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Accurately Counting NBA Tattoos Isn’t Easy, Even If You’re Up Close

Ethan Swan’s database of NBA players’ tattoos is the most complete such record I’m aware of, but it’s not the only one. (Swan, whom I wrote about Friday, gave us permission to publish his data on GitHub; you can see it here.)

The Sports Geeks have collected some information, but their page on NBA tattoos is out of date; many players currently in the league aren’t listed. The Tumblr Basketball Player Tattoos aggregates photos — including some really striking ones — but it hasn’t been updated in almost a year. (Let me know if you’ve seen other data sets.)

Harvey Pollack, the 92-year-old director of statistical information for the Philadelphia 76ers, produces the only list I’ve seen that approaches the completeness of Swan’s. (My colleague Carl Bialik, who conducted the data analysis in the Swan piece, profiled Pollack last month.) Each year, Pollack dedicates a page of the Sixers’ printed statistical guide to tattoo data. The only one I could find that he put online was from 2010, the year before Swan got started.

Unlike Swan, who simply Googles “NBA tattoo” and follows players on Twitter, Pollack and his staff get their information firsthand. They log the tattoos they see on visiting players and quiz team trainers about body art that may lurk beneath the players’ uniforms.

But looking guys over as they dribble by doesn’t seem to be as effective as Googling. Swan counted 230 tattooed players in 2010-11, while Pollack found 198. The next year, they both came up with 237. Last year, Swan’s total was 250 and Pollack’s was just 157. (Pollack hasn’t released his total for this year.)

So whom, specifically, did Pollack miss in 2012-13? Let’s take the Atlanta Hawks as an example. He counted tattoos on six Hawks but missed them on five others — John Jenkins, Shelvin Mack, Johan Petro, Mike Scott and Louis Williams. The design on Jenkins’s chest may have been hard to see through his jersey, but it should have been easy to see the tattoo on Mack’s arm — especially since he briefly played for the Sixers that season.

Mike Wilson was FiveThirtyEight’s first managing editor.