NBA Players Show Students Why Math Matters on the Court

Judging by the excitement and cheers in the John Hayden Johnson Middle School auditorium on Friday, you wouldn’t have guessed the students had gathered there to do math problems. But it’s not every day that your middle school is graced by the presence of NBA legends, players, and executives.

Students at the Washington D.C. school had a chance to learn from seven players with decades of NBA experience. And each legend spoke to the power of mathematics in their lives on and off the court.

“Math and data are behind every decision that we make in the league,” said Kiki VanDeWeghe, NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations and a veteran NBA player with 13 years on the court.

Friday’s event launched a partnership between Discovery Education and the NBA to create a new series for its digital textbook, Math Techbook, around the math behind basketball.

The event kicked off with a school assembly featuring Daniel Ochefu of the Washington Wizards; Ivory Latta of the Washington Mystics; Bob Lanier, an NBA Hall of Famer and NBA Cares Ambassador; Felipe Lopez, an NBA legend and NBA Cares Ambassador; Kiki VanDeWeghe, an NBA legend and NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations; Ralph Wesley, the announcer for the Wizards; Etan Thomas, an NBA legend; and Phil Chenier, an NBA legend and announcer for the Wizards.

Throughout the morning, groups of students rotated between a demonstration of the power of mathematics using NBA statistics and a Jr. NBA clinic, where players helped students with math calculations and on-court free throw math problems while also testing their shooting, passing, and dribbling skills.

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‘Everything in basketball is angles’

Lopez and his family came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when he was a teenager. While learning English was a challenge,  math came easy to Lopez and helped him make connections with other students. Lopez was able to translate his understanding of math to the court. Even in the heat of the moment, Lopez finds himself reflecting on math and its relation to the sport he loves.

“Everything in basketball is angles — the way you take a bank shot is an angle, the way you cut is an angle, your dribble technique involves angles,” said Lopez. “The movement in the game, that’s art, but the game itself is all math.”

Lopez said he’s confident the growth of technology in education will give students more opportunities in the future.

“Math can be super intimidating because it’s like a different language. Kids can struggle because they can’t speak it,” he said. “But having a program like Techbook makes math interesting and helps them relate to the meaning behind the numbers.”

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‘Why stats? Because I love sports’

Latta is one of the shortest players in the WNBA, but with a 90 percent success rate, she boasts one of the best free-throw averages in the league. Students discovered this in the school’s media center by pulling stats on every player in the league and learning how to use spreadsheet formulas in the data tool to compare the shot percentages of the best players in the WNBA. If that didn’t impress students, then it was Latta herself, who visited each table, walking them through how to use the data tool.

One of those students, a seventh-grader named Kelvon Manning, doesn’t get enough math in his classroom. He carries around a notebook that he fills with statistics from both sports and video games. His grandfather got him interested in statistics at a young age, he said. Understanding the granular details of sports has helped him understand math a little better.

“Why stats? Because I love sports,” said Kelvon.

While Kelvon is fond of his tried-and-true pencil and paper method of stats, what he saw in the new data tool has him interested in becoming even more skilled in statistics.

Laron Powell, a math inclusion teacher at Johnson Middle School and a teacher of Kelvon’s, was optimistic about the future for students and technology.

“I really think this could help raise the bar and really get students excited for math,” she said.

Ochefu watched students using the technology and reminisced about his own middle school years. Though he said math was never a challenge for him, he sees technology as an opportunity to reinforce equity in education and help close the achievement gap.

“This is giving kids a chance to excel where before they might have been struggling,” he said.

Math Techbook users can experience all of the new NBA questions Four sample questions are also available for free online.

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