HomeCourt app keeps the ball moving for NBA, WNBA players

HomeCourt app keeps the ball moving for NBA, WNBA players

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.

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Why now? It’s one of the great underlying questions around the Michael Jordan-centric “The Last Dance” documentary.

The behind-the-scenes footage that provided the bedrock of the amazing 10-hour ESPN series had been locked away in Secaucus, N.J., for about two decades. For any of that film to see the light of day, as agreed upon by then-head of NBA entertainment and current NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Jordan himself would need to sign off on any sort of project using it.

For years, it sat there locked away without Jordan’s key to unlock it. We waited and waited and waited, until the morning of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in 2016, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. That day, after an in-person meeting with Mandalay Sports Media executive Mike Tollin, Jordan finally decided to greenlight the documentary.

The timing is undeniably fascinating. LeBron James had just beat a Golden State Warriors team that not only featured NBA history’s first unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry, but one that broke the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record for most wins in a regular season. James also delivered a championship to Cleveland, ending the city’s 52-year professional sports title drought.

The triumph was enough for James to declare himself the GOAT in 2018 during ESPN’s “More Than An Athlete:” “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt. Everybody was just talking about how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all-time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’”

Did that backdrop make Jordan nervous about his place in the history of the game? Did Jordan feel that a generation of young fans needed a reminder of his greatness?

We may never know the answer to that, but we do know that the documentary has, in some circles, become something of a Jordan haymaker in the GOAT debate. In many eyes, this wasn’t just a documentary; it was a verdict.

In a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson on Monday, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, unsolicited, made his stance in the debate extremely clear.

“‘The Last Dance’ obviously should establish in the mind of any person with normal eyesight that Michael was beyond a doubt the greatest of all-time,” Reinsdorf said. “In my mind, anytime anybody wants to talk to me about comparing Michael to LeBron (James), I’m going to tell them to please don’t waste my time.”

He continued.

“I’m truly tired of people trying to compare LeBron to Michael when it’s not even close. They should try to compare LeBron with Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson. Michael was so head and shoulders over everybody, and that really came out in this documentary.”

It’s interesting that Reinsdorf didn’t mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird in those quotes to NBC Sports Chicago. He mentioned LeBron James, perpetuating the notion that the Jordan documentary was, at some level, a James counterstrike. 

But is Jordan actually head and shoulders over everybody? Not even close with James?

At the risk of wasting Reinsdorf’s time, it’s definitely a topic worth exploring, especially since the overall numbers don’t agree with Reinsdorf’s assessment.

* * * 

“The Last Dance” might as well be named “Six” for the lasting image of Jordan flashing his digits after the 1998 Finals, symbolizing his championship total. Yes, the documentary used the 1997-98 season as a storytelling anchor, but it felt more like a celebration of Jordan’s glorious career than a blow-by-blow examination of the 1997-98 season. Jordan last faced the Bad Boy Pistons on the playoff stage in 1991, but they received far more play in the docuseries than the Bulls’ actual 1998 Finals opponent, the Utah Jazz.

Jordan’s 6-0 record is spotless and beautiful and irretrievable for James, who has instead gone 3-6 in the Finals. For Jordan's strongest supporters, this is the nail in the coffin. However, reducing the GOAT debate purely to one’s Finals record would mean that John Havlicek (8-0), K.C. Jones (8-0, Tom Sanders (8-0) and Robert Horry (7-0) all have better cases than Jordan. And that’s before mentioning Bill Russell’s baffling 11-1 Finals record.

The James-vs.-Jordan debate needs a little bit more nuance than that. Jordan may have 6-0, but James has longevity in his corner. James has simply lasted longer than Jordan, both in career seasons and in deep postseason runs. 

James is in the midst of his 17th season and still playing at an MVP level. Jordan played 15 seasons, electing to retire twice during his prime years. Part of that gap in career length can be explained by James skipping college and entering league as an 18-year-old, which Jordan did not. 

