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Elam Ending Q&A: Meet the inventor of the end-game craze

Elam Ending Q&A: Meet the inventor of the end-game craze

Ahead of the 2021 NBA All-Star Game, BasketballNews.com had the chance to catch up with the creator of the Elam Ending, Nick Elam. He is responsible for an end-of-game method that was applied to last year's All-Star Game in Chicago for the first time in league history, and on Sunday the idea will be utilized for the second year in a row. His invention has been consistently used in The Basketball Tournament, New Zealand's NBL and many more events. At the start of the fourth quarter, the game clock turns off and there's a target score that both teams are trying to reach in order to win the game.

Below is BasketballNews.com's conversation with Elam, addressing a range of topics around the idea:

Do you have any predictions for this year's NBA All-Star Game?

Elam: I'm just gonna sit back and enjoy it. [The Elam Ending] just being implemented is an exciting thing. A perfect ending would be like a LeBron James dunk to win the game, but we'll see how it plays out. One prediction -- I don't know if it's gonna play out in 2021, but I think it's only a matter of time if the NBA continues implementing this in the All-Star Game -- one prediction I do have off the court that I'm surprised hasn't happened already, I think that sportsbooks are really going to jump on the opportunity to introduce a prop bet on which player makes the winning shot in the game and what type of shot it is. I think people would love that type of a prop bet, and I think it would be a win-win for leagues, for sportsbooks and for fans. I've made another round, it's certainly not my first round, of reaching out to people in the wagering world who run sportsbooks and saying, "Hey, this is a great chance to introduce a prop bet." I think it's only a matter of time before we see that. What is there to lose?

When you see your idea executed, is it the way that you thought it would be executed when you first came up with this? 

Elam: Yeah, it really was. And that goes back to June 2017, when this was implemented for the first time at TBT. Again, at that point, I'd been playing out these games, these scenarios on paper and in my mind for 10 years. So when I saw it in action, and my thoughts come to life for the first time, initially [I was] planning on looking at it from a very quantitative standpoint. I was ready to track a lot of data in real time. But as soon as I got there, I decided I'm just gonna go back after the fact and really dive into the numbers and kind of dissect that way. While I'm enjoying it in live action, I'm just going to try to absorb all the things that can't be quantified  -- to just get the look and the sound and the feel of the format. It looked solid, and it was meeting all the aims that I had laid out for this format, and that's been true from the start. But what's really been exciting are some of the things that you can't really quantify, and that is just the atmosphere in the arena and the gym. The excitement and the intensity, especially the defensive intensity, really ramps up when that clock goes dark. It really does.

And that's why I say that I do think the Elam Ending allows us to eliminate [and] alleviate the things that we don't enjoy about late-game play. But it allows us to keep and enhance things that we do enjoy. And it really does create an exciting style of play on the court and an exciting atmosphere in the arena. That was true, certainly, in the All-Star Game last year. I was there in Chicago, watching it unfold in person. The atmosphere is exactly what you would want from any basketball game. And so that was great for me to experience. I do think the format deserves a lot of credit, [but] I think sometimes the players don't get quite enough credit for how great that All-Star game was. I mean, that's really what made it special, I think is just seeing the greatest players in the world on one court, all playing to the best of their ability and with everything they had. The players -- that's what made it special. 

Some people felt that the game shouldn't be able to end on a free throw. Have you thought about any other ways to amend what you've already done? Or is that just going to be the end of it?

Elam: I have a few things to say about this. One is just, thinking about it from a logistical standpoint, I would prefer to see a game end with a high-flying dunk or a three-pointer or something like that. But I think we need to be prepared. Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good, and be prepared that there's going to be a small portion of games that will still end with a free throw. At TBT, over a few hundred games, it's been about 15-to-20% of games that end with a free throw, which obviously means that we got 80-to-85% of games that end with a meaningful made basket, I think that's a pretty solid number. I'm happy with that number, especially when you compare it to the regular format and NBA play or college basketball where only about 1% of games ends with a meaningful made field goal. So I think that's a great improvement.

