting guys in the league are the ones who were misvalued for some reason. And the evolution of the game has changed their value in the league and the premium that teams put on them. And so it tends to be like three-point shooters. And so not the Steph Curry types, almost like the — like the Steve Kerr player type.
So I’ve written a lot about these guys. I’ve written about Duncan Robinson with the Miami Heat who went to a small high school in New Hampshire. He went to Exeter Academy. He went to Williams College D III Williams College in the NESCAC, transferred to Michigan, went undrafted, played in the G League and now is the single best three-point shooter in the NBA. And it’s a guy who like, you know, basically the whole sport changed and he adapted, and suddenly he becomes this really valuable player.
RITHOLTZ: Did — did he adapt to the sports change to exactly where he was?
COHEN: The sport evolved into his favor.
COHEN: Right? And so, you know, it — it — it — his story is really a fairytale, right? But, to — to me, what made it so interesting was that it’s a case study in economics, right, and how we think about how we value players. Not too long ago Duncan Robinson was not valued all that highly, now, like every team, needs a Duncan Robinson.
RITHOLTZ: And that’s the same sort of progression that took place in the NFL with — that Michael Lewis wrote about with “The Blind Side” where there was an off-tackle that was never an important role, and then suddenly protecting the quarterback becomes so much more important following some rule changes and some just generally the way the game changed, same sort of thing. Suddenly what was, you know, a league minimum salary role becomes a $3 million, $4 million, $5 million role.
He got really lucky that this evolved right into his sweet spot. So — so that’s a player …
COHEN: Well, and the teams got lucky too because the only way to win in professional sports now is to find the inefficiencies in the market, right? Sometimes that’s the valuable role players.
RITHOLTZ: If — if there’s a cap, if there’s a salary cap.
COHEN: Correct. And, you know, the greatest inefficiency are the superstars, right, because in an open market, Lebron James is worth a whole lot more money than he’s paid right now, right, because his …
RITHOLTZ: Is that true?
COHEN: … salary is capped. Of course, like that’s why you want superstars is because like, you know, you — you don’t have …
RITHOLTZ: You can’t throw enough money at them, it doesn’t matter.
COHEN: Lebron James makes, what, $35 million a year.
COHEN: He’s really a bargain, right, because …
RITHOLTZ: Relative to what it means to the L.A. Lakers’ revenues.
COHEN: No, like relative to when you are building a team in the NBA, because there are a lot of other players who make $35 million a year because it’s the most that you can pay …
RITHOLTZ: Got you, OK.
COHEN: … like in an open market, what — a team would give Lebron $75 million, $100 million …
COHEN: … right? Even if it were an open market in a cap system where the team has a salary cap but the players didn’t, and you could offer them whatever you want. You can make a case that like if they were on a $100 million salary cap, you should give Lebron $90 million, right?
RITHOLTZ: And just fill in with everybody else …
COHEN: Yeah. And so like …
RITHOLTZ: … (Inaudible) million dollars …
COHEN: … superstars are the great inefficiency, and — and that’s what basketball teams believe. But there are other ways to find value and it’s to find value on the margins is to get those guys like Duncan Robinson and Shane Battier, like guys who are not valued the way the market suggests they should be.
RITHOLTZ: So there was another reference in the book that cracked me up. George Steinbrenner and the Harlem Globetrotters changed the NBA. You’re going to have to explain that because listeners are going to think they misheard that.
COHEN: It has to do with the formation of the three-point line, like the three-point line did not always exist in basketball. It seems so fundamental to how the game is played today. But somebody dropped the — somebody dropped the line on the court this little strip of tape and decided shots from inside will be worth two points and shots from outside will be worth three points.
RITHOLTZ: And — and I mis-remembered this when I had my conversation with Daryl Morey. I thought it was in college first, but it wasn’t, it started in the NBA first.
COHEN: It actually started in a basketball league called the American Basketball League …
COHEN: … which predated the American Basketball Association, which then merged with the NBA. And so in the ABL in the 1960’s, this short-lived doomed basketball league that was run by the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, they were the first to experiment with the three-point line in a professional league. And there were eight teams in this league, and who was one of the owners of this doomed basketball league, but George Steinbrenner …
COHEN: … before he bought the New York Yankees and …
RITHOLTZ: Which team did he own?
COHEN: He owned the Cleveland Pipers. And there was this discussion in one of their meetings. A couple weeks ago I went down and found these papers in this archive at the University of Texas that sort of showed how this league was formed. And the guy who started the league was this guy named Abe Saperstein who has his visionary marketing waves behind the Harlem Globetrotters. He also started the ABL.
And he had so much power that one day he missed one of their meetings where all of the owners came to be, and they decided that they would try to strike back at some of his power by eliminating the three-point line. So they took a vote, do we think like we should have a three-point line? And if we do, like where should it be? Should it be at 23 feet? Should it be at 20 feet? Like where exactly. And they decided to move the three-point line in, so three feet they moved it in. They have this vote.
Steinbrenner votes against it. He says, “Keep it where Saperstein wants it to be.” But it passes by a four-three margin. Saperstein comes back to the next meeting just completely ignores what happened in his absence and set the line at 23 feet nine inches away from the center of the basket. And where is the three-point line in the NBA today? Twenty-three feet and nine inches away from the basket. It’s exactly were Abe Saperstein decided it should be 60 years ago.
