Q&A: Elam Ending inventor explains it all, after Hamilton Honey Badgers’ dramatic CEBL title


Published August 19, 2022 at 12:17 pm

Last Sunday, the Hamilton Honey Badgers gave a vivid, and viral, illustration of how the Elam Ending works.

The Canadian Elite Basketball League adopted American university professor Nick Elam’s endgame format three seasons ago, but last weekend was its first championship contest where both teams were in Next Shot Wins territory. In the Elam Ending, the game clock is turned off and teams play to a target score, not unlike a pickup game where the first to score 11, or 15, or 21 wins. (OThe Elam Ending ‘target score’ is nine points above the tally of the leading team following the first whistle with under four minutes to play.)

Hamilton won, mooting a massive comeback by the Scarborough Shooting Stars, when CEBL Canadian player of the year and Burlington native Caleb Agada made one free throw for the 90-88 win. The taut finish, and quibbling about the game ending on a free throw instead of a basket, prompted inTheHammer to reach out to Elam, who is an education professor at Ball State University in the hoops-heartland state of Indiana.

Elam says seeing the applied theory play out helps win over doubters who might have purist sensibilities.

“The Elam Ending has been able to speak for itself on the court,” Nick Elam says. “People are now seeing what I mean when I say that the Elam Ending is not designed to change the sport of basketball — that it’s meant to do the opposite, by preserving a more natural and exciting style of play through the end of every game.”

Many basketball fans grow frustrated seeing the finish of games drag on due to deliberate fouling and hurried shots. For instance, in the NCAA March Madness tournament, the last two minutes of game time often take over 20 minutes due to fouling, timeouts and commercial breaks. Around 2007, Elam said he had the eureka moment that got him started.

“Basketball could realistically use points in place of a clock, but simply chooses not to,” Elam explains. “Or better yet, basketball is the only sport that can enjoy the best of both timed and untimed worlds.”

The Basketball Tournament (TBT), which is an open single-elimination event broadcast on ESPN, was the first to adopt the Elam Ending, doing so in 2017. In February 2020, the NBA used a version of it during the all-star game.

Page ahead to July 2020, when the CEBL was planning to hold a summer showcase in St. Catharines in order to be able to play during heavy COVID-19 health protections. At that point, the young league switched to the Elam Ending. It has also been incorporated into an award for the player who closes out the most games. Niagara River Lions guard Khalid Ahmad, the CEBL most valuable player, also collected the inaugural clutch player of the year after making 10 Elam ender-shots this season.

The Edmonton Stingers won the ’20 and ’21 title games by a combined 53 points, so it did not come into play like it did on Sunday.

Here is what Nick Elam said about his namesake format’s origin story, the growing interest in the Elam Ending, some deeper truths about the traditional ending to basketball games, and his response to the contention that the Elam Ender should have to be a basket.

iTH: Going back to the very beginning, what feelings, frustrations, were catalytic that led to you developing the Elam Ending in 2007?

NE: “I am a lifelong basketball fan, and I have always been fascinated by sports rules and their effects. It was especially fascinating to me that basketball games regularly encounter a scenario where a trailing team’s only recourse is to deliberately and overtly violate the rules of the sport (fouling to stop the clock). In my view, this is the type of glaring fundamental flaw that would be worth addressing in any board game, card game, video game… or major sport.

“Worse yet, deliberate fouling isn’t even a cool flaw. It directly replaces all that makes basketball cool (fluid, athletic, assertive, strategic, suspenseful play) with an inferior and warped brand of the sport. (All of this would be true even if deliberate fouling were somewhat effective. It was eye-opening to me, as the months/years went on researching late-game phenomena, to find that when a team resorts to deliberate fouling, they only go on to win the game about 1 per cent of the time. Ugh.)

“It was also interesting to me to find that the NBA and NCAA also acknowledge that deliberate fouling is a flaw worth addressing – that they have introduced a number of creative rule changes, dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, trying to curtail deliberate fouling. But most of these changes backfired and have been abandoned. These rule changes made deliberate fouling less appealing by introducing harsher penalties for deliberate fouling, but they backfired because they still didn’t give the trailing team a better alternative than deliberate fouling. This is true and will always be true as long as basketball uses a fully-timed format.

