Few areas are ruled by cold rationality like sports. If your ideas make sense, eventually someone will listen.
In his book Moneyball, Michael Lewis describes the long struggle of ambitious statisticians seeking to have their baseball theories heard. Pioneers such as Bill James were seen as threats to the traditional system of management and were ignored for many years. But eventually reason won out.
While James didn’t start working for a professional baseball team until he was 53 years old, two Harvard undergrads, sophomore John Ezekowitz and junior Jason Rosenfeld, have wedged their way into the world of professional basketball at a much younger age.
Through their involvement with the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective and their academic work as statistics concentrators, both have had the opportunity to work with professional basketball teams while still in college, an achievement neither thought possible while in high school.
Rosenfeld began as a high school graduate, eager to find a niche in the sports world.
“Growing up, I liked basketball, baseball, football,” he recalls. “So I did a lot of web surfing, and emailing, and networking, and I was looking into any of the sports. I didn’t have a lot of leverage.”
While on his gap year, Rosenfeld had the opportunity to read about the statistics revolution in sports and took a liking to the discipline.
“I was kind of planning on studying statistics even before I got to college,” he says. “I was originally interested in finance. I started reading books about randomness and uncertainty. I started falling in love in with the idea of making decisions under uncertainty...Then when I found out it could help me get a job in sports...it seemed like the obvious major to do.”
For Ezekowitz, meanwhile, the statistics turn was less planned.
“I’ve always been a really big sports fan,” the sophomore says. “When I got to Harvard, in a statistics class, Stat 104, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ It just started with Stat 104. I liked stats; I liked sports. This [HSAC] is a club where I could do both.”
The decision to join HSAC gave Ezekowitz the opportunity to be read by high profile figures in professional sports.
“It’s funny because the club has a higher profile in sports analytics than it does on campus,” Ezekowitz says. “Last year the focus shifted to our blog...I sort of got to be there as the blog took off.”
It was on the blog that Ezekowitz made his name. In what became his best-known study, Ezekowitz analyzed situations in which basketball teams leading by three points late in the game decided whether or not to foul their opponent. He found the decision to have no significant impact on the game’s outcome.
Ezekowitz’s research was cited by ESPN Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and the Wall Street Journal.
“I was particularly impressed that he not only wrote a smart article but that we was willing to roll up his sleeves and collect a lot of data,” says Daniel Adler ‘10, now a first year student at Harvard Law School and a graduate advisor to the club.
Adler was so impressed that when asked to recommend a statistician to the Phoenix Suns’ general manager, he suggested Ezekowitz.
“I knew John was a hard worker and had done a bunch of things for HSAC,” Adler says. “After hearing what they were looking for, I thought John sounded perfect.”
Phoenix seemed to agree and decided to hire the statistician, who was recently elected HSAC president for the 2011 calendar year.
“It’s an absolute thrill,” he says. “To be able to have this opportunity while I’m still in college. I’m blessed, and I’m looking forward to trying to make the most of it.”
Similarly enamored with the industry, Rosenfeld took last year off from Harvard to work for the Shanghai Sharks, a team in the Chinese Basketball Association. Originally hoping to travel to China in order to work on his language skills, the then-president of HSAC saw an opportunity to work in basketball when Houston Rockets center Yao Ming purchased the Sharks.
“I can’t imagine doing anything more satisfying or more gratifying,” Rosenfeld says of working in sports. “By far the most touching thing is being able to do something where you’re really affecting the outcome, being able to to see games and to know [you’ve impacted them]. It’s the most magical feeling.”
But Rosenfeld and Ezekowitz both know that magical feeling would not have been possible were it not for a relatively recent change in the culture of professional sports.
What began as an unpopular concept in baseball turned into a movement that eventually attracted the attention of basketball executives.
“It’s pretty well known in the NBA,” Rosenfeld says of the statistical revolution. “At least half of the teams have someone doing analytics work.”
The move has opened the door for sports lovers, like Ezekowitz and Rosenfeld, whose talents are better suited in the classroom than on the court.
“There’s always going to be a surplus of people who love sports and have a math background,” Ezekowitz says. “It’s a really exciting time for basketball and basketball analytics. It’s starting to hit a critical mass and take off.”
—Staff writer Christina C. McClintock can be reached at email@example.com.