RITHOLTZ: That — that — that’s quite fascinating. You would never guess that Steinbrenner has impacted not just Major League Baseball, but the NBA as well.
There was a stat in your book that I found completely and totally insane, and I have to ask you about this.
COHEN: Which one?
RITHOLTZ: The Warriors have outscored their opponents by more than 4,000 points in Curry’s minutes. In other words, when Steph Curry is on the floor, over the past five years — talk about plus/minus — that has generated an advantage for the Golden State Warriors of plus 4,000 points. That can’t possibly be, right? That’s just …
COHEN: Are you questioning my math, Barry?
RITHOLTZ: Absolutely insane.
COHEN: It is insane, and the most insane thing about it is that I believe they are being outscored by the other team when Steph Curry is not on the court, right? So they are negative when he’s not on the court. They’re — they’re plus 4,000 when he’s on the court, and the other team beats them when he’s off the court. And …
RITHOLTZ: So …
COHEN: … that just show — it shows like this incredible force that Steph Curry has become.
RITHOLTZ: So his plus/minus has to be just crazy if that’s the case.
COHEN: Yeah, and that it — it speaks to why it was so brilliant to build a team around him like nobody thought that you could or that you should and the Warriors approved everybody wrong.
RITHOLTZ: So — so let’s talk about some — you mentioned going down to Texas and doing some research. Who is the most interesting person you spoke to when you’re researching this? And by interesting, I mean, who is the most surprising person that you came away from the conversation with, hmm, I really didn’t expect that?
COHEN: I talked to a lot of interesting people, I talked to Steph Curry, I talked to Eugene Fama, I talked to David Booth, Tom Gilovich, these — all of these …
RITHOLTZ: So I haven’t had Steph Curry on, but that’s my — that’s my list right there.
COHEN: That’s your bucket list.
RITHOLTZ: Not bucket list, that’s checked off already.
COHEN: But Steph is on the bucket list. Yeah, I have to say one of the most interesting people I talked to is a guy named Nick Hagen who I don’t think you had on this show before.
RITHOLTZ: I have not.
COHEN: Nick Hagen is a fifth-generation sugar beet farmer on the border of Minnesota and North Dakota. And I took a trip out to his farm because I wanted to know like do farmers believe in the hot hand, like this is one of the reasons why — this is one of the reasons why people have studied the hot hand is because it applies to all these different industries.
And so I went out there during wheat harvest, and Nick is this fascinating guy because his family has been in the farming business for five generations, right, going back to like his great, great grandfather in the middle of the 1800’s. And yet he didn’t think that he would enter the family business. He was a trombonist. He came to Juilliard to play music before he finally decided, “Actually, I do want to go back into the family business,” and moved back to this farm.
And what he told me was like music, and farming, and basketball couldn’t be any more different, like music is more like basketball than it is like farming. So in basketball, the court is always the same, right, like, you know, the parameters. In farming, it’s always moving. So like if the basketball court is a rectangle, farming is like one day it could be a rhombus and the next day it could be a trapezoid, and next day could be a triangle.
RITHOLTZ: Is that a function of weather, the market for the props …
RITHOLTZ: … a little bit of everything, yeah.
COHEN: Like you do not have control. And so what he has learned is that basketball is about playing offense, right? Farming is about playing defense and trying to play long game and keep in mind like all of these lessons that you learned for all these years. So like he doesn’t chase patterns, he doesn’t believe in the hot hand. Even though he does believe in the hot hand, he doesn’t behave as if he believes in the hot hand. What he does is he trusts principles instead of chasing patterns.
And to meet like — you know, I — I could talk to academics like I’ve been in NBA locker rooms, I’ve never been on a sugar beet farm before. And that was one of like the most thrilling parts of this book for me.
RITHOLTZ: So last question before we get to our favorite questions, you are simultaneously writing a book and working for the Journal full-time writing a column. Lots of folks have said that’s impossible to do. You have to take time off. How are you able to balance both of those? It’s not easy to write a book while you’re also writing columns that are if not on the same topics, certainly similar topics to what you covering in the book.
COHEN: A lot of early mornings and long weekends, and not taking vacation, and I — I realized not too long ago that I haven’t watch much television over the course of the last two or three years.
RITHOLTZ: There’s nothing on.
COHEN: Yeah. And so — so there was that. I give myself a lot of time to write the book. It was like 18 months from start to finish of — of writing, so it’s just sort of trying to find time whenever I could. But I have to say like I think that writing a book made be better at writing stories for the Wall Street Journal. It’s sort of like cross-training in a sense like it just accessed a different part of my brain that was fun to play with that I never really got to exercise all that much.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting.
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I have to tell you I approached this book in — with great trepidation for a couple of reasons. First, I had already had Kahneman, and Gilovich, and Miller and a whole run of people on. And second, I really enjoyed the story you wrote about Adam and Josh about their paper. And I’m like, oh, I hope this book doesn’t suck because every now and then I’ll start a book and I’m like, yeah, I can’t finish this, but I really liked it and I plowed through it. And you did a really nice job taking what’s essentially this narrow, wonky academic theory and turned it into a compelling 280 pages worth of a discussion. It’s a great narrative.
COHEN: Well, thank you. Thank you for overcoming your trepidation, and I’m glad that it didn’t suck.
