When Edmondson football coach Corey Johnson texted some of his best student-athletes asking for a meeting, the students worried they had made some sort of mistake.
But it turns out they were about to be tasked with correcting one.
The students formed the school's Sports Analytics Club and were assigned to build a case for Baltimore basketball legend Marvin Webster of Edmondson and Morgan State fame to be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, fitting data from 50 years ago with modern evaluation methods. And now its leaders believe the club can be scaled to introduce such data skills to students across the city.
The project was born of a meeting with Robert Clayton, a Washington lawyer, and MIT Sloan School of Management lecturer Ben Shields, who advises the club on a volunteer basis. Clayton sought time with Shields to find a way to build more of a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, base for high school students, especially minorities who are underrepresented in the field.
"I wanted to influence individuals at high schools whose populations were not necessarily attracted to STEM, and whether we could use the combination of sports and technology … around a graduate to create interest among students who may not have an interest in STEM, to drive that interest," Clayton said. "That is the goal. ... But this is the first established club with a defined goal that's tangible — which is the induction of Marvin Webster in the National Collegiate Hall of Fame."
Clayton worked with city schools and Morgan State to build a program that he hopes can be duplicated in public and private schools across the country. He originally approached three city high schools, with the idea that students from Dunbar could build a case for Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues to be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and Douglass could do the same for former Baltimore Colts star Raymond Chester in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But Edmondson embraced it quickly, with principal Karl Perry assigning Johnson to advise the group of about 10 student-athletes. They were paired with Morgan State assistant professor Monir Sharker to add local guidance at a university level. In addition to enlisting Shields as an adviser, Clayton selected Washington Wizards vice president of player programs Ed Tapscott as a pro bono adviser. He has helped steer the students toward relevant advanced basketball metrics, and helped them turn the basic statistics of the 1970s into modern measurements.
"It's a worthy project about someone from their community, and it's a wonderful exercise for these young people to get comfortable for math and numbers in a way that's fun for them," Tapscott said.
The club members were more than happy to do their part. Johnson said he gathered some of the best students on his team and they quickly went to work.
The first part was simply learning about one of their most famous alumni.
At 7 feet 1, Webster was a titan in local basketball circles in the 1970s, first at Edmondson and then Morgan State, which he led to the Division II national championship in 1974 while averaging 21.4 points and 22.4 rebounds per game. Over his four-year career there, the man known as "The Human Eraser" averaged 17.5 points and 19.9 rebounds, and went on to a successful professional career. He played in the NBA for nine seasons, including six for the New York Knicks, and averaging 7.1 points and 7.0 rebounds.
"I had never heard of him until then, but once we started looking into it, he was a really good basketball player that we should have heard of," Edmondson senior Jerome Butler said.
Once that baseline was established for the students, the task became finding comparable players from that era who they could use to make a case. Each initially was given players to research, with a focus on big men and other players from smaller schools such as center Willis Reed (Grambling) and guards Walt Frazier (Southern Illinois) and Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State).
All three were members of the Hall's founding class in 2006, and using that knowledge, members of the Edmondson analytics club feel they'll be able to build a strong case for Webster.
"We know what types of people to look for," Butler said. "We're not looking at small forwards or shooting guards and stuff like that. We're looking for centers that compare to him."
"The proficiency of this club is tremendous," Sharker said. "They know how to look at the data from different perspectives, and they understand the game more — what affects it, what doesn't affect it."
The end goal is a report due later this month, with information gleaned by the students who have had to dig deep online to find basketball stats that are nearly a half-century old and that Sharker is helping them build into charts and graphs. Clayton will submit the report to a blue-ribbon committee that will determine the members of the 2018 class of inductees.
A successful campaign for Webster is just the first goal for all involved. At Edmondson, Johnson wants to expand the club to involve more students and turn its intentions inward, using the methods they've become familiar with to evaluate and improve their own teams. Shields posits that these clubs can become their schools’ athletic departments’ in-house analytics departments if they can continue to grow.
The club leaders hope what's been created at Edmondson can be scaled locally and nationally to introduce STEM to high school students and help fill needs in fields far beyond sports.
"The importance of these clubs is sports is the vehicle to better understand the data analytics skill sets that will be important in the future digital economy," Shields said. "It's the vehicle — it's fun. It's interesting. But the students that ideally will go through these clubs will be able to apply that data analytics skill set to a wide variety of industries. The story here isn't even about pursuing careers in sports. It's about a student learning data analytics skills through the case study of sports that they can then apply to a wide field of studies."