“A huge light-bulb moment (in the early stages of exploring the viability of this concept — now called the Elam Ending) came in the spring of 2007, when I realized that basketball doesn’t need to be fully timed. I noticed that some sports use a particular mini-accomplishment, accumulated with a reliable rapidity, in place of a clock (such as volleyball, tennis, baseball/softball — outs as the mini-accomplishment). Other sports that don’t have such an easy-to-accumulate mini-accomplishment, must rely on a clock.

“Basketball shared this low-scoring characteristic in the sport’s infancy (basketball games were very low-scoring in the early decades of the sport, making basketball a truly clock-dependent sport). But for many many years since, the scoring rate in basketball has risen to a level that is clearly distinct from other time-based sports. Basketball could realistically use points in place of a clock, but simply chooses not to. Or better yet, basketball is the only sport that can enjoy the best of both timed and untimed worlds with the format I was exploring (now known as the Elam Ending).

“Another anecdotal revelation I had was to think back from my own perspective as a fan of many sports, to realize that my memories of highly-anticipated and/or highly-competitive games were more vivid in other sports than they were in basketball. I realized that other sports have at least one of two traits that make such games easier to remember — either scoring in those sports is rare (hockey, soccer, etc.) making those scoring plays stand out in memory, and/or those sports have discrete (rather than continuous) action that makes certain scenarios and situations easier to remember (baseball, football).

“Basketball’s frequent scoring and fluid nature (combined with the reality that very few basketball games end with any sort of accomplishment) made basketball games (even the biggest and best games) more susceptible to fading from my memory than games of other sports.

“These are just a few of the many feelings/revelations I had that made me so energized in the early days of this project!”

(To the point about early basketball being low-scoring, Canada did not break double digits that one time it made the Olympic men’s basketball gold-medal game in 1936.)

iTH: You have given over 300 presentations on the Elam Ending. What change are you noticing in receptiveness to the idea?

NE: “I have noticed that as time goes on, my work has gotten much easier in communicating the merits of the Elam Ending! For the first ten years of this project, I was out there on my own speaking on behalf of this concept (if I could even find a platform/audience).

“Beginning in 2017, the Elam Ending has been able to speak for itself on the court. People are now seeing what I mean when I say that the Elam Ending is not designed to change the sport of basketball — that it’s meant to do the opposite, by preserving a more natural and exciting style of play through the end of every game. I have also definitely noticed many of the early objections fading out/fading away — concerns that teams would deploy new warping strategies, concerns that the importance of good coaching/preparation would somehow be diminished, and most of all concerns that the Elam Ending would not be able to match the excitement of a timed buzzer beater.”

iTH: While I do not know how much profile the CEBL has outside of Canada, what does a close Elam ending in a big event do for winning people over?

NE: “Such games are where people really start to see, hear, feel, experience that the Elam Ending takes the sport of basketball to a level of excitement and quality that is rarely if ever seen under a timed format. To see both teams able to play their best with the game on the line, with an outcome that is far less predictable than that of a timed game, has been addicting. It’s easy to see why, in many venues, a tradition has started where fans get on their feet and stay on their feet throughout the entire Elam Ending. It’s exciting to think about what new traditions will emerge over the years during the Elam Ending.”

iTH: Scanning over Twitter, some basketball people saying they would prefer one tweak — that the game should end on a basket from the floor, rather than a free throw. What is your reaction to that, especially since that creates a scenario where there would be intentional fouling if a team was 1-2 points from the Target Score?

NE: “I do not want to introduce a requirement that a game must end on a field goal. Doing so would introduce unintended consequences. I could go on more extensively about this, but the simplest way to say it is: ‘You can’t win on a free throw’ directly implies ‘You can’t lose on a free throw.’ If Team A’s opponent is 1-2 points from winning, I believe we would see Team A play recklessly/comically aggressive defense — hoping that refs don’t call a foul and they are able to force a turnover, or hoping the Team B player misses one or both free throws and opens the door for Team A to chip away on the offensive end. And Team A would do this possession after possession. And then you realize — wait a second, this sound exactly like the excruciating brand of basketball we see under a timed format!

“Deciding games at the free throw line is the exception under the Elam Ending, whereas it is the norm under the timed format.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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