RITHOLTZ: It really didn’t suck. First of all, I did say it’s — it’s good, wonky beat (inaudible) …
RITHOLTZ: … because — because it was. I’m like it’s interesting enough and it’s told in a sort of the inherent tension. I think the — the tension resolves itself towards the end.
COHEN: Well, it’s funny, I think writing for the Wall Street Journal actually gives me good training for this because when I write about sports the Journal, I write for people who know everything about sports and nothing about sports.
RITHOLTZ: Which is not easy to do.
COHEN: Yeah, and so you have to thread that needle, and that’s what I wanted to do with this book. I wanted it to be entertaining to people who knew the saga of the hot hand and also people …
COHEN: … who don’t even know what the hot hand is. And so that meant like trying to reach as broad an audience as possible without alienating that core audience.
RITHOLTZ: And — and if you describe the hot hand simply as streaks, everybody understands what a streak is, it’s not — it’s not that difficult to — to grasp. But I thought you did a — a nice book, and — and I’ll repeat on the air what I — what I told you earlier.
So, you know, I always sift through the sources just to see who they used, and I don’t know a lot of people read the acknowledgements, but it’s another version of the sources.
COHEN: One of the best part of the book, you should read acknowledgements.
That’s the secret of any book.
RITHOLTZ: And — and I was shocked to actually find that you mentioned the Masters in Business episode with Gilovich, and that set me back looking through the book. And I just went through — go down the list, Thaler, Kahneman, Miller, Booth, Fama …
COHEN: I’m a — I think I’m a few years into like a Ph.D. in business from listening to this podcast because like the beautiful thing is that not only have you had all of the luminaries come in here and be really open, but there are transcripts, right, like you can read these interviews as if their essays almost. They’re biographies of these really brilliant minds.
RITHOLTZ: What — what’s — the only problem with the transcripts is we — we don’t clean them up, they just get cut and paste up like that. And very often, what sounds normal in a spoken sentence reads terribly. And …
COHEN: But there are some people who speak in paragraphs, and those people just blow my mind because I don’t know how they do that.
RITHOLTZ: I had a buddy in grad school who would write when we would have — some — some final exams were essays and some are multiple choice, and his first draft of an essay is better than everybody else’s third draft. His — the way he thought and — and constructed something was — shout-out to Jeff — was so just beautifully done …
COHEN: But infuriating, right?
RITHOLTZ: … just like — listen, the fact is that every draft makes a column better, and you don’t have an infinite amount of time to do draft 97, it’s — all right, here’s the research, here’s a rough outline, here’s the first pass, now I’m going back and changing the structure and adding more stuff, now I’m on the second pass. And then usually there’s a third or fourth pass after that. But that’s it. You don’t have time to do it. And I know if you do five more, it just gets that much better, tighter, faster, smarter, but who — you — you can’t do a month for a weekly column. It’s a weekly, and so that’s really the challenge. And — and I found that — that sort of thing really, really kind of interesting. So if you could speak fluidly the way we write, that would be a great thing.
I have a pet theory, which Barbara Tversky told me isn’t true or at least she says there’s no data that supports it — maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. I think the part of your brain responsible for writing is different, perhaps adjacent to the part of your brain responsible for speaking.
COHEN: Oh, that’s funny. I mean, I — I will say that I think Barbara Tversky knows more about the brain than I know about anything, so I …
COHEN: … will trust her judgment on that. But I do think there is just something about like sometimes I will just sort of dictate things and go back to them later. And what I’ve learned actually is that sometimes the easiest way for me to write a story, I can be staring at a screen all day long …
COHEN: … writing. And if I look at that document on my phone on the subway, leaving work, it looks totally different and something clicks. It’s sort of like that thing where you stare a crossword for like 15 minutes and you can’t get a few boxes, and you come back to it a few hours later and it’s just staring you right in the face and like …
RITHOLTZ: There it is.
COHEN: … you’re like how did I not see this already.
RITHOLTZ: Have you ever seen the Word Jumbles where there’s a reset button and you — it just changes the order of the letters?
COHEN: No, that’s brilliant.
RITHOLTZ: So — so that’s on — on a phone or on a computer.
COHEN: I have friends who, when they’re writing stories, will just change the font of the story as they’re writing because it makes them look at it in a completely different light.
RITHOLTZ: So I don’t know if you have — so you go through an editor when you publish. When I publish at Bloomberg, I have an editor who does that. When I throw something up on the blog, I am just completely blind to my own typos. So sometimes I’ll ask someone else to give it a quick through and — and catch some things that I missed. But the technique that’s other people have talked about is take what you’ve written, cut and paste it into a different Word document or whatever your document — you know, word processor of choice is, and change the size and the choice of fonts …
COHEN: For sure.
RITHOLTZ: … and now you’re looking at it with fresh eyes, not seeing the same thing.
COHEN: Because words appear on different lines, right?
COHEN: They’re not on the same order.
RITHOLTZ: And it just — it just changes your ability to see typos and spelling and grammar issues that you completely missed the first time.
COHEN: What some editors at the Journal have taught me like we fact-checked all — all of our own stories, right? We don’t have magazine fact-checker (inaudible) …
RITHOLTZ: Yeah, but you have your own bias there.
COHEN: Well, sometimes what we do is if I have looked at a story a lot I will fact-check from the bottom-up. And so when you just read the story …
RITHOLTZ: Oh, interesting.
