February 17, 2009

Are basketball centers smarter than forwards and guards?

You would think, all else being equal, that IQ would be the lowest at the center position in basketball, since there's such a premium on height there that everything else is at a discount.

And yet, a surprising number of the top ten centers in NBA history (here's Sports Illustrated's list of the top 10 and here's ESPN's list) have seemed like pretty bright guys.

- David Robinson scored 1320 on the SAT (old style scoring, equivalent to the low 1400s today) and graduated from the Naval Academy with a degree in math.

- Kareem Abdul-Jabar scored, I believe, 1130 (old style).

- George Mikan, the NBA's first superstar, was a successful lawyer after his playing days were over.

- Bill Walton attended Stanford Law School while out from the NBA with injuries.

- Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell always gave the impression in interviews of being sharp-witted men. Granted, my old impressions aren't terribly trustworthy, but these two guys did a lot of interviews back in the day. Russell was frequently called upon by the media to serve as a Yoda-like hipster guru who could explain the great social changes of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Chamberlain was less popular with the press than Russell because he endorsed Nixon, but he always displayed a certain ornery independence.

For the other four in the consensus top 10 (Moses Malone, Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Patrick Ewing), I can't think of any evidence for one way or another. My vague impression from living in Houston in the 1970s was that Moses Malone wasn't considered the sharpest tool in drawer (but he could vacuum up offensive rebounds!)

As an aside, I'll toss in the story of somebody who isn't a top 10 center, but has had a long career despite playing very little basketball as a youth: Dikembe Mutumbo from the Congo. He got into Georgetown as a regular admittee to study diplomacy. Coach John Thompson just about had a heart attack when he saw this unknown 7'-2" black guy walking across campus with a stack of books in his arms. That's why Georgetown had its unwieldy Twin Towers formation with Mutumbo and Alonzo Mourning -- nobody had recruited Mutumbo. He just showed up.

At other positions, you can pick out all-time greats who clearly had something going on upstairs, like Dave Bing, who became a successful steel mill owner. But, there seem to be more above average IQ types at center. At minimum they aren't less common at center, even though you'd expect height to dominate all else most at that position.

It's possible that hard-working book-smart guys do better at center than at other positions. Playing with your back to the basket is rather unnatural, and typically requires extensive coaching and drilling, whereas you can become a star guard or forward just by scrimmaging constantly.

More generally, I have this vague hunch that athletes below 75 or 80 in IQ are much more likely to fail to make the big time than ones over 90 because the low IQ ones screw up so badly -- get hooked on drugs, go to prison, get seriously hurt in a fight or an accident, or just miss various opportunities through knuckleheadedness -- that they blow their opportunities.

You might be able to do an interesting nature-nurture study by tracking extremely tall young men in a basketball crazy society to see what happens to people given lots and lots of breaks in life. First, you'd need to know what % of young fellows of a certain height -- say two meters or taller, make it to each level up the ladder in basketball. Then look at success rates by IQ. And look at the real failures among the super tall -- those who wind up in prison -- by IQ.

I don't think we have the data to do it in the U.S., but this study might be possible in a European country with universal conscription where they measure every 19-year-old male's height and give him an IQ test. It would have to be a country that is wild about basketball, too. All my Lithuanian and Croatian readers who are looking for social science dissertation topic, get cracking!

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Nah, they're just all from the era when you had to have a college degree to get into the league.

Truth said...

Shaq has earned his masters degree and is on track to get his PHD next year, and Hakeem is one of the richest real estate developers in Houston. He says he has made many times more money building Houston commercial property than playing in the NBA.

Ewing, Moses...not so much.

Eddy Elfenbein said...

Adolph Schayes was an honors student at NYU.

Bill said...

Centers are bigger, and therefore have bigger brains. Adjustment for body size doesn't really hold. NFL offensive linemen also have higher IQs. Probably for the same reason.

What's the correlation between head size and IQ? Pretty high, isn't it?

All of my intelligent friends have really big heads. 7 3/4 (62 cm) and up in hat size.

Anonymous said...

Is this all connected with the studies which suggest that taller people are generally smarter and wealthier than shorter people?

I don't know if this makes sense, but it does seem like big men play in a more cerebral manner, while guards generally play with pure instinct.

Anonymous said...

Actually, maybe the mere fact that all you need is height is playing some role. Guards may need a more complex set of athletic traits because they have to do a greater variety of things. The more wide and complex and the set of athletic traits that are required for a position, the less likely it is that someone who has all of them will also be massively intelligent.

