The Sultan of Stats
Harvey Pollack was home from the service for only a few months when Bob Geasey, the public and sports information director at Temple University, from which Harvey had graduated with a degree in journalism, asked for some help keeping statistics for a few college basketball games at Philadelphia’s old Convention Hall.
It was 1946, and college basketball was getting back into prominence with so many young men returning from World War II. Only months later, a local maven, Eddie Gottlieb, secured the Philadelphia franchise for the newly formed, professional National Basketball Association.
“I think they just said, ‘Who are we going to get to do the stats?’ and someone said, ‘How about the kid from Convention Hall who did the college games?’ and that was that,” Pollack said.
Now, almost 65 years later, Pollack is still doing stats for the Philly NBA team — then the Warriors and now the 76ers. In fact, he is Mr. NBA Stats. He is the man who invented such now-ubiquitous stats as the triple double (double figures in points, assists and rebounds in one game), and the first person to keep track of rebounds. Pollack also wrote the rules about what constitutes a rebound.
And now he is the last link to the NBA’s inception. When Red Auerbach — the former coach and then-president of the Boston Celtics — died in 2006, Pollack became the only person alive who has been associated with the NBA from that first year in 1946 and every other year since. He has been a public relations man for the Warriors (Philadelphia’s team through the early 1960s) and then for the 76ers (who came to town from Syracuse in 1963); since 1987, he has been the team’s official director of statistical information. But unofficially, Pollack has been the arbiter of stats for the entire league.
“I guess I just can’t stop,” said Pollack, 88, who runs the stats crew not only for the Sixers, but also for eight area college women’s and men’s teams, the Philadelphia Wings indoor lacrosse team and, from time to time, college football teams. If that weren’t enough, he has a weekly entertainment column in the suburban Philly newspaper County Press, and occasionally writes restaurant reviews.
“I learned early on, you have to moonlight to make a good living,” Pollack said from his office in the Wells Fargo Center, where the 76ers play. He recounted his nights in the past week: a Sixers game Wednesday; a theater production of “White Christmas” Thursday; a Sixers game Friday; a show in one suburban theater Saturday, and Sunday “Hello Dolly” at another. “Mondays I’m usually home, or maybe out to eat,” he said.
Still, stats are Pollack’s game. Annually, he publishes Harvey Pollack’s Statistical Yearbook, weighing in this year at 334 pages. Inside is black type of everybody’s everything: the list of everyone’s offensive fouls; every individual or team fine; the top 24 blocked-shots leaders among guards; the list of colleges where every NBA coach matriculated; the tattoos of every NBA player.
“We get that by looking at the players as they come up to the scorer’s table,” Pollack said. “Sometimes we ask, but it is all just for fun.”
Technically, the Elias Sports Bureau is the official statistical source for the NBA, but when push comes to shove — or maybe when slam comes to dunk — Pollack is the Sultan of Stat.
Early in the season, for instance, ESPN was doing a piece listing ballplayers’ birthplaces. For Hall of Fame forward Chet Walker, they found two listed: Benton Harbor, Mich., and Holly Springs, Miss.
“So who were they going to come to but me?” Pollack said. “I just called him up. Turns out he was born in Holly Springs, but grew up in Benton Harbor.
“I get a lot of them, and here’s how the call starts: ‘I called the NBA, and they said to call Harvey Pollack,’ It still is fun to say that sometimes I know more than the NBA.”
Sometimes, newbies who don’t know their NBA history aggravate Pollack. Earlier this year, Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves had a 30-point, 30-rebound night. “They made a big deal of saying it hadn’t been done since 1982, when Moses Malone did it,” Pollack said. “But I said, ‘What about before 1982?’… It had been done 131 times by 18 individuals, but most had only done it once or twice. But guess what? Wilt Chamberlain did it 103 times. Kevin Love has a long way to go.”
Clearly, Chamberlain was, if not Pollack’s favorite player, at least his favorite stat maker. On the day in 1962, when Chamberlain had his (still a record) 100-point game, Pollack was a whirlwind. It was an otherwise insignificant game against the lowly New York Knicks, so most Philadelphia media didn’t staff it. When it became historic, no one, save Pollack, was prepared. He had Chamberlain hold up a sheet reading merely “100” for a wire photo, and called in stories to the wire services and to Philadelphia papers.
Pollack’s Statistical Yearbook annually ends its pages with a paean to Chamberlain: an analysis of every game he played against his biggest rival, Bill Russell; a list of 50 of his greatest scoring feats; even a nugget about Joe Ruklick, his backup in the 1961–62 season, when Chamberlain played every minute of every game.
But no player stat can equal Pollack’s 65 NBA seasons, probably the longest skein in any professional sport. He has even achieved that ne plus ultra of modern sportsdom — a bobble-head Pollack doll, complete with stat-keeping pencil in hand.
Pollack has no thoughts of retiring. His wife died in 2002. “Two years later, I met a girl from my 1939 graduating class at Simon Gratz High School whom I never knew then,” he said. “I guess you could call her my companion now.”
Pollack was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, the same year as another of his favorite players, Magic Johnson. “At the ceremony, I told Magic: ‘Without me, you wouldn’t be here. I invented the triple double, and no one would have noticed you if not for that.’
“Well, he didn’t seem impressed, but last year, he came to Philadelphia for a game and was being interviewed at halftime. I walked by, and he stopped and pointed to me, saying, ‘He’s the guy who made me famous.’”
Robert Strauss’s memoir about being the father of girl athletes, “Daddy’s Little Goalie,” will be published in April by Andrews McMeel Publishing.