COHEN: … in a different way and you’re checking things off as you go, your eyes don’t glide over things in the order in which, you know, they’re coming, right, it’s flipped completely the opposite way.
RITHOLTZ: That — that’s really interesting. So 18 months into writing, is that — is that how long you’re working on this?
COHEN: For the draft, yeah, I mean, I …
RITHOLTZ: What about the research part?
COHEN: Oh, yeah, I worked on the proposal for a long time before that and the research part. I hired a research assistant who downloaded every paper ever written about the hot hand and sifted through them and like summarized all of them.
RITHOLTZ: So you didn’t actually read every paper.
COHEN: I read the summaries of all of them, but I read all the major ones. So I have — I have in my apartment to like 500-page binders with double-sided printing of like every scholarly paper ever written about “The Hot Hand” because I wanted to like be really fluent in the literature and not miss anything.
RITHOLTZ: So when — when you talk about, first we believe this, now we believe that, now we believe this, is it really more of sort of a pendulum swinging? It goes from one extreme then it goes to the other. And then when it comes back, it doesn’t quite come back as far and …
COHEN: Maybe it settles (inaudible).
RITHOLTZ: Eventually we come up with some understanding and neither — so the initial paper, clearly, we see patterns where there are none even if the math is wrong about the basketball. And then the pushback, hey, but the math is wrong, it doesn’t mean the underlying thesis is wrong, but there is a hot hand.
And then it kind of comes back, well, there’s a hot hand, but we weren’t looking at how difficult the shot was. We weren’t looking at the defensive intensity and that changes the number. And then a few years later, oh, now we have the ability to look at that.
COHEN: And the pendulum swinging because of forces beyond our control. So the first …
RITHOLTZ: Meaning technology or …
COHEN: I think the data that we have, right? I mean, the first paper was written using the best data that was available back then.
RITHOLTZ: Which was terrible statistics.
COHEN: It looks primitive now, but …
COHEN: … at the time, it was cutting-edge, like the reason they were able to write this paper is that the Philadelphia 76ers had a statistician who is the only person who took note of the chronology of shots. So he knew like what you would do after you made a shot or you made two shots or three shots. Nobody else was doing at the time. That seems crazy now because we know everything there is to know about any given shot in the NBA, right? And we can look back many years and figure out anything we might want to know.
But that wasn’t available back then. The data …
RITHOLTZ: So …
COHEN: … that we have now was not available to the researchers in like their nerdiest, wonkiest wildest dreams or else they would have used it because they did.
RITHOLTZ: So the 76ers had a statistician and no other team did, was that — was that because of Dr. J?
COHEN: Why? You know, I don’t know. I think this guy named Harvey Pollack was just sort of, you know, one of his own. He was like a man before his time. And he was nicknamed Super Stat like everybody knew he was like the towering figure in analytics before analytics was like this buzzword in sports.
RITHOLTZ: And — and yet it took decades to catch on.
COHEN: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: Quite shocking. So I could keep you all day, but I know I have to get to some of my favorite questions before we let you go. And I’m not going to ask you what you’re streaming or listening because I know you’re not watching TV, and I know some of the podcasts you’ve listened to. So instead, can I even ask you what your first car was? Did you ever own a car?
COHEN: I drove a ’97 4runner in high school and college that used to be my dad’s.
RITHOLTZ: Solid Toyota truck, tough to kill.
COHEN: But I know nothing about cars, I am not a car guy. I — I …
COHEN: … have absolutely no interest in cars.
RITHOLTZ: That’s a generational thing.
COHEN: Is it? I like driving cars like I like — I like — when I’m on the road like renting a car and I take Zipcars. I just — I have no interest in like old Porches or Ferraris …
COHEN: … or anything. And …
RITHOLTZ: In — in the first couple of years of doing this, I started asking that question as a — as a — what did you have for breakfast …
RITHOLTZ: … what was your first car just to do a voice check. And then the answers became so interesting …
RITHOLTZ: … that I started weaving it into the — these questions. And then …
COHEN: And now they’re not interested.
RITHOLTZ: … as I interview younger people, they’re like why would I ever need to car. Between Zipcar and Uber, who needs to own a car?
COHEN: I’ll tell you what I’m streaming.
RITHOLTZ: Go ahead.
COHEN: I’m a big Taylor swift fan.
RITHOLTZ: Oh, really? Have you seen the — the new Netflix documentary? How — how is that?
COHEN: It’s pretty great.
RITHOLTZ: Oh, really?
RITHOLTZ: It’s in my list, I haven’t gotten to it.
COHEN: It’s a — there is a scene in there and you will know what scene it is when you see it that’s like really resting, it’s like one of the best things you’ll see on TV all year.
RITHOLTZ: OK, I will definitely — I will definitely check that out. What — so now I’m going to ask you, what else are you listening to and — and watching on — on — on streaming services?
COHEN: My streaming services, my choices are strange. I — I fall asleep every night watching Netflix on my phone.
COHEN: And usually what I do is …
RITHOLTZ: When — when I travel I do that with the iPad.
COHEN: Do you?
RITHOLTZ: Yeah, absolutely.
COHEN: So now I put in — my wife is sleeping next to me and I have like an — an air pot in, and I fall asleep. And the show I’ve been watching over and over is this old — not old, but old-ish show called Gilmore Girls, which …
RITHOLTZ: I can’t believe you said that.
