Bison Dele, once known as Brian Williams, left the NBA behind to explore the world. His quest carried him to a mysterious end near Tahiti. More than a decade later, his spirit sails on. ... It has been 11 years since the NBA player’s catamaran went missing off the coast of Tahiti and the FBI descended upon this small island in the middle of the Pacific, flanked by journalists, asking questions about murder and love and fame. Eleven years since the TV reenactments and the breathless tabloid reports. Eleven years, and the mystery remains unsolved. ... Many on the island have forgotten. Others prefer not to speak about what occurred. “It has been so long,” they say, averting their eyes. “That has nothing to do with us.” Tahiti relies on tourism, on its reputation as a paradise on earth; why talk about death? ... Dig deeper, though, and you can find those who remember. Not just what happened, but what came before.
Matt Ginsberg’s training is in astrophysics. He got his Ph.D. from Oxford when he was 24 years old. His doctoral advisor there was the famed mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, and he recalls rubbing elbows with the academic rock stars Stephen Hawking and the late Richard Feynman. He created an artificial intelligence crossword puzzle solver called Dr. Fill and a computer bridge world champion called GIB. ... Unsurprisingly, there’s pretty heavy math involved to make this real-time sports predictor work. For one element of the system’s calculations, Ginsberg sent me a pdf with eight dense pages of physics diagrams and systems of equations and notes on derivations. It uses something called the Levenberg-Marquardt algorithm. It requires Jacobians and the taking of partial derivatives and the solving of quartics, and code efficient enough to calculate it all up to the split second. If predicting the future were easy, I suppose everybody would do it. ... One thing this project can’t predict, however, is its own future. Its uses are, so far, largely speculative, and cashing in on a minor superpower might not be easy. Even gamblers who bet during play would struggle to make much money from a half-second heads-up that a shot is going in. But Ginsberg’s system would find a natural place in the long line of sports technologies that have been used for a singular end — TV.
How did a 1972 exhibition basketball game between Russia and Uganda become a crucible for Cold War tensions at the dawn of Idi Amin’s brutal regime? Ask the former CIA agent who tried to hit the Soviets where it would hurt them the most: on the court. ... In 1972, in the middle of the Cold War, the Soviet military sent a team of all-stars to Kampala to compete in three goodwill basketball games against Uganda’s top players. The Soviets, who were hoping to curry favor with the leader of the new regime, Idi Amin, didn’t know that the best of the three squads, the Ugandan national team, was at that time being coached by an American named Jay Mullen. And they definitely didn’t know that Mullen was an undercover CIA operative, sent to Uganda earlier that year to spy on the Soviets. ... The space race was winding down, but the nuclear arms race was accelerating at a perilous rate despite talks of limitations. U.S.-backed coups were happening all over the world. Courting and deposing regional leaders was a global game being played by dangerous men. ... His 46-year-old son, Tobey, told me that Mullen often speaks without words, pointing at things he wants. I witnessed as much, but I also saw him initiate conversations with strangers like it was nothing, breaking the ice with at least three different people by asking if they had Nordic ancestry. At dinner one night, without warning, he broke into the New Zealand national anthem, not the last anthem he would sing during my visit. The guy can listen, schmooze, or entertain as needed. ... He would be posing as a researcher on African history; there were plenty of other Americans and Brits at Makerere University among whom Mullen could blend in. But his real job would be to get to know the Kampala-based Soviets.
