High school analytics team plays pivotal part in Ben Wallace’s Basketball Hall of Fame selection
Armstrong High’s sports analytics club is the second group to help an HBCU great get inducted
RICHMOND, Va. — On Saturday, Ben Wallace, four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and core member of the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons, will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Nobody — arguably including Wallace himself — was more thrilled by the honor than a group of six students at Armstrong High School in Richmond, a 10-minute drive from Wallace’s alma mater of Virginia Union University.
Those students, who made up the high school’s sports analytics club, had spent much of the previous year meeting with teachers, a Virginia Union professor and the Pistons’ senior director of analytics Dan Rosenbaum to crunch the numbers that they hoped would convince Hall of Fame voters to make Wallace a member, even though he averaged just 5.7 points a game in his 16-year career. These 10th, 11th and 12th graders learned data science from scratch, were taught the advanced metrics NBA teams use to evaluate players beyond the basic familiar stats, applied them to a Hall of Fame finalist whose impact did not fit those basic stats, and crafted a narrative to explain why their analysis proved Wallace’s case.
“I’m honored that the sports analytics club at Armstrong High School in Richmond was able to showcase their academic talents and work on a project together that broke down my statistics, highlighted my career achievements and supported my candidacy for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame,” said Wallace. “Anytime sports can be used in a way to promote education and inspire young people, it’s a great thing.”
How did it happen?
Wallace and Armstrong High School are the second validation of a sports analytics club project. The first was in 2018, in Baltimore, when the club Robert Clayton facilitated at Edmondson-Westside High School convinced the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame to induct Marvin “The Human Eraser” Webster 43 years after his career at Morgan State had ended.
Getting Wallace to Springfield, Massachusetts, and helping students get interested in analytics and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education gets Clayton excited.
Clayton is the chief executive officer of the sports analytics club program and one of its three co-founders (along with longtime NBA/college coach and executive Ed Tapscott and MIT Sloan School of Management professor Ben Shields). Among the many areas his lengthy law background has crossed into are technology, education and sports. The program has now introduced roughly two dozen clubs like the one at Armstrong High School since the program’s inception in 2017.
Opening the world of data analytics to the students of an underserved, under-resourced, nearly all-Black public high school in the one-time cradle of the Confederacy was his goal. He wants to ensure that the love of the discipline is passed on to future generations.
The sports part of the program’s name, Clayton said, is a means to bring the analytics part to young students who did not have access to it before. He recalled saying after the program’s first mission to get Webster into the Collegiate Hall of Fame, “This is not a sports story, this is a STEM education story.”
The byproduct: recognition of a galaxy of Black athletic talent that has been unrecognized and overlooked by the mainstream gatekeepers of sports immortality, via the previously untapped wealth of math and science talent that had gone equally overlooked. Opening one set of doors, Clayton believes, will go hand in hand with opening another.
“Armstrong today,” Clayton said, “is Edmondson-Westside in 2017.”
The story of Edmondson-Westside, Webster and the Collegiate Hall of Fame was told in 2018 by The Undefeated. It’s how and where the program’s foundation was set in place — a college adviser (ideally from a historically Black institution, as with Edmondson-Westside and Morgan State), a professional franchise’s analytics official and the high school’s faculty members collaborating to teach data science to the students and apply it to a sports figure to produce a statistical analysis that can be used to reach a conclusion.
That’s what the Armstrong students did: prove Wallace’s case for the Hall of Fame as an exceptional defensive player whose metrics propel him past current inductees such as Dennis Rodman and Dikembe Mutombo.
Why sports? For the students he’s targeting, it’s the obvious gateway because, “Sports is culturally ingrained,” Clayton said.
He said virtually every Black child in elementary, middle and high schools knows what a basketball is and what they’re supposed to do with it. His goal is for those same children to know data science the same way. “I want every child to say, ‘What programming skill, where’s the data, what’s the problem to be solved.’
“If we can be that transformative, where they know how to program as proficiently as they know how to bounce a basketball … because it’s all cultural.”
The concept of “culturally relevant pedagogy,” an educational theory that focuses on multiple aspects of student achievement and upholds students’ cultural identities, is what Karl Jackson, chair of Virginia Union’s Department of Natural Sciences and the college faculty adviser, hoped to bring to the Armstrong analytics club.
Jackson, Clayton, Mary Smith (Armstrong’s analytics club teacher adviser) and the rest of the teacher group at Armstrong — principal Willie Bell, athletic director Glenn Anderson and assistant teacher adviser Rashaad Johnson — all recognized how interested their students were in sports, and how engaged they were in working stats into their casual conversations about them. In the most basic of math terms, they put two and two together.
“I think it’s actually brilliant,” Jackson said.
Edmondson-Westside and Armstrong, the two schools in cities separated by some 150 miles on Interstate 95, aren’t far apart in other crucial ways: nearly all-Black, very poor (for both, about 97% eligible for federal free or reduced lunch programs) and bearing deep scars from centuries of racism in the cities and school systems.
Armstrong — named for the same white Civil War Union general who founded what is now Hampton University — was for nearly a century the segregated Black high school in Richmond. After Virginia’s notorious “Massive Resistance” to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court school desegregation decision, Armstrong was not integrated until 1971.