RITHOLTZ: I’m going to out myself.
COHEN: You’re a Gilmore Girls fan?
RITHOLTZ: So last summer …
RITHOLTZ: … so my — my wife and her sister have a house out in the Hamptons they inherited from their parents. And there’s always an argument about what we — if we’re out there, what we’re going to watch. And my — my problem with them is that will argue over something. I’ll give into them and then they’ll fall asleep, and I’m watching something of theirs.
And one day we were prepping to go out and I’m flipping through Netflix, and I’m just — Gilmore Girls, what’s this? And my sister-in-law says, “I love that show.” She goes, “In fact, that’s the show that had Melissa McCarthy in hit …
RITHOLTZ: … before anyone knew who she was. So we start watching an episode, and two seasons through it, I still have like a dozen seasons to go.
COHEN: The beautiful thing about that show is that it gives you material to fall asleep to whenever you want. So it doesn’t seem like a good show to fall asleep to because it’s very fast-paced. It’s very like …
COHEN: … (inaudible), right?
RITHOLTZ: A little bit. The dialogue is very snappy.
COHEN: The dialogue is very snappy, and it moves along quickly and you would think like you don’t want those voices in your ear before you fall asleep.
But what I found is that it just sort of — I’ve seen them so many times that like they’re sort of background noise. And by the time I get to the end of the series, it’s been so long since I saw the pilot and the first season that I just go back to it and start it again.
RITHOLTZ: So …
… so I do that with two shows, one to watch and one to fall asleep with.
RITHOLTZ: I think Seinfelds’ Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, I have that to just roll over to the next show.
COHEN: But they’re too short is the problem. Anything about Gilmore Girls (inaudible) …
RITHOLTZ: Well, but you can’t watch them every day.
COHEN: Right, sure.
RITHOLTZ: You have to — like that’s a little bit, you watch one or two a week and you go through the whole series. And by the time you finish the whole series, a new season comes out.
COHEN: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: And when that’s done you could start over. But the other show that you can — I have two shows to fall asleep to. One is the Big Bang …
RITHOLTZ: … which I’ve seen a million times …
RITHOLTZ: … another guest, former writer/producer of the show.
And — and then second, and I find this hilarious — my wife finds it’s annoying. There is a show on the SyFy channel called How the Universe Works.
COHEN: Ah, that’ll put you right to sleep.
RITHOLTZ: So — so I am — but those shows work on two levels. If you’re watching them while you’re awake in a well-lit room, it really is a very accessible way to reach some really interesting cutting-edge astrophysics, things that are changing that — like all sorts of fascinating discoveries that you just never will see in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. It’s way out thee both literally and — and physically.
But second you put that in a darkened room …
RITHOLTZ: … the — the guy who does the voice-overs …
COHEN: The deep voice, yeah.
RITHOLTZ: … he’s got — it’s just sonorific, his voice is so deep and soothing. It’s almost …
COHEN: I have to say the real TV equivalent of Ambien …
COHEN: … I will recommend this …
COHEN: … is food shows from other countries that are subtitled. So they’re slow, there’s classical music like Chef’s Table: France …
COHEN: … will put you right out, like that one season will last you like a year of falling asleep.
RITHOLTZ: So — so my — I always have this disagreement with my wife. She watches shows like Love It or List It or Property Brothers …
COHEN: They engage your brain though is the problem.
RITHOLTZ: That’s — anytime there’s an inherent tension and a …
RITHOLTZ: … conclusion, your brain wants to stay awake until the end. So, to me, Deep Space, what is more relaxing than a darkened screen and just the — the universe? It just — it’s like sleeping under the stars.
COHEN: But what’s your take on Gilmore Girls? Pretty great, right?
RITHOLTZ: It’s really well-written. I really like the characters. I haven’t gotten as deep into the show as you have.
RITHOLTZ: So it’s — you know, as — as you watch the show progress, there are — there are always the opportunity to go the wrong way and derail a show. And I’ll close a little controversy right now.
So I’ve watched all of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from the beginning …
COHEN: OK, yeah.
RITHOLTZ: … it’s wonderful except …
COHEN: Same, right.
RITHOLTZ: … except when you watch the initial season, the initial season is essentially what is it like for a housewife in the late 50’s, early 60’s to break into standup comedy in an era of very repressed speech. That’s a fascinating topic.
And, unfortunately, the show has been too successful because it kind of abandons that theme and it’s — I don’t care about going to the Catskills in the summer even though I spent summers there as a kid. I don’t — like there was a whole run of the — the in-laws, moving to Queens …
RITHOLTZ: … and that — that whole thing was just the — the — the B storylines. And you could take a show like Seinfeld that would have four equal storylines and have them all go off, and they would interweave and all reach a conclusion at the end.
I found the B storylines …
COHEN: You’re less invested in like (inaudible) husband?
RITHOLTZ: Yeah, I don’t care about him …
RITHOLTZ: … or …
COHEN: Did those shows feel similar to you, Maisel and Gilmore Girls?
RITHOLTZ: There are elements that are very similar, sure.
COHEN: Well, they’re written by the same person so …
RITHOLTZ: That would — that would make sense that you know what, I’ve noticed there was a British show I used to love called Coupling, which is basically friends with some teeth, like Friends was a milk-toast, lazy …
COHEN: But crooked teeth.
