New biometric tests invade the NBA


More than any other league in American sports, the NBA is an aspirational technocracy. Adam Silver, its flowchart-savvy new commissioner, travels the country championing analytics and innovation. The D-League functions not only as the game's minor leagues but also, per the NBA's official phraseology, as its "research and development laboratory." And thanks to the August sale of the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, about 1 in 3 majority owners in the NBA can now trace their billions to the tech industry.

So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that Silicon Valley is transforming how teams scrutinize, optimize and fundamentally think about their players -- or that Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the Center for Body Computing at the University of Southern California, contends that the NBA is leading society into the biometric revolution. "We've been inundated with all these companies coming up with different things to look at and test," says Gregg Farnam, longtime Timberwolves trainer and the chairman of the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association. "It's the explosion of data and data collection."

But what might come as a surprise is how significant that explosion has been, and how far its blast radius might soon reach. The literary specter haunting sports' burgeoning Information Age is no longer Michael Lewis and Moneyball but George Orwell and 1984.

The boom officially began during work hours. Before last season, all 30 arenas installed sets of six military-grade cameras, built by a firm called SportVU, to record the x- and y-coordinates of every person on the court at a rate of 25 times a second -- a technology originally developed for missile defense in Israel. This past spring, SportVU partnered with Catapult, an Australian company that produces wearable GPS trackers that can gauge fatigue levels during physical activity. Catapult counts a baker's dozen of NBA clients, including the exhaustion-conscious Spurs, and claims Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as both a customer and investor. To front offices, the upside of such devices is rather obvious: Players, like Formula One cars, are luxury machines that perform best if vigilantly monitored, regulated and rested.

But to follow this logic to its conclusion is to understand why the scope of this monitoring is expanding, and faster than the public knows. Teams have always intuited that on-court productivity could be undermined by off-court choices -- how a player exhausts himself after hours, for instance, or what he eats and drinks. Now the race is on to comprehensively surveil and quantify that behavior. NBA executives have discovered how to leverage new, ever-shrinking technologies to supervise a player's sleeping habits, record his physical movements, appraise his diet and test his blood. In automotive terms, the league is investing in a more accurate odometer.

"We need to be able to have impact on these players in their private time," says Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro. "It doesn't have to be us vs. you. It can be a partnership."

A lovely sentiment, at least in theory. But how long will it be until biometric details impact contract negotiations? How long until graphs of off-court behavior are leaked to other teams or the press? How long until employment hinges on embracing technology that some find invasive?

"Employers dictating the health care of their employees is a conflict of interest that cannot be overcome," says Alan C. Milstein, a leading bioethics attorney and sports litigator who often represents NBA players. "I just refuse to believe that the purpose of monitoring on any long-term basis is the health of the employee. If the purpose is to predict performance, that's not a health care purpose. That's an economic purpose."

No complaints have been filed to the National Basketball Players Association as of yet. But it is worth noting that these partnerships have developed so quietly that the union had not even developed a position on the concept until ESPN requested comment in August. "If the league and teams want to discuss potentially invasive testing procedures that relate to performance, they're free to start that dialogue and we'll be glad to weigh the benefits against the risks," says longtime NBPA counsel Ron Klempner, who served as interim executive director from February 2013 to September 2014. "Obviously, we'd have serious privacy and other fairness concerns on behalf of the players. We've barely left the starting line on these issues."

In the meantime, locked doors have swung open already.

ANDRE IGUODALA'S TV used to cackle into the early morning, the laugh track of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air echoing in the semidarkness of his master bedroom. For years, this was the All-Star swingman's post-midnight routine: watch reruns around 2 a.m.; pass out around 4; wake up around 8; drag self to gym; repeat. Iguodala traces the insomnia back to the University of Arizona, where he'd toss and turn over his pro future. But it was only last season, with his 30th birthday staring him in the face, that the newly hired Warrior surrendered his problem to an employer. "I told them that I needed to see a sleep therapist ASAP," Iguodala says. "And it's funny: Keke told me he'd been thinking about the same thing."

Keke Lyles, Golden State's director of athletic performance, had already been researching what amounts to an open secret about NBA slumber: Players sleep as lightly as undergrads during finals week but nap harder than Spanish plutocrats. Iguodala's typical game-day siestas, for example, ran three to four hours. "Even if they've been out all night," says Grizzlies trainer Drew Graham, "most of them take naps and think that's enough. They see the other guys do it."

The problem with that strategy, however, is quantifiable. A Stanford School of Medicine study of 11 men's basketball players, published in the journal Sleep in 2011, found that getting 10 hours a night not only reduced fatigue and injury risk but also improved accuracy at the foul line (by 9 percent) and behind the arc (9.2 percent). More recently, at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March, front office execs heard a Harvard Medical School professor declare that a 25-year-old who sleeps four hours a night for one week possesses the degraded testosterone levels of someone who's 36. "If you told an athlete you had a treatment that would reduce the chemicals associated with stress, that would naturally increase human growth hormone, that enhances recovery rate, that improves performance, they would all do it," says Mavericks trainer Casey Smith. "Sleep does all of those things."

