Sloan charts progress in many ways

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By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / March 5, 2011

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Mike Zarren’s ascent to a crucial role in the Celtics’ front office was based largely on his knack for advanced statistical analysis.

So it was a bit ironic yesterday that no numbers-crunching whatsoever was required by the Celtics’ assistant general manager to recognize how the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has grown since its 2007 inception.

“Five years ago, those of us who were on this panel took our desk chairs and pulled them up front like a classroom,’’ said Zarren, surveying the overflowing conference room at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center from his spot on the podium.

“Looking around the room then, I was much more awake than the average person, and 90 percent of the audience was obviously guys,’’ Zarren added, drawing laughter. “This conference is liberated now. So were getting there.’’

Zarren made the comment in context of how statistical analysis of basketball is no longer a “weird cult,’’ as he jokingly put it. But such progress does mirror that of the conference itself.

Co-chaired by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets and an MIT Sloan alumnus, and Patriots vice president Jessica Gelman, the conference draws big names to share big ideas in the areas of advanced statistical metrics, innovation, and technology. The conference now features 21 panels and draws 1,500 attendees.

Other prominent contributors included Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (wearing a T-shirt with the words “Talk nerdy to me’’), Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, and former Jets and Browns coach Eric Mangini. The conference resumes this morning.

Yesterday’s first featured panel was arguably the most compelling. Titled “Birth to Stardom: Developing the Modern Athlete in 10,000 Hours,’’ it put an NBA spin on the age-old nature vs. nurture debate, questioning whether prodigies and naturals exist.

Moderated by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell (“Outliers’’) and featuring Morey, NBA analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy, and Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, the 10,000 hours refers to the concept that an elite performance level can be achieved with four hours of sustained, intensive practice per day for 10 years.

Gladwell noted that Mozart made concertos at age 9, then, as he has done in his writing, quickly and humorously turned the conventional wisdom that the composer was a prodigy upside down: “The answer to that is have you ever heard what Mozart was composing at age 9?’’

When asked by Gladwell if he’d ever coached a natural, Van Gundy didn’t hesitate.

“Well, Tracy McGrady probably had 1,000 hours of practice,’’ he said, drawing laughter regarding one of the NBA’s most notorious recent underachievers.

The candor of the first panel set the tone for the later panels, among them a timely discussion on the present and future of sports labor relations, a look at how players will choose their teams in the future in the wake of LeBron James’s widely panned “The Decision,’’ and an engaging conversation on the role of football analytics during which Mangini lamented the challenges of determining whether a player’s speed in the 40-yard dash will translate to the football field.

“Rodney Harrison was a great example of [someone who was faster] in game situations,’’ Mangini said of the former Patriots safety. “His playing speed was so much different from his timed speed. We haven’t found a way to quantify that.’’

During a discussion on how television networks can use technology and innovation to keep viewers tuning in, Bob Bowman, the president and CEO of Major League Advanced Media, answered a question about whether there is such a thing as too many bells and whistles during a broadcast.

His answer could have applied to the expanding world of sports analytics, too.

“I don’t think there is too much,’’ Bowman said, “and even if there is, even if somebody makes the case that there’s too much, it’s not going to stop. Innovation is going to happen.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.