Harvey Pollack: The Sultan of Stat, 1994

[The late Harvey Pollack was the pioneer and visionary behind modern NBA’s statistics, dreaming up many of the metrics that inform our contemporary measures of basketball greatness. Pollack published his statistical musings each season in the Philadelphia 76er media guides, then the Bible of all-things NBA. Though Pollack has been gone now for about seven years, it’s important for NBA fans to take time to remember his life and living legacy. 

That’s what I have in mind with this article that brings this wonderful man back to life in print, if only briefly. It’s from the excellent Michael Bradley, later of Slam Magazine, Hoop, and Inside Stuff fame. Bradley spent some time shadowing the never-stand-still Pollack and lived (and admired) to tell the tale in Hubie Brown’s Pro Basketball Magazine, 1993-94. Thank you, Michael. And thank you Harvey Pollack!]

****

Harvey Pollack picks up an NBA media guide and begins to leaf through it with a look of disgust on his well-worn NBA historical atlas of a face. The book looks thorough enough, filled with numbers, photos, and information about the team in question. And it’s even longer than the stat-packed tome he produces each year for the Philadelphia 76ers. That doesn’t make Pollack happy. 

“Look at this,” he says with disdain. “All this white space at the bottom of a page. I’d have something here.” He looks at another page that’s partially blank. “Here, too.”

He sure would. Every page of the 1992-93 Sixers media guide is filled to capacity. Pollack, the team’s director of statistical information and the NBA’s undisputed heavyweight number-crunching champion, jams more information into the book than any two competitors combined. From the germane to the obscure, it’s there. And not just about the Sixers. Pollack tracks statistics on the NBA that the league doesn’t even keep. Some of the stuff is so unusual, no one would even think to keep it. Really. 

“His book is the most readable of all the media guides,” Sixers GM Jimmy Lynam says. “It’s absolutely the best, and everyone else is fighting for second place. He’s far and away in first.”

Who else is keeping track of illegal-defense violations committed in the last 24 seconds of a period? Find another media guide that lists the top shot-blocking guards last season. Or one that tracks teams’ records when a starter is missing from the lineup. Thanks to Pollack’s research, we can report that 12 of the previous 16 NBA champions have had a player named Johnson on the roster. 

“We use his press guide as a reference source,” says Bob Rosen, who has spent 31 years at the Elias Sports Bureau, the NBA’s official statistician. “I have to admit, I’m a little bit in awe of everything he has in that book.

Pollack was the first statistician to keep track of dunks, a by-product of the high-flying 1976-77 Sixers, who boasted slammers like Julius Erving, George McGinnis, and Lloyd (later World B.) Free. Pollack tabulates how visiting teams do when certain referees call the games, a figure the NBA won’t let him print. 

“I give that stat to my general manager and certain friends around the league, though,” Pollack says. 

He even projects 48-minute scoring, rebounding, shooting, turnover, and assist figures for each player in the league. And he can tell you which players scored the most points by quarter last season. 

“Harvey has revolutionized the industry,” says Orlando president Pat Williams, Sixers GM from 1974-86. “He has brought a certain sophistication and imagination to statistics that would never have been there without him.”

So, you can imagine why Pollack gets a little upset when he assesses the competition. The man has high standards, evident as he continues through the rival media guide. “Look how big the print is,” he says. “Sure, this book may have more pages than mine, but I have a lot more stuff. Some teams leave a bunch of pages empty in the back for reporters to make notes. They do that because they don’t have anything else to put in.”

Since he was named head statistician for the Philadelphia Warriors at the NBA’s inception in 1946, Pollack has always had something to add. And add. And add. What began as a simple exercise of keeping points and fouls has ballooned into a numerical compulsion. The 71-year-old ball of energy exalts in the trivial, finds great import in the minuscule, and searches for the arcane. He and his staff of part-timers and interns comb each of the 1,107 NBA play-by-play sheets and box scores each season for facts and figures few would even imagine, much less chronicle. 

For instance, Indiana guard Reggie Miller played 50 minutes of an overtime game last December 15 and didn’t commit a turnover. Cleveland’s Mark Price had the year’s biggest 0-fer, firing 11 blanks against Detroit on March 28. Sixteen different players started every game last season, and 44 played in every contest. 

“He has taken stat keeping to new heights in the NBA,” says Brian McIntyre, the league’s VP of public relations. “He is the grandfather of statistics in the NBA. What he comes up with is amazing.”

There’s more. Much more. The 1992-93 Sixers book contains 288 pages, and Pollack expects this season’s addition to hit 300. Every year since 1968, when an NBA rule mandated that each team publish a media guide, Pollack’s annual statistical masterpiece has grown—with one exception. 

In 1979-80, a bean-counting business manager limited the guide to a mere 72 pages. “I didn’t even have room for all my Sixers material in 72 pages,” Pollack says. Undaunted, Pollack continued to accumulate information. The following season, the stat Scrooge was bounced, and the page count continued to grow. 