But, in a way, being a center is easier, you just have to be really really tall, so given that this is just one pretty simple trait there will be a higher chance that the people who have it will also be very bright.

Troof said...

Sailer, how much longer are you going to equate SAT scores with IQ level on your website? Until the day you die? Until the cows come home?

Though nowadays you're forced to discern between the "old" and "new" versions of the test. And soon you'll have to calibrate results to a third version of the test. Maybe before you retire you'll have to calibrate to four different versions of the SAT. Get it?

For a smart guy, you sure are a sucker. I notice that you used to ban any mention of certain conspiracy theories. But since the bankers asserted overt control of your government in 2008, and really showed their fangs, you've been forced to open up the acceptable limits of discourse on your website. You had to do that. Because you're through the looking glass now, aren't you, pal?

Yeah, the New World Order and false flag stuff was strictly tinfoil for the old isteve, but suddenly it all seems so damn logical. Yeah, it looks like someone has finally woken up. But not all the way. It's so psychologically painful to deal with reality, after all.

Did it ever occur to you, Steve, that the SAT test was itself gamed many decades ago? Really how hard would that be? Would it be as difficult as getting the access codes to Fort Knox? Would it be like trying to penetrate a FDIC insured bank? I mean have you ever given it any real thought?

It's worth real thought because the reward for top level SAT performance was guaranteed entree into the American elite. And the risk was what exactly? What sort of prison terms were on the table for those who were caught methodically and busily compromising the SAT? Have you ever given that any serious thought, Steve?

Yes, did it ever occur to Steve Sailer that the SAT results were available for the right price through a network of paid SAT tutors who carefully leaked out the answers to their pupils only over a months-long course of paid sessions? So that the pupils themselves wouldn't even get the idea that they were directly being fed the answers?

Is that all too sci-fi for you, buddy? After all, you're the big genius with the insights as to how the world REALLY works. Right?

Reg Cæsar said...

This reminds me of Arthur Jensen's informal hypothesis that professional basketball might require a minimum IQ of 85. It would be fun to see IQ or SAT/ACT plot graphs showing us the minimum and median scores for every position in every major sport.

Including soccer. John Derbyshire thinks that soccer, or at least constant heading, makes one stupid through frequent minor concussions. Imagine comparing Wonderlic scores of rookie and veteran English footballers.

Incidentally, this concussive activity might make girls' soccer eugenic, vis-à-vis intelligence. Think about it. They're genotypical IQ isn't affected, but their effective one is lowered-- and their birth rate raised!

Anonymous said...

Steve, believe it or not, Hakeem Olajuwon has made tens of millions of dollars in real-estate wheeling and dealing since he retired, according to a September 2008 Texas Monthly story. So he's another Top 10 center with vast smarts.

Martin Regnen said...

That is interesting. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a real connection, though right now I can't really think of any plausible mechanisms other than brain size.

My own wacky hypothesis: I've been wondering for a while if sprinters and weightlifters (Olympic-style) might not be smarter than other athletes. The sport itself doesn't require much thinking, but what it does require is the ability to make a whole lot of muscle fibers fire very rapidly, in other words an extremely efficient CNS. I wouldn't be surprised if some things which made you more efficient at recruiting motor units might not also affect cognitive ability.

Steve Sailer said...

Olajuwon's dad was a big time wheeler-dealer in real estate and construction during Lagos's oil boom in the 1970s so perhaps it runs in the family. Generally speaking, it's hard to grow to seven feet tall in West Africa unless you are from an upscale family that can feed you well and keep you healthy. Mutumbo's dad graduated from college in France and was a school principal. Michael Olowokandi, who was the NBA's #1 pick in 1998, was the son of a Nigerian diplomat, and grew up mostly in London.

robert61 said...

A kid who's 6'10" can make a big difference at the high school level by clogging up the middle, even if he's got a pair of boards for hands and runs like a scoliosis patient. Coaches sniff out such kids, and they make good at the HS level if they are reasonably intelligent and willing to do the work. Even in div II and III, a moderately athletic 6'10+ guy with smarts can succeed. There is thus a strong niche attractor drawing in tall guys with a modicum of intelligence.

