Celtics injuries? Kobe Bryant’s shooting? Nah, tech’s the real story at NBA Finals

2008nbafinal.jpg

It's not every day tech business editors get issued press passes to attend events like this month's NBA Finals, but I did yesterday.

The adventure actually started on Wednesday, when I was in Boston at a tech conference listening to a market watcher spew out numbers on virtualization and data centers and later squirming through a talk by an open source enthusiast whose presentation software or hardware was on fritz. I was momentarily distracted from the latter presentation when I saw an email invitation pop into my inbox from Lenovo to check out the big role its technology is playing at this year's NBA Finals. A colleague says I must have pulled a muscle I replied to the email so fast.

While I have to confess I've never met with Lenovo during my two decades at Network World (the company just hasn't happened to be one that falls into my beat), checking out the company's goods at Game 1 between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers seemed like as good a time as any. Though as it turns out, I actually didn't meet with anyone from Lenovo (so no, their execs weren't buttering me up in a luxury box to encourage me to write something).

It was the NBA's and Celtics' top techies who showed a few other tech editors and myself around "the digital center of the NBA," including a handful of laptops used to handle everything from game stats to clock starts/stops and video replays, plus a pretty typical wiring closet deep in the bowels of the TD Banknorth Garden. Meanwhile, sports reporters from ESPN buzzed around the players and coaches, and wacky DJs tried to out-scream each other.

Lenovo, which bought IBM's PC Division in 2005 and is following in the IBM tradition of supporting big sports events with its technology, has been named "Official PC Partner of the NBA" (Like Kia Motors is the NBA's "Official Automotive Partner"). Lenovo's technology will also be at the heart of a little gathering called the Summer Olympics in Beijing in August.

lenovastatslaptop.jpg
At NBA games, including the finals, Lenovo ThinkPads running Windows XP are used by eagle-eyed and nimble-fingered statisticians to instantly distribute stats to the in-arena scoreboards and displays via a digital television interface as well as to TV broadcasters. The stats are time-coded with the game and real-time clocks. The NBA has really automated its stats gathering and distribution system over about the past 12 years because statisticians and users of the information otherwise just couldn't keep up with the pace of the game.

nbastephenhellmuth.jpg
"You're not a league unless you've got a statistics system," said NBA Executive VP of Operations & Technology Stephen Hellmuth (shown left). "You're not a digital league unless you've got a live, real-time data feed that can be distributed on a global basis." The laptops feed into a 100Mbps Ethernet network and send data back to a central NBA database via a T-1 so that updated information can be displayed at the NBA.com Web site, which broke its record this season by attracting more than a billion visitors (not unique) for the first time and that uses services such as those from Akamai to keep up with the demand.

celtsjaywessel.jpg
The courtside Lenovo tablet PCs, which display a court outline and have touch screens, are just about the right size for the stats people, said Celtics VP of Technology Jay Wessel (who has spoken with Network World in the past about technologies such as e-mail security and is shown left). Previously, add-on touch screens were used, and proved awkward and wore out easily. While whiz-bang handhelds like Apple iPhones offer the latest in touch screen technology, Wessel said going smaller wouldn't be of real use to the stats people, even though "the marketing guys in the league would like to see everything get smaller so they can sell more seats."

Among the stats is one dubbed the Lenovo Stat, which looks at a team's plus/minus scoring differential while different combinations of players are on the floor. According to the Lenovo Stat rankings for the playoffs, the Celtics are sitting pretty to win it all, though Hellmuth said he's rooting for a 7-game series, just to max out the event.

Hellmuth said that the stat system is also used to log digital media, which is sliced and diced for use by refs and the league to review their performances, and by teams to review player performances and scout other teams. Every possession during each game is clipped and teams can look at extremely granular data, such as every time Paul Pierce makes a 3-pointer with less than 2 minutes left in a game, over the past 3 seasons. Such data can also be used by video game makers and NBA video producers looking to package highlights.

Interestingly, the stats setup is VERY wired (making the process of setting up for each game no small matter - and it's not like the system can just remain up for the season since the Celts share their arena with the Boston Bruins hockey team and other assorted events). No Wi-Fi here either. The NBA is extremely sensitive about possible security breaches and viruses, as there is no other source of such information from courtside. Wessel said the machines are only used for its IDS stats system and added that he didn't think the machines even had Internet access. Perhaps surprisingly, he said the setup for the NBA Finals isn't all that much more elaborate than during regular season games, though a few extra bodies, monitors and systems are added here and there just in case. "No real procedural changes," Wessel said.

Other courtside systems with proprietary software synch up with compact belt packs worn by the referees, who automate clock stoppages by blowing their whistles. Hellmuth noted that he oversaw an effort to ensure that clock stoppages could be seen from any angle in the arena by having lights on the backboard and elsewhere all flash at once.

As for how the system worked that night? After sharing an elevator with Bill Russell, Dr. J and Kareem and then watching such a great game, I confess I kinda forgot to pay attention to that little detail. But given that I didn't notice probably means it worked without a hitch.

beatla.jpg

Bob Brown, bbrown@nww.com

MORE ON THE CELTS FROM ALPHA DOGGS:

Ubuntu and the Boston Celtics

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Related:

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in