In the current era of sports, where athletes are often jumping from team to team for the highest paycheck, Coach Popovich and his organization have created a climate in which their best player, Tim Duncan, and the other stars of the team, consistently take below-market value to stay there and continue the winning tradition. | GP: When I’m interviewing a kid to draft I’m looking for specific things. Over the course of sitting in the gym and talking, having lunch, watching him at free agent camp, this is what I’m after and not necessarily in this order. ... Having a sense of humor is huge to me and to our staff because I think if people can’t be self-deprecating or laugh at themselves or enjoy a funny situation, they have a hard time giving themselves to the group. ... Being able to enjoy someone else’s success is a huge thing. ... At some point he’ll start to think he’s not playing enough minutes, or his parents are going to wonder why he’s not playing, or his agent’s going to call too much. I don’t need that stuff. I’ve got more important things to do. I’ll find somebody else, even if they have less ability, as long as they don’t have that character trait. ... Work ethic is obvious to all of us. ... We also look at how someone reacts to their childhood. ... I go to bed every night and I don’t worry about anybody on my team. I don’t come to work in the morning and say, “Ah, jeez, I’m going to have to clean this mess up.” It doesn’t happen. ... We spend a good deal of time discussing politics, race, food and wine, international events, and other things just to impart the notion that a life of satisfaction cannot be based on sports alone. ... You can’t just get your satisfaction out of teaching somebody how to shoot or how to box out on a rebound. That’s not very important in the big picture of things.
How could every NBA arena be suddenly half filled with colors the home team doesn’t even sell? How could a league whose standard used to be a cyborg called the Spurs now be fronted by a bunch of happy snipers from the Bay Area who get more touches in a single possession than a $20 bill at a street craps game? And how could these guys be called the Warriors anyway? They’re about as warlike as fudge. ... How? Because fun is the whole strategy. Fun is the Plan A to take over the world.
IN THE 2013 offseason -- coming off a year in which Curry had started 78 games and the Warriors had made the Western Conference semis -- Nike owned the first opportunity to keep Curry. It was its privilege as the incumbent with an advantage that extended beyond vast resources. "I was with them for years," Curry says. "It's kind of a weird process being pitched by the company you're already with. There was some familiar faces in there." ... Curry was a Nike athlete long before 2013, though. His godfather, Greg Brink, works for Nike. He wore the shoes growing up, sported the swoosh at Davidson. ... Nike had every advantage when it came to keeping Curry. Incumbency is a massive recruiting edge for a shoe company, as players often express a loyalty to these brands their NBA franchises might envy. And Nike wasn't just any shoe company. It's the shoe company that claims cultural and monetary dominance over the sneaker market. According to Nick DePaula of The Vertical, Nike has signed 68 percent of NBA players, more than 74 percent if you include Nike's Jordan Brand subsidiary. ... According to Forbes, Nike accounted for 95.5 percent of the basketball sneaker market in 2014. In short, its grip on the NBA universe is reflective of a corporation claiming Michael Jordan heritage and a $100 billion market cap -- all advantages that might explain why Nike's pitch to Curry evoked something hastily thrown together by a hungover college student. ... A PowerPoint slide featured Kevin Durant's name, presumably left on by accident, presumably residue from repurposed materials. "I stopped paying attention after that," Dell says.
But a new generation of owners like Ballmer, with fortunes made in technology, private equity, and venture capital, are accustomed to being intimately involved with their investments. They’re not just looking to win championships and trophies. They’re looking to build a great business. ... More than that, these tech-enabled owners have helped turn the NBA into North America’s most forward-thinking sports league. Other leagues struggle with aging fans and restrictive views on intellectual property; the NBA has the youngest TV audience of any US league and lets its content flow through the wilds of the Internet. While the other US leagues struggle to build international interest in their games, the NBA has leveraged social media and new technology to build a huge global following. If the league has its way, the Golden State Warriors’ three-point-shooting machine Stephen Curry won’t be merely an ambassador for America’s most exportable sport. He’ll be the biggest star of the biggest league on the planet. ... the overall composition of NBA ownership groups has radically changed. Today roughly half of NBA teams have controlling owners with backgrounds in tech and investment management. ... These owners don’t talk to each other about on-the-court matters, but they’re all in touch regularly on issues of how to run their businesses and reach fans. ... The NBA began this past season with 100 players from 37 countries and territories, 22 percent of the league. That adds up to a huge international audience. ... The biggest potential prize here is China. By some estimates, almost as many people play basketball in China as there are people in the United States—300 million. The NBA dreams of turning the massive Chinese market into the engine that propels the league into the global economic stratosphere.