Thinking about different, further modifications that would be made... if there were some sort of a strict mandate that games absolutely could not end with a free throw, I really think it will lead to a lot of junky strategies and unintended consequences that might put us right back [and] kind of defeat the purpose of the Elam Ending altogether. So I think we need to be willing to live with that small, small percentage of games that end with the free throw. But thinking about it more broadly -- when I hear that concern and that critique of someone who doesn't like the idea of the Elam Ending, my first reaction is, "Well, wait a second, if you don't like seeing games decided by free throws, then you should love the Elam Ending." It's the norm under the regular format to see games decided by free throws, and that's the exception under the Elam Ending. Even thinking about it another way, because again, that's the biggest argument that skeptics have against the Elam Ending -- referring to games that end with a free throw. That's kind of their best argument. That's their biggest weapon that they've got, Well, here in the 2020 NBA All-Star game, we saw it manifest. And still, 90-to-95% of the feedback about the format was positive. So the critics have used their biggest weapon, and yet the format really flourished. So where do the critics go from here? I don't know. 

Did you ever imagine the support for your idea would get this big?

Nick Elam: I imagined it a lot. I have imagined it a lot going back to 2007. Now I didn't know how long it would take, what avenue it would take to get where it is, but I always believed that it would get to this level and that's what kept me at it for so long. I really thought that I was only just one day away from a big breakthrough -- one influencer embracing the idea, one influencer away from the idea catching on. So yes, I [had] imagined that it would reach this height and I think it's still continuing to grow. 

LeBron James and Adam Silver are among the people who have shown their support for the Elam Ending. They've given testimonials and advocated for it in interviews. Have you gotten a chance to actually talk to any of them about this?

Elam: I get a chance. I've had interactions with lots of people in and around TBT (The Basketball Tournament), including players and coaches. And I've had some good interactions with people in and around FIBA's Canadian Elite Basketball League, which implemented the Elam Ending for the first time in 2020. I have not had as much interaction as I'd like to in the NBA world. I certainly reached out many times (and will continue to do so) over this 14-year span. To this point, it's been a lot of one-way communication -- me kind of leaving my findings and ideas and insights, questions and thoughts at the doorstep, and then not quite knowing where the discussion goes from there. But I'm going to continue to be patient [and] persistent with it. I'm confident at some point, I'll get a seat at the table. 

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Was there a specific game or sequence that you recall that kind of made you say, "Okay, we have to do this differently and have to come up with a different strategy?"

Elam: I do remember two specific games. These games were not particularly special in any way. I guess that maybe that's what drives home the point -- is that these kinds of endings are all too familiar. I'm from Southwest Ohio. So that's much more of a college hotbed more so than NBA. But I remember in 2004, I was a senior at the University of Dayton, lifelong basketball fan. All my housemates, we were big basketball fans. We were watching Duke and Xavier in the Elite Eight on Elite Eight Sunday, and it was a game like many others that you would see, where it's a highly intense, highly competitive game all the way throughout. And then you get to the final stages of the game and the air just totally goes out of the arena. And you see this totally warped style of play. You see Xavier with a relatively slim deficit, basically have no hope to come back in the game. So the outcome of the game is very predictable.

We have seen games like that many times before. But that was the first [time] that we really kind of articulated the issue. We just kind of looked around at each other kind of in a deep thinking mode, because it's so weird how the game changes so much at the end, "Is there a way that you could address that?" We tossed around some ideas and none of them were viable, and I don't know if any of them were really original. What we came up with at the time was this idea -- and you hear still today of -- "Well, if you just punish the fouling team more harshly, then that would discourage them from fouling late in the game." The problem with that is that you'd be taking the trailing team's only option of fouling, which really isn't that good of an option to begin with, and then making it even less appealing, without giving them a better alternative. What that would do is lead to fewer comebacks, and might actually lead to even more fouling than what we currently see. So those ideas just didn't work. We didn't have any viable ideas at the time.