“A lot of things can’t stay on one page,” Pollack says. “There’s too much information. You add to it each year, and you pick up four pages that way. Then there’s my new stuff. Last year, I had the box score of a game where a guy played on both teams, due to a suspended game and a  subsequent trade.

“I never stand still.”

Pollack is constantly looking for obscure statistics and trends to track. His 1992-93 book included the first-ever table of players whose shots are blocked. (Charlotte’s Kendall Gill topped that list.) This season’s guide will analyze whether teams that reach 100 points in a game first go on to victory, a theory proffered by former Sixers trainer—and current Pistons’ first-aid man—Al Domenico. “That will be the Al Domenico Theory,” Pollack promises. Once a new category debuts, it finds a home for life—no matter how obscure it seems or how much more work it creates for Pollack and his staff. 

Work doesn’t bother Pollack. At an age where most men are seeking a soft chair and a remote-control unit with good batteries, Pollack wants to do more. “What is it that they say? ‘Give something to a busy guy, and it gets done,’” he says. “I seem to be the recipient of a lot of things that need doing.”

And how. Pollack handles statistics for six Philadelphia college basketball teams, Temple University’s football team, and the Philadelphia Wings lacrosse club. He used to crunch numbers for the Baltimore Colts, the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars, and the WFL’s Philadelphia Bell. He writes weekly columns on boxing, baseball, basketball, bowling, and the outdoors for a pair of Philadelphia weekly papers, as well as reviewing films, plays, casino shows, and restaurants. On one May afternoon during the NBA playoffs, he refused to talk to someone from TNT who needed a stat for an upcoming broadcast, but was adamant that an assistant disturb him if a call came through about a press pass for that night’s Red Skelton show at a local theater. 

Despite that jam-packed schedule and the growing list of statistical responsibilities, Pollack wants more. His dream—and any other statistician’s nightmare—is to compile the complete plus/minus totals for every player in the league. It’s done in the NHL, but is much easier, given the few goals scored each game. Right now, he does it for the Sixers and whichever teams they play. But Pollack’s eyes get a boyish glint when he reveals that he was so far ahead last season in his normal duties that he almost could have done it for the entire league. Imagine: actual numerical proof that Richard Dumas plays no defense.

“That’s my ultimate goal,” Pollack says with a smile.

****

Trivia question: Name the only two men active in the NBA who have been with the league since its inception. 

Robert Parish and Moses Malone?

OK, those two pivot troglodytes have been around for a long time, but the answer is Harvey Pollack and Red Auerbach. 

Pollack began with the Philadelphia Warriors as statistician in 1946, and Auerbach was coach of the Washington Capitols. The two remain affiliated with Atlantic Division rivals, Pollack with the Sixers and Auerbach with the Celtics. But Pollack isn’t happy with the company, and not just because Philadelphia and Boston have thirsted to whip each other since the 1950s. 

Pollack argues that Auerbach lives in Washington and carries the honorary title of president. He no longer handles the personnel decisions for the club and can’t even light up his trademark stogie, since Boston Garden is smoke-free. Pollack wishes his fellow NBA pioneer well in recovery from offseason heart surgery, but wants him to make his retirement official, rather than holding onto the ceremonial post. 

“I want to be the last of the Mohicans,” Pollack says with a belly laugh. 

Pollack’s statistical origins date back before the NBA’s creation. He grew up in the shadow of old Shibe Park in North Philadelphia and would spend his afternoons quizzing friends on baseball trivia. As a student at Temple, he was manager of five different teams—”I wasn’t good enough to play,” he says—and sports editor of the school’s newspaper. 

One of his roles as basketball manager was to keep score of the games, which he did dutifully. But logging points and fouls was boring, so Pollack offered to track rebounds, shots attempted, and assists. Owls coach Josh Cody accepted, and soon, Pollack’s work was being reprinted by the local papers, which were happy to get the extra information. “That’s where my reputation started,” Pollack says. 

After graduating from Temple in 1943, Pollack served two years in the Air Force special service in England. Within two days of returning, Pollack landed a $28-per-week job as a staff writer for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, one of the papers he had been a stringer for while at Temple. Also that year, Pollack was hired as official scorer for college games played at Philadelphia’s old Convention Hall—conflict of interest be damned. When the Warriors were formed in 1946 and chose Convention Hall as their homecourt, Pollack was right there, ready to take the scorer’s position. 

Eddie Gottlieb ran the team, and he was pretty smart,” Pollack says. “I was at the Bulletin at the time, and he said, ‘If I hire this guy, I’m not only going to get a statistician, I’ll get stories in the paper.’ And he was right.”

As he had done at Temple, Pollack did more than just track points and fouls for the Warriors. He tabulated offensive and defensive rebounds, minutes played, turnovers, steals, blocked shots, and points scored off turnovers. No one else was doing that at the time. 

