Statistics: The Story Behind Sports

How many of us looked up the Sixer’s home vs away record before placing a bet?  Quieted the Wentz haters by noting he is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for four thousand yards without a receiver posting more than five hundred yards on the season.  How about looking at a running back’s season trends over the last 3 years for your fantasy team? If you are reading this then you have used sports stats more than you probably know.  Where do they come from?  Who decided to keep track of them?  I got a chance to catch up with one of these behind the scenes unsung heroes. 

After the holidays I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Scott Berman, statistician of thirty-one years for the 76ers.  For those who may be naive to what a statistician does, Scott elaborated on the duties.  His job entails tracking everything that happens during the course of a game.  This includes points, turnovers, rebounds, blocked shots, minutes-played, which ref calls which foul, why replays occurred, points resulting from turnovers, second-chance points, points in the paint, how many shots after a turnover, out of bounds calls, fouls, who committed the fouls, who the foul was committed against, and so much more. 

Scott Berman

NBA Basketball Stats at Philadelphia 76ers

Scott notes that “what we are recording hasn’t changed in a long time, but the technology has and what is done with data changed immensely over the years. “ He uses Plus-minus as an example to prove the evolution of stats.  (Box Plus/Minus (BPM) is a box score-based metric for evaluating basketball players’ quality and contribution to the team.) He notes that Plus-minus has been kept for a long time but now used in a different way and available to the casual sports fan.  Stat sheets are handed to the teams and announcers at every timeout.  His new tracking system is tied into the new screen at the Wells Fargo Center and NBA.com.

We had a chance to discuss at length about his personal involvement with working with the Sixers.  We talked about how his father, Ken Berman, was the shot clock timer for the Sixers since the 1950s.  He also noted how Harvey Pollack and his father were best friends. 

For those who don’t know, Harvey Pollack is the Godfather of modern sports analytics.  He started in the NBA on day one.  Harvey spent sixty-five years in the NBA.  He pioneered today’s household basketball stats such as the “Triple-Double”, offensive/defensive rebounds, blocked shots, and plus-minus.  Scott talks about Harvey’s annual book he would write with a large amount of data about NBA player’s stats and even things like unknown nicknames.  He notes how everyone, especially broadcasters, wanted his book. 

Harvey Pollack

The Godfather of Modern Sports Analytics

1922-2015

Scott noted admiration for Harvey.  Berman noted, “He (Harvey) was the coolest guy he ever met.”  He compared Harvey as a cross between a grandfather and best friend.  Harvey is an NBA Hall of Famer, but he was more than just an NBA stats guru.  He was a man about town.  He was involved in many events across the city of brotherly love.  Harvey was involved in movie reviews, mummers’ parades, public relations for the city, restaurants and so much more.  He compared him to the energizer bunny until his motor vehicle accident in 1993. 

Scott noted that Harvey Pollack would get the box scores for every game via fax every morning.  Harvey would do plus-minus across the entire league before it was an actually tracked stat.  The coaches would ask for the matchup stats to see which set of players worked well together.    

I asked Scott about how different sports would be without statistics.  He exclaimed how stats are the story behind sports.  He elaborated further on how fantasy sports (a multibillion-dollar business) are literally betting on stats.  Scott also notes that stats is no joke to the NBA or any professional sports.  Somebody on his crew is on the line with somebody from the NBA the entire game to make sure no mistakes are made.  He admits at first it was a little intimidating in the beginning but quickly was happy to have the NBA’s input.  Scott and his team want to be perfect as much the NBA wants them to. 

Scott feels the Sixers stats crew is like a fraternity.  He has been with the Sixers through four owners.   He notes the crew consists of two guys on the computer, one back up and one guy on the phone with the league during the course of the game.   Scott notes that the stats team flows well helping each other on all aspects of their duties.    “It is almost second nature, Berman explains. 

I asked Scott, “Does being a fan and working at the same time become difficult?”  He quickly noted that he is used to the fast pace environment.  He tells a story about when Vince Carter missed the jump shot in 2001 that sent the Sixers to the finals that year. He had to record the distance of the shot and closeout and print the stat sheets even though pandemonium was breaking out around him.  There was a Sixers player standing on the table in front of him blocking his view.  It was the first time Sixers went to the finals in almost 20 years.  Anybody old enough to remember knows that place was rocking.  Berman had a job to do and made sure it was done correctly.  

Scott was going to Sixers games since the young age of 5.  In his early teens, his father would give him a program to help him keep score for amusement.  He notes even at a young age that he enjoyed keeping stats.  Harvey was like his coach and played a big part in his life. 

Scott notes he was offered a position with the Sixers while in college by Harvey Pollack.  He reminds me that stats and clock operator’s positions are second jobs.  “You only work 40 nights a year and get paid only for when you work.”

His other jobs included advertising, venture capital positions, and the family jewelry business.  Scott reminisces how his father, being a jeweler, would sell custom jewelry to NBA greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, and Darryl Dawkins.  He remembers Darryl ordering a custom jewel-encrusted necklaces saying, “Chocolate Thunder” and “Planet Lovetron.”  Scott noted that even Philadelphia Flyers’ late-great Ed Snyder would buy jewelry for the player’s wives around the holidays.    The Sixers and Philly sports were truly his family’s business and their passion.

Scott has had opportunities to travel while working with the organization.  He was able to travel with the team at certain times to places like Germany, Mexico City, and most recently to China.  He also had a great opportunity to work at the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta.  Scott notes anytime there is a big game in Philly basketball he and his crew are involved, even NCAA basketball games. 

Scott continues the family tradition of him bringing his daughters to the game like his father did with him.  He hopes they will also have lasting memories that help shape their lives.  Scott is overwhelmed that his love for sports analytics became a love for all sports fans. 

So remember when you are placing that bet, reading the graphic on your television screen, drafting your fantasy team, or just trying to shut up an opposing fan there is a team of people behind the stats constantly updating the analytics to increase your fan experience.    

Written by Al Zaffiri

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