But it was in 2007, we had all moved on with our lives, and the light bulb kind of went on. I was watching an ACC semifinal; it was North Carolina State and Virginia Tech. Same kind of thing where [it was] just a great game all the way through, and then you get to the last part of the game, and it's just this excruciating crawl to the finish. What happened to this great game we were just watching? It doesn't even look like basketball anymore. And that's when the light bulb went on. All these different phenomena that we see late in the game are attributable to the game clock. But what if you eliminated the game clock from the last part of the game? And so, that's when I first thought of the idea and that's when my exploration began. And even then I was very skeptical of this idea. My whole purpose of exploring it was to try to figure out what was wrong with this idea. Why wouldn't it work? But the more that I scrutinized it, the more I came to believe that the idea was necessary, that it was sound and that it had the potential to be very cool. So by the end of the summer of 2007, I convinced myself that the idea had merit. And that's when the really tough part began of trying to convince someone in the basketball world that the idea has merit.

You had these ideas in your head and then you actually executed them -- surveying all these games, making spreadsheets and digging in. This is obviously time-consuming and you were working as a groundskeeper for the Reds back then. Why is it that you cared so much and put so much time into this, especially since you already had a job? 

Elam: It was very time-consuming. And again, if I had known from the outset that it was gonna take 10 years for this to come to life, I honestly don't know if I would have undertaken the whole thing. But even going back to 2007, I really thought I was just one connection away, one day away from a big breakthrough. I kind of always felt that way along the way. You just never know how things like this are gonna play out. I mentioned that when I first started exploring this, just from a kind of a researcher perspective, just the curiosity, I was trying to figure out, "Why wouldn't this work? What would be the fatal flaw in this idea?" And I couldn't figure it out. I mean, it seemed pretty sound to me. And so when I was reaching out to people in the basketball world, I'd say a very low percentage of them would respond. The ones that replied, really their only criticism was just kind of like, "Hey, basketball doesn't make big changes like this very often." But nobody, even people who were clearly disenchanted with the idea -- nobody could say, like, why it wouldn't work. So that was another thing that kind of kept me going. Even people who don't like this idea still aren't saying what's wrong with it. Maybe it does work? Maybe it would be sound? So that was another thing that kind of got me going.

Did you calculate all the time that it took for you to do all this work? This was your pet project. How would you go about studying film? What was your daily routine? 

Elam: So in the spring and summer of 2007, it was a very time-consuming project. Over those few months, there were hundreds of hours going into this. It was just something I couldn't shake. I couldn't get it off my mind because here I was trying to talk myself out of it, trying to figure out what the flaw is. And the more like I dissected it and scrutinized it from every angle, the more I saw one more reason to actually believe in it. I was pulling all-nighters for no good reason. I wasn't up against any deadlines or anything. It was just one of those [things] where the energy just keeps you going. And you look at the clock and say, "Oh, I guess it's 4:00 in the morning, I need to go to bed here." Because it's just keeping you moving forward. [In] the years that follow, it would be something where it'd be pretty sporadic. And it was kind of a scattered thing where I'd really go dive in for a few weeks or so and undertake something that I thought might move the whole thing forward.

But then, 2014 is when I started a more polished and more robust research effort. Over the four-year span, I researched about 3,000 NBA and college basketball games. It wasn't just looking at box scores and play-by-play summaries, because those can be very misleading and those aren't really looking at the things I was trying to measure. So I really have to watch the film of the last stages of these games. And for that, it probably was at least a good 6-to-8 hours a week during basketball season, sometimes a little more than that I'd have to carve out. It would be like 3-to-4 hours on a Monday evening and then 3-to-4 hours on a Saturday morning. If there were regular times, that would be the regular time to catch up on film and things like that, and gather data, and that sort of thing.

How did you decide the plus-8 to the winning team and target score rule?

Elam: I'll start with men's college basketball because I think the numbers work out a little bit easier there. For men's college basketball, I recommend shutting off the clock at the 4:00 mark and using a plus-7 model. Those are the two big factors you have to decide on: when do you shut off the clock and what [score] do you play to? As far as shutting off the clock at the 4-minute mark for men's college basketball, there's a few reasons for that: one, that's around the time that you would see a team with a medium-sized lead really start to slow down and play very passively and start to manipulate the clock. It's also the last media timeout in college basketball, so it makes for kind of a natural transition stage of the game. Now, the really serious flaws at the end of the games -- the deliberate fouling and the sloppy and rushed possessions -- you really don't see that until about the last minute of the game, but you can't wait too long to shut off the clock or you're just gonna run into the same problem. So you have to build in enough of an untimed cushion, and I think four minutes is a good spot.

