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Ethan Swan and I couldn’t see the players’ tattoos from Section 217 of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but Swan still knew who was inked and who wasn’t. LeBron James? Obviously. Chris Bosh? A swirl of images (musical notes, tiger, skull) on his back. Deron Williams? “He’s got a basketball tattoo,” Swan said — just as at least one player on every NBA team did at one point three years ago. Of the Nets on the floor in this early May playoff game, only Shaun Livingston was a blank canvas.

Except nobody really is — not any of us, and certainly not Swan. For four seasons, he has kept a database of NBA players’ tattoos — every Chinese letter, Bible verse, jersey number, Rolls Royce logo and winged angel. He puts it all on his Tumblr, his way of getting in the game. But “NBA tattoos” is more than a fanboy project; it’s an antidote to an Internet rife with articles, lists and superlatives mocking athletes’ tattoo choices: 11 worst, 22 worst, ugliest. Swan’s blog is a small protest against that kind of reflexive judgment.

“It’s just dumb to have an opinion about this,” he said. “You don’t have enough ways to judge a player, you have to assert this thing that’s totally meaningless.”

Take Randy Foye of the Denver Nuggets, a guy who, Swan wrote, has “one of the most heartbreaking tattoos in the league (or that I’ve heard of, period).” As the game unfolded below us, Swan told me the story. Foye’s father died when he was 3 years old, and after Randy finished kindergarten his mother walked out on the family. On his 22nd birthday, Foye had her picture tattooed on his chest.

“If my mom was here today, she would probably be the most important person in my life,” Foye once told an interviewer. “I just felt as if I needed something of her attached to me, so I just put her over my heart.”

Even in the dark of Section 217, I could see the story moved Swan.

“How,” he asked, “could you root against a guy like that?”

And yet the verdicts keep coming in. A few years ago, Swan encountered his bête noire, a piece on Yahoo that used data to argue that players with visible tattoos were egotistical ball hogs and guys without them were selfless rebounders and passers. Ethan Swan, defender of the NBA tattoo, was worried. What if he was rooting for the wrong guys?

Ethan Swan | Allison Michael Orenstein

Ethan Swan | Allison Michael Orenstein

Swan, 38, has tattoos on his belly, arms and chest, trimmed hair, and a quiet manner that gives the impression he’s more at ease listening than talking. His day job has nothing to do with the NBA — he manages a gallery and performance space called 356 South Mission Road in Los Angeles. Before that, he lived in New York and worked in the education department at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.1 When one of my colleagues found his blog I got interested in what inspired it.

Swan learned early about the importance of empathy. He grew up in Rochester, New York, one of three children of activist parents. His father volunteered for the Peace Corps and became a teacher; his mother is a nurse practitioner and HIV educator. Swan found his own revolution in the punk community, where empathy for everyone else’s angst nestles just below the outrage. He traded tapes and zines with friends across the country, urged his favorite bands to come to Rochester and featured their records in the store where he worked. The impulse to share helped drive his decision to catalog tattoos.

“I was spending so much time watching basketball, I think it was important to find a way to participate, to not just be a spectator,” he said. “I wouldn’t say much of that was conscious, but looking back at the other work I’ve done in my life, it clearly fits a pattern.”

In the early 2000s, he lived in Philadelphia and rooted for the 76ers, led by Allen Iverson, whose shoulder bore a cross of daggers and the words “Only The Strong Survive.” (Iverson once said, “I put shit on my body that means something to me.”2) Tattoos were still edgy then, and the NBA worried about whether its largely white fan base would accept tattooed black players. At one point the league altered the cover of its Hoop magazine so Iverson’s body ink wouldn’t show. Later, it instituted a “business casual” dress code for its players. The response from the man known as The Answer: “They’re targeting guys who dress like me — guys who dress hip-hop. Put a murderer in a suit and he’s still a murderer.”

That was when Swan saw a connection between basketball and punk. Iverson’s tattoos obscured the person beneath them — he was an archetype, in other words, of the players Swan was most drawn to.

“He was just so defiant. I loved it.”

Trevor Ariza | Getty Images

Trevor Ariza | Getty Images

The tattoo database came early in 2011, after Swan bought a subscription to stream games on his computer. He watched with his laptop open to a spreadsheet. He learned it was easiest to see a tattoo when a player shot free throws because he stood still and the camera zoomed in. Swan searched the web for photos of tattooed players. He followed athletes on Twitter so he’d know when they got new ink. He set up a Google alert for “NBA tattoos.” One day, the IT guy at the New Museum confronted him about why he had searched so often for “Carmelo Anthony shirtless.”