Intelligence may be overshadowed by agility and body control for shorter players; i.e. there is a bigger payoff to intelligence for tall guys, since athletic tall guys are in such short supply. I'm not sure if this holds true at the highest levels, though, nor whether it makes statistical sense. Maybe - if tall guys are smarter - it's just the size-IQ correlation.

I played all three positions (center and forward in HS, guard in college), and it is not clear to me that any position rewards intelligence more per se - maybe point guard, though I never had the ball-handling and real-time processing ability to play that role.

bjdouble said...

Rony Seikaly, a former Syracuse and Miami center, is also a successful real estate big wheel in Miami.

Anonymous said...

Lithuania hasn't had universal conscription since it left the USSR, and Croatia ended conscription de jure in 2008 and de facto in 2007. Better hurry with that study.

Planetary Archon Mouse

Anonymous said...

Height and IQ are not independent variables Steve!

ironrailsironweights said...

Back when Pat Ewing played for Georgetown, fans of opposing teams on road games would sometimes hold up signs saying "Pat Ewing can't read this."


Cossack in a Kilt said...

Another Olajuwon fan here. I'll echo the comments on his post-basketball career, as he certainly made a good bit of money investing. Further, I remember Olajuwon's role as the "good Muslim" in the league for quite a while. A younger player---whose name I do not recall---objected to standing for the national anthem on religious grounds, and Olajuwon pointed out that some things should be, how do I put this? Some things should be rendered unto Caesar.

Anonymous said...

Ewing scored 550 (old version - total) on his SATs. Almost surely the lowest score of anyone to walk onto the Georgetown campus. Not that I was bitter at the time of my rejection from G'town in the same era.

Truth said...


The angry young man who can't spell my nom de plume has a couple of good points!

Anonymous said...

Hakeem Olajuwon, or as I remember him, Akeem Olajuwon. What a blast from the past, back when I thought it was "cool" that he was not only black but muslim too. I'd never even heard of "diversity is strength." It was just obvious that you should "celebrate" these differences because the "only" alternative was the gas chambers.

keypusher said...

Moses was the first player to go directly from high school to pro ball, I believe. _Loose Balls_, a very entertaining history of the ABA, says that he was illiterate when he graduated. But what a player!

A friend of mine was at Georgetown when Ewing was and says that he needed tutoring, but worked very hard on his studies. So there was nothing wrong with his work ethic.

Danindc said...

good stuff but I'm pretty sure Thompson recruited Mutombo...that was my team growing up

I love that you have Kareem's SAT score....what was Paul Mokeski's?

Troof said the SAT's are gamed.... I knew that proctor was up to something

btw I think Steve should have question and answer threads on his blog 1 day a week....

jody said...

i haven't thought much about this topic, but i do know that modern american society is doing everything it can to give low IQ black athletes chance after chance after chance after chance. so, i definitely doubt having a very low IQ is a problem for black athletes anymore. for white athletes probably, as they get little special treatment. not not for black athletes, who may literally have to kill somebody in front of the police to actually get in enough trouble to knock them out of their sport.

it is positively mind boggling how stupid, badly behaved, and criminal some black NFL players are now, and how far the teams and media go to cover it up or excuse it. most people don't even know how much some of these guys suck, because the media doesn't even report on it half the time. media protection is the rule for black athletes. and when the media definitely cannot hide something, then a hundred spineless white homosexuals come out telling us that the worst repeat offenders are "basically a good guy" and "simply made a few mistakes". the latest example is this plaxico burress idiot, the guy on the new york giants who shot himself in the leg.

an absolute moron, burress has been sued about 10 times in the last 5 years for failing to pay bills, not having car insurance and then crashing into other people's cars, and other incomprehensible behavior for a multi-millionaire.

a couple years ago, burress and some of his friends went out and began assaulting any white people they came across. but the media hardly reported on it. had the races been reversed, it would have been national news for weeks.

yet here we are, with gutless, mentally defeated whites hoping that burress can play for the giants again next year. eli manning may be polite, smart, and savvy to the modern american media, unwilling to say anything negative about a black person, knowing the severe repercussions should he utter a critical word. but at this point, how can even he still publicly hope that burress comes back to the giants?

Anonymous said...

Shaq is quite smart, I think.

I think basketball in general requires a fair amount of intelligence to be a star at the highest levels. More than football, because much less of what happens on the floor is coached or scripted in advance. There seem to be a lot of intelligent/articulate b-ball stars.

Not sure why b-ball players seem to be smarter than soccer players.

James Kabala said...

