Is there really such a thing as having a hot hand? The hot hand is also often described by athletes as being “in the zone.” The hot hand can seemingly occur on the basketball court (I’ve seen none other than beloved columnist Rob Hedelt have a hot hand shooting baskets) or can occur in an artist or even in a boardroom.
Was Shakespeare in the zone when he wrote “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra” in the span of a year? Did Shakespeare have the hot hand between 1605 and 1606? The question of the hot hand, and if it really exists scientifically beyond an athlete’s perception, is the basis for Ben Cohen’s book “The Hot Hand.”
Cohen’s subtitle, “The Mystery and Science of Streaks,” is more indicative of what the author sets out to show from a statistical standpoint, but Cohen rarely gets bogged down in the mind-numbing statistics and theory that would make “The Hot Hand” much less readable. For stat heads this might be problematic, but this is not a book for an audience focused on the minutiae. This is a book for fans who watch Steph Curry make shot after incredible shot in an NBA game and wonder if there is some greater statistical power at work. Does Curry defy the physics behind shooting a leather ball through a metal circle?
Cohen brings in the stories of a lost Van Gogh painting and a little-known World War II hero named Raoul Wallenberg. Neither Van Gogh nor Wallenberg fit into the hot hand categorization, but Cohen is able to justify their inclusion through statistical analysis that verified a painting as that of Van Gogh and may have helped shed some light on the disappearance and death of Wallenberg in a Russian prison. Do these tangential tales really belong in a book on the hot hand? Probably about as much as Rob Hedelt belongs in this review, but they make the book and review better for their presence. Most readers do not go to a book on statistical analysis expecting to learn about a man who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust, but shoehorning Wallenberg’s efforts into a reader’s memory is of tremendous value to the reader and to humanity.
Cohen covers the NBA for The Wall Street Journal, so his emphasis on Curry and basketball is not an accident, but the shooting of a basketball thousands of times does provide data that lends itself to the science of the hot hand phenomenon. Just as “The Hot Hand” lends itself to fans of basketball, stats and stories well told.