For its part, Armstrong was more advanced in its math proficiency (about 30% to Edmondson-Westside’s 3%) when it began the Wallace project in 2019, and Bell and his staff came from STEM backgrounds academically and professionally. At Edmondson-Westside, where Clayton said they were “flying by the seat of our pants,” club adviser Corey Johnson taught physics and also was the head football coach; the club consisted of his players.
After they made the case for Webster’s candidacy and the ESPN feature Morgan State’s Marvin Webster defies the odds aired, Clayton said, those club members suddenly started drawing interest from colleges for reasons other than football, and the school’s math proficiency gradually began to rise, to better than 30% four years later.
The Armstrong students — Bryona Holmes (the only girl in the group), Taivione Coles, Qua’im Harris, Ke’mari Tarry, Jaheim Turner and Jaheim Peoples — took to their project quickly, the advisers all said. “It was almost like I had a little corporation with the students doing work,” Smith said. “They had their challenges, but they still took time out to stop by after school and do their part. They were very mature about it. They treated it like it was a real paying job, and that’s what impressed me the most, the integrity of the students.”
It reinforced what the Edmondson-Westside students had produced earlier and was further proof of what Clayton has preached from the beginning.
“What then happens is,” he said, “you’re sitting there wondering if they’re given the same investment as an NBA data scientist or Major League Baseball data scientist or tennis data scientist, and where a university says, ‘I’ll invest a professor to work with the teacher,’ how many young men and women have the same capacity to produce the same product that Armstrong did for Wallace, and Edmondson-Westside did for Webster?
“Well, that’s every student, in every under-resourced environment. When you give them the same assets as other students may be given by privilege of their ZIP code, then every one of them has the same capacity, if the same investment is made.
“That’s Armstrong in Richmond, that’s Edmondson-Westside in Baltimore, that’s Crenshaw in LA — no matter where the metro area is for African Americans,” Clayton concluded.
Level the playing field
That introduces yet another level to Clayton’s vision.
According to a Forbes study, African Americans make up just 4% of students enrolled part time in data science courses, with 8% Latino and 35% women. Every study of industry, government and education indicates the same scarcity of representation. The NBA’s 30 franchises, Clayton said, have just two Black analytics specialists out of 106 positions. And as much as STEM education has taken hold at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), data science programs are still few and far between.
The growing number of sports analytics club chapters, he contends, will increase the number of students in data majors, earning data degrees and going into data careers.
It’s sound logic and effective practice, noted Rosenbaum, a veteran of two previous NBA team analytics departments and the pro team analytics adviser for the Armstrong High School club.
In analytics, Rosenbaum added, one group “is still pretty dominant. When I get a LinkedIn message from someone I never met, it still tends to be pretty male and pretty white. But I think there is a lot more diversity than there was quite a few years ago.”
The clubs are not only in impoverished mostly-Black urban high schools. St. Albans, the prestigious private high school in Washington, attended by President Barack Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia, is immersed in getting longtime Washington Redskins kick returner Brian Mitchell into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of the Basketball Hall of Fame finalists beaten out by Wallace this year was Pistons teammate Chauncey Billups, whose case was taken up by Detroit’s Cass Technical High School (Rosenbaum advised them as well).
Quince Orchard High School in affluent Gaithersburg, Maryland, worked on the All-Star candidacy of the Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray last year — unsuccessful at the time, but eventually a predictor of his breakout performance during the playoffs in the pandemic bubble.
But the school populations Clayton wants to target often resemble Edmondson-Westside’s and Armstrong’s. Crenshaw High School, for instance, did an analysis of Maury Wills’ career for a push to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Clubs are operating or are in the building stages at schools in Washington; Atlanta; Boston; Cleveland; New Orleans; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Charlotte, North Carolina. Another club might start in Richmond, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which has a STEM club already and closely followed how the high school’s club functioned.
Armstrong, meanwhile, plans to keep the club going and turn its focus to the school’s own athletic teams. It also is changing its advanced placement math curriculum from calculus to statistics, said Bell, in light of the revelations that emerged from the analytics club.
The vision comes full circle with a club at another Baltimore high school, the 182-year-old City College public magnet school. In early June, its project was submitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame: the case for Curt Flood, who took his case for free agency to the U.S. Supreme Court 50 years ago. The presentation de-emphasizes, without excluding, his advocacy for players’ rights, in favor of his excellence as a player for the St. Louis Cardinals when they won the World Series twice.
Consider, Clayton said, the impact of Black students pushing past historical societal barriers using a tool that society denied them to correct the historical record of athletes similarly denied the accolades they deserved.
“What happens if I decide that I am going to be arbitrary in the selection of the individuals that I want to advance in this way? What if I say, of all the baseball players that are not in the Hall, ‘I’m gonna pick Flood?’ ” he said. “If I do that, then you do see that there is a strategic play here that allows us to selectively decide who in our community we are going to celebrate because others are not.
“And if we can do with our own kids and our own HBCUs, you change the narrative.”
That’s the ultimate manifestation of his vision. Which makes this STEM story a sports story, too.