Guest Post: The NBA family tree

Here in Sci-Ed we like to link science with popular topics, so we can draw in some more resistant learners. Atif posted about NHL Hockey for teaching statistics, and I wrote about NFL football (specifically on how football star Robert Griffin III caused everyone to learn about knee anatomy). Today is our guest Dr. Laura Guertin’s turn. Below, she shows us how she combined basketball when teaching geology. Dr. Guertin’s bio is at the bottom of the post. 

Springfield, Massachusetts, is the birthplace of many great things, from Breck Shampoo to Sheraton Hotels to Friendly Ice Cream. But in addition to being the city of my birthplace, Springfield is also the birthplace of the sport of basketball and home to the Basketball Hall of Fame. During one of my family visits, my brother and I took the opportunity to visit this shrine to basketball – a place neither of us had ever visited growing up, despite being raised die-hard Boston Celtics fans.

As we began going through the displays of uniforms and lockers, we came around a corner and I saw this:

nba family tree

My brother, who works for an insurance brokerage firm, looked at this lighted wall and continued to walk on by. But as someone teaching historical geology at the time, a course that covers the 4.6 billion years of Earth’s physical and biological changes, I immediately saw several historical geology concepts visually displayed in the NBA Family Tree!

Let’s review some of what caught my eye… and go with me on some of these…

Evolutionary radiation, or explosion – With the invention of basketball, new burst of diversification appeared in the number of teams. All at once, the environment and ecosystems were present to support the large number of teams that appeared on the far left of the image – think of the Cambrian Explosion from ~540 million years ago, when most of the major animal phyla appeared in a biologic burst of diversification in an incredibly short period of geologic time.

Evolutionary experimentation – As we see in the fossil record of the Early Cambrian Period (~540-520 million years ago), some new life forms appear and go extinct very short periods of geologic time. This is true for short-lived teams such as the Sheboygan Redskins and Providence Steamrollers.

Stasis – Two teams in the NBA are still in the original location where they were founded and have the same name, never relocating because of “environmental” (or financial) pressures. These teams are represented in the continuous bars for the Boston Celtics and New York Knickerbockers (now shortened to the Knicks).

Punctuated equilibrium (or just adaptive radiation?) – During expansion years, when many NBA teams are added in multiple cities at once, you can see a pulse of new life on the scene, or speciation. In contrast, if I were to show you a family tree of the WNBA, we would see an example of phyletic gradualism, with 2-4 teams being added each year when the league was established.

Extinction – Some teams just don’t make it in our world, just like some living species do not survive. This makes a great topic of discussion with students – why do some teams fold? Are there similar pressures that cause species to go extinct? I also bring up how some teams move from one city to another, like the New Orleans Jazz becoming the Utah Jazz, and the Seattle Supersonics moving to become the Oklahoma City Thunder. Why do teams pack up and move to a new city? Does this parallel why species or entire communities of organisms migrate and establish in a new environment? Again, financial reasons are a huge motivator for a basketball team’s migration or collapse, but there are other general reasons that apply to both sports teams and natural living communities as a cause for movement, such as the lack of a supporting physical environment.

Binomen nomenclature – At times, I have students struggle with genus and species names in the Linnaean biological classification system, such as the similarities and differences between Homo habilis and Homo sapiens. By using the city name as the genus and the team name as the species, this has helped students visualize that the Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins, and Boston Red Sox are all athletes (or individuals of a particular “species”) in the same city, but basketball players do not mix or cross over to hockey, who do not cross over to baseball.

Certainly, what I share here is a loose connection between basketball and understanding patterns and changes in Earth’s biologic history. But it is a fun way to bring basketball in as a supplemental, visual tool for getting students to learn and to easily recall these concepts. I have used the NBA (and WNBA) Family Tree every time I’ve taught historical geology, since 2001.  The students react very positively to the basketball references, both male and female students (gender does not seem to be an issue).  At first, I was concerned about the students that are not big fans of basketball understanding the connections, but a student doesn’t need to know the rules of the game in order to understand what the visual is showing.

I think one of the reasons my students are comfortable with having basketball brought in to the classroom is that I teach at a university located right outside the city of Philadelphia. As my campus is a commuter campus without any dorms, the majority of my students were born and raised in the Philadelphia area with the Philadelphia 76ers (which makes it difficult to talk about the Boston Celtics – no brotherly love between the two cities, I assure you!). But teachers can use any team that is closest to their school, or even another sport besides basketball (baseball, football, hockey, etc.). I think soccer would fit very well with these historical geology concepts, and discussing with students how Major League Soccer (MLS) has been successful, yet the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) leagues have both folded in short timeframes (more examples of evolutionary experimentation, I suppose!).

My take-home message – there’s no need to shy away from bringing sports in to the classroom. Even those students that don’t know the rules can still “play the game” in understanding how the structure and evolution of teams can apply to historical geology and additional biological concepts.


lauraguertinmaineDr. Laura Guertin is a marine geologist and educator that cares deeply about increasing the scientific and geographic literacy of students pursuing non-science degrees. You will typically find her outdoors mentoring undergraduate student researchers and emphasizing the connections between disciplines via technological tools.  Connect with her on Twitter at @guertin

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder ( I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see

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