What gets lost in the discussion is the fact that both Jordan and James have made 13 postseason appearances, but Jordan fell short of the Finals seven times. Whereas Jordan failed to reach the Finals more often than he made them, James has only fallen short four out of his 13 appearances. So not only has James been in the league longer, but he has had much longer playoff runs than Jordan, even if they didn’t always end in a Larry O’Brien trophy.

That has to matter in the larger conversation. Playing at a high level for that long begins to tip the scales in James’ favor, and that’s before we get into the individual barometers. 

The advanced metrics agree that this is a much closer affair than Reinsdorf would assume. Using win shares, which is an established all-in-one value metric that estimates a player’s contributions to overall team success, James has Jordan beat in cumulative value, according to Basketball Reference data. 

In fact, James eclipsed Jordan in that department years ago. At the moment the NBA halted play on March 12, James had 287.1 career win shares compared to Jordan's 253.8 figure.

Case closed, James is the GOAT, right? 

Not so fast. It turns out neither James nor Jordan possess the most win shares in NBA history. That distinction belongs to eternally-great Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons, with all but one of those being All-Star campaigns. 

If James plays two more full seasons at a high level, he will undoubtedly unseat Abdul-Jabbar in career win shares. Trailing Abdul-Jabbar by just 21.9 win shares at the career level, James averages 16.9 win shares per season in his career (this suspended season included) and appears to have several years left in the tank. If win shares aren’t your thing, James has already surpassed Jordan in other cumulative measuring sticks like career VORP and the championships added metric from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. 

Individual all-in-one metrics aren’t meant to be judge, jury and executioner in these debates, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that James has distanced himself from Jordan in measures outside of title count. And it’s here where the GOAT discussion becomes more art than science. Do you prefer Finals records or overall playoff records? Do you prefer longevity or peak seasons? 

If you prefer looking at peak seasons, Jordan has the upper-hand on James. If you rank Jordan’s best seasons by win shares and compare it to James’ best, it’s clear that Jordan’s peak years are superior to those of James.

The chart above is my favorite way to distill the Jordan and James debate. As you can see, Jordan’s best seasons are superior to James’ best, with Jordan’s red line resting comfortably above James’ purple line until their respective 10th-best season of their careers. After that, James far outpaces Jordan’s best. If we include his MVP-caliber ‘19-20 campaign, James has 15 high-level seasons while Jordan only had 11, due to his foot injury and his two retirements. (Jordan’s final two seasons with the Washington Wizards at the ages of 38 and 39, after three years away from the game, don’t move the needle in the GOAT discussion, but appear here near the back end of his red line.)

The fact that Jordan’s heights are taller than James was hammered home in Pelton’s recent ranking of the best individual seasons in NBA history. In that study, Jordan made five appearances in the top 25 at Nos. 1, 5, 12, 17 and 31, while James sat slightly lower at Nos. 3, 8, 9 and 23.

Jordan has higher ceilings and James has higher floors. That’s the crux of the debate.

The former will always resonate far more with the masses on an emotional level than the latter. And with good reason. Though James has already registered considerably more career value than Jordan by advanced metrics, Jordan’s six championship seasons continue to stand out -- not just in the minds of basketball fans, but also in the numbers.

Looking at the conventional GOAT standards, James’ biggest flaw may be that he took his teams too far. Take the 2006-07 season. James was just 22 years old, with Larry Hughes serving as the Robin to his Batman, when James led the Cavs to the Finals only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. 

If James had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals like most expected, James’ NBA Finals record would be shinier. Instead, by getting to the Finals and losing, it’s a strike against him. Same goes for the 2014-15 Finals run when James’ Cavs swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were sidelined (Irving played two games of that Eastern Conference finals). If James simply lost earlier, again, his Finals record would be cleaner.

Because of his lopsided 3-6 record in the Finals, most fans may view James as an underachiever but, according to Vegas, the opposite is true. James’ teams were favored in just two of his nine Finals appearances (2011 and 2013) and overall, he actually surpassed expectations, ending up with three titles. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six Finals and won all six. Jordan took care of business.

