NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

Joe Harris, one of the best shooters on the planet, hasn’t shot a basketball at a physical hoop in over a month. 

The coronavirus pandemic has the 28-year-old Brooklyn Nets swingman holed up in his small Brooklyn apartment. It’s been that way since March 11 when the NBA put their season on hold, and soon after, the city of New York locked down. He can’t remember a time in his life when he’s gone this long without shooting a ball.

For a former 3-point contest champion, this feels a bit like torture. He is Vincent Van Gogh without a canvas, Jimi Hendrix without a guitar, Julia Child without a kitchen.

Harris does have a basketball. He cherishes that every waking moment. He walks around his kitchen twirling it in his fingertips just to get the feeling back. Every time he throws on Netflix, he can’t help but get his basketball fix, launching the ball in the air with his right hand and then with his left.

“It’s crazy,” Harris says over the phone. “I act like I’m getting some reps and shoot up at the ceiling laying down.”

Aside from his well-worn ball, Harris insists his most prized possession is a digital one, an iPhone app called HomeCourt. During the COVID-19 pandemic, HomeCourt has become something of a silver-lining phenomenon, surging to become the No. 1 sports app in the App Store, topping mainstays like ESPN and Bleacher Report. 

“At the end of the day, it does suck that I don’t have an actual hoop to get shots up on,” Harris says. “But I’m thankful that I have a basketball in my apartment and my app.”

 

HomeCourt uses augmented reality and artificial-intelligence technology to track shooting, ball-handling and agility drills with in-depth analytics and a vast global social network that allows users to compete against talent from San Francisco to Senegal. Developed by a hoops-obsessed group of former Apple, Google and Facebook engineers that came together in 2018 to form NEX Team Inc., HomeCourt has risen quickly in the basketball world by packing a high-level training suite into an iPhone; the NBA took notice, becoming an equity stakeholder last July

“I don’t have a Peloton, but I feel like it’d be the same thing,” Harris says.

It’s keeping gymrats like Harris sane. Every day, Harris relocates to the terrace above his apartment, gets fresh air and does ball-handling challenges on HomeCourt. He takes his iPhone, props it up on a table, turns the screen toward him and presses a button on the screen to begin the workout.

“It’s like an interactive video game,” Harris says. “Honestly, I wish I had it as a kid.”

He takes his ball and walks a few steps away where he can still see himself on the screen. A one-minute clock begins with a scoreboard. It’s go time. Harris begins to dribble with his right hand, and then, his left. Each dribble adds points to his score. Crossover dribbles are worth more points, encouraging users to become ambidextrous.

And then the fun part. Green and blue orbs pop up on the screen, one at a time. The software is designed in such a way that the quicker Harris dribbles, the quicker he gets to the next orb. Once the green orb appears, Harris has to pop it with his off-hand. The quicker he pops it, the more points he scores. If he waits too long, it vanishes. 

A blue orb is different -- and special. Pop that orb with your hand and it ignites a special 10-second window in which Harris has to tally as many crossover dribbles as possible, each dribble adding more and more points to his scoreboard.

At the end of the minute, he gets his high score and the app compares him to the rest of its user base, a number in the thousands that’s increasing by the day. Across the world, sports leagues have shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Basketball, in particular, has come to a screeching halt -- except in HomeCourt. It’s basketball but socially-distance friendly.

Launched in June 2018, the app has tracked over 60 million shots and 300 million dribbles in over 170 countries around the globe. In the month of March 2019, HomeCourt saw 10 million dribbles in its app.

This March, they saw 13 million dribbles per day, about 25 times more than they registered in the weeks before the pandemic. Alex Wu, founding team member and VP of Strategy, Partnerships and Marketing of NEX Team, says the app saw its biggest jump in users on March 19 as stay-at-home orders began to rise across the world.

 

Homecourt has seen a sharp rise in shots taken, but not as much as dribbles. They’re seeing 500,000 to 600,000 shots per day globally, which is about five times their normal daily average. Turns out, shooting requires a rim, which many users can’t use anymore.

None of those half-a-million shots are from Harris, but when the six-year NBA veteran has access to a hoop, especially in the offseason, he often uses HomeCourt’s Shot Science program. Using only the video camera on Harris’ phone, Shot Science can accurately track the user’s shot-release time, shot arc angle, vertical leap off the ground and shot accuracy from different areas on the floor. The app then crunches the data and gives him analytics on his shot types, including shooting percentages and consistency scores where he can track his progress over time. All on his smartphone.

Harris was introduced to HomeCourt by then-teammate Jeremy Lin, who now plays for the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association. Lin figured Harris might want to try it out. A perfectionist at his craft, Harris instantly became hooked.

“After I used it, I was extremely impressed because I didn’t expect the technology to be on par with some other stuff we were using as a team,” Harris said.

Lin was an early investor in the product and after training on it for weeks, Harris decided to add his name to a growing list of stakeholders. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai and the Philadelphia 76ers ownership group have invested big money into the app. Current and former pro basketball players like Steve Nash, Bradley Beal and JJ Redick, among others, have also invested. 

After an 18-year NBA career, Nash doesn’t have a full-sized hoop at his home in Los Angeles, so he’s been getting work in HomeCourt’s agility and dribbling drills. Nash’s wife, Lilla, and his 10-year-old son, Mateo, have gotten in on the action as well.

“It’s live-action sports at home,” Nash says. “Feels like you are in your own arcade game every time. It’s so great to see (Mateo) and other kids engaged in a physical activity versus just the traditional screen time. As parents, we aren’t super choosy about what types of activities they do at home, as long as it gets them motivated to move.”

