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10 Questions With Grantland Writer And Penn Stater Kirk Goldsberry

Kirk Goldsberry graduated from Penn State with a degree in geography and a minor in geographic information systems (GIS) in 1999. Eight years later, Goldsberry earned a PhD in geography from the University of California with a thesis titled “Real-Time Traffic Maps for the Internet.”

Now, Goldsberry is using this skill set to work with elite professional athletes and teams in an effort to model their strengths and weaknesses and improve performance. A writer for ESPN’s Grantland, Goldsberry is a leader in a growing trend towards visual data-driven journalism.

Goldsberry, who is also a visiting professor at Harvard, is well known for his shot charts that visualize where on the court NBA players are most effective. The applications for this practice are endless, and Goldsberry leans on his GIS knowledge everyday to make it possible. In October, hosted by the Political Science department and the Big Data Social Science IGERT Program, Goldsberry spoke at Penn State, giving a lecture titled “Sports in the Time of Big Data.”

We were fortunate enough to ask Goldsberry 10 questions, ranging from his time at Penn State to his current and future work and his dislike of the Bryce Jordan Center.

Onward State: You earned a BS in geography from Penn State. How’d you find your way to data-driven sports journalism?

Kirk Goldsberry: First of all, Penn State is a tremendous place to learn. Secondly, it has one of the best Geography departments in the world. I graduated in Dec. 1999, the last class of the last century. In the 15 years since, I went to grad school in California, became a professor at Michigan State, moved on to Harvard, and now work for ESPN. During my times at MSU and Harvard I began applying my academic training in mapping and visualization to emerging forms of basketball data; this turned into my true passion. But I still lean on the stuff I learned at Penn State every single day – shoutout to Walker Building!

OS: When you spoke here last fall, you said you were still submitting GIS maps for small conferences when the New York Times came calling. What was that like?

KG: I grew kind of disenchanted with professor life at the same time my basketball project really started to heat up. I built a big interactive NBA Finals preview for the New York Times in June 2012. It did pretty well, and that’s when I sort of knew my career was changing; my days as a full-time professor were numbered.

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OS: You specialize in making shot charts to reflect trends of NBA player’s. What’s the value of those charts, and have any NBA teams taken interest in your work?

KG: I talk to NBA organizations daily, and while many of them express interest my research, they know my interests are more academic and media-based than team-oriented. One of the goals of my work is to find new ways to blend visualization and analysis to help fans learn a little bit more about the performers they really like to follow. Fans need better analytics too. The shot charts are the core element at this point – they really help people understand the unique strengths and weaknesses that make NBA players so fascinating.

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OS: Do you follow Penn State sports still? What are you thoughts on Nittany Lion basketball?

KG: Man, of course I follow Penn State sports. What kind of question is that? As for my thoughts on the basketball team, I have too many to get into. I will say this: as someone who not only went to Penn State, but also grew up in State College, I fell in love with basketball watching our guys and the Lady Lions at Rec Hall. I mean I saw David Robinson play there. I saw the Fab Five and Bobby Knight. It was bedlam. It was hoops paradise. To be blunt, THEY NEED TO MOVE BACK TO REC HALL.

Hey President Barron, if you’re reading this, MOVE THE TEAMS BACK TO REC HALL NOW. THANKS.

Rec Hall was the crown jewel of the program. It was a warm communal escape from cold winter nights. It was electric. The Blue Band was loud. The students were louder. Opponents hated playing there. I talked to Jalen Rose a few months ago and he said it was easily the hardest place to play in the Big Ten. I remember when the Jordan Center opened, and it was cool for a year or two, but it’s just so sterile and useless in there now. It may be good for Garth Brooks, Elmo on Ice, or some corny Vegas acrobats, but that gym has no soul. It’s embarrassing at this point. And considering that we have what used to be one of the most special atmospheres in the whole country sitting unoccupied in the middle of our campus, it just breaks my heart to see our teams playing in such a generic and vapid arena. Let’s fix this, you guys.

OS: Only several years ago you were working towards a PhD in geography. Did you ever think you’d end up working on articles with LeBron, and most recently Anthony Davis?

KG: Not really, but that’s part of life, I guess. You know, box-of-chocolates, and stuff. I just try to work hard and follow my compass. I’ve been blessed to spend some time with some of the world’s best basketball players, but at the end of the day my current mission is to challenge the sportswriting medium to be smarter — to integrate multiple forms of storytelling into informative and entertaining narratives; juxtaposing quotes from the guys, with graphics and numbers about their performances is my bread and butter. Recently, I published a story looking at Anthony Davis that included quotes, graphics, and tons of stats that all worked together to help capture just how he’s becoming the best player on the planet.

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OS: What’s your next project, where do you see the future of this work going?

KG: I’m working on a big article about measuring defense in the NBA. My Harvard group will be presenting this work at the M.I.T. Sloan Sports Analytics Conference later this month. Coaches love to say that defense is half the game, but to this point, analysts have been much more focused on offense. As a result, defensive reputations are largely built on hearsay and a few insufficient proxies; we’re trying to change that.

OS: Will there be a point where we see this analysis in other sports? Or does basketball have the ideal set up with such defined x, y, and z data points?

KG: We’re already seeing it, but yeah, it’s no secret that analytics are transforming virtually every sport from baseball to basketball to football and soccer. However, each sport has its own unique challenges and we still have a long way to go.

OS: You’re also a visiting professor at Harvard. What does that entail?

KG: I’m not teaching right now, but I taught for two years at Harvard and still maintain my affiliation there. I still have a research group there and am starting a conference there that I can’t talk too much about yet.

OS: Could a D.J. Newbill shot chart be in our future?

KG: Time will tell. I would love to see that.

OS: Finally, per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur, what would you be and why?

KG: I would be a Dreadnoughtus, the largest dinosaur ever discovered. That thing weighed like 60 tons; if I turned into one of those guys, the first thing I’d do is go knock down the Bryce Jordan Center.

Photo: Kirk Goldsberry

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About the Author

Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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