You might say Steve Hellmuth, executive VP of operations and technology for the NBA, was as suited for his job as any star player, bringing a lottery pick's skill and enthusiasm to his sense of sports aesthetics.
After being an all-metropolitan football player at his Washington, D.C., high school, and captain of an undefeated team, he studied art history at Princeton. “With every extra moment I had, I worked in the theater,” he says of his college years.
Through his studies, Hellmuth developed a keen visual sense that he has applied to basketball. He designed the red LED lights behind the backboard, and recently created the see-through shot clocks that are making their way around NBA arenas.
“I consider myself to be a builder of systems,” Hellmuth says, “a person who takes elements of technology and puts them into a very useful system.”
When Hellmuth first started working in basketball in the early 1990s, after stints with NBC Sports and Major League Baseball, he began by building studio and editing systems. These included development of the NBA's statistics system by providing metadata for logging digital video, and a real-time database for in-game TV graphics. But he didn't stop there.
The NBA made a huge leap in sports broadcasting in 2007, showing the All-Star Game in uncompressed, high-definition 3D. “It was absolutely knock-your-socks-off spectacular,” says Hellmuth, who believes broadcasters are only at the beginning of 3D technology.
To Hellmuth, 3D and HD technology deliver the fast-paced athleticism of the NBA in never-before-seen detail. “People will never know how well Michael Jordan played defense,” he says. “If he had been in the HD generation, you'd be able to actually watch him play.”
Hellmuth has also digitized the NBA's current coverage for the league's video archives. A high-speed network transmits 100-megabit HD MPEG-2 feeds directly from all NBA arenas back to a technical hub in New Jersey, where videos are logged in near real-time and stored as digital files. The footage is outsourced to Turner Sports and used to enhance NBA highlight packages.
Hellmuth eventually hopes to make the archive available to fans. All NBA games going back five years are now in digital format, and over the next eight years he plans to make the entire NBA media library fully digital.