2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Hoop Dreams at TC

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Hoop Dreams at TC

Nabeel Ahmad and Peter Robert Casey

Hoop Dreams at TC

Hoop Dreams at TC


One afternoon about a year ago, Peter Robert Casey, at the time TC's Assistant Director of Student Activities, was looking for an excuse to avoid getting back to work after his lunch break. He started clicking around in Pocket Knowledge, the online archive created by TC's Gottesman Libraries, and stumbled upon a truly momentous fact: Clarence "Big House" Gaines went to Teachers College.

Just possibly that name may not mean much to you, but to Casey and others who eat, sleep and breathe sports, especially basketball, Gaines is the stuff of legend: a Hall of Fame coach who ranks fourth on the all-time career wins lists; coach and mentor to Earl ("The Pearl") Monroe; skipper of the first team from a historically black college or university (Winston Salem State University, where he ran the program for 47 years) to win the Division II NCAA championship.

Pretty good find for a slow day at work, but Casey wasn't finished. During the next half hour, he discovered a picture of TC's women's basketball team, circa 1896--just five years after the sport was invented (they used to play on the fourth floor of Thompson, in the gym that has since been carved up into offices). He also learned that two other Hall of Fame college coaches were TC grads: Howard "Hobby" Hobson, whose 1939 University of Oregon squad won the very first NCAA championship (when the National Invitational Tournament was the bigger deal; but Hobson then went on to a stellar career at Yale and served on the U.S. Olympic Committee); and the real stunner: the late Adolph Rupp, long-time head coach at the University of Kentucky, third on the career wins list, holder of four NCAA championships, and--most memorably--coach in the 1966 NCAA championship game that pitted his all-white starting five against upstart Texas Western, whose five starting players were African American. Texas Western won that game, which has been immortalized in the movie Glory Road, by a score of 72--65. 

Most sports junkies would have been content to go home and brag to their friends--but Casey, who received his TC master's in Organizational Psychology in 2008, is not your average sports junkie. At the time, he was becoming well known in cult circles for microblogging via Twitter courtside from the home games of his favorite childhood team, St. John's. He discovered after further clicking that Clarence Gaines' son, Clarence, Jr., a former NBA scout, is alive and well in southern California. He called Gaines, Jr., and they talked for an hour. Among other things, Casey learned that Gaines, Sr., like many other black educators of his era, had come to TC because southern schools were closed to black students. He also learned that Rupp, who was often portrayed as a racist, coached racially integrated high school teams before coming to Kentucky. 

But this is only partially a story about TC's basketball history. It's also a tale of technology, friendship, entrepreneurial spirit, life in the Big Apple, and the creative uses to which one can put a Teachers College degree.

In spring 2009, Nabeel Ahmad was waiting to enter Riverside Church for TC's doctoral hooding ceremonies. By alphabetical happenstance, Ahmad, who was receiving his doctorate in educational technology, was first on line, and he fell to chatting with the guy in charge of wrangling his group--Peter Casey. They'd never spoken before, but quickly discovered their mutual love of basketball. Eventually, they remembered seeing each other the previous summer in the stands at the Entertainer's Basketball Classic at Rucker Park in Harlem, where New York City schoolyard legends battle NBA superstars. 

"We were talking and noted that many people at TC have an interest in sports, so we should do something with it," Ahmad recalls. "Although I was on my way out, Peter said, let's keep in touch."

As it turned out, Ahmad ended up coming back to TC as an adjunct assistant professor in the Math, Science and Technology Department. (He teaches two courses on the use of mobile phones and other handheld devices as an educational tool.) He, Casey and Aly Somani, another recent TC grad who worked for the NBA Players Association at the time, collaborated to create--what else?--an iPhone sports trivia app called Junkie Status. TC alumni Ian Toledo, a graphic artist, and, Pranav Garg, a programmer and staff member of the Gottesman Libraries EdLab group, worked with the team to create the app.

Junkie Status (http://junkiestatus.com), which can be downloaded for 99 cents (one percent is given to charity), differs from other sports trivia quizzes on two counts. Instead of typical questions that takes a few seconds to process--"Who led the NBA in scoring in 1975?"--it poses chains of questions that, in a modest way, seek to educate. For example: "Which school did Shaquille O'Neal attend?" A "shot clock" ticks while you ponder your answers, and the app responds with a rousing "Swish!" for a correct answer and "Air ball!" for a miss, along with the correct answer (Louisiana State University). You can then read a fun fact about the player in question (e.g., O'Neal has released four rap albums, with his first going platinum), before moving on to the next puzzler.

Also, Junkie Status, as its name suggests, rates users' performances rather than simply keeping a log of the highest user scores.

"Normally, you tell people, 'I got 10,000 points,' or 'I'm number one on the list,' but how can you prove it?" says Ahmad. "Our app gets away from scores. You get a percentage rating based on the number of right answers. So if you get 7 of 10 correct, your Junkie Status is 70 percent." The percentages are accompanied by fun graphic images-'"a patient in a basketball-themed hospital bed if you score a lowly 40 percent; the patient using a walker if you do a little better; and so on. Players can try to achieve the elusive 100 percent Junkie Status in four categories of play: All Stars, Rookies, International and All Players.

But, of course, bragging rights are still what it's all about--so Junkie Status thoughtfully provides users with links to Facebook and Twitter so that they can immediately notify their personal social networks of their ratings (with the fun graphics included). "We let users leverage their own social networks instead of trying to create our own," Casey says.

Junkie Status launched in June and is selling briskly, according to Ahmad. Casey, Ahmad and their colleagues are now working on similar apps for football and other sports. 

"We're trying to be like smart coaches and think two steps ahead," Ahmad says. "The app development isn't much work once you've completed the first one. The time-consuming part is researching all the trivia questions."

Meanwhile, Ahmad and Casey are working on what potentially is a much bigger product: a Web-based personnel management application called Team Chemist (http://www.theteamchemist.com) that will enable NBA general managers to evaluate players they're thinking about acquiring in trades or via free agency. 

"We've studied players' personalities and past behavior to determine what situations and roles allow them to perform at their best, and we've built that information into an online tool to help GMs make better decisions," Casey says. "This information is almost entirely in the public domain--editorials, interviews players have done, updates they've posted on Facebook and Twitter. What you find is that, for example, while nearly all NBA players were standouts at the high school and college levels, not all helped their teams to win. Whereas a guy like Dwyane Wade [now with the Miami Heat] took a mediocre Marquette team all the way to the Final Four. So we're not interpreting anything, we're just aggregating."

"If you're making a multi-million dollar hiring decision, would you want to know everything you can about the person in question?" Ahmad asks. "You would be surprised how little information GMs base their decisions on. Our goal is to fix that." 

In July, Ahmad, Casey and David Guralnick--also an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Technology & Education at TC, and originator of the Team Chemist concept--attended the annual NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. They got some promising nibbles from people in several organizations, including the New York Knicks.

"Many of us grew up obsessed with sports," Ahmad says. "My brother collected every issue of Sports Illustrated and local newspaper's sports section for ten years. My mother and I used to give him a hard time about it and tell him how useless it was. But maybe it wasn't so useless after all." 
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