Palestra Pioneer Hangs Up His Pencils

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Stuart Suss C’74 L’77 leans his face in close to a clipboard that rests on press row at Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium, and uses one of his three tiny pencils to mark a neatly columned piece of paper with a symbol only he can understand. He glances up at the court—where the Penn men’s basketball team is playing Princeton in the final game of the 2013-14 season—and then back at his clipboard, adding more shorthand notations to reflect what he sees.

Suss has followed that same meticulous routine at Penn basketball games ever since he first began to keep advanced statistics as an undergraduate. But when the final buzzer sounded at Princeton that night, an era ended.

After serving as the Penn basketball team’s unofficial volunteer statkeeper for the last 43 years—in exchange for nothing more than a press pass and free food in the media room—Suss retired his pencils and clipboard at the conclusion of the season.

“I started when I was 18 and I’m now 60,” he says. “And it’s been so significant a portion of my life that’s dominated November through March for 43 years.”

It all began when, as a sports-loving freshman at Penn, he asked a first-year coach named Chuck Daly for permission to keep stats for the basketball team (which was coming off its wildly successful 1970-71 season, when it rolled through the regular season unbeaten [“Almost Perfect,” Mar|Apr 2011]). Intrigued, Daly gave him a copy of Scholastic Coach magazine, which had an article about rating offensive efficiency based on the number of a team’s possessions. Suss read it carefully and reported back that he thought keeping stats in that way could be useful. So Daly flashed the green light. “I’m grateful to him for being innovative enough to see there was some value in this,” says Suss.

Long after Daly left, and Suss had settled into a career as a lawyer (as a prosecutor with the Chester County District Attorney’s office and then with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office), he continued to attend almost all of Penn’s games. He tallied the squad’s offensive possessions, breaking them down into set plays and transitions. He tracked opponents’ point production against different Quaker defensive sets. The list went on. Over the years, some coaches valued the stats more than others. But Suss always made them available—“during the game, at halftime, and after the game.”

“Coaches ask two questions after a game: What happened? and Why did it happen?” Suss says. “I think, numerically, I can answer the question What happened?

Nowadays the sports world is awash in well-known statisticians, like Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin, who rank college basketball teams based on similar metrics. And phrases like offensive efficiency are commonplace in the typical sports fan’s vernacular. But back in the early 1970s, Suss was fairly unique—which, in many ways, makes the bespectacled Penn lawyer an innovator, even if few people outside Ivy League circles know him.

“Nobody used to talk about basketball that way,” says diehard Penn basketball fan and Philadelphia Daily News columnist Howard Gensler C’83, who’s driven to many road games with Suss over the years. “No one. Except for him. He was keeping those types of team stats basically before anybody.”

It was the uniqueness of his work in those early days that allowed Suss to follow Daly to the NBA, where he was hired to chart some regular-season and playoff games—the only time he’s ever been compensated for his work. During the 1988 NBA Finals, when Daly’s Detroit Pistons faced Pat Riley’s Los Angeles Lakers, Suss was even interviewed on live television by sportscaster Pat O’Brien. In the interview, which survives on YouTube, Suss—whose name is misspelled in the graphic—rattles off a series of numbers about the Pistons’ set offense, leading O’Brien to respond, “That’s what I thought too,” as the announcers in the booth cackle with laughter.

In truth, Suss never needed to be inside huge NBA arenas during nationally televised games to get a thrill; Ivy League games inside the cozy Palestra always did the trick. “That building could create its own magic regardless of the records of the team involved.”

Still, as Penn’s record has faltered in recent years, he admits some of the magic has faded. And keeping stats has sometimes felt more like an obligation than a fun hobby—especially during road games.

“It’s hard to keep going when it isn’t as much fun as it used to be,” Suss says. “Penn-Princeton used to be the culmination of a great season; now it was a game for two middle-of-the-pack Ivy teams. And that’s not what I signed up for 43 years ago.”

But for someone who’s always considered himself “a fan who takes notes during the game,” Suss is not ready to stop cheering on the Quakers. “The Palestra,” he says, “is too much of a special place to walk away from completely.”

He’ll just probably leave his pencils at home.

—Dave Zeitlin C’03

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