Swan posted his first complete list of tattoos that May. He counted 433 players in the NBA — 230 with tattoos and 203 without. That’s 53 percent of players. The next year the tattooed percentage rose to 55, and the year after that to 56. Wilson-Feature-TattooGuy-Table

Swan saw every banal and predictable tattoo imaginable. But he also knew that a tattoo often documented something important. Chris Andersen of the Miami Heat, whose upper-body art makes him look like he’s wearing a freaky turtleneck, covered himself in ink after recovering from drug addiction. The Atlanta Hawks’ Demarre Carroll has an RIP portrait tattoo in memory of a brother who died from a brain tumor. Trevor Ariza of the Washington Wizards honors his brother Tajh, who died in a fall from a hotel window at 5 years old.

Early on, Swan analyzed each team’s tattoos in a brief essay. Of the New York Knicks he wrote:

For whatever reason, [they] ended up tied with the Lakers for most tattooed players on one team in 2010-11, and that’s without Eddy Curry. Or Wilson Chandler, Nate Robinson, Starbury, Al Harrington, Quentin Richardson, or any of the other heavily tattooed guys to wear a Knicks uniform in the last few years. I have no idea what’s driving it, but it does make me happy.

More recently, Swan has limited his remarks to individual players: “Among [Al] Harrington’s many tattoos is a great snarling wolf on his chest with the text ‘Killer Instinct.’”

Swan made an exception to this just-the-facts approach in 2012, when Grantland3 published a piece called “The Boy With the Dragon Tattoo — And other horrible ink in the NBA.” It was a list of player tattoos followed by quips written by the authors, who were screenwriters.

“This is just a reminder for the medics that he has a peanut allergy,” they wrote about Mo Williams’s Mr. Peanut collage. For the Abe Lincoln tattoo on DeShawn Stevenson’s neck — one of the most-mocked tats in the league — one writer cracked, “When you play for the Nets it’s more about the Lincolns than the Benjamins.”

Swan took to his keyboard:

The real disappointment was the way in which the tattoos were used as a method to further distance players from spectators. The authors … treated the tattoos as another line between themselves and the players mentioned, evidence that the players are ignorant or out of touch. Why would you want to do that?

I asked Swan what he thought about Stevenson’s Lincoln tattoo. “Look, he is a problematic dude,” he said. “His tattoos are bonkers, he gets arrested, he wore a T-shirt saying, ‘LeBron, how’s my Dirk taste?’ But you know, he barely knew his father.

“The world is so — it will just break your heart. The world is just so gnarly. It’s not that he deserves a pass or isn’t responsible for his actions. But how many times are people going to sit down and try to think of a way to make a joke about his tattoo? There’s this whole other story that can be told about him and his reality.”

Only a few people noticed what Swan was doing.4 Once, somebody on Reddit linked to his blog with the headline, “NBA Tattoo Percentages per team, somebody did this research!” Inked magazine gave him an assignment to interview Dorell Wright, then of the Sixers, who has “G.H.O.S.T.” tattooed on his shoulder. “It’s something me and one of my closest friends thought of,” Wright told Swan. “Go Hard Or Stop Trying.”

Swan has never spoken to another NBA player. He doesn’t often try to contact them on Twitter, doesn’t write to NBA or team spokespeople to get information. Near the end of each season he simply Googles every player and the word tattoo. He describes this task as “not un-fun.”

This season, by Swan’s count, 241 players had tattoos, down from 250 the year before. He was a little disappointed. He likes it when the numbers go up.

DeShawn Stevenson | Getty Images

DeShawn Stevenson | Getty Images

At the Nets-Heat game in May, I asked Swan about his own tattoos. He lifted his shirt and undershirt and showed me one on his belly — a misshapen tattoo of a ghost. He opened the top buttons of his shirt and revealed an image of a pet rabbit that had died. The bunny is wrapped in a ribbon that says, “My Warm Heart.”

He has eight others. Inside his right arm: “alas,” his sister Abigail’s initials. Right shoulder: a heart. Left shoulder: a polar bear taken from this album cover. Right arm: “138,” a song about violence by the punk band the Misfits. Left belly: another rabbit, this one homemade. Left hip: the words “baby foxes.” Left chest: “absent friends.” Finally, inside his left arm: a rooster that matches one his sister Jordana got years ago.

