The NBA is teaming up with Swiss watchmaker Tissot to give a 21st-century update to an old and clunky piece of in-game tech: the basketball shot clock.
Author: Tim Moyihan | Photography: Tissot & National Basketball Associationwww.wired.com
The new clock is a thin, transparent panel boasting a set of features lifted from a smartphone. It has efficient LEDs, it’s controlled with a touchscreen, and it even accepts firmware updates. More importantly, when it debuts at an NBA Summer League game this week, it’ll mark the first time each NBA arena will use the same shot-clock system. Until now, the league has been using a hodgepodge of systems made by Daktronics and OES, each with their own data standards and old-school controllers that often look like cash registers. Tissot says it will supply 87 systems to the NBA, three for each arena. With one system deployed across the whole league, Tissot and the NBA will be able to easily roll out updates, patches, and new features.
“It’s an iterative thing, it’s not one-and-done,” says NBA chief information officer Michael Gliedman. “As they come up with new technology, we’re going to take advantage of it. This part of the platform makes it much easier to implement.”
Instead of a dated push-button controller, the scorekeepers will get a huge touchscreen console. They can reset after each shot, and they can output data to any location in the arena: Video boards, statisticians, the press box, and all the game’s broadcast trucks. Soda spills and hot-dog-cannon mishaps happen, so there’s an analog backup system in case the touchscreen controls stop working.
Perhaps the greatest benefactors to the new design will be fans with seats behind each hoop. The clocks’ LED lights are mounted inside transparent glass. When they’re off, the clocks are totally see-through. When they’re on, you can still see through them, though the view is just slightly obstructed. The point is simple: you won’t be staring at the back of an opaque black box when you paid good money to watch Steph Curry launch threes.
In the NBA, after gaining possession of the ball, a team has 24 seconds to attempt a shot that hits the rim. This rule debuted in 1954, and it was intended to prevent a team from building a decent lead and then holding the ball for minutes on end. It was also instituted to prevent low-scoring slogs like the 19-18 Pistons-Lakers debacle in 1950. It worked immediately. The first season in which the shot clock was implemented, NBA team scoring averages went from fewer than 80 points per game to more than 90.
In the ’50s and ’60s, the hardware was a floor-borne brick. The backboard-mounted clock—the kind still used today—didn’t debut until 1976. This year’s redesigned clock still displays similar information. There’s the time left on the shot clock (of course), the game clock, and the amount of time remaining in a time-out. Its edges also mimic the LED lights behind the backboard, which glow yellow when the shot clock expires and red when the game clock expires.
Once Tissot delivers the clocks, it’ll mark the end of a year-long development cycle.
“We went through four different technologies and 30 prototype shot clocks before deciding that this is the one,” explains Tissot Timing CEO Alain Zobrist, who says the company has sourced more than half a million LEDs for the project and even experimented with OLEDs.
Although it’ll be used for the first time in a Summer League game on July 8 and the first time in a regular-season game in October, it’s already seen some action. The clock was put through a series of stress tests in Tissot’s Swiss headquarters, then subjected to scores of jams and bricks stateside.
“We threw balls at it, we dunked on it… well, I did not,” Gliedman says. “But we had guys who can dunk hang on the rim and throw the ball at it at high velocity.”