But, for the sake of argument, what if the Bulls didn’t lose to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals? The Bulls entered the series as minus-165 favorites, according to Vegas, but the Magic went on to face (and get swept by) the Houston Rockets in the Finals. What if the Bulls didn’t blow that series and instead, like the Magic did, beat the Indiana Pacers and faced Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets for the title?

I recently caught up with former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich about that hypothetical (full podcast next week!) and he pointed to a conversation he remembers having with Michael Jordan at Charles Barkley’s house in Phoenix in 1996. Barkley had invited his new coach, Tomjanovich, and the team’s trainer to hang out at his abode, along with Jordan and Tiger Woods (!). That night, Tomjanovich and Jordan discussed the Finals match that never happened. 

“[Jordan] said we were the team they feared the most because they didn’t have an answer for Hakeem,” Tomjanovich said. “It would have been a great series.”

We will never know how the Bulls would have fared against a Rockets team that won back-to-back titles, but Jordan ensured his clean Finals record by retiring in 1993 and losing in the 1994-95 East semifinals. In a strange way, James reaching eight straight Finals doesn’t resonate nearly as much as the “five” in “three-and-five.” 

Fair or not, there’s only so much James can do to erase his Finals losses in the basketball world’s collective psyche.

* * * 

The hook to all of this is the fact that James is still playing -- at an MVP level, no less. Declaring Jordan the GOAT before James retires is like awarding an Oscar to a film after refusing to watch the last 30 minutes of its top competitor. 

James has a legitimate shot to change the conversation, but the pandemic shutdown hurts those chances. With regular-season games threatened, the league’s hiatus has all but ruined James’ chance to overtake Giannis Antetokounmpo and win his fifth MVP award. James was also on track to surpass 2,000 points for his 11th season as he chases down Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. In the past 14 months, James has passed Kobe Bryant and Jordan on the all-time scoring list and trails Abdul-Jabbar by 4,300 points. 

Depending on what route the NBA goes with a potential season restart, James could lose all or most of the Lakers’ remaining 19 regular-season games. Based on James’ 2019-20 scoring average of 25.7 points, that could cost James as much as 500 points. At current levels and without those 500 points, James would probably need three more seasons to catch Abdul-Jabbar. 

If he did pull it off and pass Abdul-Jabbar, there’s a world in which James’ supporters could use the trump card of James being the top scorer of all-time despite that not being his best basketball skill (that would be passing). Outside of that, James could also win a title or two alongside Anthony Davis to nudge closer to Jordan. But given the six losses on James’ ledger and Jordan’s “perfect” tally, it might be best to leave Jordan with that and change the conversation all together. 

James has a strong track record of doing that. Following “The Decision” fallout in 2010 and his 2011 Finals meltdown, even James’ strongest supporters would’ve had a hard time imagining a world in which James was largely beloved in northeast Ohio. Yet, after winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers and opening the “I, Promise” elementary school in Akron for at-risk children, his reputation with local fans is fully restored. After James left Cleveland and joined a barren Lakers franchise, he helped lure Anthony Davis and returned the Lakers to title favorites. Equipped with his own production company, James is chasing Jordan on the silver-screen, starring in a Space Jam sequel with an on-the-nose title, “A New Legacy.” James has created an empire by patiently waiting to get the final word.

Ultimately, the verdict remains out on the greatest argument in basketball circles, although it is a lot closer than many, including Reinsdorf, would like to believe. “The Last Dance” may have ended with the enduring image of Jordan cackling at his vanquished foes, but James still has a chance to have the last laugh.

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

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan dominated every Hall of Famer he faced, including the 20 fellow members he eliminated from the playoffs throughout his career. However, some superstars fared worse in their career matchups than others.

Charles Barkley finds himself at the bottom of the list as Jordan averaged 35.8 points against him in their 55 career matchups. Jordan logged his points per game record versus Hall of Famers against Chuck with 41 points in the 1993 NBA Finals.

While Sir Charles struggled against Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal held Jordan to an average of 28.7 points per game in their 21 career matchups, the lowest of those 20 Hall of Famers Jordan eliminated.

This ought to stir up some competition on the next episode of "Inside the NBA."

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