When I received news that Tina Charles had scored a triple-double during a game against the Indiana Fever on September 2nd, I was quite sorry that I had missed it. The tally for Charles at the Mohegan Sun Arena was 10 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in a remarkable effort against the Eastern Conference's top team.
Charles's moment of glory lasted a grand total of five days. The WNBA announced that three of those assists were incorrectly awarded to Charles. Charles's feat would be downgraded to a pedestrian double-double. (Pedestrian for Charles, anyway, a player who fills up a box score with points, rebounds and assists until the box score reads TILT like a broken pinball machine).
Mike Thibault, coach of the Sun, stated that the complaint was legitimate. Two of the three phantom assists belonged to Renee Montgomery, who wears #21 while Charles wears a #31. Somehow, according to Thibault, a #31 got typed instead of a #21 and it wouldn't be hard for the untrained eye to believe that Charles could have gotten ten assists in that game anyway. The matter remained closed for the most part, but articles from John Altavilla of the Hartford Courant and Mike DiMauro of the Sun have raised some questions, generally regarding whether or not it was appropriate for someone other than the Connecticut Sun to inform the league of the error. DiMauro suggests that Paul Swanson, an employee of the Minnesota Lynx was the person who informed the WNBA. (Ron Howard, speaking on behalf of the WNBA, will not divulge the name of the person bringing the matter to the league's attention.)
I found it rather disturbing - not the matter as Mr. DiMauro recounts it - that the Connecticut Sun could have misattributed three assists. I love statistics, I love reading them, projecting them, and combining them in various ways. My first thought upon learning that Tina Charles only had seven assists instead of ten was "is this the only error in the WNBA's record-keeping...or the only error that we have caught?" It's a legitimate question to ask. Tommy Craggs over at Deadspin told a tale of an NBA scorekeeper that might be considered amusing to some, but frightening to anyone interested in keeping a legitimate historical record of the results of games.
One of my arguments has always been that when all memories of a player fade away - seventy years from now when there's no one alive except for a few centenarians who remember seeing Katie Smith play and when all that exists of her performance is decaying videotape from the WNBA head office, the only thing that shall help future women's basketball fan measure the greatness of Katie Smith against her future contemporaries will be her statistics. Angel McCoughtry's ability to hang around the periphery of the on-court action, waiting to steal a basketball like a hawk waiting to steal a chipmunk with one quick lightning-strike will fade from human memory someday, and all we'll have are the numbers that vainly attempt to capture the amazing player that McCoughtry is. And to a statistics minded person - my college degree was in mathematics - there are few things more important than getting the numbers right.
Let's take Mike DiMauro's assertion at face value in that it might have been Paul Swanson of the Minnesota Lynx who alerted the WNBA of the shortcomings of Charles's "mere" 10 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 assists. DiMauro suggests one motive for this action, but I came to a different conclusion.
When I want to know about a WNBA record - and who holds it, and did they hold that record last night and do they still hold it today? - Swanson is the first person I go to. When I want to know stats delivered in permutations that the league doesn't normally provide, who do I go to? That same Paul Swanson. When I need to know where I can find on-line Euroleague results, or the results of the various European women's basketball games which a person might have to sort through multiple foreign-language websites to provide, where do I go? You guessed it.
The impression I get is that Mr. Swanson cares very, very much about accuracy. I have no doubt that if there was such an error on Lindsay Whalen's side of the ledger, he would have been the very first person to point it out. If there's anything that stats lovers care about, it's getting the record right. If he suggested the correction to the league, Swanson would have wanted the record to be right because he cares about the game, not that he is for the Lynx above all others. Tina Charles doesn't need a triple-double she doesn't deserve and it will make the triple-double that she does earn someday - and can you doubt that she won't? - all the much sweeter.
The concept of the assist is a troublesome one and the more I come to learn about basketball, the less l like it. An assist is a record not of an actual accomplishment, but of a hypothetical one, an accomplishment which rests on a judgment instead of an obvious fact. Did the assist-er make the principal pass which led to the field goal? Who knows? Sometimes it's obvious. Sometimes, it isn't. Sometimes a scorekeeper is generous. Sometimes a scorekeeper is parsimonious. The stat is so subjective at times that it were a case of a single assist in question I would have simply said, "Fine, Charles probably lost an assist somewhere along the way by the same reasoning. Give it to her, and let her have the triple-double." But with three assists in question, I'm less forgiving.
Whoever it was that turned the information into the league office, I'd like to thank that person for their service to the league and to the historical record. They made an effort to get things right, and when the WNBA is criticized for so many things by so many people, I'd like to thank the league for the way this was handled.
This country has enough of a problem with those that wish to castigate whistle blowers instead of praising them. If Connecticut fans feel slighted, they can go through Lindsay Whalen's game tape on WNBA Live Access's archive and see if they can find any misattributed assists, and report any errors of fact to the league office. Those who seek out and find such errors should receive gratitude - which is as it should be.