This weekend, in the span of just hours, Grizzlies center Jaren Jackson Jr. was accused and then vindicated of benefiting from hometown scoring bias that inflated his defensive stats. A viral Reddit post claimed the Grizzlies scorekeepers were potentially engaged in a conspiracy to log all borderline calls as Jackson steals or blocked shots to improve his Defensive Player of the Year case. It quickly spread before being debunked by reporters who watched footage of Jackson’s blocks and the league itself. (Reddit has now labeled the post as “Misleading.”)
The saga highlighted how quickly appealing misinformation can spread and how good Jackson actually is on the defensive end. But it also showed how little is understood about the league’s scorekeeping process.
There isn’t a single scorekeeper for NBA games, as the Reddit post claimed, but rather a four-person team that works in direct communication with league officials throughout a game to produce the statistics and play-by-play data seen in any box score.
To understand more about the process, The Athletic interviewed a former scorekeeper who worked for two different NBA teams in a nine-year span during the 2010s. We granted him anonymity so he could openly speak about the process, what actually happens and why there are non-nefarious reasons Jackson might have better stats when he plays in Memphis instead of on the road.
(This interview has been edited and condensed from a 30-minute conversation for clarity.)
What’s your impression of what people think scorekeeping is, and how wrong are they?
The image I got growing up is the stodgy old guy in a sweater vest sitting courtside with one of those huge specialty notebooks for scorekeeping, like everyone has if they’re into that stuff when they’re a kid, right? But it’s really a little more complex than that.
So what does it actually look like?
There is an official scorer at every NBA game. That person’s responsibility is only keeping the official score and fouls. They sit courtside and talk to the refs, and they’re the ones holding up six fingers if someone fouls out. What that person does has nothing to do with the stats that end up on NBA.com.
There’s a crew (of) four people at every arena who are part-time employees or contractors of the team. They really are separate from any part of the organization. There’s an inputer. He and the spotter stay up with the game action as it occurs. There’s a touchscreen laptop, and the spotter is calling out everything that happens on the court. The inputer is punching it into the system.
There’s a third person, a secondary inputer, who is basically listening in and sitting by the spotter. He or she is listening and basically editing in real time. They’re the first backstop to mistakes. The secondary spotter also controls the DVR on a monitor that (has it) available.
So that’s used to double check plays that weren’t immediately clear in real time?
Yeah, exactly. It’ll be like, “Hey, I think so-and-so got a piece of that. Can you pull it up and check?” And they would look at that. If it’s close, in my experience, the whole team would take a look and say, “Hey, do we think this is a block? Do we think this is a steal?”
You can go very slow, like frame by frame, and see who got the last touch and what actually happened.
Right. In Dallas, media members sit right behind the scorekeepers, and I see them using this replay monitor all throughout games.
I’ve done stats for every single sport, and the NBA is the only sport I have liked more as I’ve done stats because it’s the best athletes just on a ridiculous level. The elite of the elite, they move so quickly (and) there’s so much going on. It’s such a fast paced game. There’s just a lot that you have to go back and double check because we’re mere mortals and can’t comprehend what happens immediately.
OK, we have the spotter, the inputer and the secondary inputer. Who’s the fourth person involved with the scorekeeping operation?
In 2017, the NBA really started taking a more homogenous view of keeping stats, which was probably concurrent with (the embrace) of fantasy and gambling and other things.
As part of that, there was a fourth person included in the crew who is on a headset with someone in (the league office in) Secaucus. They serve as the intermediary between Secaucus and the stats crew. Depending on the game, that’s a fairly boring job. A lot of times, they’re helping out the secondary inputer or giving their opinion on close calls. But that person’s on comms with Secaucus and there’s someone there watching the game as it goes along. They might point out, “Hey, we think this could be an assist, we think this could be a steal.” So that’s a fairly new thing to the scorekeeping operation.
So when you worked in this operation, which role did you work in?
I primarily did secondary input (when I worked for the Western Conference team), and sometimes spotter. Our primary inputer just never missed games, but I was the backup (when he did). (With the Eastern Conference team), I was mainly the primary inputer. I spotted and did primary. And then I filled in maybe once in the new role as the person speaking to Secaucus.
And you never wore a sweater vest?
I probably wore a sweater at various times. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a full sweater vest, which is probably to my great failing as a scorekeeper.
What does this actually look like in terms of employment?
