Kragthorpe: Kirlenko swept into Americans' stat mania
When Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko unabashedly pursued a statistical goal last week, my initial response was to rip him for worrying so much about individual achievements.
But this guy is awfully hard to criticize. For one thing, he was refreshingly honest - as always - about his desire for a triple-double of points, rebounds and assists. And while he was using it to defend himself, the Russian's cultural observation was accurate: "America is a stats country."
The fascination with statistics, and their impact on athletes' salaries, is nothing new. Remember the old baseball trading cards with a player's year-by-year stats and a little anecdote on the back? In those days, that was about the only way to study a player's performance. The obsession about numbers is even greater in the instant-information age.
Nobody could carry, throw or catch the football in Sunday's AFC championship game without having CBS flash his in-game stats right after the play. And if not for the Jazz's installing an elaborate scoreboard/advertising wall this season, continually updating every Jazz player's points, rebounds and assists, Kirilenko would not have known how close he was to the triple-double in the win over Toronto. At least, I hope not.
The Delta Center scoreboard has always tracked point totals for every player on the floor.
But fans demand more and more information now - and they want it before the final box score is tallied.
"It's the age of accountability," said Rich Gordin, a Utah State University sports sociologist. "The American people hold athletes accountable for their performances. So they're constantly looking at their statistics."
Occasionally, those numbers are cause for celebration, not just comparison or criticism. Jazz fans were thrilled by Kirilenko's production and they even cheered Cleveland's LeBron James when he delivered 51 points against the home team Saturday - although that was before the Lakers' Kobe Bryant easily topped him with 81 points Sunday against Toronto.
The University of Utah's Keith Henschen, who teaches similar classes as Gordin, marvels at fans' "crazy" addiction to statistics. Yet in his work as a performance psychologist with clients including the Jazz, Henschen endorses athletes' paying at least some attention to their numbers, because everybody else does.
"Those are the rules" of society, he said. "They should be a little bit concerned about stats."
Certainly, there's danger in focusing on individual numbers in a team game. James and Bryant were probably justified in taking all of those shots, because their teams needed most of their points. It's also difficult to criticize Kirilenko for seeking to fill out his stat line with assists.
Yet even an assist, supposedly the most unselfish of all statistics in sports, can have its selfish side. I doubt John Stockton made any of those 15,000-plus passes leading to a teammate's basket while thinking, "I just need one more assist."
If the game was still in question and Kirilenko was consciously trying to pass instead of score, he could have cost the Jazz a victory. And if he's too eager to record blocks or steals in his quest for a "5x5," it could affect the team's defensive approach.
Henschen is willing to give Kirilenko a pass on focusing on the triple-double for two reasons: It was the first one of his career and, well, he's Andrei.
"If Andrei had a different personality, I'd worry about it," he said. "It's something he wanted to do once in his career. He may get other triple-doubles, but there's nothing like the first one.
"If he starts thinking about that all the time," Henschen added, "then we've got a problem, because this is a team game."
It's true. Even in a "stats country," winning or losing still counts.