Last year, the NBA established a “Global Scout” feature inside the app that tracks user data from around the world as something of a recruiting tool. A Junior NBA partnership has installed basketball skill video tutorials from NBA coaches and current and former NBA players like CJ McCollum, Shane Battier, Detlef Schrempf and Kendall Gill. Users can compete in shooting challenges against All-Star shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, All-Star point guard Trae Young and Houston Rockets sharpshooter Eric Gordon.

 

But the power of the app is mostly in its ease-of-use. Typically, premium features like Shot Science are unlocked with paid monthly subscriptions but, in response to the pandemic, the entire app is free to use until April 30. Thirty-five miles away from Harris’ Brooklyn apartment, Olympic gold medalist and American soccer icon Megan Rapinoe is using the app in a Connecticut suburb, thanks to her partner, WNBA superstar Sue Bird, who has been using the app for over a year. 

Rapinoe is competitive. She wants to beat Bird one day. It’ll take some time.

Like Harris, Bird is a pro hooper stuck in quarantine without a hoop, waiting for her 18th season with the Seattle Storm to begin. But along with Rapinoe, she does a morning workout with their performance coach (socially-distanced) that entails a grueling circuit of different stations. She begins with what’s called a “600 Combo” dribbling drill in the HomeCourt app for three minutes in between medicine ball throws. The drill consists of timed sets of low (100), medium (100), “v” (50) and “in-and-out” dribbles (50) with each hand, totaling 600. The technology alerts the athlete in real-time if the dribbles are too high/low or too narrow/wide to count.

“It’s kind of nice to do something that’s not just like a static lift or hey, throw this medicine ball on the floor a couple times,” Bird says. “It’s nice to actually feel like a basketball player.”

* * *

It’s a sunny afternoon in early April and Rapinoe wants to challenge Bird to a ball-handling duel. Deep inside a parking garage in their Connecticut suburban apartment building, Rapinoe is trying her hand at her partner’s sport of basketball. Turns out Rapinoe is getting quite good at this whole basketball thing. Even on this little slab of cement.

At the end of Rapinoe’s timed minute-long challenge, something goes awry and Bird bursts out in laughter.

The Olympian soccer gold medalist is fine, but visibly in pain as she nearly kicks the basketball at her feet into the next county. Rapinoe tapped the blue orb and was trying to rattle off as many crossover dribbles as she could in the span of only a few seconds. It had been going well until a very common basketball hiccup. She jammed her finger straight into the ball, sending a jolt of pain up her arm.

“Owww!” Rapinoe shrieks.

Bird explodes in laughter, having felt this lightning bolt thousands of times in her basketball career. As Rapinoe flicks her hand in the air, Bird manages to squeak out a half-concerned “Are you okay!?” in between giggles. 

Of course, Rapinoe wants to go again. The competitive juices are flowing. She’s fired up. She reaches down, presses a button on the iPhone app that’s videotaping her drills and starts rapidly dribbling again against the clock.

This is life for the power couple in American sports. Says Bird: “You don’t realize that you miss it, until it’s gone.”

 

Bird got the apartment in the Connecticut suburb to be closer to family. Her sister lives there with her kids. In early March, before the public parks were shut down, Bird used to take her two nieces, ages 4 and 7, to the park across the street from her sister’s house. Her nieces would bring their own basketball along, but mostly they wanted to see what “Aunt Sue” looked like in action. 

Bird turned on the app and suddenly the nieces wanted a piece of the action. Her niece Zoe tried her hand at the dribbling drills and became obsessed with it.

“The minute Zoe saw me do the app, I said, ‘Hey, do you want to try?’ She said, ‘Yeah’ and now she’s all about it. It gets them moving and it kills time. I know for parents these days, that’s a big win,” Bird said.

Bird uses it now to get her basketball fix, but also it helps her train. She no longer can go to the park, so she uses the ball-handling drills to sharpen her handle and add new moves, improvising her own version of the 600 Combo. There are agility drills where Bird slides side to side to quickly hit targets with her hands. The longer the target stays on the screen, the fewer points it awards.

HomeCourt is designed for basketball players. But during the quarantine, athletes across many sports have used the app, shoehorning their own sport into the drills. An Olympic beach volleyball player, Lauren Fendrick, started doing dribble drills with a volleyball in her driveway. Loren Mutch, a professional roller derby athlete for the Rose City Rollers, performed Homecourt agility drills on rollerskates, writing on her Instagram post: “it’s nice to be on my skates since there’s no derby right now cuz of the rona.” 

One of the target challenges requires a dribbler to hit orange orbs where the ball has to go. Instead of dribbling a basketball with her hands, sometimes Rapinoe juggles a soccer ball with her feet and tries to hit the orb that way. She sends her videos to Nash, who is a soccer nut and “experimenting” with soccer-ifying it himself.

 

“They have to adjust the algorithm for us!” Rapinoe says laughing.

The HomeCourt developers are hard at work trying to add multi-sport components. But they’re busy enough trying to handle the surge of new users. For now, Rapinoe, like many in the app, are just having fun learning the new hobby during quarantine.

Says Bird: “[Rapinoe is] getting better at basketball, for sure. Proof is in the pudding, her scores are going up and up.”

But Rapinoe still hasn’t beaten Bird in a challenge. Bird is hoping the virus gets under control soon for the world’s sake, but also so Rapinoe doesn’t get too good and beat her one of these days. 

At that point, Bird would move to a shooting drill. Like Harris, she really just wants to shoot a basketball again.

“I literally don’t have access to a hoop,” Bird says. “This is my one way I can get my basketball fix.”

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.