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Soup of This Day #171: If The Night Turned Cold And The Stars Looked Down

April 25, 2012

Curtiss JN-4 'Jenny' formation training
A wingman in a Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jenny’ on a formation training flight. If he screws it up he’ll be flying rubber dog@#$% out of Hong Kong on a cargo plane – Photo: Edward N. Jackson, 1918. Edward N. Jackson is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

1 time I was having lunch with a good friend, a guy who I thought of as my wingman, and a girl who I want to describe as a girlfriend but can’t because although she was definitely a girl we weren’t really friends. We’d actually only started a thing because of the wingman who had pronounced 1 day that this girl had ‘sexy eyes’.

Since he was my wingman I’d run with his advice. And I liked the idea of sexy eyes because in my mind sexy eyes extrapolated into an all round whole body kind of sexy. This then would surely segue into just sex.

I wasn’t really thinking the relationship through.

Either way we’d been girl and boy for a month without being friends. The latter was not surprising – We were just not in the same universe. This disconnect was highlighted at the lunch by her – She’d pointedly carved the word ‘NO’ into her arm. When I asked, before my wingman had arrived, why she’d done that, she explained that it was for me. That’s all she would say.

This was awkward and a bit worrying. I just wasn’t in to carving messages into me. I preferred post-it notes.

It got more awkward when the friend showed up, sat down and, seeing her arm, cheerfully and a little dyslexically asked her why she’d carved ‘ON’ into her arm.

After the remainder of the painfully silent meal my wingman and I headed back to our respective offices leaving Dr. No by herself. The 1st stretch of the walk was in silence, both of us lost in thought. Eventually the wingman proffered up some casual advice:

‘Yeah, you have to break that off man.’

‘I thought you said she had sexy eyes?’ I asked, seeking clarification and maybe a hint of mitigation because in truth she was a little sexy.

‘No, no, they’re not sexy eyes – They’re crazy eyes,’ he elaborated. Which was helpful, albeit about 1 month later than would have been optimal.

My wingman might have been useless in that scenario but wingmates in general are a fair bit useful. In sport in particular they are a key element. You’ll find them in every team sport – In fact they are the essence of cooperative play – They’re the people who fire in the cross for a headed goal, set for the spike, flip to 2nd for the 1st out of a double-play or tee up the puck for a tap in score. They’re the supporting cast, the wind beneath the wings and they don’t always get the credit they deserve.

Let the record show that they’ll probably not get their due recognition via this post, mostly because hardly anyone reads this stuff. That won’t stop me trying though.

And so I hereby declare this post to be in honour of the folk who do the grunt work to make the stars shine. In keeping with this theme I thought I’d take a brief look at the art of the assist via hockey and basketball.

Before I get too far into this a small caveat. I once scored 7 points in a junior high school basketball match – This was the absolute highpoint of my basketball career. As far as hockey goes, well there’s not much naturally occurring ice in Western Australia and there are no rinks in small farming towns. There’s a fairly good chance I’m as wrong about this stuff as I was about my relationship with sexy/crazy eyes.

Hockey is a sport that recognizes the absolute value of the supporting cast. It has to – The play is so intense that teams require a fair number of players to get through a game. In fact 20 of 23 players suit up for each game. Only 5 can be on the ice at any 1 time during the game so it’s a pretty safe bet that a successful team will need to have strength in depth.

There’s a good chance that the other team is going to have some strength in depth too so goals can be hard to come by in a regular game. As such hockey has a points mechanism to reward players, not just for scoring goals, but for assisting them too. This means that the player who scores a goal gets a point and so does the person who passes the puck to him so that he can score the goal. In fact in some circumstances, 2 players can be credited with an assist.

Let me frame that another way – If Player X never scores a goal but racks up 500 assists he will have more personal points than Player Y, who scores 499 goals but no assists. That is valuing the wingman.

As it happens, if Player X happens to be Wayne Gretsky then he has more goals and more assists than anybody else in NHL history. 894 regular season goals and 1963 regular season assists for a total of 2857 points. Mark Messier is 2nd, a whopping 970 points in arrears with 1887. Gretsky then is the ultimate star – He’s out front and working hard to bring everyone else up there too.

As an aside 11 players have achieved 1000 assists in their personal NHL careers. All of them are Canadian-born.

Not too many Canadians make it big in the NBA. Maybe it’s because there isn’t as much kudos for assists. For sure, there is still a lot of value attached to them. The guy who sets up LeBron James is as valuable as LeBron so the assists stat is closely watched by fans and team officials alike. It’s just that there are no points for helping out.

Most points in a game? Everyone knows that Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 for the then-Philadelphia Warriors just over 50 years ago against the Knicks. Most assists in a game? Scott Skiles made 30 for the Orlando Magic against the Denver Nuggets in 1990.

Scott is now the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks and in that record breaking 1990/1991 season he was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player. In my junior league that’s the kind of award you’d get if you weren’t that good but had tried hard and they really wanted to reward your effort because you were a nice kid. In Scott’s case he got the award because he was really that good, a valuable asset to his team. Across a 10 year NBA career he averaged 11.1 points a game and 6.5 assists. Given that each assist would lead to at least 2 points it’s statistically correct to say that Scott was more valuable for the hand-offs than for his own shots on goal.

For the record, the most points in a career in the NBA is 38,387 by the incomparable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The most assists in a career in the NBA is 15,806 by the equally incomparable John Stockton. The latter added 19,711 points of his own while Abdul-Jabbar notched up 5,660 assists so on a hockey basis you’d label Stockton as the most valuable. Of course that doesn’t factor in Abdul-Jabbar’s 17,440 rebounds and 3,189 blocks. Nor to be fair does it count Stockton’s record 3,265 steals.

It turns out that you can’t apply hockey-style metrics wholesale to basketball. Pretty much the only thing you can say is that a team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar being fed inside by John Stockton would be something to see.

As an aside, some basketball statisticians measure what are known as ‘hockey-assists’. What they’re capturing is not so much the assist that directly leads to the score but the assist that leads to the assist that leads to the score. Which is neat and a leaf out of the hockey way of looking at this stuff.

To finish this up I thought I’d go back to the relationship front and take a look at who gets the assist for me meeting my wife. As it happens, the night I met her I was in the wingman role myself. This friend of mine had met a girl and was catching up with her at a New Years Eve party. I was single and at a low point in life so really I was just showing up in support and to get stupefyingly drunk.

I managed that last bit quite handily but was unable to boost my mate up for the 1st part – The girl just wasn’t interested in him in that way. She stayed a friend with him though and became a friend of mine. A year later we started dating, with the blessing of the mate I’d been the wingman for. The relationship stuttered, ending after a very brief run, but it started again towards the end of that year. And it’s still going, marriage, a son and another on the way.

The woman has sexy everything and is only a little bit crazy.

So to put it in hockey parlance I flicked the puck through to my mate but denied by the defence he left me to take a shot.

Thanks dude – Here’s to wingmates everywhere.

If The Night Turned Cold And The Stars Looked Down

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