So it was last season that Iguodala became one of several Warriors to wear the UP by Jawbone, a wristband weighing less than an ounce and covered in rubber that monitors sleep habits by tracking the arm's slightest movements. (Before the availability of such devices -- and the ensuing graphs illustrating quantity and quality of sleep -- teams could only gather data from questionnaires. "And one thing we've found out," Lyles says, "is that guys who used to say that they got nine hours of sleep every night actually got more like five.") Iguodala also agreed to a no-screens-in-bed policy under Lyles and now bans his beloved TV from his bedroom. He stores his cellphone in the bathroom overnight. He keeps the temperature at precisely 57 degrees, to lower his body's core temperature. His game-day naps have been cut down to an hour. His new in-season routine, which begins at 11:15 p.m., proceeds as follows: stretch; do breathing exercises; read a book for 15 to 20 minutes; lights out by midnight; repeat. Iguodala attests to feeling "more refreshed and not as groggy."

"Once guys get a feeling for performing at a higher level," says Jeremy Holsopple, the Mavericks' athletic-performance director, "it's a big difference from feeling like s---. Which they didn't even think was feeling like s---."

Dallas managed its own sleep program last season, inspecting rest in two-week blocks with a motion-detecting watch called a Readiband. Five franchises -- three of them playoff teams -- also convinced players to wear a skin-adhesive, torso-mounted sensor that is colloquially known within front offices as "the patch." The device tracks sleep habits but also skin temperature, body position and heart-rate variability (which is linked to stress). As a result, the patch can discern when a player pulls on the covers at night, when he lies down, when his pulse races and -- on account of alcohol's observable effect on heartbeat -- when he passes out drunk.

If it sounds like the technocratic normalizing of surveillance, it is. "It's part of a growing trend of employers trying to take a peek into personal lives," says Dr. Arthur L. Caplan, the director of New York University's medical ethics division and the co-director of its Sports and Society Program. "But there are slippery-slope risks. Goals can easily slide from improving performance to preventing you from putting yourself at risk to making sure you don't do anything to embarrass the team. I'd be very, very cautious."

Yes, Iguodala, a star veteran with a $48 million contract, may now feel confident experimenting with sleep under the guidance of the Warriors. But what happens later, as the program becomes more established and a scrub is presented with the choice to volunteer? "'Voluntary' is a must, and I'm sure some teams mean it," Caplan says. "But there's still a huge difference in job security between a superstar and a marginal player. If you're the 12th guy on an NBA bench, you probably don't feel quite as free to say no."

JEREMY HOLSOPPLE IS standing on the third floor of Chicago's Palmer House Hilton on a bright May afternoon. The National Basketball Strength and Conditioning Association's annual vendor show is in full swing, and all around him, 39 companies flash terms like "astronaut-tested," "body-scanning" and "cell systems." At one table, Alex McKechnie, the Raptors' assistant coach and director of sports science, grouses about user interface with an inventor of heart monitors. At another, Bryan Doo, the Celtics' strength-and-conditioning coach, inquires about a headset that interprets electrochemical brain activity. But what most intrigues Holsopple, entering his second season in Dallas, is relatively simple.

"Fatigue and load are the biggest things we're looking at right now," he says. "I think you can honestly say that teams lose 10 to 15 games a year because players aren't even remotely close to physical and mental freshness."

If SportVU cameras and GPS trackers have proved anything about on-court behavior, it is that basketball time is hardly created equal. A minute of Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who starts and stops like a Lamborghini in the open floor, is nothing like a minute of center Kendrick Perkins, a moving van who all but beeps while backing into the paint. The true load exacted on a player's body is a physics equation that varies based on mass, distance, speed and acceleration. And it applies whenever they are doing anything, anywhere; a power forward who takes boxing lessons after work unmistakably adds to the cumulative fatigue on his body. "Practice is only part of a 24-hour day," says Lyles. "Solely using that as our gauge for how much or how little we should be doing with guys probably isn't a very good way to do it."

Enter the patch, made by Proteus Digital Health. Far more than just a sleep monitor, the patch also boasts the capacity to continuously collect accelerometer data -- and wirelessly transmit it onto a team-owned phone or computer. Weighing 9.5 grams, the gray 4-inch oval can be stuck to the skin and forgotten about in the process. Todd Thompson, Proteus' VP of corporate development, contends that without the patch's access to and analysis of off-court player movements, any coaching staff that adjusts practice intensities and travel schedules does so on perilously incomplete information.

