Rasheed Wallace and the Dawn of Discovery

As we are currently in the midst of the NBA playoffs, it is only appropriate that we take a moment to appreciate the depth of breadth of scientific truth that can be found in the world of professional basketball.

We will now have a moment of silence.

(Silence and Awe).

During that moment, I took the time to reflect on one of my favorite science-relevant lessons from the NBA. It took place during the 03-04 season, a transcendent year for the game. The greatest draft class of the decade injected the league with much-needed excitement. Several quality teams were making big pushes for the playoffs. Some, like the Spurs, Kings, Nets and Lakers, had solid, proven teams that were equipping themselves for strong runs. Other teams, however, lacked crucial components in their struggle to be worthy and ready for contention.

One such team was the Detroit Pistons. Detroit had put together a team of tough, “blue-collar” players under the demanding direction of coach Larry Brown. Despite their obvious talent and capacity as a team, they still seemed to lack some essential element– that one piece that would take them up a notch and propel them into legitimacy.

Then, only 2 months before the playoffs, the Pistons announced that they had made a significant acquisition to the squad: forward Rasheed Wallace. Wallace, who had been languishing in exile with the lowly Atlanta Hawks, was accepted into the Pistons with open arms. His talent, energy and versatility impacted the Piston’s style of play immediately. The change was tangible. Just a few months later the Pistons were hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy over their heads in a shower of ticker-tape. They’ve been perennial championship contenders ever since (although they did choke big time in their first playoff game this past weekend. But guess who was taking the blame upon himself for the team? That’s right, it was Sheed.)

Herein lies the great lesson of the Breakthrough Threshold. Because it sounds cooler, we can call this the Rasheed Wallace Effect (or RWE, for the acronym-addicted (AcA’s)).

The RWE occurs when a scientist has struggled, experimented and pondered for a long time to answer a significant question. At some point, one or two small pieces of information will come into the life and mind of that scientist, and the entire universe will align to make the solution clear.

  • It happened with Watson and Crick, who worked for a looong time before they happened upon the minor molecular rearrangement that they needed in their base pair configurations to correctly guess the structure of DNA.
  • It happened with Richard Feynman, who was thinking deeply about beta decay and needed only a few percentage and assumption adjustments to come up with the work that would eventually win him the Nobel in Physics (see “the 7 percent solution” in his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman).
  • It happened during the discovery of sulfa drugs in Gerhard Domag’s lab in Germany, in which five years of screenings for a drug to kill a nasty strain of strep resulted in 5 years of failure. During a discussion, someone suggested that they add sulfer to their mix. The result eventually led to the emergence of antibiotics. (See “The Demon Under the Microscope” by Thomas Hager).
  • For those of you who don’t read, some visual examples include: the girl at the bar in “A Beautiful Mind,” the memory of the red head in “Patriot Games”, and the moment when Rocky realizes that he can beat Mr. T by making him more angry (Rocky III). You can probably think of more recent examples, since clearly I haven’t seen any movies since 2002. (That’s actually not true, but I couldn’t think of an example in “Enchanted”).

The lesson for all of us concerning the RWE is that it only happens when all the other work has been done, when the way is clear. If the other eleven Pistons hadn’t been prepared to step up, the addition of Wallace wouldn’t have meant anything. In like manner, scientists have to go out there, prepare, dig, petition annoy the universe for answers, and the time will come where those answers will impact our minds.

Let’s here words from the man himself, for he said it best:

“I’m not going to start the game by cracking a cat in the skull if I don’t get elbowed first.”

True words, man.

The NBA: Where the reigning technical fouls leader inspiring generations of scientific discovery Happens.

(PS, to pre-emptively answer some comments:
1. Pau Gasol was kind of an RWE, but it’s not quite the same since Kobe only really needed one other all-star. Those two could play on the Bobcats and it would immediately make them contenders.
2. Garnett on the Celtics doesn’t count as the RWE because they revamped the entire team this year. He had an effect on the program, but over half the old team got traded away to bring in him and Ray Allen.
3. I get the irony about mentioning the ’04 Lakers in this post. They’re involved in a completely different lesson, involving nuclear physics.)

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