RITHOLTZ: No, I mean — yeah …
… I mean, with a bite, but I — I don’t know if that’s really true about the British dentistry anymore, but it — it was acerbic and nasty and funny, and it was written by a guy whose last name is Moffat, who later goes on to write a bunch of Dr. Who and a bunch of other stuff, and it’s amazing how smart a writer — how entertaining a writer. But I think I kind of knew that some of the people associated with Gilmore Girls were also associated with — with Miss Maisel.
RITHOLTZ: What — what’s so interesting about the show is Melissa McCarthy’s character …
RITHOLTZ: … is just so — like you see the glimmers — because I came to the show after she early — already was a giant star.
RITHOLTZ: And you could see glimmers. But even back then like, oh, she is going to be — hindsight bias — she’s going to be fantastic.
RITHOLTZ: To — is it worth watching the rest of the show? Am I going to be disappointed?
COHEN: Oh, absolutely, not only do you get to watch the whole thing, you get to see Rory go to college and — and come out of college.
COHEN: But, you know, Netflix did a revival last year.
RITHOLTZ: I saw.
COHEN: So there is like …
RITHOLTZ: I haven’t seen it, but I’ve read about it.
COHEN: … there’s four episodes. They’re about an hour and a half each, and so you can kind of catch-up with them about (inaudible).
RITHOLTZ: Is it worth it because the — every …
COHEN: It’s good.
RITHOLTZ: … as an Arrested Development fan, I was warned off of the Netflix version.
COHEN: It will — it will satisfy an itch.
RITHOLTZ: OK, all right, that works. Wow, that was a long answer to that.
COHEN: Long Gilmore Girls. And you thought — and you thought asking about streaming would be boring.
RITHOLTZ: Well, you told me you weren’t watching anything.
COHEN: Oh, that’s …
RITHOLTZ: So that’s — that’s why I was …
COHEN: I watch old things, I watch Gilmore Girls.
RITHOLTZ: There you go, so you’re not — there’s nothing you’re watching currently.
COHEN: Oh, I — once I was done with the book, I — I caught up on succession in like a weekend and loved it.
RITHOLTZ: Right. So I watched the first two episodes.
COHEN: Yeah. It’s better.
RITHOLTZ: I don’t — I don’t like any of the characters and I can’t — I can’t — you know, there’s nobody I relate to. And it’s like …
RITHOLTZ: … wait, if I don’t like any of these characters, if I’m not invested in any of them, if they can all get hit by a bus and I don’t care, why am I watching this? I want to feel — and I know some people have said, well, I feel the same way about Seinfeld.
There was a — a lovable obnoxiousness about them, it’s not — and the same thing with Curb Your Enthusiasm, right? Aside from all the cringe worthiness, there’s a certain appeal to the characters, and everybody wishes …
COHEN: Well, everybody has a bit of Larry David in that, right?
RITHOLTZ: Well — well, you wish — so Larry David is nothing like Larry David. Larry — that is his (inaudible) …
COHEN: Exaggerating, right, that’s right.
RITHOLTZ: … blown up. And we all wish there are times when we could give voice like I come into the city on the 7. I’d go from the — because I don’t want to go to Penn station, so I’ll come in that way. And I am still, after years and years and years, astonished that this is literally the busiest subway stop in all of the New York City Subway System, and people haven’t figured out to get the hell out of the way of the door.
Really? Are you just paying — and I — I want to — there was a great Seth Meyers before the new season came out where they have Larry David on. And basically Seth — Larry David loose on all the riders to be Larry David and throughout the day. So one of the riders invites people to his home for dinner, and Larry — no, no, you have to work with these people. They don’t want to waste their Thursday night having dinner — and it’s just great to have Larry David there as a foil for your deepest darkest secrets. I have that sort of running internal narrative constantly.
COHEN: The best thing that I have streamed recently probably is that I am a huge John Mulaney dork. And I just think he’s a genius. He’s the funniest guy in the planet.
RITHOLTZ: What is he up to 10 different …
COHEN: There’s so many — there’s so — like I — I watch his talk show appearances because they’re hilarious. The funniest thing on the Internet is he did an interview at the 92nd street Y with Nick Kroll in their Oh Hello characters with John Oliver …
RITHOLTZ: And they’re — right, they are old — old colleagues from way back when.
COHEN: And it’s an interview with John Oliver, and it’s about 90 minutes. John Oliver interviews them. They take Q&As, and I cannot describe how just outrageously funny this thing is. It is like — it’s — it’s — I — I think he is the funniest standup on the planet. It’s funnier than any of the standups because …
COHEN: … like the way that he can embody these characters is — it’s — it’s incredible. I would watch it like I have watched it so many times and I — like happily watch it anytime it comes up.
RITHOLTZ: All right. So I’m going to put that on my list. Let me — let me run through some of my favorite questions that otherwise people are yelling — email me and — and — and complain. So who are your early mentors? What journalists influence the way you approach covering sports?
COHEN: There were a lot before I got to the Wall Street Journal, but there was one guy at the Wall Street Journal named Sam Walker who is the Founding Sports Editor of the Journal, who is this brilliant and insane, and insanely brilliant, and brilliantly insane person who sort of set the bar really, really high.