Imagine an NBA season as a horizontal graph of the load on a player's body, dotted with strategically chosen peaks (for games of the utmost importance) and valleys (where rest is necessary to cut down the odds of injury). Imagine the capacity to generate an all-encompassing version of that graph, down to the hour a player tired himself out chasing his kids in his backyard -- or doing something significantly less family-friendly. Imagine a sortable chart that lists, for each rung of the depth chart, a color-coded number representing current overall fatigue level. The market for that kind of risk-management solution is self-evident.

"General managers, owners, presidents, they're all looking at how much money they're losing due to sports injuries," says Suns trainer Aaron Nelson. According to a recent study by Rotowire, the average NBA team hemorrhages about $10 million in guaranteed salary from games missed due to injury alone. This makes fatigue, which directly relates to the twin dangers of overexertion and soft-tissue damage, a chief threat to playoff chances and literal fortunes.

But with a big enough cache of data? A training staff could generate algorithmically individualized prescriptions for rest and movement. It could act pre-emptively, based on probability on top of past results. "The more we can objectify what guys are doing," Lyles says, "the more accurately we can make recommendations or change what we do."

Change what they do -- as in benching a starter before he suffers a projected injury. Or trading him away for that same reason. Or cutting a backup because of a suspiciously consistent spike in fatigue level after 2 in the morning on road trips. In which case each player should answer a question that everyone, regardless of occupation, might soon consider for themselves: Would you be better served, economically, by your employer's knowing more or less?

"They'll bring guys in and work them out and be able to see if they're at a bigger risk to hurt their knee or whatever," says Mavericks forward Brandan Wright.

So when it comes to contract negotiations?

"Honestly, I think it'll hurt guys," Wright continues. "I think that's where it's headed."

THE SPECTRUM OF NBA lifestyles is contained within one 12-foot stretch of the Heat locker room on a March afternoon last season. On one end, Ray Allen is explaining how he can no longer drink soda without gagging. Seriously. The 39-year-old has gone paleo, meaning that the guard eats mostly lean meats, fish, nuts, vegetables and fruit. All of three lockers away stands 25-year-old journeyman Michael Beasley, whose culinary approach involves emptying a 41-ounce bag of Tropical Skittles into his mouth like a cement mixer filling a ditch.

Allen eagerly embraces food as fuel for the machine. But in the tradition of fellow pros such as Pistons forward Caron Butler -- who once kept six fridges full of Mountain Dew at home and drank a liter of it over the course of every game -- Beasley might be an equally established basketball archetype. Which is conspicuously suboptimal.

"A lot of guys think they can get away with it," says Graham, the Grizzlies' trainer. "I'll still get bitched at because I'm like, 'I'm not giving you chicken wings.'"

What players choose to put inside their bodies has long been an agenda item inside locker rooms. Many teams, in fact, supply meals at work. Sixers trainer Kevin Johnson even organizes color-coded eating groups, sorted by whose weight needs to rise (red), maintain (white) or drop (blue). But the precision of any dietary profile is hampered without knowledge of the way particular foods interact with particular bodies. And the barrier to that information is the drawing of blood: a ubiquitous practice in the English Premier League but one typically found in American sports only as part of lab work for a regular physical.

Unless, of course, you happen to play for a team like the Mavericks. "I think the smartest thing we do for health from a data perspective," says Cuban, "is take ongoing assessments and even blood tests so we have a baseline for each individual that we can monitor for any abnormalities. When someone is ill, we know what their numbers should be."

The Mavs are adamant: They have not done -- or asked their players to do -- anything illicit in the administration of these tests and the handling of the resulting samples. Still, granting any extra permission to a vein requires trust that an employer will analyze only what you ask them to detect. It requires trust that possible financial incentives to run in-season tests for a battery of performance-related substances and conditions -- anything from marijuana to hormones to herpes -- will be ignored. "I'm not saying it's bad for a topflight athlete to be monitored," says Caplan, the NYU bioethicist. "But a team physician, I'm constantly reminded, is conflicted."

When asked by ESPN to elaborate on blood analysis, Cuban declined further comment. But interviews with several Dallas players indicate that the team's expanded testing policy is neither obvious nor rosterwide. Guard Devin Harris recalls giving blood only in the preseason as part of the standard team physical; perhaps by design, other plasma-related details remain vague. "I don't know what they do with it once they have it, but they definitely take it," Harris says. "And I know they talked about taking blood throughout the season for certain stuff."

In the field of nutritional analysis, the payoff for a blood draw comes when a company such as Cell Science Systems -- in attendance at the NBSCA vendor show -- generates a one-page, color-coded report that indicates whether a player has any debilitating food allergies or sensitivities to any of 100 specific foods. A universe of dining threats is identified. A parallel test can also be run for allergies to tattoo ink, which one Western Conference executive says were discovered in the case of at least one unknowingly poison-decorated player.

