How Long Is a Tenth of a Second?

The Knicks' stunning victory at Madison Square Garden the other night has led to some excitable sports writing.

By all accounts, the Knicks provided their fans with a stunning victory at Madison Square Garden the other night, as “Jamal Crawford delivered a precise lob to the right hand of David Lee, and the improbable tap-in with one-tenth of [a] second remaining in double-overtime gave the Knicks a 111-109 win against the Charlotte Bobcats,” in the words of the Journal News.

It was an exciting moment, one that has led to some excitable sports writing.

The ending to the Knicks’ “miraculous” victory, said the New York Post, came on “the Jamal Crawford-to-David Lee tip play with .1 seconds left that has instantly become Garden legend.” “This one had a car-crash quality,” said the Charlotte Observer. “It was like the car wouldn’t straighten out of a skid, and the guard rail kept coming closer, and no matter how hard you turn that wheel, you’re about to feel metal hit metal.” “The earth is flat. Reindeer, like pigs, can fly. Barry Bonds is as drug-free as a Trappist monk,” began the Bergen Record. “And the Knicks won a game Wednesday with Michael Jordan in the Garden — plus a little piece of Trent Tucker.” (It was Tucker’s improbable turnaround three-pointer with one-tenth of a second left in a game in 1990 that defeated Michael Jordan’s Bulls and led to the NBA rule that, henceforth, three-tenths of a second would be needed to catch and shoot a ball.)

But the most vexing writing came not above, nor in UPI’s interpretation that “David Lee tipped in a missed shot at the end of the second overtime Wednesday night” (giving “the Knicks their second straight last basket victory”), but rather in some grasping efforts to describe the small amount of time in which the Knicks executed their play.

“With the clock reading 0.1 seconds remaining — that’s one-tenth of a second,” the Star-Ledger hastened to explain. “One-tenth of one second — it’s literally next to nothing,” added the Daily News.

The New York Times, too, felt the need to expound on just what a tenth of a second means, with the front of today’s sports section dominated by a “:00.1” package.

In “When a Blink Of an Eye Is an Eternity,” John Eligon writes that while Lee’s play took “but a blip on a basketball clock,” “a tenth of a second can seem like an eternity in other sports, and it can be enough time, too, for nature to put up some gaudy numbers.”

Yes, it appears that “Sports like luge, track and field, swimming and auto racing are timed to the hundredth or thousandth of a second,” and that “In the world outside sports, a tenth of a second is enough time for a beam of light to cover nearly 19,000 miles or for a hummingbird to flap its wings 10 times.”

“A tenth of a second is a real lot,” explained a public affairs officer for the U.S. Naval Observatory.

But time in the Times’ sports section remains a mystery, in at least one important respect.

While Eligon’s piece notes that, “It can take several tenths of a second for an average person to blink an eye,” his colleague Howard Beck’s article above it begins thus: “In the milliseconds that followed the one-tenth of a second, David Lee took a mental pause. … By all rights, Lee should have been whooping, hopping, dancing — something — but he paused a moment, then simply raised his left hand and forefinger and calmly jogged up the court.”

Ah, well. Maybe Lee takes extraordinarily quick mental pauses. Or maybe the sportswriters should leave the profundity of time to someone else.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.