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Spurs and Heat Rely on Chicago in Game 7

By Paul Biasco | June 20, 2013 10:07am
 Ross Comerford, founder of FastModel Sports
Ross Comerford, founder of FastModel Sports
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RAVENSWOOD — If Thursday night's Game 7 between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs again comes down to the final seconds, Miami's Erik Spoelstra will have a pretty good idea of what might be inside Gregg Popovich's head.

Teams in dire situations routinely dig back to plays they haven't run for two, three, even four years, thanks to a Ravenswood firm's technology that has allowed all 30 NBA teams to digitally map every play for the last seven years.

"The Spurs are probably saying 'What has Miami not seen? What can we run for Ginobili tonight in a special situation?'" said Ross Comerford, the 34-year-old founder of FastModel Sports.

The company developed software that allows teams to enter data from games and analyze results and trends.

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Within 30 minutes of Miami's victory Tuesday night, both the Spurs and the Heat had digital scouting reports breaking down the data and tendencies from the game. By morning they could translate that information into what they hope will lead their teams to victory Thursday.

All of this knowledge comes thanks to Comerford's dream, which started at the kitchen table in his parent's suburban New York home in 2003.

Armed with $5,000, an old laptop, dial-up Internet and a flip phone, the former Division III basketball player sought to revolutionize the way coaches coach.

He came up with a program that mapped out everything: What play did the team run? Which lineup was on the floor? Where was the shot taken from?

"Teams were all doing this, but were doing it in a notebook or clipboard, and it was a mess," Comerford said.

A high school friend got him a 10-minute meeting at Duke in 2003. It was the first time he showed the program to a college team, and that 10 minutes quickly turned into two hours.

Within 72 hours of the meeting, Duke had signed on, as had the Boston Celtics and Syracuse University Orangemen, shortly after they had won the national championship.

"You were talking about major institutions, private jets, playing on TV, and they were hand-drawing plays," Comerford said.

Within three years, 10 NBA teams and 150 Division I squads were using the software. As of this year, all 30 NBA teams are onboard, along with 85 percent of Division I programs.

Thanks to his continuously advancing technology, some NBA teams now have databases of up to 40,000 plays going back seven years that are easily accessible.

If the Heat are down five points with less than a minute left Thursday night, Spoelstra might want to use a play that his squad executed to perfection in a similar scenario four years ago.

The problem is that play is likely in the Spur's system, as teams routinely scout upcoming opponents and keep each and every play in the database.

"Everything from half-court sets to transitions, everything that's done in a game, is diagrammed and scripted into the software," Comerford said. "You can go back years and look at things. Stan Van Gundy, for example, had the most amount of plays I've ever seen."

Coaches said the new technology hasn't changed the nature of the game, but specific preparation with respect to teams' tendencies and scoring analytics has made its way into the locker room.

"[In] tomorrow's game, there are six games of history in this series alone," said Kevin Eastman, an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics. "They can study trends like coming out of a timeout, have they tried to go to this player or tried to run a certain play?"

Eastman said he and his staff study trends, and those trends allow you to predict what might happen. But it's still a game of skill, he said.

"It's the best going up against the best, so you have to have as much as you possibly [can] at your fingertips to help you prepare to beat the opponent," he said. "The San Antonio Spurs are going to use everything at their disposal, just looking for any slight advantage."

The company's Fast Scout system, which was created in 2009, allows coaches to compile mountains of strengths, weaknesses, tendencies and statistics into customized scouting reports.

Some reports by minimalist coaches such as Phil Jackson only run about two pages. But Bulls' coach Tom Thibodeau's usually run about 50 pages, according to FastModel Sports.

"The NBA game takes place in two parts: one that happens on the floor — that’s what everyone sees — but an equally important part is the preparation that you put into it," Eastman said.

FastModel Sports continues to expand and moved its operations from New York to Chicago in January when the company received a financing boost from a Chicago-based venture capital firm.

"Outside the [Silicon] Valley, I think Chicago is a tremendous tech town," Comerford said.

The company is currently headquartered in Ravenswood.

Now that the NBA has fully embraced data and analytics, the real question is where will it go from there.

"Everyone is wondering and waiting for what the next trend will be," Eastman said.