THERE IS ANOTHER, decidedly less generous view of where this road goes, however. And one day last spring, after logging 13 years in the league, a teammate of Allen and Beasley declares that the increase in biological testing played a role in his decision to bow out of the business altogether.

"I think all fluids will be extracted in five years," forward Shane Battier says, three months before officially announcing his retirement. "I'm glad I'm done." Battier grants that certain archetypes -- your Allens, your Iguodalas -- might be perfectly willing to revamp their private lives in the service of basketball. But, he continues, "big data is scary because you don't know where it's going and who's seen it. I'm not saying that they'd sell research to anyone, but I don't trust where my blood sample will end up and what eyes will look at it and what people outside the NBA will know about it."

Mind you: This is Shane Battier talking, a 36-year-old guy whose vices lately include pizza and a carafe of Scarecrow cabernet before bed; he's hardly the type of libertine to employ a Whizzinator to pass a drug test. Regardless, the very notion of evading detection may soon be obsolete. Dr. Saxon, of USC's Center for Body Computing, is in the planning stages of an invention that would render the Whizzinator-esque technologies moot. Her vision? "Minimally invasive implantables," Saxon says, sounding genuinely excited. "Injectable, stays in the body for a year or two. No fuss." She can imagine the device feeding key biometric information to your phone. Automated directions -- the equivalent of your new car telling you to fill up the tank -- would then pop up as alerts.

"If they ask me to put a chip in my body, I don't know about that," Brandan Wright says. "I don't want to be a complete lab rat. I already feel like one now. I don't want to take it to the next level." Or, as Mavericks center Tyson Chandler, who won a championship with Dallas in 2011, puts it, "I'm not down with the alien stuff." Chandler, 32, might well retire before the "alien stuff" comes to pass. But if so, he'll likely have to do so soon.

"We want to be one step beyond what anyone else is doing," says Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, whose personal fortune was built on the comprehensive digitization of Wall Street. "Amazingly, what banks and trading floors were 20 years ago, sports is now. The stakes are huge, and we can act quickly." Just listen to his GM, who is thinking far deeper than mere skin. "The holy grail," D'Alessandro says, "is sequencing and understanding the genome. And how that relates to pro athletes on an injury basis and who's naturally good at certain sports." As part of his mandate with the Kings, he's consulted scientists about one day building a vast predraft database of player DNA -- not just for evaluation but for gauging injury risks and prevention. "You wouldn't have to be identified as a person," he says, "you could be identified as a number. I don't suspect this will happen in our lifetimes. But the way things have proliferated scientifically? Maybe it will."

History predicts serious pushback. In 2005, Alan Milstein represented Eddy Curry against the Bulls, whose management wanted the center to submit to genetic screening because of an irregular heartbeat. (Curry was eventually traded to the Knicks, bypassing the issue.) The core objection then, as now, was that genetic markers are not actual proof of alcoholism, or Alzheimer's, or cancer; they just signal greater odds of developing those conditions. In fact, as of the 2008 passing of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on genetic information for that very reason. Choosing to privilege reality over probability in that way, Milstein notes, "was one of the few situations where Congress was actually unanimous."

In their defense, NBA execs, team staffers and inventors do seem to recognize these fears and offer counterarguments without being prompted. Graham stresses that his interest as a trainer isn't to find out how his players entertain themselves at night, although that information may well cross his transom -- it's to make them healthier and maximize their careers. Holsopple, meanwhile, goes so far as to make Mavericks players an explicit promise before sensitive monitoring takes place. "I tell them that nobody sees the data but me and the people directly on staff that work for me," he says. The coaching staff, on the other hand, "will get what they need to make decisions as coaches. But we will not give them the things that players can be judged upon."

Such is the line, precarious as it is, that NBA teams are pledging to walk. And such is the line that players, whose union will have biometrics on its list of priorities during collective-bargaining-agreement talks in 2017, might ultimately refuse. But to hear the proponents of this revolution tell it, they're not so much sprinting toward Orwell as they are grinding their way to incremental improvements. "That's what the reality is," Lyles says. "We want to fine-tune things. If we do minor, little tweaks here and there, maybe a guy doesn't pull his hamstring." Or maybe, at the end of the fourth quarter, a foul defending a game-winning shot instead becomes a block.

That much optimization, the upside of so much technocracy, is the carrot currently incentivizing the 30-year-old Iguodala as he staves off departure from the game he dearly loves. In the meantime?

"I just hope we don't become robots," Iguodala says, "where they're feeding us the same thing, every day, and then it's time to flip the switch and go to sleep."

That, after all, would be a different game entirely.