Patrick Ewing had a reputation as being stupid which was caused in part by John Thompson's overprotectedness and refusal to permit his players to talk to the press. On the other hand, he graduated from Georgetown on time, as nearly all of Thompson's players did. (Of course, I don't know how hard his courses were.)

I'm curious to hear about Shaq's Ph.D. Is it in an authentic subject and from an authentic university? Shaq never struck me as stupid, but never as Ph.D. material either.

Reg Cæsar said...

Here's another way to approach the question-- what is the distribution of playing positions of NBA coaches, or the most successful NCAA ones?

(On a totally unrelated point, does anyone else's fingers type "by sound"? I've had the "its/it's" and "their/they're/there" distinctions down cold for 40 years, yet still made the dumb error above. Does the ear-finger connection bypass the brain?)

Steve Sailer said...

Paul Mokeski?

Wow, I don't know what his SAT scores were, but I saw him play four times in high school. He was the center on our arch-rival's team. As a junior he was very gawky, but he shot free throws beautifully -- he'd clearly worked hard on that. As a senior in high school, he was dominating. I recall our team making maybe one shot within 12 feet of the basket. He must have had ten blocks and altered all the other shot arcs. He spent about a decade as a backup center in the NBA.

Steve Sailer said...

So, out of the consensus top 10 centers all time, only Moses Malone doesn't seems to have any evidence that he had something on the ball in the IQ department.

Of course, Moses Malone had a tremendous gift for rebounding, which is partly cognitive. As Dennis Rodman, perhaps the only man clearly superior to Malone at offensive rebounding (and recall that Malone was a major scoring threat as well while Rodman just hung around looking for rebounds), he had a knack for watching the shot in the air and figuring out where it was going to bounce.

Steve Sailer said...

Okay, well, maybe Malone and Ewing...

Anonymous said...

If you are really smart, you don't play basketball seriously enough to make it to the NBA, unless you are really tall.

Smart guys who are not very tall know that putting in the countless hours of practice required to have a shot at the NBA is a bad bet - the expected value of hitting the books instead is greater. Take that same smart guy and make him 7 feet tall, and the expected value of spending countless hours at the gym skyrockets.

Danindc said...

Steve, incredible that you had the inside story on Mokeski, figures. He was a treat to watch either on the bench or in the game. Mokeski, Charles Jones (Caldwell's brother) James Donaldson, Granville Waiters (google image that dude), and Mark Eaton all played forever in the NBA....our 3-3 team for Hoop it up was called "Paul Mokeski's kids" back in the late eighties.

Always loved Moses- the SI cover with him going to Philly is a classic. I think he was second from high school to pros- Bill Willoughby was first but I'm not sure. Moses was signed with Maryland (my alma mater) and they would have won the national Championship every year he stayed there- so much talent those years- Lucas, Elmore, McMillan etc....cruel fate intervened- I think it was the Virginia Squires- those bastards

Thompson was so anti-media at Georgetown but now he does a horrible sports radio show every day in DC- figures

Ewing is a good dude, worked hard, no real trouble- too bad he never got the NBA title and only 1 NCAA title- should have won 3

The Gtown team that did win it all was thug central- Michael Graham, the player that put them over the top, was completely psychotic...bald head, bad attitude....scary...definitely did some time after graduating from GU summa cum laude in English Lit

keypusher said...

In the for what it's worth department, an acquaintance of mine who has followed pro basketball closely for 40+ years really disliked Malone because, he said, Malone brought the banging, leaning, shoving style of play into the league. Refs didn't call his fouls because he was such a big star. And other players were not slow to notice what Malone was getting away with. Years later, a sportswriter wrote that O'Neal committed an offensive foul on pretty much every shot he ever took.

Anonymous said...

Ewing is certainly inarticulate. But he's the only prominent male pro athlete I have ever heard of who got a degree in fine arts.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, this concussive activity might make girls' soccer eugenic, vis-à-vis intelligence. Think about it. They're genotypical IQ isn't affected, but their effective one is lowered-- and their birth rate raised!

OK, at the very least, this is good enough for a sci-fi novel premise. A benevolent genius acquires a tampon manufacturing plant, or the publishing company behind Tiger Beat, or whatever, and with a little tinkering, saves the world's civilization.

ironrailsironweights said...

