In this series, I’ve tried to show that luck determines outcomes more often than most are willing to admit. Luck happens in sports in ways that may or may not look like “lucky” breaks. From officiating to an athlete’s skill, what determines a contest’s outcome usually has something to do with factors outside the control of athletes or coaches.
In reality, these are only a few examples of a much bigger picture of how luck determines outcomes. For example, how do we explain the performance of one’s opponent? We often see perceived “lesser” teams come out victorious in a contest simply due to underperformance of a normally higher performing team. How else does one of the NBA’s worst teams, the Milwaukee Bucks, beat the NBA’s best team, the Golden State Warriors, earlier this season? The Warriors have nailed over 40% of their three-pointers this season, but were only able to hit 26% against the Bucks on December 12th. It is possible that the Bucks played great defense that night, but it was more likely that the Warriors had an off night, a lucky break for the Bucks. Teams under or over perform, regardless of the ability or effort of their opponents. This is simple luck; all athletes have times they woke up on the wrong side of the bed, and nothing they tried worked. That night this past December was one of those times.
Although luck may determine outcomes more often than we usually think, it is important to put luck in context. If luck has a hand in determining outcomes, we need to come to grips with the fact that no championship teams win without luck at some level. Over the course of a season, athletes may catch an officiating break, avoid major injury, or catch a “better” team on an off night, and carry those breaks to the top of the mountain. Luck is part-and-parcel of sports in general- and we as fans should consider it as such or risk living a “bootstrapping” sports myth where all athletes simply pull themselves to victory on their own effort. When we look back at the great teams in sports history, we mustn’t credit their accomplishments as pure ability or will.
We have seen numerous cases where bad luck with dynamics like team chemistry can be hard to overcome with sheer will. The Real Madrid squads of the early 2000s were stacked with world-class talent like Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo. And yet, Madrid went years without so much as a league championship with that roster, something that was no doubt due to the bad luck of an absence of chemistry among otherwise world-beating superstars.
But, great teams must be able to take advantage of luck better than others with effort and preparation. Getting an officiating call or an injury to go your way only really matters if you capitalize on it. The 1988 San Francisco 49ers were able to capitalize on the broken leg of Cincinnati’s star defensive tackle Tim Krumrie in the first quarter to win Super Bowl XXIII. The great Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s harnessed the natural chemistry among its draftees (Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, Danny Ainge) to win titles when so many teams with equal God-given talent fail to do so.
The point here is that luck usually only determines outcomes when teams are able to combine that luck with the proper effort to produce something advantageous to them. The lucky or unlucky break itself may not always be under a team’s control, but making it matter often is.
More importantly, we need to recognize that luck adds more beauty and intrigue to the sports we love than any other dynamic. What pulls us in are those lucky breaks adding drama to athletic competitions that could easily descend into predictable and boring events without luck. We love to see how a horrendously bad call adds controversy to a match just as much as we like to see athletes “leave it all on the floor.” We want to witness a ball bouncing off a defender’s helmet into the arms of a receiver just as much as we want to see that same receiver burn his cover because he knows his DB bites on out-routes.
Luck matters a great deal in determining outcomes in a contest, but it also matters to keep us fans glued to the action. From the injuries, God-given abilities, bad officiating calls, chemistry, and the unpredictable performances of opponents, luck is obviously something to be reckoned with in the sports world. Considering all the ways luck pops up in sports, would we really want to watch them without it?
 It should be noted that the 49ers overcame their own injury to OT Steve Wallace by subbing in former starter, veteran Bubba Paris.
 Top image is from NBA.com showing the Warriors stat line from GS-Milwaukee game in December