Sports

An Interview With the Professor Who Helped Make the NBA All-Star Game Exciting

Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis battle for a tip-off during the NBA All-Star Game; Luka Doncic looks on in the background.
Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis battle for a tip-off during the NBA All-Star Game at the United Center on Sunday in Chicago. Stacy Revere/Getty Images

If you watched the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, you would have noticed something different: It was legitimately exciting. These exhibitions aren’t usually showcases for effort or defense, but, come the fourth quarter, the world’s best basketball players were fighting tooth and nail for every possession, and Team LeBron edged out Team Giannis, 157–155. It was the best All-Star Game in years, and much of the credit goes to Nick Elam, an educational leadership professor at Ball State University. He is the father of the “Elam Ending,” a rule that removes the clock at the end of a game and replaces it with a target score. The game ends when one of the teams hits the score.

The NBA used the Elam Ending for the first time in league history at this year’s All-Star Game. The target score was determined by adding 24 points (in honor of Kobe Bryant) to the leading team’s score after three quarters of play. Team LeBron had been trailing 133-124 heading into the final frame, but they managed to make up the difference and sealed the win with an Anthony Davis free throw.

Elam came up with idea in 2007, but it wasn’t incorporated by a professional league until 2017, when he convinced The Basketball Tournament (or TBT)—an annual street ball-inspired league—to give it a shot. Nick Elam’s idea has never been featured on a bigger stage than the NBA All-Star Game, and on Monday I called him to discuss his invention’s big break. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nick Greene: Were you at the All-Star Game?

Nick Elam: I was. The NBA had called me on Jan. 23 to give me a heads up that they were going to have an announcement about the All-Star Game. They said that in their internal discussions with the players’ association that they really saw a lot of merit in this concept of an untimed finish to games. They laid out how the All-Star Game would work, which at the time was going to be a 35-point setting in the fourth quarter, but then they also said that they were going to send me as a guest of the NBA to All-Star Weekend in Chicago. That was really exciting when I heard that call. It was only a few days later when Kobe died, and they adjusted it to a 24-point setting in advance of the announcement.

Did the NBA call to ask your permission? Do you have a copyright on the rule, or were they just being nice?

To the extent that I can get intellectual property protection, those are things that I’ve covered my bases on over the years. This was their way of acknowledging me behind the scenes, and as time goes on I’m confident that they’ll find a lasting way to acknowledge me as the originator of this idea.

I think it’s pretty well-cemented now.

It’s been really nice to see people from everywhere come out and say that this concept is, in essence, “The Elam Ending.” The more that that name gets out there, the more that that name sticks, and that’s certainly what I want. When I first thought of this idea back in 2007 and then started to propose this to people in the basketball world, one of my underlying fears was that somebody was going to embrace the idea, but they were going to say, “All right, thanks. See you later,” and kind of leave me in the dust. It’s very important for me that I ultimately am recognized as the originator of the format.

The Elam Ending didn’t debut until 2017, when The Basketball Tournament incorporated it. Was there a point during that 10-year span between invention and use when you thought the idea was never going to get picked up?

I don’t think I ever got overly discouraged. I think part of that was because my livelihood never depended on the success of this format. It’s not my full-time job. It’s not even my part-time job. It’s like an indepenent project. I never got into a situation when I felt ridiculous for pursuing it. I never saw any kind of true dead-end to the concept. I always thought that there’s one more day left in this project. There’s always one more avenue to move it forward, so I always kept with it. I didn’t know how long it was going to take, I didn’t know who was going to be the first to give it a chance, but it turned out to be 10 years and it turned out to be TBT.

I imagine last night must have provided a tremendous feeling of validation.

I had high hopes for it. I believe in the concept very much, and I was really excited for last night, but it was beyond even what I had expected. It was just wonderful. To see that kind of intensity—I’ve never seen an All-Star Game that intense before. Just the atmosphere in the arena, people on their feet for so much of that final stretch. Players really pouring their heart and soul out on the court, it’s not what you’re used to seeing in an All-Star Game. I thought it was great. I think the concept spoke for itself pretty well.

I know the spark for your idea came from wanting to end the slog of fouling at the ends of basketball games, but did you imagine that it would actually make players try harder? Did you ever have the All-Star scenario in mind?

I don’t know if I specifically thought about it for the All-Star Game, but I absolutely thought that it would make players play harder. If you watch, say, a youth basketball game, and I’m talking like little little kids, like third grade gym class or something, even if it’s a timed game, those players aren’t worrying about the clock. They’re just trying their best to score and defend. They’re going at it 100 percent. But the more you go to higher levels of basketball, then players are conscious of that clock. I think sometimes it takes away some of their assertiveness. It’s just something in the back of their minds that takes away some of that killer instinct. They have to manipulate the clock in addition to trying to score when they’re on offense or prevent scoring when they’re on defense. If you get rid of the clock at the end of the game, it takes away that electronic third party, and now it truly is my team against your team. Let’s see who’s better. Let’s just go at it, 100 percent. There’s nothing else to worry about except what’s happening on the court.

The response online seemed to be universal praise, which is rare for things online.

I’ve done spot checks here or there. Honestly, it seems about 90-percent positive, I’d say.

The only real complaints I saw was that some people didn’t like that the game ended on a foul shot. Is that something that you’ve thought about?

Someone once told me that it’s hard to get 90 percent of Twitter to like free beer and ice cream. For 90 percent of people to speak positively about this concept really says something. As far as ending on a free throw goes, I would much rather see a game end on a high-flying dunk or a crisp 3-pointer, but I think if you over-regulate the format in an effort to prevent games from ending on a free throw, I think you’re going to end up with a lot of unintended consequences. This is something I’ve tried to scratch out on paper and tinker with over the years, and it just seems like any sort of explicit regulation on preventing games from ending on free throws is going to have unintended consequences. I think you just have to leave that possibility in the game. Right now, with TBT, I think about 15 to 20 percent of games have ended on a free throw, and I think that’s a palatable amount. We just have to be prepared that a small percentage of games are going to be decided by free throws. I think far fewer games are going to be decided by free throws under the Elam Ending than the regular format, where it is the norm for games to be decided by free throws.

I’m also a big tennis fan, and I get goosebumps when it gets to match point or championship point. I never want to see a match or especially a championship end on a double fault, but it’s just one of those things. It’s part of the sport. I think if you try to over-regulate it to ensure that a tennis match can’t end on a double fault, I think again it would have unintended consequences.

Because it was so popular, I assume that all All-Star Games from now on will use the Elam Ending. Is this something that you’ve talked to the NBA about? Do you have a hunch?

I want to be very careful about speaking for the NBA because that’s not my place. I would encourage you to reach out to them to see what their plans are. If you’re asking me what my hunch is, my hunch is that this format made such a positive impression here in 2020 that they’ll continue to keep this format or something similar to it going forward. But again, I do not have that from any source associated with the NBA.