If we're gonna cut out four minutes of a 40-minute game, we're cutting out 10 percent of the game and we need to find some way to add 10 percent of it back in. If you look at scoring rates in men's college basketball, it's about 70 points per team, per game. So 10 percent of 70 is seven, and so that's where the plus-7 recommendation comes in. Every league and event would have it's own settings, and for TBT, we initially tried that under four minutes, plus-7 setting. We didn't have a big stockpile of past scoring data to go on. It was kind of a shot in the dark. So they tried that through 2018, and looking at how much game time was elapsing during that final stretch -- if we're taking out four minutes, we want to get about four minutes worth of game time [back]. We were getting closer to three minutes worth of game time with that plus-7 setting, so going into 2019 we talked about an adjustment that would get us closer to that four minutes worth of game time. We talked about plus-8, talked about plus-9, [but] settled on plus-8, and that's worked out really well. We've gotten almost right on the dot four minutes worth of game time during that untimed final stretch with that plus-8 setting. 

So that's a good fit for TBT, but again, other leagues and events would use a different setting. My preferred version is something like what TBT does, where it's really just the final stretch of the game that's untimed. What I like about that is when you shut off the clock, you really feel the finish line nearby. You feel like the end of this game is imminent. What happens a lot of times in the gym or the arena at TBT games, when they shut off that clock, everybody in the gym gets on their feet and they stay there for that entire final stretch. There's not enough chance to sit back and settle back in your seat. I like that idea of just having that final stretch of the game be untimed.

Why was TBT the organization you targeted?

Elam: I would not say that they were the only ones that I targeted. I targeted so many leagues and events that it totally waters down the meaning of targeting. I targeted any league or event I could find contact information for -- of any age, any location, any quality of play, whatever. I was reaching out to whoever I could find. The summer of 2016, I was like, "Okay, let's go at it. Let's make another roundabout reach." This time, I was gonna reach to some international leagues and events, which I didn't get very far with because it's hard to find good contact info. But I created a list of what I called semi-pro leagues and events, and TBT was on that list. It was exciting to get a reply back from them and get interest from them because they were one of the few leagues or events on that list that I had ever heard of. I'd watch TBT in summers' past on ESPN, and I knew that it was good, entertaining basketball and would be a great setting for implementing this new idea. So I was excited that they were the ones, and looking back, I think they were a perfect fit.

How did you feel about the initial reaction to its implementation into The Basketball Tournament, and can you describe that day that you saw your creation live on television?

Elam: I remember that day vividly. What I was hoping for just going into the day... this was 10 years in the making of just seeing this come to life. I just wanted it to be solid. I wanted to see good, fluid play during the final stretch. I wanted to see things like the leading team playing assertively. I wanted to see the trailing team really feel like they had a chance to come back, as long they could get stops and scores. I wanted to see them taking their time, getting their best looks, things like that. I was looking for solid. I wasn't even looking for spectacular. I would've been happy with that in the earlygoing. And that's kinda how the first few games of the day played out. They had seven games scheduled back-to-back on that first day. But by the middle of the afternoon on that day, we were really seeing the potential of this idea. 

In game five of the day, that's the first time we had what I would call a sudden-death situation where either team could win on the next possession. Josh Selby hit a mid-range fall-away jumper to win a game, and it set off this great, spontaneous, uninhibited celebration because there was no need for a clock review or anything like that. It had the look and the feel and the sound of a buzzer-beater. That was very reassuring and reaffirming to me because one of my thoughts all along as well was, "Are we gonna be able to match that excitement level of a buzzer-beater?" I was confident that we could, but still, I wanted to see it for myself. That game, the fifth game in Elam Ending history, was very reaffirming because we saw a sudden-death game and had that look and sound and feel of a buzzer-beater. Already, there was kind of a buzz in the gym. I could tell that TBT organizers were very excited about how this is all going, so that was exciting for me to see because I know they had the most to lose from all this. 