Jordana, five years younger than her brother, shared a lot of his interests: art history, punk rock, travel. In 2005 they spent a month bicycling across France together, sleeping on riverbanks and sometimes encountering sketchy people who eyed their expensive bikes. Jordana’s tattoo helped keep them safe. In France, Le Coq Gaulois has represented the aspirations of the people since the Revolution. “It made her approachable,” Swan said.

He and his sister loved to talk basketball. On their birthdays, they bought Knicks tickets and went together. He remembers that LeBron James dropped 50 or more points on the Knicks at his birthday game one year and at Jordana’s the next.

When Swan started the tattoo blog, he consulted Jordana on what to name it. “Just call it ‘NBA tattoos,’” she told him, “because that’s what people will search for.”

In 2012, Jordana was 31 and living in Brooklyn while on leave from a master’s program in sociology. She had long struggled with mental health issues, and when Hurricane Sandy tore through New York she couldn’t cope. A week after the storm, Ethan got a call telling him to come to the hospital; Jordana had overdosed. She died on Nov. 3, 2012.

Within two months, Swan moved to California. He couldn’t be in New York anymore.

“You don’t actually meet many siblings that are really that close,” Heather Anderson, Swan’s wife of five years, told me by phone from Los Angeles. “I don’t know exactly what it was. They had some kind of sibling magic.”

Anderson’s own sister died 10 years ago, of alcoholism.

“When you lose someone like that, there becomes a thing of wanting to live for them a little bit,” she said. “You want to take on that person’s fire and interests and live right by that, because they can’t. I haven’t talked to Ethan about it, but I have to believe he has some of that.”

LeBron James | Getty Images

LeBron James | Getty Images

During the first year Swan collected NBA tattoo data, he got a Google alert about a story on Yahoo: “NBA Tats & Stats: Player Ink Reveals More Than You Think.” Writer Andrew Sweat, a contributor to Yahoo Voices, argued that tattooed players seek glory as point-scorers, while uninked players selflessly pull down rebounds and hand out assists.

Sweat backed up the claim with stats. Of the top 10 players in points per game in the 2010-11 season, six had visible tattoos (Kevin Durant made it seven if you counted players with covered tattoos). In the “team-oriented” categories of assists and rebounds, eight out of 10 leaders in each stat played in their original skin.

“Visible tats serve one purpose — to invite the world to look at ME, ME, ME!” Sweat wrote. “Body ink draws attention to the individual, visually telling stories nobody asked to hear.”

Swan found the essay unsettling. It didn’t simply criticize players’ taste in body art, the way so many others did. It seemed to say that players with tattoos were worse people than those without them. After he read the piece, he checked some of Sweat’s numbers.

“I got bummed,” Swan said, “because I couldn’t immediately disprove him.”

Yet there was plenty of room for skepticism. To begin with, the Yahoo piece built skyscraper-size conclusions on a square-inch plot of evidence. Six of the 10 leading scorers had tattoos; therefore, tattooed players were selfish. Also, it wasn’t clear why rebounders and passers were “team-oriented” but point scorers weren’t. Guys who score don’t help the team?

Then there was this: “The more visible tattoos a player sports, the more likely he is to excel in an individual-centered category like scoring.” So if a player has four visible tattoos, he is more likely to score a lot of points than a player with only two? The piece offered no evidence.

Still, none of that meant the premise was wrong. To really know would require deeper analysis.

I asked my colleague Carl Bialik to help. He looked at stats of 636 NBA players in Swan’s four-year database — 288 without tattoos, 348 with at least one. Using Basketball-Reference.com, Carl examined the career regular-season stats for each player, separating the players into groups of guards, forwards and centers.

For each of the subgroups with and without tattoos, he calculated their combined stats in 19 categories from offensive rebounds to personal fouls to three-point shooting.

The result: In none of the comparisons was there a major difference (20 percent either way) between tattooed players and those without ink. And nothing pointed to one group being more “selfish” than the other: Forwards with tattoos had better per-48-minute rates for assists and steals, but also higher rates of turnovers and two-point field goals attempted and made.

Finally, Carl ran regressions on all 19 stats to see whether a player’s tattoos had any meaningful connection to that stat, after controlling for player position. And for each of the stats, he found no statistically significant relationship.5 I emailed Andrew Sweat with the results and he didn’t argue with them, but stressed that he was merely writing about the statistical leaders in the 2010-11 season.

A few days after the Nets-Heat game, I met Swan for breakfast at a diner. Over pancakes and coffee, I shared Carl’s analysis: If an NBA player has a tattoo, it means … at some point, he decided to get a tattoo. Nothing more.

