Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Alpha Dog

I asked my husband for clarification about the concept of “alpha dogs,” as well as beta dogs, aka, second bananas in basketball.  These terms were some of the vernacular being tossed about by the media and my husband, especially during any NBA trading activity of major basketball celebrities, like LeBron James going to the Miami Heat in the 2010-2011 season, and, more recently, Chris Paul being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The “alpha dog” in basketball, my husband patiently explained to me, is not necessarily the “best” player on the team, the one most athletically gifted with the showy, poster-making shots; that said, he often is the best player on the team.  Skill and talent help.  A lot.  But, first and foremost, the alpha dog functions as the grounding force of the team, the one whom everyone else follows.  His “dominance” appears to largely be due personality, that elusive quality of “leadership”.

My husband’s description does make the use of the “alpha dog” analogy apt enough.  I made a brief foray into reading up on predatory pack animal behavior for this; it appears that the “alpha dog” or alpha wolf, at least, isn’t necessarily the most aggressive, though winning physical challenges from betas is vital; Peter Steinhart in his The Company of Wolves suggests that the alpha may be the one “to hold the pack together, to give it comfort and coordination and belonging."

As a side note, romance writers' concept of “alpha heroes”, and in paranormal romances, in particular (since a lot of them involve predatory pacts of werewolves and vampires), define them similarly; the alpha hero, in addition to being tall, dark (sometimes blond, though), and handsome (devastatingly so), is, once you get through the tough, muscled, brain-bashing exterior, better at talking about feelings than I am.

This “dominance” hierarchy in basketball is not akin to teenage boys attempting to master insecurity and establish their identity.  To be sure, there’s plenty of power displays in college and professional basketball, stare-downs, trash-talking, the “oh, sorry, I didn’t see you” bumps on the shoulder as I oh-so-casually walk past you.  But these are usually against opposing team players; it’s a strategy to try gain a competitive advantage.  Well, it can also be about bad tempers and bruised egos.  And sources tell me that alphas and betas in a team are not past put overly presumptuous rookies “in their place” outside the court.  The rookie cubs will need to prove their worth on the court to establish their rightful place in the pack

The hierarchy is established ultimately because it is arguably the most successful strategy to win, as it is thought to be for wolf packs to survive.  My husband referred to it as the “Big Three” tactic; that is, in addition to the alpha, there are two bananas seconding him, who on any given night may dominate, take command of the game.  An example is the current roster for the Miami Heat, fronted by Dwayne Wade,  LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, or the legendary Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan era (with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman).

Yet at the same time the bananas need to “know their role and stick to it” (quote from my husband).  If betas or gammas (defined variably as third in line, the nonconformist, a mellowed alpha, or a loser, depending on the context; there doesn’t appear to be a consensus) are either unaware or in denial of their status and role and actively try to usurp the alpha position, the rest of the players get confused, plays get broken, and opportunities are lost.

Having no alpha at all doesn’t work well, either, no matter how much talent there may be on the team.  In these cases, my husband suggests, the team relies primarily on the coach to serve as proxy for alpha, but in my husband's opinion it’s ineffective at best.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule of the “Big Three,” other playing strategies, like Dirk Nowitzki’s “One Man Show” approach that won the Dallas Mavericks the 2010-2011 NBA Championships, what my husband referred to as “surreal to watch,” or to cite his other example, having a well-balanced team like the Detroit Pistons (I’ll have to take his word on that one)

An interesting deviation from the wolf pack analogy is the omega role.  In wolves, the omega is at the bottom of the hierarchy, the butt of everyone's joke.  The closest analogy in basketball parlance is what my husband refers to as the “human white flag” or “human victory cigar”.  This is the player who typically occupies the eleventh spot on the bench, and who comes out at in the last seconds of the game, after a team has completely blown away the other team or is conceding defeat.  Rather than the butt of everyone, this is typically a “good locker room guy that everyone likes”.  He’s someone who’s “not going to do anything stupid, practices hard, and is always on time.  He reminds good players what they’re supposed to be doing."

At the Division I college level, sometimes coaches put in as “fifth man” in the starting team (of five) someone who looks curiously undersized, never seems to have the ball, isn’t taking a lot of shots, doesn’t appear to do much of anything, but is always “in position,” where he’s supposed to be.  My husband calls this player an “extension of the coach,” to remind other players of various defensive sets and plays.   Also contrary to the omega wolf analogy, this player is also generally well-liked and respected because he integrally facilitates the alpha in grounding and organizing the team.  This player is typically never good enough to go “pro”, but does great in community and office basketball leagues.  He rules as alpha at that level.

Actually, in keeping with the idea that having an alpha is more a practical strategy rather than based on naturally aggressive natures, my husband notes that in his community and work-related leagues, the hierarchy is much more vague, because the stakes are less high (well, for most), and of course the talent pool isn’t as – well, as stellar.  As my husband described it, in his current office team, “none of us suck,” but his teammates segregate into two camps, those who “know how to play” and those who are “confused.”  It’s good to have some teammates who are in the former camp on the court.

Notably, his current team is doing well.  They have no losses so far and may very well make it to the championship game again (like last year; they won).

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