From 1946-52, Pollack had no printed outlet for his research, since the team put out a 5-by-7, 24-page press guide that had little room for more than just perfunctory information. In 1953, when he became public-relations director for the team, Pollack assembled a larger guide but distributed it only to a few select writers around town, a practice he continued for a decade. “I didn’t even save all of them,” he says. 

The Warriors left town in 1963, to be replaced by the 76ers two seasons later. Midway through the 1966-67 season, when the Sixers team featuring Wilt Chamberlain, Wally Jones, and Billy Cunningham was on its way to the NBA title, Pollack, the team’s PR man, assembled a media guide. The league made the books compulsory the following year, and the monster has grown ever since. When Pollack left his PR post following the 1987 season, his numerical frenzy began. 

“When I switched, I was finally able to do the statistical things I couldn’t do as PR director,” Pollack says. “I arranged with the league that I would receive the play-by-play sheets from every game. I’m the only statistician in the league that receives them. 

“That’s why no other media guide in the league has anything in it but the team’s own stats.”

**** 

Around the corner from Pollack’s paper-strewn office is his staff’s work center, a lounge with overstuffed couches and a bar. By day, it is cluttered with printouts, box scores, play-by-play sheets, and piles and piles of paper. On game nights, the documents disappear, and the Sixers sales staff uses the room to entertain clients. Hey, nobody said statisticians were at the top of the food chain. 

On this postseason afternoon, three of Pollack’s interns—all from Temple—are poring over records in search of media-guide fodder. One guy is scanning rosters to fill a variety of categories. They include most common first and last names of NBA players; colleges, high schools, and states with the most pro players; players with the most NBA service; and the tallest and heaviest players in the league. 

Another intern is charting the players who took the most shots and had the fewest assists last season. A third is assembling a list of players who scored 30-plus and 20-plus points in a game. “I’m really interested in this,” says one intern, Ethan Cooperstein. “I’m looking to get a job in sports. I am a statistical fanatic.”

Cooperstein says he has memorized the score of every single Sixers game from 1982-93. Oh yeah? What was the score of the first game in April of 1986?

“Sixers 93, Knicks 87,” Cooperstein answers. “It was a Wednesday home game.”

The kid is right. “He’s worse than I am,” Pollack says. “He’s over the edge.”

Perhaps. But anyone who hears Pollack’s daily in-season routine might argue that the venerable statistician is in danger of joining his intern in a numbers-induced free-fall. Every morning, after subduing the crossword puzzle, cryptogram, and word search in The Philadelphia Inquirer—”They get my juices flowing,” he says— Pollack turns to the NBA box scores. Over the next three hours, he completes a 27-item checklist for every team and player in the league, and dutifully pastes every NBA box score into a well-worn blue binder. 

Although the teams’ stats are kept in a computer and Pollack has begun to transfer some of his NBA information into the hard drive, his morning work is done by hand. Slowly. Methodically. “This is not a 40-our week,” he says. “Lucky I have a very understanding wife. It takes me the whole morning to do that, and every year, because I’m keeping more things, it takes longer.” 

He starts by listing each game’s attendance, careful to track teams’ home-and-away crowds. From there, it’s on to the day-by-day divisional races and the various categorical leaders for each team in each game. Pollack then looks for the 10 best and worst team shooting performances from the field, foul line, and three-point range, as well as club highs and lows in categories like rebounds, steals, etc.

“The NBA keeps highs and lows in certain categories, but not all of them,” Pollack says. “So, I keep categories like least number of assists, fewest steals, at least three-point field goals attempted.”

Pollack also tracks which players started every game, and who played in each. He lists the players who take the most shots in a game and which players, coaches, assistants, and even trainers received the most technical fouls. Pollack charts who commits the most illegal-defense violations, who registers the most triple-doubles, the overtime records of every team, and the league’s four-point plays. 

For the finale, he lists teams’ records on the second night of back-to-back games. 

“What does it mean how you do in the first game of a back-to-back series?” Pollack asks. “Some guys put it on their daily game-note sheet. ‘The Knicks have won nine of 11 of first games of back-to-back series.’ It’s the second game that matters. You’ve played the first, and you’re tired. Do you win or lose the second game?”

Pollack will tell you. From there, he heads to the office to pour over some play-by-play sheets. Or maybe to a movie matinee that he will eventually review. Perhaps he’ll bang out a bowling column under his pseudonym, Al E. Lane, or a boxing article by K.O. Battle. 

That night, he’ll be at the Spectrum, keeping stats. Or at the University of Pennsylvania’s venerable Palestra, charting points and rebounds for the Quakers. Give a busy guy something to do, and it gets done.

“It’s a routine, and I’ve developed it and have to be a stickler for detail to do this,” Pollack says. “It’s got to be right, too, so I double-check everything. 

“But I love it.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: