Would Basketball Be Better if the Players Didn’t Know the Score?

A possibly genius idea.

Jack Koloskus
sports ideas

I thought of a way to make basketball better. Or, well — either a way to make it better, or a way to make it so much worse that it would be unplayable and unwatchable.

You know when you’re watching a basketball game in an effort to be nice to the people in your life who enjoy watching basketball, and one of the teams is losing, and then they start to suck even more than they were already sucking? Dragging around their mopey asses, all sad and defeated, fucking up, attempting shots they were never gonna make and then feeling worse. Wah, we’re losing, we suck; I guess we’re just gonna keep sucking and being worse and shittier ‘til we lose, why am I even a basketball player, I suck at this.

On the flip side, you know when a team is winning, and it’s like they’ve got an extra jolt of ability? They’re confident, they’re focused. All the energy they’re putting out into the universe is the energy of a team that is sure they’re going to secure a win. As we learned from The Secret, the universe has no choice in this sort of situation but to deliver that win to them. We are winners, they say to themselves, and we will win. And indeed they will.

But what if they all didn’t know the score?

The rules would go like this: scores would not be displayed in the arena. Presumably players on the court would not be able to keep track of the scores in their mind, but players on the bench would have a better chance. (Using benched players to show, through gameplay, what they perceive the score to be would be a good use of strategy.) Coaches could attempt to keep track of the score, but would not be allowed to keep track using writing or a phone; it has to be in their minds only. In any case, discussion of score is not allowed and if players or coaches are found to have attempted to discuss the score — even if they’re wrong about what the score is — their team forfeits the game.

Now, the in-stadium crowd. Obviously this would be easier if there were no crowd. But because there will be, we can’t pretend the crowd isn’t going to look up the score on their phones. One way to deal with this would be to force the crowd to put their phones in those obnoxious bags they give you when you go see a comedian, so you can’t record the comedian’s set. But when comedians do this I always think — man … who the fuck do you think you are? I don’t want to record your stupid jokes. And anyway, do you know I have a brain? I could just remember the jokes if I wanted to. And before I didn’t want to, but now I do. Now I want to remember them all and sell them to TMZ. So, it’s an option, but I’d rather not get people all riled up thinking about the ego of a comedian.

So another option, then, is that we say it’s allowed; the fans may look at the score on their phones. Stadiums will at that point have to employ more security to forcibly eject anyone who attempts to communicate the score to their preferred team. And you know you’re going to get some people in there who are like, I don’t care if I’m ejected, I’m gonna tell my team their score at a critical moment. For this reason we’ll have to consider whether we want a more severe punishment than just having to leave the stadium, like maybe they’re fined $2500 or kicked in the groin. Maybe they have to show their bare butt on TV. We’ll have to think about it more when the time comes.

On the court, without a score, players would be left to their own devices. Some of the more intuitive players might be able to sense the way the game is going — and certainly there will be instances when it is clear to everyone involved — but psychologically I imagine it would be hard not to, most of the time, play with the idea in your head that you might be losing. The idea that you might be losing, in concert with the hope that you might be winning, would, I think, lead to an abundance of superior gameplay. Records would be set. Viewers would get to witness feats of basketball not yet seen. Players would give their all, all of the time.

This would in turn lead to injury. It’s an unfortunate aspect of this otherwise perfect idea. If players aren’t given appropriate time to play with reduced vigor, and instead play at full force if not the whole time at least more than they’re used to, they’re probably gonna hurt themselves. I don’t know what to do about this other than to say that hopefully they’ll be able to learn from the experience. Eventually, they’ll figure out the rhythms. Soon they might be able to intuit the score enough that they have a good idea of whether or not they’re losing. Then we’ll have to think of another way to “improve” the game (blindfolds).

Of course, I don’t know anything about basketball and am instead relying on my inventor’s instinct and otherworldly ability to improve whatever I set my mind to. To get the opinion of someone who knows about basketball, I reached out to Dan Devine, basketball writer at The Ringer.

“I think there's something to this,” he said. (I know.) “Specifically in the area of how players learn to play the game. It makes me think of something you'll often hear coaches say when the score has become very lopsided: ‘Forget about the score; just play the game and have fun.’” I’m just gonna block-quote him:

“It makes sense (especially if your team is losing by a million points). If you're focused solely on the score, you'll want to score as many points as possible as fast as you can; that could lead you to just try to chuck up 3-pointers, since they're worth more than 2-pointers, which could result in a lack of passing, a bunch of bad shots, and a generally bad time. On the other hand, focusing on trying to make good and simple plays — smart passes, well-timed cuts, good screens to get someone else an open shot — might not create as many points, but it might help make the game more fun for everyone. It might also help you develop more chemistry with your teammates, which could be beneficial in future games that you're not losing by a million points. I could see this being a really useful teaching tool at lower levels of the sport: a way to make sure kids are focusing on playing for enjoyment and the general shared experience of being on a team, rather than just trying to rack up stats.”

Okay, but I’m talking about grown men. I don’t care about kids unless we’re talking about Immanuel Quickley. Devine thinks the idea might lose steam “as you get up the competitive ladder,” because knowing the score is necessary for players and coaches to be able to determine strategies within the game. “Removing the score would introduce a real hurdle to deciding on tactics — which, if there still will be a winner and a loser, seems like a pretty big issue.”

It’s actually the whole point, but okay, continue. “Relentlessly competitive people will go to great lengths to win, and the knowledge of their positionality with relation to the score, whether they're protecting a lead or trying to mount a comeback, absolutely informs the lengths to which they're willing to go.” Indeed, it seems we agree here that knowing the score gives an unfair advantage to everyone involved. “If who wins matters,” Devine said, “and if winning/losing still makes a difference in terms of success and advancement (high school players getting recruited to colleges, college players getting drafted, professionals getting bigger contracts, etc.), then the score matters, too, and I'm not sure you can just hide it until the final buzzer.”

Well that’s one man’s opinion, I guess. If you ask me, I think you can hide the score until the final buzzer, or maybe all the way until the end of the season, though at that point we’d have to talk about sequestering, and, well ... that’s a bridge we can cross in the future. But for now, it’s up to Adam Silver to decide: Should basketball players not know the score until they’re surprised with it at the end of the game? Or should we keep doing the same tired bullshit we’ve been doing for a hundred years, or however long? It’s an interesting debate. But for now it seems the future of NBA, like its future scores, is unknown.