And then the very next game, we saw a team that was down by 13 points when they shut off the clock go on a 14-0 run and take the lead, and it was neck and neck from there and had this great finish. So that showed the potential of something that I really believed in all along that the Elam Ending would make late comebacks more likely, and that you could make that comeback without any sort of gimmicky strategies. We were just seeing good stops on the defensive end. We were seeing teams really work the ball and get good possessions on the offensive end to get a good look. They didn't have to rush and force up any circus shots or anything like that. It was just good, crisp basketball, and people were just getting into it. You could feel the "oohs" and "aahs" as they kept chipping into that deficit, chipping into the lead. That was great to see the potential for these unbelievable comebacks, which have kinda become something we've come to depend on in TBT. We've seen it every year, these comebacks by a team that has their back against the wall and they're able to get the stops they need to win the game. Just on that first day, we really saw what the potential of the idea was, and I knew then and there that somehow, some way, the Elam Ending was gonna live on beyond this first initial experimentation.

You had to be grinning from ear-to-ear, too. Emotionally, that had to be really cool.

Elam: It really was. I couldn't have asked for anything more from that first day. That was really cool, and another thing... this seems like a lifetime ago even though it was not even four years ago, but the thing I had to shoulder for those first 10 years was it was always just me out there speaking on behalf of this concept. I laid out all these aims, all these principles, all these arguments; I never knew if anybody else really cared or if they got it or whatever. And now, I was finally starting to see and, most importantly, hear other people  -- onlookers in the gym or the teams or the coaches, TBT organizers, the ESPN broadcasters -- articulate these different arguments that I had been making all along. And finally, I was able to breathe this sigh of relief that now it's not just me on my own anymore. The format finally has a chance to speak for itself instead of me speaking on its behalf. And now, people who are in the basketball world, basketball insiders, are making these same arguments that I had been making. I knew from that point forward my job was gonna be easier than it ever had been before.

I know you feel this should be the future of late-game situations and overtime periods, but do you feel it will be down the line?

Elam: I do. I think it will continue to grow. It'll be interesting to see what path that it takes to get to the highest levels of play -- the NBA, the NCAA, the WNBA, the Olympics. It'll take time to reach those highest heights, but there's so many different venues for this to be implemented that whatever winding road it takes, I think it's gonna continue moving forward somehow. Now that it has a foothold in FIBA, it'll be interesting to see what country, what league in the FIBA world implements it next. All the time, I hear about different what I would call grassroots-level leagues and events just all over the United States and sometimes internationally implementing the Elam Ending in some way. Obviously, TBT continuing to grow there. There's no better spotlight than the NBA All-Star Game. [There's] so many different settings for this to be implemented, and it's just fun every time I hear about somebody new implementing it.

Say I'm the most stubborn person in the world that's a traditionalist. Present your argument for why things need to change, why it works and why I should be open to the idea.

Elam: What I would say is that the whole spirit of the Elam Ending really is not to change basketball. It's to do the opposite and to preserve a more natural style of play through the end of every game. To me, the way that basketball's played now, the style and the quality of play changes too much during the late stages. The clock is too much of a focus, and everyone's primary goal is to manipulate the clock rather than getting stops and scores. I think it's an inferior brand of basketball during the late stages. If you love basketball like I do, then I want to see that high-quality, fluid, athletic, exciting and natural style of play be able to continue all the way through the end of a game. The Elam Ending, it provides us with that style of what I would call "real basketball" during the final stretch. 

That's what's been really cool for me to see just when I get feedback, is that some of the strongest proponents and most outspoken proponents of the Elam Ending are people who call themselves traditionalists, they would call themselves basketball lifers. These are longtime high school coaches, things like that, who love the idea, embrace the idea of just having the focus back on the court and good, fundamental play. They love the idea. What I would say is trust what you see of the Elam Ending. I know when you read about it or hear about it for the first time, it seems like it's an idea from outer space, but then you see it in action and you realize, "Oh, this really does look like real basketball."

One other thing I would say -- because I kinda consider myself the Elam Ending's toughest critic, and I take people back to when I first explored this -- when I first thought of this, I was a huge skeptic of the idea. I was trying to punch every hole in it that I could. So I never begrudge anybody for scrutinizing the idea. I think that's how the idea gets better for taking a while to embrace it. It took me a while to embrace it, so I can relate to all those things.

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