You crave the recipe of his secret sauce. You believe you've identified some of its special ingredients: draft foreign players, shoot corner 3s, emphasize defense, share the ball, victimize trembling sideline reporters. ... You'd like to believe you've captured the essence of the bearded coach stomping along the sideline -- a blend of Midas, Yoda and occasionally a teeth-baring pit bull. ... But, in truth, you haven't -- you never could -- because you don't fully realize the simple truths of his journey: how the man who demands respect through discipline and selflessness was once an impatient Air Force cadet who complained vociferously (and repeatedly) to his coach about a larger role. How his bid to represent the United States in the Olympic Games as a player was squashed by petty politics. How his wish to coach the 2008 Dream Team was crushed by miscommunication and subterfuge. How he was passed over -- twice -- for the very Spurs job he now holds. How when he finally got that job, he spent his weekends passing out free wieners in a parking lot hoping to generate basketball interest in a football-crazed state. ... Talk to players, coaches and executives who have worked with Gregg Popovich, and they'll say these are the events that shaped him. Tremendous obstacles. Cold, hard truths. Popovich may float above the fray now, but he earned that ascent -- one gritty step at a time. ... The team's continuity, Pop explains, is why they succeed. Owner Peter Holt, Popovich and Buford have unconditionally backed one another for 22 years.
No team in the West can match the Warriors’ firepower. No team in the East has the talent to challenge LeBron James and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Barring catastrophe, all signs point to a third straight Warriors-Cavs clash next June. ... For the first time in recent memory—or at least the memories of every coach, executive and analyst who spoke to B/R Mag for this story—the NBA Finals matchup seems predetermined. Just ask the Vegas oddsmakers, whose calculators practically melted down in the wake of Durant’s decision ... If the Warriors had a vulnerability before, it was in the final minutes of a close game, when Curry was the only one capable of breaking down the defense. Durant solves that problem.
Eight years ago, in an article for Sports Illustrated, I asked Magic Johnson -- the gold standard for athlete capitalists -- how he helps players avoid financial suicide. He underscored one of his cardinal rules: When players call Johnson for counsel, which happens all the time, he stops them cold if they mention any business plan -- be it for a record label, a car wash, a production company -- featuring a buddy or relative. "That's the killer," said Johnson, who added that he became CEO of his eponymous billion-dollar conglomerate by rejecting friends and family in favor of the shiny suits who sat courtside at Lakers games. "They hire these people not because of expertise but because they're friends. Well, they'll fail." ... It is fair to say that James, Johnson's spiritual descendant on the court, has embraced an opposite vision off it. James was only 5 when he first befriended Carter, whose 9th birthday party he attended because of a mutual family friend. When James was a freshman at St. Vincent-St. Mary, Carter was the senior captain on their state championship basketball team. So as I relay Johnson's philosophy to James, now 32, the question hangs in the air: Didn't he worry about empowering personal friendship over professional experience?
Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win. ... The virus that infected professional baseball in the 1990s, the use of statistics to find new and better ways to value players and strategies, has found its way into every major sport. Not just basketball and football, but also soccer and cricket and rugby and, for all I know, snooker and darts — each one now supports a subculture of smart people who view it not just as a game to be played but as a problem to be solved. Outcomes that seem, after the fact, all but inevitable — of course LeBron James hit that buzzer beater, of course the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl — are instead treated as a set of probabilities, even after the fact. The games are games of odds. Like professional card counters, the modern thinkers want to play the odds as efficiently as they can; but of course to play the odds efficiently they must first know the odds. Hence the new statistics, and the quest to acquire new data, and the intense interest in measuring the impact of every little thing a player does on his team’s chances of winning. In its spirit of inquiry, this subculture inside professional basketball is no different from the subculture inside baseball or football or darts. The difference in basketball is that it happens to be the sport that is most like life. ... the player who seems one step ahead of the analysts, helping the team in all sorts of subtle, hard-to-measure ways that appear to violate his own personal interests.