Fifth-Grade Basketball as a Metaphor for Science, Life, and Anything Else You Can Think of

I love watching my kids take part in various athletic competitions. For Eldest, it’s been swimming; for Middle Boy, it’s been flag football, soccer one season and a couple of years of lackluster swimming, but his main sport is basketball. He’s really good at it and passionate about the game. I’m that parent who yells supportive and possibly embarrassing stuff from the sidelines (I don’t care; all grace and self-consciousness evaporated once I started having children). It’s interesting to see how much these kids want to win, how they compete with all they’ve got, and how much they hustle. None of them have hit puberty yet, so I can only imagine how the games are going to look once all the testosterone kicks in…

Middle Boy is now in fifth grade and the YMCA basketball season is in full swing. He loves this year’s team, which is mostly composed of his friends from school. (If you felt the need to say “comprised by” here, I hate you with the burning passion of a thousand suns and I will never be your friend, for the banishment of the misuse of ‘comprise’ is  among the grammar hills I am willing to die on.) There are a couple of kids not from MB’s school, one of whom is excellent and has had the possession of the ball 75% of the time in the first two games; the team lost both of those games. Honestly, I thought the team was not very good, as there were no plays, just that one kid trying to do his own thing and sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.

That excellent external kid missed the last two games, and the team blossomed. It was amazing to watch. Suddenly, they moved the ball, made passes, organized offense, every single one of the players got to touch the ball, and nearly everyone scored at least once. The kids played beautifully and won these last two games, all with their nominally best player absent. We finally saw that the team had five more great people, who could both hold their own and mesh well together.

MB tells me they are joking that they should ‘fire’ that kid who’s their best player. The kid is selfish with the ball, not a team player (focused on scoring himself and blowing far too many good chances that could have resulted in scoring if a play had been executed), and overall just not an asset to the team, or not as great of an asset as everyone had thought at the outset. We’ll see what the coach does when the kid comes back.

But this is also a metaphor for doing science and life in general.

I am not sure that there is any level of excellence in science or in any other endeavor that justifies extreme selfishness. Or rudeness, or being otherwise toxic to other people. We in science, just like people in ‘the real world,’ tend to forgive a lot to people whom we perceive as brilliant, as someone who’d be hard to replace.

We shouldn’t. Nobody is irreplaceable.

Removal of assholes is always a benefit.

Tolerance of assholes brings everyone down.

One’s value is not measured when that person is in vacuum, not interacting with anyone else. One’s value to any enterprise and the society at large comes in part from that individual’s capabilities, but at least as much, if not more, from how they gel with the capabilities of others.

Any team sport will show the same dynamics: if the team has good chemistry, they become much more than the sum of individuals’ abilities. Otherwise, they are not a team, and they will be overrun by the opponents who are one.


  1. Is it horrible that I got hung up for a good ten minutes on the fact that no one ever told me that comprised and composed were not synonyms? I seriously had no idea so I’m glad you mentioned it.

    That being said, I agree 100% with the rest of the post. I’m lucky to be out of that type of environment now and in a place where there are considerably fewer people like that.

  2. Yes, I’ve seen addition by subtraction in many settings. Western culture’s worship of genius/talent means that many people are willing/forced to put up with talented assholes, since they are so much “more productive” than everyone else.

  3. “The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (6), however, has noticed an interesting trend. In 1965, 54% of the usage panel disapproved of the phrase “is comprised of,” whereas in 2005, 65% approved, which I take to mean that only 35% disapproved. …the traditional distinction may be destined to fall by the wayside.”

    Seriously, no one uses comprise “correctly” – not even 65% of language usage experts! Let language evolve – it’s going to whether you die on that hill or not! 😀

  4. sorry here is ref 6 from the article I was quoting: American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 107.

  5. Yeah, I know… The same is happening with ‘the accusative I’ — people refuse to use ‘me’ even when it’s perfectly appropriate, as the pronoun is in the oblique case. For example, my chair often says the following and it makes me cringe every time: “The dean met with Steve and I” whereas it’s perfectly correct to say “The dean met with Steve and me.” I have read the statistics that ‘the accusative I’ it’s becoming more and more widespread, but I still think it’s an abomination. That’t the hill I am considering as my burial place.

    Btw, I will note that I will never correct anyone speaking IRL, with the exception of my kids when they were little and my international grad students when they give dry runs for talks. A person close to me drives me nuts with the inappropriate use of conditional perfect (‘would have gone’) in subjunctive clauses because he doesn’t use the verb’s past participle (‘gone’) but instead the past simple form (‘went’) so it comes out cringe-worthy (‘would have went’). This is, btw, a shockingly widespread affliction even among native speakers. Anyhoo… I have certainly often been corrected IRL by people for all sorts of things, such as mispronunciation, can vs may (a legitimate beef, although I don’t use ‘may’ on principle for things where I actually don’t need permission, such as to take hard candy form a bowl in the receiving area in the admin’s office). I was also corrected for using nauseous vs nauseated (I looked it up and the person is full of shit, as those are indeed synonyms). The funniest thing is that people assume, because I have an accent, that their command of the language overall is automatically superior. I have been ‘corrected’ into the wrong form several times (such as with ‘the accusative I’) by people who assume they of course know better. I don’t argue and let them believe what they will. Then I come here and spread fire and brimstone.

  6. For once, I disagree with you on a usage question. “Nauseated” and “nauseous” should not be synonyms, though they are becoming so due to misuse of “nauseous”. Like many language changes, different people accept the changes at different times. This is one that I don’t accept yet, just as I still distinguish between “comprise” and “compose”.

    I do accept “data” as either plural (the original usage) or as an uncountable noun (and thus grammatically singular). I also have recently started accepting singular “they” as being less objectionable than the plethora of made-up pronouns.

  7. “I also have recently started accepting singular “they””

    Ok ok wait. I’ve always thought “they” as a pronoun, even referring to a single person, still uses a plural grammatical construction e.g. “they are going to the park”. Do you actually hear people saying “they is going to the park?”

    I’m not sure I can accept “they is” but to be honest I have never heard that. Ultimately I guess we all have our own “evolutionary constraints”… 😉

    “people assume, because I have an accent, that their command of the language overall is automatically superior.”

    Oh this is 100% not true. Non-native speakers of English are FAR more likely to have had a detailed education in English grammar. I think that (most) native speakers have an intuitive understanding of language, whereas non-native speakers have a more technical one. I know that I learned much more about English Grammar by taking foreign language than I ever learned in English classes.

  8. @jojo, you are correct. I accept “they” as referring to a single individual, but I still want to see it treated as grammatically plural. (There is precedent in English: “you” is grammatically plural, but can be used for a single person.)

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