Behind The Scenes

TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott shares his thoughts on MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

ESPN's Henry Abbott interviews U.C. San Diego economist Matt Goldman (C) and Microsoft's Justin Rao (R) at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. (ESPN)
ESPN’s Henry Abbott interviews U.C. San Diego economist Matt Goldman (C) and Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey (R) at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.(ESPN)

Of the record 2,700 attendees at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, perhaps none were as eager to learn as ESPN Senior NBA Writer Henry Abbott.

The head of the expansive TrueHoop Network on — complete with TrueHoop blogs and TrueHoop TV — Abbott led approximately 40 TrueHoopers to Boston last week to dive head-first into the industry’s most intriguing discussions about sports analytics.

Or as Henry wrote on his blog, “The 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference focused on the theme that the biggest challenge in geekery is not coming up with more and better research, but in convincing powerbrokers to change their ways.”

Front Row caught up with Abbott on Friday of the conference:

What is the TrueHoop Network’s involvement at #SSAC13?
This year, I think we set some kind of record with 40 TrueHoop Network bloggers. This is really our annual meeting, but we also covered the conference. A lot of what TrueHoop has been about is that I wanted to get as close to the truth of what matters about basketball as possible. Not things we assume are true, but things that we can really figure out are true. One of the ways into that is the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

When did you first start applying stats analysis to your NBA coverage?
I was first aware of it when Andrei Kirilenko was playing for the Utah Jazz and had an amazing statistical run. I was trying to write a profile of him for a magazine and I came across this guy Dan Rosenbaum who had all these crazy stats you’d never heard of — really interesting things that I always wondered about. It’s much harder in basketball than baseball to draw any meaningful numbers-based conclusions, but we have to try.

Who were you most interested in hearing from at this year’s conference?
I was interested in everything [former Orlando Magic head coach] Stan Van Gundy had to say. I was interested in everything Brian Burke has to say because he’s hilarious. There are probably 150 people at that event that I’m lucky enough to know or have met. I respect them all and I’m always looking forward to what they have to say.

What interested you in leading your panel discussion “Lance, Doping, and You: The Power (and Peril) of Win-At-All-Costs Culture?”
The whole reason it really matters is that when talking about PED’s in major American sports, it’s really just been about theory – ‘should they be allowed to do this’ – but in cycling it’s a whole different thing. There are 500 to 1,000 people who know all about how it goes and what’s allowed in cycling and they’ve learned hard lessons. We have to ask ‘What should we be doing now?’ Let’s learn from the mistakes of cycling.

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