Athletes: Degrees of Separation -
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post #1 of 1 Old 10-22-2013, 03:05 PM Thread Starter
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Athletes: Degrees of Separation

I thought this tool was pretty interesting.

One time, in college, I managed to play in a pickup basketball game against the Harlem Globetrotters. My stat line was not very impressive: four steals (against me), three blocks (against me), and two hoops (that we quickly bought at a sports shop once the Globetrotters unexpectedly accepted our challenge). In that game, I had the honor of playing against a 7-foot-7 fellow nicknamed “Tiny.” The human giant, in turn, had played with a Globetrotter named “Moose,” who went to North Korea with Dennis Rodman, who was on the 1999 Dallas Mavericks with Bruno Sundov, who played on the 2003 Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James. Yes, thanks to my pickup nonstardom, I'm now only four degrees of separation from LeBron James. (Unfortunately, using the same logic, I'm three degrees away from Kim Jong-un.)

All this self-centered small-worlding got me thinking about connectedness and the world of sports. If someone who has never set foot on (or even near) an NBA court is within four steps of the greatest basketball player of our generation, how connected is the rest of the league? What about the players who played in the NBA decades ago? Or those who have played professional sports in another league?

To answer this question, I built a tool to find the shortest possible connections between 50,000-plus professional baseball, basketball, football, and hockey players. (Special thanks to the amazing Sports-Reference family of sites for the thorough databases for each sport.) Two athletes are considered “connected” if they played for the same team during the same season, although due to trades and injuries it’s possible that certain “connected” athletes never shared a field of play. You can play around with the widget at the top of the page to figure out the shortest path between (almost) every pair of North American pro athletes. These athletes include: more than 4,000 basketball players, including those who played on all NBA, BAA, and ABA teams, dating back to the 1940s; more than 23,000 football players dating back to classic NFL teams of the 1920s, such as the Frankford Yellow Jackets; just under 18,000 baseball players, from the 1870s to the present day; and more than 7,000 hockey players, from the WHA and NHL, dating back to the late 1910s.

While each game has a different historical time span, the number of “degrees” needed to cover the four major pro sports is still remarkably similar. It takes at most nine steps to connect any two men who’ve ever played professional baseball via common teammates, 10 to connect any two football players, nine for basketball, and eight for hockey. Focusing on the present era, it takes just three steps to connect any current NBA, MLB, NFL, or NHL player to any other current player in the same league. In baseball, you can use one of these three-step chains to link two of the season's best rookies.

P.J. O'Rourke
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