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Q&A: Ben Cohen on his new book The Hot Hand, a deep dive into the truth behind streaks

What do a Norwegian margarine tycoon, William Shakespeare and Steph Curry all have in common? They are central figures in The Hot Hand, a new book from Ben Cohen, Trinity '10. In the book, Cohen explores the question that has fascinated psychologists, economists, statisticians, basketball players and more for decades: does the hot hand exist?

The Chronicle's Derek Saul spoke with Cohen, who served as The Chronicle's V. 104 sports editor and V. 105 Towerview editor, over the phone this week to discuss The Hot Hand, which will come out March 10.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: What sparked you to write this?

Ben Cohen: I had written a few stories about the hot hand for The Wall Street Journal a few years ago. And usually what happens after I spend enough time thinking about a story is that I don't want to think about it anymore, but with the hot hand, the opposite kind of happened. I felt like I wasn't done with it, I was just kind of getting started. Sometimes I'm exhausted. In this case I was kind of invigorated, and I just really couldn't get the hot hand out of my head. 

I think there are really two reasons why. The first is that just on a pure story level, it was really compelling. Here was something that everyone thought to be true, only to be told that it wasn't, only to realize that maybe it really was. One of the things I've learned at The Journal, and even in some cases with The Chronicle, is that every great story needs tension. And I just couldn't believe how much tension there was in this fight over a single idea. But the second reason is that the whole thing was rooted in basketball, which was kind of irresistible to me. This was an excuse basically to write a story in which the main characters, or some of the main characters anyway, are Nobel Prize winners and genius scholars, but also NBA superstars. I don't really get the chance to do that every day in my day job and I kind of wanted to try.

TC: What was the hardest part of the process?

BC: Just finding the stories, because I knew in order to write a book about this idea, I would need to apply the idea far beyond academia and I would need to put human faces on the hot hand. And that meant I would actually need to go find those human faces. I need to find real people with real stories who can help illuminate this idea. I really could have chosen from anywhere, right? That's sort of the beauty of the hot hand is that I think that it's kind of universal and the lessons from it really apply very widely. And so, when you can write about anything, it can become hard to pick that one thing to write about. So, I knew I wanted to write about Steph Curry, I knew I wanted to write about NBA Jam. But when I first started writing the book I had no idea I would write about Shakespeare, Raoul Wallenberg, Van Gogh, and Spotify and so many other things that came from this book as I was talking to people and reporting and really reading very widely. So, that was the hard part. Writing was obviously hard, reporting was hard, but just finding the right stories I think was challenging, but also honestly the most rewarding part of it, too.

TC: Who was the most interesting source you spoke to during this process?

BC: I've written like a bajillion stories about Steph Curry over the years. And in fact, my fascination with Steph actually goes back to when I was at Duke because Davidson's run in the NCAA tournament was when I was a sophomore at Duke, and I just remember being so captivated. It was a really down year for Duke basketball, and Curry was just magical to watch. Davidson came to Cameron the next year, Steph's last year of college basketball, and by that time he was like this folk hero. He was coming off the NCAA tournament run. He was the leading scorer in the country. The line to get into Cameron the night that Steph came was longer than any line I saw in four years other than tenting for Carolina. It went all the way around K-Ville, by the tennis stadium and basically across Towerview Road. It was insane. It was like  the Beatles were coming to town basically, and it was Davidson coming to play Duke in January. 

TC: This book is very economics and statistics heavy. I wouldn’t have pegged you as an English major.

BC: This is a book about psychology, economics and statistics. And I did not take a single psychology, economics or statistics course at Duke. Not a single one. I learned as soon as I left school that I probably should have taken a statistics course because so much of what I do now is based on data and poring through numbers and trying to find stories that way. And being able to wrap my mind around interesting psychological theories, but also complex and statistical formulas. And so, I would not have pegged myself as someone who would write a book like this as an English major, either. Probably some economists and psychologists and statisticians might say that I shouldn't have written a book without this background, but now it's out in the world.

TC: You mentioned the fascination with Steph Curry and his apparent ability to get the hot hand that dates back to your time at Duke. Was there anything else that happened at Duke that really inspired you to dive into this topic?

BC: Part of this book is using basketball as an excuse to explore the rest of the world. I think that part of that idea comes from Duke. Duke in the 1970s and 1980s invested in a few departments that could lift the entire university. One of them was the English department, and there was stuff in biotech but clearly Duke's identity to the outside world is the basketball team. Letting basketball be a front porch and using it to do all sorts of other things is sort of ingrained in this odd way. That might be a bit of a stretch, but I don't think it's so crazy. You can do a lot of things through basketball and that's one of the things that four years at Duke ingrained in me.

TC: Did you have a hot hand period while writing this?

BC: No, I wish. It was slow and methodical and it took me forever. I definitely felt that while working, but not while writing this book. It was very disciplined, and banging out a certain number of words every day. It would have been a lot easier if it just came pouring out of me.

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