Swan smiled a little smile. Now, this was a good day for his project. A good day for Randy Foye and Trevor Ariza. For DeShawn Stevenson and Chris Andersen and DeMarre Carroll. For the tattoos that tell stories and the ones that don’t say much at all. For The Answer and absent friends. For Ethan Swan’s warm heart. For Jordana. For this gnarly world.

“Yes,” Swan whispered, and gave a little fist pump. “Yes.”

Footnotes

  1. One of his projects was the Bowery Artist Tribute, which chronicles the painters, writers and performers who lived in the Bowery in its artistic heyday. ^
  2. Many NBA players say Iverson inspired them to get their first tattoo. ^
  3. Owned, as is FiveThirtyEight, by ESPN. ^
  4. Impose magazine made an early mention. ^
  5. Above, I’ve presented what I considered the most important points in Carl’s analysis. For those interested, here is his fuller explanation:

    I analyzed the stats of 636 NBA players in Swan’s database — 288 without tattoos, 348 with at least one during the period he studied. I compiled career regular-season NBA stats for each, using Basketball Reference, separating the players into three groups, using the classification of the website: guards, forwards and centers. (The site chose one classification for each player, even if he played different positions during his career; there were 267 guards, 279 forwards and 90 centers. Centers were the least likely of the three to have tattoos.) I used career stats, under the theory that if anything differed about players who choose to get tattoos, that difference would show up throughout their careers, not just after they got the tattoos.

    I summed the stats for each of the six subgroups: players at each position with and without tattoos. Then for each of the subgroups, I calculated their combined stats in 19 categories: 15 of them per-48-minute rates, for points, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers, personal fouls, two-point field goals, two-point field goal attempts, three-point field goals, three-point field goal attempts, free throws and free-throw attempts; and four of them shooting percentages: two-point field-goal shooting, three-point field-goal shooting, free-throw shooting and true shooting.

    Then for each of the three positions, I compared the stats for those players with and without tattoos. (I separated the comparisons by position to ensure tattoos, not positions, were making the difference: If players with tattoos are getting more assists, maybe that’s because guards are more likely to get tattoos, not because players with tattoos are more selfless.) That made for 57 comparisons in all. In none of those 57 comparisons was there a difference of even 20 percent between the tattooed players and those without tattoos. Fewer than one in five (11) of the comparisons even yielded differences greater than 10 percent. These didn’t point to any consistent trend. For instance, forwards with tattoos had edges of more than 10 percent in assists, steals, turnovers, two-point field goals attempted and made, and free throws attempted and made. That makes them more active overall, not necessarily more or less team-oriented.

    To make sure players with the longest careers weren’t skewing the results, I tried a different approach. This time I isolated the analysis to players who had at least 1,000 minutes of regular-season action — 524 players in all (214 guards, 239 forwards and 71 centers). For each player I calculated the 19 rate stats. Then I averaged each of these stats for players in each of the same six subgroups: the three positions, divided by whether they had tattoos or not. This way a rookie’s tendencies count as much as a veteran’s, so long as he got adequate playing time.

    By this method, tattoos had even less effect. There were just seven comparisons with a difference of more than 10 percentage points, and three of these were insignificant ones: centers’ three-point field goals made and attempted, and three-point percentage. (These are based on scant data, and don’t matter much, because centers don’t take many threes.) The other four were all under 20 percentage points, and didn’t suggest a consistent basketball story: Tattooed forwards get more steals, tattooed centers commit more personal fouls and tattooed guards attempt and make more threes than their counterparts without tattoos.

    I tried one more test. Sticking with the subset of players with at least 1,000 minutes, I ran regressions for each of the 19 rate stats studied. For each regression, I was checking whether a player’s tattoos had any statistically significant connection to that stat, after controlling for player position. And for each of the 19 stats, there was no statistically significant relationship (p>0.1 for each regression).

    I also sought the answer to a related question: Are teams who have a relatively large number of players with tattoos more or less successful? I used Swan’s database of percentage of players on each team in each of the last four seasons with tattoos. For each team in each season, I calculated its ratio of percentage of players with tattoos to the league-average percentage that season. Then I checked how that ratio correlated to 26 rate stats, each one compared to league average in that season. None of the correlation coefficients was very high (-0.3<R<0.3 in each case). For about two-thirds of the stats — 17 of them, including the most important ones, winning percentage and margin of victory — a higher rate of tattooed players was correlated positively with above-average performance in that stat. (I also checked a few other stats that weren’t necessarily positive or negative; for example, tattoo rate of a team was, surprisingly to me, positively correlated with the average age of the team’s players, weighted by playing time.) ^

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