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Baltimore students used analytics to get Morgan State basketball star Marvin Webster into Hall of Fame

As a pilot program, the sports analytics club of Edmondson-Westside High was an instant success

What is the first thought that enters your mind when hearing the phrase “sports analytics”?

For the sports analytics club of Edmondson-Westside High School in Baltimore, the phrase screams opportunity for students in the city of Baltimore.

In the fall of 2017, it was a normal school day for four student-athletes until a text from football coach and mathematics teacher Corey Johnson called each of them for a meeting in the principal’s office.

“I honestly thought we were in trouble,” said senior Jeremaine Lee.

Johnson had purposely gathered the brightest minds of his football team to assign them a daunting task: getting Morgan State University alum Marvin Webster inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

How?

The goal was “to use a bunch of numbers and research” that none of the students had previous experience with, according to recent graduate and club participant Darien Carroll-Johnson. Diving into the unknown world of sports analytics, everyone in the club began gathering as much data as they could find to build a case for Webster, whose nickname was “The Human Eraser.”

Football coach Corey Johnson, also the director of the sports analytics club at Edmondson-Westside High School, talks to club members about their new project.

Reginald Thomas II for The Undefeated

Johnson and Edmondson-Westside principal Karl Perry were first approached with this research idea by the Sports Analytics Club Program (SACP), a new organization seeking to eliminate the underrepresentation of minorities and women in science, technology, engineering and math through sports. To accomplish this, SACP’s co-founders, Harvard alumnus Robert Clayton and MIT professor Ben Shields, created a pilot program for high schools in some of the most impoverished communities across the United States, and Edmondson-Westside was a perfect fit.

“As time passed, we really saw he was a great athlete. [Webster] had way better numbers than a lot of the other players from his era that were centers and already in the [National Collegiate Basketball] Hall of Fame,” said Carroll-Johnson.

Those numbers included the comparison to other great big men in the 1970s through box score statistics such as field goals made and attempted, field goal percentage, rebounding percentage, opponent field goal percentage, total points and points per game, rebounds and blocks per game.

In his junior year in 1974, Webster led the Bears to the NCAA Division II championship, averaging 21 points and 22.4 rebounds per game while being named Division II Player of the Year. He went on to an 11-year career in the ABA and NBA that did not reach full potential because of his struggle with hepatitis, which he contracted during his senior year at Morgan State.

According to the sports analytics club’s research, the collegiate career of Webster statistically surpassed those of Louisville’s Wes Unseld and Grambling State’s Willis Reed and was comparable to another player who went on to become one of the NBA’s greats, Robert Parish of Centenary. Unseld, Reed and Parish were all centers inducted into the inaugural Class of 2006, along with 95 other players.

Webster’s collegiate career went unnoticed for 11 more induction years. The student-athletes at Edmondson-Westside have their own speculation as to why Webster was overlooked all these years by the selection committee.

“He didn’t have a lot of attention because he was playing at Morgan State. He was playing against [opponents] that were also good and went on to do their thing in the league. He was overshadowed because of the school he went to,” said senior Kevin Martin.

For two months, the student-athletes had their normal school day followed by football practice, then did their analytics club research to end the long 12-hour day.

The student-athletes, not knowing what to expect, found out that their efforts had finally borne fruit when they got the news a little short of four months from the research submission date that Webster had been accepted into the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018.

Webster’s legacy was revived, and “it means a lot that we could do something for him. Unfortunately, he isn’t here right now, but we helped bring back his name,” said Lee of Webster, who is a graduate of Edmondson-Westside.

“[Webster] could have been any one of us. [Analytics] helped us not get sidetracked. Life and your goals don’t stop here,” said recent graduate and club participant Jerome Butler of the lessons he’s taken from the club and high school into college.

Through the partnership between SACP, Morgan State and Edmondson-Westside, sports analytics is now a promising career choice available to these students. The success of the pilot program at Edmondson-Westside has launched SACP into six more states and sparked the process of nonprofit certification for the organization in the hopes of repeating the same success for other bright, underrepresented students across the country.

Tiffany Kelly is an associate for ESPN’s Sports Analytics Team. She is a devout lover of hoops and frequently mistaken as a daughter of Barack & Michelle Obama, which she graciously accepts.