And so when I was an intern, when I freelanced for the paper for a while, even when I was a staff writer, it felt like every time you got a story into the paper, you were like pole vaulting basically, like you were trying to get above a certain point. And …
COHEN: … I think that’s why we used to hear a lot of the Journal like we didn’t know that you covered sports because we didn’t. But now I think people understand that we try to do something a little bit different, and that’s because of Sam. I think he sort of taught me what a good story was and like to not be precious with my own writing and to just like let other people make it better. So Sam hired me and — and had this huge influence on my life.
RITHOLTZ: Let’s talk about books. What are some of your favorite books? What do you like to read when you’re not writing books?
COHEN: Yeah, I mean, it’s — I — I am a sucker for the Michael Lewis books. I — like I think “Moneyball” is — is still brilliant. And when — when I went to visit Nick Hagen on the farm, we were talking as we boarded like his wheat combine. I asked him sometimes I write the classical music and I asked him like who should I be listening to, like who — who is your favorite composer since he was at Juilliard and he played trombone.
And he said, you know, I know this is going to sound silly, but like the best guy is Mozart. And he’s like and — and I know like, you know, other people know Mozart, but like I know Mozart.
COHEN: I’m like I appreciate him, and I sort of feel the same way about Michael Lewis, like everybody loves his books, but like, you know, as someone who has tried to write a book along the same lines like the stories that he finds, like on a sentence level, like everything about them …
COHEN: … they’re — they’re just brilliant like they just — they hold up. And whenever I feel stuck, I might sometimes go back and — and read some — just a few pages from his books because like that voice like it just gets in your head. And it’s — I love it. I — I — I anxiously await all of his new books.
RITHOLTZ: So — so “Moneyball,” do you want to mention another one of his or — and then other books you — you like?
COHEN: Well, I mean, “The Blind Side,” “The Undoing Project.” No, I don’t know, I — I — I must — I — I — I read these types of books. I mean, part of this book is like it is like using a social — it is like using an idea from social psychology to explore the world. And there are a lot of books along those lines, and I think I read them at an impressionable age. They really like …
COHEN: … they really became popular when I was like in middle school or high school, and like they were just sort of intoxicating to me. And so there a lot of books like that.
I’m in novels, too, like, you know, I love the Sally Rooney book, “Normal People,” when it came out like — like everybody else in New York City it seems. And — but — but those that — you know, “Moneyball” and like the Michael Lewis Cannon, that’s that — that’s what really does it for me.
RITHOLTZ: Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned from the experience.
COHEN: Well, I feel like I fail every time a write a story because like, you know, you’re writing a newspaper story that’s 1,000 words, 1,200 words, like you’ve talk to a lot of people, you know, all these nuances that you can’t possibly pack into the story. And so like, you know, every time a story comes out like I — I feel like it’s not good enough, right?
But — but one time I really failed was actually not too long ago. I wrote one of my like bajillion stories about the Golden State Warriors last year, and it was right before the finals. And, you know, I needed something new to say about this team that I’ve been writing about for five or six years, and we were a daily newspaper and like, you know, give me a break, not every story is perfect.
And I was trying to express this thought that I had that the Golden State Warriors were the Golden State Warriors because they were like five really valuable players on that team. And you take out any one of them and the whole thing falls apart. It’s a bit like a Jenga tower, right?
COHEN: And the way I phrased this in the story was like the Warriors are this dynasty because of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. And the end was italicized, right, because it was meant to say that like if you take out anyone of their contributions, they’re not the Warriors.
That’s not always the case with basketball teams like …
COHEN: … basketball teams are built around one or two guys.
The ‘96 Bulls are the Bulls with Pippen …
COHEN: … and Jordan.
COHEN: You could sort of substitute a lot of other guys, right? You can’t do that with the Warriors.
The problem was that I forgot that, like on Twitter and on social media, you can’t italicize words, right? And so when this stuff ran on social media, when I wrote tweets that we could share from like, you know …
COHEN: … (inaudible) O’Shea, it — it appears as like the Golden State Warriors are good because of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. And this turned into one day last year like the entire Internet dunking on the Wall Street Journal because it read like the Beatles are good because of Paul, George, John and Ringo. You know, like it was …
RITHOLTZ: But that’s a fair statement.
COHEN: Yeah, but it — it just …
RITHOLTZ: Sure, it’s Paul and John but, you know, they’re not the Beatles necessarily without George and Ringo.
COHEN: But it made for — it — it looked like this very silly sentiment. And I — I just felt terrible. I felt like when you have the entire Internet like making fun, if you’ve heard that, it’s like …
COHEN: … oh, God, that’s stumped, right.
RITHOLTZ: I have that every day, that’s fine.
COHEN: And so what it taught me was like you kind of have to be careful. I’m like every word actually matters. And also that like people forget about things on Twitter after a few hours.
RITHOLTZ: Right, the half-life is really short. Future reference and all capitalized …
RITHOLTZ: … is the equivalent of …
COHEN: Or in stars, yes.
RITHOLTZ: Right, that’s right.
COHEN: That (inaudible) a thing to know a couple of months ago.
RITHOLTZ: All right. Well, I’ll share my other secret — Twitter secret with you later. You’ll — you’ll appreciate this. What do you do for fun? What do you do when you’re not banging out columns for the Journal?
COHEN: Well, I can’t watch sports because sports is work, right? And my brain …
COHEN: … is always working. I just wrote a book in my spare time, so I — I don’t know all that much about fun. But one thing …
… one thing that I love lately is that — this is going to sound silly, but there’s this YouTube channel from Bon Appetit, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, and I’m not a great home cook, but this — these videos are like so magical and absorbing.
