For years, I’ve been patting myself on the back for coming up with great ideas and provocative questions when I’m drunk. I came to realize that I would always seem to forget these ideas, rendering them useless. So, when I came to college I decided to start keeping track of them as much as possible. Every time I come up with something that I think is at least semi-appealing, I’ll save it in the Notes app on my iPhone under the title “Drunk Thoughts.” Once in a while I’ll go through this list while sober and delete anything that either makes no sense at all or makes so much sense that I only thought it was tantalizing because I had been drinking. Every time I scroll through the list, the first thing I see at the top is “I could take Kobe in beer pong.” While I’ve usually just brushed it off and left it on the list because I thought it was funny, after nearly two years I have actually started to question whether a college student would stand a chance to beat Kobe Bryant in beer pong.
The easy answer is no, they couldn’t beat Kobe in anything involving shooting something into something else. NBA players have practiced for countless hours to the point where shooting a basketball into a hoop comes so naturally to them that they can do it in their sleep. Therefore, playing a game where you throw a ping-pong ball across a table into a cup of water (somewhat similar to basketball but in a much smaller scale) would be theoretically easier for someone like Kobe. But there are some other factors at play that may suggest otherwise.
First, let us look at the physics. Thankfully for my sake, Maureen Saint Georges Chaumont of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California did all of the technical work in 2007. Maureen calculated a bunch of complicated formulas to find out that the higher the arc on the shot, the less of a chance it has to fall into the cup. The average height of an NBA player is 6’7”, so they will typically use much less arc than someone like me (as represented by the highly scientific graphic shown below). Physically, Kobe would have the advantage but that is expected.
Most people start playing beer pong in high school but don’t play on a regular basis until college. Most of the best players in the NBA either never went to college or left early for the pros. That has to be at least a small advantage for us students. Kobe Bryant, for instance, made the transition from high school straight to the pros. Setting aside the fact that Kobe is so cool-blooded-confident about his free throw shot that he bets $5,000 on them, college students would typically have more experience than NBA players at beer pong itself.
You may have been at a frat party and heard some guy say, “The drunker I am, the better I am at pong.” That’s usually a good indicator that that guy is a tool, but he actually may be on to something. Muscle memory is one of the most important factors in beer pong and it isn’t affected by consuming alcohol. For example, many hunters and marksmen will tell you to let your body aim the shot, not your mind. Not only that, but alcohol will also calm your nerves. Consider the fact that the average weight of an NBA player is 221 pounds while the average 20 year old American male only weighs about 160 pounds. Because of the weight differences, it would take much less alcohol for an average student to become intoxicated and therefore give another slight advantage to students.
This may be a stretch to some degree, but the difference between shooting a basketball into a 10-foot hoop and shooting a ping-pong ball into a cup on a three-foot table could be significant. NBA players may feel a bit out of their element. This theory seems to ring true for at least one other sport—There was once an episode of Sports Science where gold medal softball pitcher Jennie Finch pitched softballs to Bryan Byrne, a minor league professional baseball player. Byrne, who hits 90+ miles per hour fastballs on a regular basis, flat out could not hit Finch’s softball. This makes me think that if a professional athlete practiced something his entire life, and that something changed slightly, he may struggle with it.
I decided to do a Google search to find some concrete examples. The only two accounts of an NBA player playing beer pong that I could find were Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love (a very good shooter) and Chicago Bulls big man Joakim Noah (not a very good shooter). Apparently Noah “was at the table for two hours” but Love “couldn’t find the range” and lost the game for his team.
Taking into account all of the slight advantages they have, it seems as though a case could be made for students to have a good chance at beating someone like Kobe in beer pong. But then again, it’s probably just another drunk thought.