What do Stephen Curry, Rob Reiner and William Shakespeare have in common?
They've all experienced 'the hot hand,' the focus of a new book by a Wall Street Journal sports reporter.
Ben Cohen remembers the night well. He was 15-years-old and on the junior varsity basketball squad at his New Jersey high school. For eight whole minutes, he was on fire. It surprised everyone, including Cohen himself. "I was just so short," he said. "I think you could charitably call me a guard." He was experiencing what's commonly called "the hot hand."
His hot hand never returned after that night, and Cohen never made it onto the varsity team. But his interest in sports never waned. Today, he's a sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal, mostly covering the NBA. "If you can't play basketball," he laughs, "you end up writing about basketball."
That one evening playing for Newark Academy when he was in the 10th grade left an indelible mark on the journalist. Was there indeed scientific proof of the hot hand's existence, or was it merely a confidence boosting mind trick we play on ourselves? That question is at the heart of Cohen's debut book, "The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks."
The book is more than a meditation on the magic touch. It's chock-full of data, highlighting the hot hand in study after rigorous study. Cohen points out that the father of all research on the subject was Amos Tversky, an Israeli cognitive psychologist from Hebrew University. His seminal 1985 paper – "The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences" – laid the foundation for decades of research on the subject. While Tversky believed the concept of having a hot hand was most likely only in our minds, other scientists have found the exact opposite. Cohen says the truth, depending on the environment, is somewhere in between. "I think that really one of the wonderful things about the hot hand is that it is not black and white, and it's extremely gray," Cohen said. "There's so much nuance to this phenomenon."
Tversky teamed up with his Hebrew University colleague Daniel Kahneman and, together, the two Israelis practically birthed the entire field of behavioral economics – the study of human decision-making. (One of their students was none other than Dan Ariely.) After Tversky's untimely passing at the age of 59 in 1996, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for their work. Best-selling author Michael Lewis wrote a biography of the two men.
"They devoted their lives to this study," Cohen explained. "You could teach an entire college course just based on their papers, and it would probably be the most fascinating course you took in college. So many of the cognitive biases that we are now aware of came from their work. What they were doing was really revolutionary."
What they and later scientists showed was that the concept of the hot hand can occur outside of sports and across industries. In his book, Cohen has sections on everything from the stock market to soy bean farming. He has a chapter about how when a plague ravaged Europe in the early 17th century, it offered William Shakespeare the perfect opportunity to stay inside and write. It was during that time that he penned "Romeo and Juliet," "King Lear," "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Macbeth" – a hot streak by any stretch of the imagination. Albert Einstein experienced a similar hot streak in 1905 when he published four papers that revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Historians now refer to it as "The Miracle Year."
Another chapter focuses on Hollywood film director Rob Reiner and how a string of hits – "This is Spinal Tap!," "The Sure Thing" and "Stand by Me" – allowed him to convince wary studio executives to let him make another instant classic, "The Princess Bride." That was followed by yet another hot hand: "When Harry Met Sally," "Misery" and "A Few Good Men."
And, of course, Cohen spends ample time talking about his first love: basketball. A big chunk of the book is devoted to Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry and how one fateful hot hand he had during a game at Madison Square Garden changed the game of basketball forever. Back then, in 2013, nobody thought much of Curry. But the night before, a bunch of his teammates got into a brawl with the Indiana Pacers and were suspended from playing the next night. Curry had to rise to the occasion. He scored 54 points.
"I think he's the NBA player I've written the most about over the last five or six years," Cohen told From The Grapevine. "And yet, even after writing maybe hundreds of thousands of words at this point about Steph Curry, I did not really realize how much that one game when he had the hot hand kind of changed everything for him. And I think it changed his life and it changed the fate of the Golden State Warriors and it really changed the future of the NBA and basketball as a whole. That is the power of the hot hand."
Before we end our conversation, I have to ask Ben Cohen a question. After all, we share the exact same name and have the same profession. Does he experience the hot hand in his own life as a professional reporter? "There is something to this idea that success begets success," he told me. "When I have gotten into a groove like that I have tried to remind myself that this is really the time to work a little bit harder, and maybe stay at the office later, or to wake up earlier, to go to sleep later and just sort of churn out as much as possible because the one thing that we know about the hot hand is that it runs out. It does not last forever. We try to bottle that magic because we understand that once it's over, we would do almost anything to get it back. I think I've learned from my experience playing JV basketball, and then getting it a few times at work that we're always striving for those hot hand periods. And we kind of do everything in our power to achieve that state and then try to make it last as long as possible."
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