COHEN: And like there — there are — the — the editors in the test kitchen and the recipe developers, they’re just really charming, and like you sort of fall in love with them …
RITHOLTZ: No kidding.
COHEN: … after a couple of episodes.
RITHOLTZ: Oh, I’m — I’m like that.
COHEN: There are like new episodes like almost every day. And my wife and I, they’re like 15 minutes, we’ll just put it on and like it really like soothes me before I go to sleep.
RITHOLTZ: OK. So I’m going to give you marriage advice …
RITHOLTZ: … that I wish someone had given me many decades ago.
RITHOLTZ: My wife and I both like to cook.
RITHOLTZ: And it’s only fairly recently that we started on a Sunday night pulling a cook book out and making a recipe from scratch. And not just like a simple, you know, boil water, throw pasta in, like a full-blown Bobby Flay recipe. And we’ve developed over just a couple of years a few favorite things. We have a dinner party. We know exactly what we’re going to make.
RITHOLTZ: And I — you’re married how long now?
COHEN: Like three years.
RITHOLTZ: OK. Had we been doing this 25 years ago, we would be fantastic chefs. We don’t do it over the summer because that’s always barbecue.
RITHOLTZ: But through — especially from like the late fall to early spring …
COHEN: Is it a new recipe every time?
RITHOLTZ: Just about.
COHEN: Oh, that’s great, yeah.
RITHOLTZ: Just every now and then we’ll go back to something and — and …
COHEN: So you build a repertoire.
RITHOLTZ: So — right. And very often it’s like, wow, that’s a lot of work and this isn’t that good. Most of the time it’s this was really good, and every now and then it’s like, oh, my goodness this is natural.
COHEN: Who are your favorite chefs?
RITHOLTZ: I have to say I love the Bobby Flay cookbook.
RITHOLTZ: And we have like a whole shelf of a dozen different cookbooks. There are a handful of people that try and work on — on basics. And I am — I am embarrassed — what is her name? She has a restaurant I really like out in the Hamptons called the Canal Café — that’s something gourmet, I’m drawing a blank. Had I prepped for this question …
COHEN: Sure, yeah. I threw you off-guard with the Bon Appetit (inaudible).
RITHOLTZ: Right, absolutely. But — but play with that and see …
COHEN: OK, that’s great.
RITHOLTZ: … if that does anything for you because we’ve just had a ton of fun with it.
COHEN: And it’s advised that life is actually not only useful, but like fun. It makes you actually want to do it so …
RITHOLTZ: Right. And you start to look forward to …
RITHOLTZ: … because usually Sunday night is …
RITHOLTZ: … prepping for the beginning of work.
RITHOLTZ: Now you go shopping sometime over the weekend and then you do this. And, of course, you have a bottle of wine open.
RITHOLTZ: And sometimes you’re drinking a bit throughout.
RITHOLTZ: It doesn’t have to be Sunday night …
RITHOLTZ: … it just worked out for us, but it’s a lot of fun.
And our final two questions, what sort of advice would you give a college grad who is interested in either sports or journalism?
COHEN: To take advantage of their place in the world. So sometimes when the Journal has interns, I always tell them this that what they know what their world is — is actually very different from the world of the people like running to Wall Street Journal. So like just by virtue of being 21 years old, you are on TikTok, right, and you talk to other 21-year-olds and, you know, what like this very interesting subset of people are interested. And so like you almost think of your world as like this sub-culture to mind, like you are an anthropologist.
And so by — the very first front page story I wrote for the Wall Street Journal was a few months after I graduated from college, and it was about this dance craze known as the Dougie, which you might remember there’s the song like, you know, teach me how to Dougie. And everybody in sports was doing it.
RITHOLTZ: Was this — was this in A-hed column?
COHEN: It was, it was an A-hed. And so — and I tell them specifically like, you know, the A-hed does not have to be about like, you know, birding or something, or something that like you think like (inaudible) …
RITHOLTZ: Esoteric …
COHEN: Yeah, like …
RITHOLTZ: … like strapped and …
COHEN: … they can just be something funny about something in your life.
And so like, you know, the people running the Wall Street Journal did not know what the Dougie was, but I was 21, of course, I knew what the Dougie was, right? And like you can take advantage of that, like what you know is actually pretty interesting.
RITHOLTZ: Quite, quite interesting. And what is it about the world of sports that you know today that you wish you knew — now normally I would say 20, 30 years ago …
COHEN: Yeah, 10 years ago?
RITHOLTZ: … but a couple of years ago when you got started in — in your career?
COHEN: That I should have taken a single course in economics or psychology or statistics or computer science when I was in college. I graduated from school and like immediately recognized that what I wanted to do I really needed more of like a quantitative background, that I don’t think I have to this day and I wish I knew how to write code, and I wish I knew how to like really understand statistics because it has become like essential in sports now, and really writing about sports like writing about sports fluently and finding interesting stories like you can really use numbers and then try to build stories around them, which is something I hope I did in this book.
RITHOLTZ: Well, quite fascinating, I really enjoyed the book. Thank you, Ben, for being so generous with your time.
We have been speaking with Ben Cohen. He is the NBA reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of the new book, “The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks.”
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I’m Barry Ritholtz. You’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.