None of them are full-time jobs. Most of the time, in my experience, that talent pool will come from sports information departments at nearby universities. Whether they either began with that and did something else but kept the scorekeeping job as a side gig, or if they still work in the sports information departments. That’s how everyone I worked with got their start because you’ve got a familiarity with how to keep stats for games, and you’re probably underpaid. The extra cash doesn’t hurt.
What’s the most difficult play to determine?
I guess it’s got to be the assist.
I’ve always understood it to apply when a player scores after taking two or fewer dribbles after receiving a pass. How accurate is that?
That’s something I heard at some point, also, and maybe years ago was the case. But the assist was clarified as a part of the NBA streamlining things around the league. The current definition of assist is, you make a pass and the person who scores (it) goes directly to basket or shoots. There’s no end point of a basketball move. There’s probably some wiggle room there, but it’s just like (an action) that immediately leads to some sort of (made shot) without any sort of special basketball move.
I remember watching YouTube clips of (Chris Paul having 15 assists) in New Orleans and always shaking my head as a scorekeeper. I was always very cognizant that whatever I was doing was going to be looked at. It was always a point of pride for the crews I worked with that we weren’t stat padding.
So the reason we’re talking is this (Jaren Jackson Jr.) steals and blocks controversy. How challenging is it to identify those when it’s sometimes just a fingertip grazing the ball?
In my experience, we all want to get it right. I would also say NBA players are not quiet about when they block shots or get a piece. I haven’t gone back and watched videos of Jaren Jackson Jr., but I suspect after some of those, he has either motioned that he got a piece or said something.
A lot of those cases, we would, by default, just take a quick second look. If it was close, we would take more of a look. Say (one player on the Western Conference team I kept stats for) contested a shot, and let’s say it was Dirk (Nowitzki) or someone. And if the shot didn’t end up where you thought it would be from that player, but you couldn’t quite tell if (that player) got a piece, you’re going to take a second look just to make sure you didn’t ‘t miss something. A lot of the times, it’s a close thing.
On those replays, you can typically see pretty easily, especially if you’re pulling it up frame by frame. Typically, those DVR feeds have multiple angles you can pull from, which make it pretty easy to find the right angles.
How often did you guys have direct communication with players or people on the team lobbying for the players? Was that common?
So they aren’t supposed to talk to us about stats, and they normally kept with that. It was definitely more the players who would point things out.
The (public relations staff) on both teams would sometimes say, “Hey, can you look at this just to make sure.” But that was even very rare because the teams are not supposed to converse with us. I don’t know if that’s a formal rule, but that’s certainly something that we were told in the process. It happens, but not too frequently in my experience. The two teams that I worked for generally respected that rule.
So why, precisely, would you say it’s now so difficult for a home scorekeeper to actually keep stats in a biased manner?
I would, from my experience, give the benefit of the doubt to the people doing the job because I think generally they want to do a good job and do things right. Second, with the introduction of the live NBA auditing, that is very clearly an additional line of correcting potential opportunities to either stat pad or miss something. If you’ve given something they think is not (accurate), they will let you know. In my experience, you have to have a good explanation as to why you’re against what they say.
The last thing is, even after all of that, the NBA comes back and reviews things after the games. They used to come back and keep track, and I don’t know if they do anymore with the live auditing, but we were told they used to keep track of the statisticians based on postgame audits, where (a league employee) would watch the game back at the end with the play-by-play (log) and go through every play. If you screwed something up, you would get an email that says, “Hey, your team missed this and this has been retroactively changed to this call.” I would like to say, as a point of pride, we didn’t have that happen very much in the crews that I was on.
Each of the scorekeepers, we have to sign a pledge that no, we won’t gamble. They do background checks every year. So there’s a lot going into protecting the integrity of this stuff.
Do you have any theories why Jaren Jackson Jr. would have better numbers at home? The one thing that comes to mind that would apply to the home scorekeeper, and not in any malicious way, is that they might be more diligent about double checking any instances where there might have been a tiny bit of contact that led to a block or steal that could have otherwise been missed.
I think that could certainly be one reason. They might be more eager to go back and double check, whereas even an auditor might not, you know, pull up every angle and go slow in each one. That could certainly be a reason.
What you’re suggesting is very possible that some of these things are very small. It requires going back to the monitor and pulling it up and looking at other angles and saying, like, the spin of the ball changed. They can certainly spend the time to take care of that.
(Top photo: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)