Stupid athletes have been around for a while. One of the exhibits at O.J. Simpson's murder trial was a letter he had given to Nicole, ordering her to stop using his house as her mailing address. Media reports usually mentioned the letter but didn't give its actual text. Finally, a few years later, Jeffrey Toobin's book The Run of His Life printed the full, unedited letter. To say that it was "semi-literate" is a huge understatement. A typical 9-year-old could have written it far better.


Truth said...

Was Michael Graham really that smart? Wow. By the way, speaking of McMillan and Maryland (6'11), he was an Olympian and a Rhodes scholar who graduated from law school and has been (?) a senator for many years. And Okafor of the Charlotte Bobcats had a 3.8 GPA in Finance at UConn. He was put on the Rhodes Scholar short list, but declined saying that he did not want to put off his NBA career.

BTW Shaq has his BA in Criminology , his MBA from the University of Phoenix, and is working on a PHD in Psychology.

Anonymous said...

Troof and SAT

There's a point where tutoring, gaming, and studying has limits on the score obtainable. If the SAT could be "gamed" as easily as you state and in the manner of answer cracking, then anyone who can plop down $800 for Princeton Review should score 1600 (old test). Doesn't happen. The bell curve persists.

Leave the SAT alone, especially the math side (a crypto IQ test). If the left ever found this out, we'll be in a situation where The State thru the Department of Education determines what the content and style of proper admissions tests are. You don't want that. You really don't.

Anonymous said...

Steve, Mutumbo didn't just show up at G-town. This is from his answers.com bio:

After playing some time for the Zaire national team--and traveling across Africa for games--he approached some visiting American college coaches about the possibility of studying in the United States. The coaches offered a little advice, but Herman Henning, a U.S. Embassy official stationed in Zaire, made a bigger impact. Henning saw Mutombo play for the Zaire national team and offered to help. Henning thought Mutombo might prosper in an American college under a patient coach who had also played center. Georgetown University's John Thompson came to mind immediately, and in 1987 Dikembe Mutombo found himself on a plane to the United States, with a scholarship to attend Georgetown.

Anonymous said...

.4 IQ points per inch.

jody said...

not much discussion of tim duncan, who is better than most of the guys that have been mentioned, and smarter too. possibly because he usually plays as a forward, possibly because the spurs are boring and methodically won NBA titles in games that nobody watched.

but he is an obvious center, and head to head would outplay most of the guys discussed in this thread. he isn't one of the best centers ever - he's among the best players ever. again, he's boring, fundamental, methodical, and almost never dunks, quietly racking up double doubles and a few blocks every game.

he's so forgettable that even some basketball people forget that he's better than bryant and james. a guy with 2 MVPs and 4 rings and people still forget him.

Truth said...

Jody, you never,never NEVER compliment a black athlete. You are a sellout white nationalist.

Anonymous said...

Couple of things:

1) I concur with your analysis that Wilt Chamberlain was quite smart. I read somewhere a long time ago that he scored 128 on an IQ test given by the Philadelphia public schools. A friend of mine's father played point guard on Wilt's high school basketball team (Overbrook) and always got the impression that Wilt was quite bright.

2) Re Arther Jensen, he said he estimated that one needed an 85 IQ to hit a major league baseball (not play basketball). This was in relation to his work on the correlation of reaction time and intelligence.

3) I also have had the impression that really tall people tend to be more intelligent than average. For instance, in my high school we had two fellows who were 6'8" and 6'9". Both went on to be Ivy League centers and the 6'9" one was a (fringe) NBA player. They scored 1510 and 1410, respectively, on the old-style, pre-recentering SAT and both were National Merit Scholars. Also, in my law school, we had three individuals who were, 6'7", 6'8", and 6'9". Practically everyone (except NAMs - all three of the really tall individuals were white) at said institution scored in the 93rd percentile or better on the LSAT (median 97th percentile). Given our class size, there were far more exceptionally tall people than one would find in a random sample of that size from the general population. This probably has to do with brain size (.4 correlation with IQ). Larger people simply have bigger brains. As Jensen has noted, height (presumably at least partly due to the correlation of brain size with height) correlates about 0.2 or 0.25 with IQ. Assuming the average man is 5'10" with a S.D. of 2.5", someone who is 6'10.5" ( 5 S.D.s above average) would have an expected IQ of about 1.0 to 1.25 S.D. above average (i.e., IQ 115 to 118.75). Someone who is 7'1" (+ 6 S.D.) would have an expected IQ of 1.2 to 1.5 S.D. above average (i.e., IQ 118 to 122.5).