In the Paint
Join Date: Dec 2007
The original stats geek
Cool story from five thirty eight. It's worth checking out from where this leaves off.
Meet the Man Who Preserved Decades of NBA History | FiveThirtyEight
Meet the Man Who Preserved Decades of NBA History
By CARL BIALIK
Dick Pfander has spent most of his life collecting and analyzing box scores from every NBA game since the league’s founding. He did most of his work in solitude, by hand, before the age of personal computers. And he did it simply for his own pleasure, surrounded by supportive family members who cared neither about basketball nor statistics, let alone their intersection.
Today, his analog hobby is paying digital dividends for stats-obsessed basketball fans. His work has helped fill gaps in the league’s statistical record for both its official website and the leading independent reference site. The project continues — but without Pfander.
An all-consuming “job”
Pfander started clipping box scores from newspapers as a teenager in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the late 1940s. He did it during high school, after his marriage to Colette Waterman, through jobs as a teacher and with the Defense Department, through the birth of his three children, and through Colette’s death, in 2009.
On vacations, Dick and Colette would travel to places where “he thought there might be a newspaper of use to him” in the local library’s archive, his daughter Julaine Eddy said in a telephone interview. “She’d drop him off and go do things around town while he sat in front of the microfiche machine.”
Pfander’s children say they and their mother didn’t share his passion for NBA stats, but they didn’t resent it. It was just one way he expressed his love for basketball and for statistics. He also refereed basketball games and compiled the stats for local youth baseball tournaments and swim meets. He didn’t mind that none of his children played basketball or got into stats.
Most of all, he sat in front of the television, “going back and forth between watching the basketball and working on the stats,” said his son, Greg. “It never bothered me that he did it — it was his thing. It just seems like that’s my dad, that’s what he always did.”
Julaine’s memory of her father working on his stats is vivid. “Dad had this huge desk at home, and it was him sitting at that desk. The TV was visible from that desk, and he sat there and worked,” she said. “And as a kid, you think, ‘That must be a job he’s doing.’”
Why did he do it? Pfander, 79, isn’t expansive on the topic. “It was a hobby for me,” he said in an interview last week. “It was a fun thing for me to do.” He considered himself a statistician long before NBA teams started hiring statisticians. “I had always been interested in statistics,” Pfander said, and “I kind of liked doing statistical-type things.”
He added, “I don’t think anybody would do all that unless they enjoyed it.”
Courtesy of Colleen GreffDick Pfander
His hobby nonetheless might have stalled decades ago if he hadn’t connected with his best single box-score source, a kindred spirit who collected NBA stats for a living: Harvey Pollack. The Philadelphia 76ers’ director of statistical information has been working in pro basketball since before the NBA, debuting with the league’s forerunner, the Basketball Association of America, in 1946. The two men aren’t clear on when they began collaborating. Pfander said in a telephone interview he thinks it was 1956; Pollack, who is 92, recalled that they started working together when he expanded his annual NBA stats book in the 1970s. They met at most a few times, but they communicated at least a dozen times each year by phone and mail.
Pollack, who has worked for the Sixers since the team’s first season in 1963-64, was also collecting box scores for every game, though his collection didn’t go back as far as Pfander’s. Pollack would send Pfander his book of box scores, and Pfander would send back results of his data analysis — tidbits such as when the league’s millionth point was scored. That archival work helped when the NBA marked later milestone league totals. “He’s the one who started with it,” Pollack said. “That was his idea. I’ve kept it alive ever since.”
Pollack put many of these small discoveries in his annual books, always crediting Pfander, whose stats were meticulously calculated and, before he started using a computer, meticulously handwritten, with a fountain pen. “He has the best handwriting you have ever seen,” said his daughter Colleen Greff.
Pfander said he used to check the box scores Pollack sent, to make sure the numbers added up. Then he would generate 33 or 34 different stats for Pollack in return. Pollack said his latest book includes at least 40 stats furnished by Pfander.
Filling holes in the record
Part of the fun of sports is measuring today’s players and teams against their predecessors, and you can’t do that without a complete record of what past players did. Every sport’s fan base includes completists, people who feel unsettled by the lack of certainty in the records.
Ten years ago, Justin Kubatko founded the website Basketball-Reference.com as a resource for fans who want to know every detail about basketball history. Seven years ago, he left his job teaching statistics at Ohio State University to work full time on basketball stats.