Foundation Fellow Ben Starks has a laser focus on his goal of combining his passion for analytics and basketball for a career in professional sports. If that doesn’t work out, there’s always secretary of state.
Celebration High School
I am currently a student manager for the men’s basketball team here at UGA. I specialize in statistics and analytics.
Family ties to UGA:
Both of my parents graduated from UGA, specifically the Terry College of Business. My dad (Stephen Starks) graduated in 1985 and my mom (Cassandra Harris-Starks) in 1987. I guess you can say I was born to be a Dawg.
B.B.A. in management information systems and Master of Science in business analytics
Minor in sport management
University highlights, achievements, awards and scholarships:
First and foremost, I want to thank God not just for my achievements, but for the support system He has surrounded me with, including my family, friends and many different faculty members. None of my accomplishments would be attainable without their help and belief in me.
I’ve been blessed with a variety of “once in a lifetime” opportunities that all started with my freshman year. Going into school, I was awarded the Bernard Ramsey Honors Scholarship. From this scholarship and my involvement in the Honors Program, I have been surrounded with amazing faculty members and mentors that have helped guide my pursuits. The first major highlight of my time at UGA was attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in the spring of my freshman year. Because of the scholarship, this was a fully funded trip that allowed me to meet and build relationships with the titans of the sport industry, including Shane Battier, Sam Heinke and Mark Cuban. Most importantly, I met UGA’s Athletic Director Greg McGarity at the conference, and was able to make a brief presentation to him about how the athletic department could better utilize business analytics.
The research I put into creating the presentation was derived from panel discussions I attended at the conference and was just the first of many communications I have had with Mr. McGarity. It was after attending the conference that I knew I wanted to continue to explore the field of sports analytics, and I made strategic choices to pursue that dream. A little known fact about me is that I came into college as an international affairs major with the goal of becoming secretary of state. That only lasted about a week. This conference helped rid me of any lasting thoughts about a career in politics. I was all in on the sports industry. I learned from industry professionals what I needed to do to stand out from others and be seen.
Leaving the conference, I flew to Seattle to participate in a spring break trip with other Ramseys and had the time of my life throwing fish around in the Pike Place Fish Market. (Pro tip: bring a change of clothes if you plan on doing that. Also, don’t pack your fishy clothes in the same suitcase as your other clothes for the four-hour flight back home.)
The spring of my sophomore year is when things really started to kick off for me. I applied for and received the Midterm Foundation Fellowship. This award has allowed me to pursue many opportunities in the sports world, including interning for the LA Clippers in the summer of my sophomore year. I’ll get to that a little later. Right after learning I was awarded the Fellowship, I again attended the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with money from my scholarship, but this time my focus was more on networking. I was able to meet and have a great conversation with the director of coaching analytics for the Brooklyn Nets, the director of basketball operations for the LA Clippers, and a few NBA general managers.
The summer after my sophomore year I was blessed with the opportunity to intern for the LA Clippers. I was one of eight interns working on the launch plan for the Clippers brand-new 2K eSports team. I was able to work out of both their business offices and basketball practice facility. I met with virtually everybody in the front office: Head Coach Doc Rivers, NBA legend Jerry West, Lawrence Frank, Gillian Zucker and Brandon Travillion to name a few. On draft night, one of the biggest nights in the NBA offseason, I was able to talk with Jerry West for over an hour while everybody was scrambling trying to finalize draft day trades and draft boards. If you are not sure who Jerry West is, he’s the silhouette on the NBA logo even though he’s too humble to admit how impactful he has been on the sport. I also need to mention I was able to live in LA for free due to a stipend from the Foundation Fellowship. That’s a pretty sweet deal.
After interning with the Clippers, I reached out to Tom Crean, the head basketball coach at UGA, and he was gracious enough to let me work with statistics and analytics for the team. That is where I am now. Like I said, it all started with my decision to come to UGA on the Ramsey Honors Scholarship and listening to Jessica Hunt’s advice to attend the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference as a freshman.
I chose to attend UGA because …
The opportunities are truly endless. I know that sounds corny, but it’s the truth. The last time I was on UGA’s campus before being a student was when I visited for my Foundation Fellowship interview. I’m sure you know by now I did not earn the Fellowship on my first try. Oh, what a long way I have come since those secretary of state aspirations in high school. Anyways, hearing both the Ramseys and Fellows speak about their experiences traveling the world and earning incredible internships solidified my desire to attend UGA. Talking with all the Honors Program faculty made it feel like I was about to join a great community of like-minded friends. Growing up watching Georgia football every Saturday did not hurt either.
My favorite things to do on campus are …
… hanging out in Ramsey or going to football games in Sanford! I try to play in IM sports year-round, as well. I think it’s always important to take a break from studying and working by getting in some exercise. Working out and playing sports is a great way to relieve stress and clear my mind, even for just an hour. It is also a way to meet new people and catch up with old friends.
When I have free time, I like …
When I am not in the basketball offices or studying for econometrics I like to play video games and eat with friends. All my friends know that they can get me to go anywhere if there is food involved. Living in Athens is the perfect place to explore any cuisine and be almost guaranteed a great meal.
The craziest thing I’ve done is …
… ask Jerry West who the Clippers are going to draft. Going back to that story, I was sitting near my boss’ desk and Jerry West walks by. I had briefly shook his hand before, so I was really nervous trying to start a conversation with him on one of the most important days of the team’s year. I just decided to go for it and ask, “Can you give me any hints on who we’re getting tonight?” He motioned me over to his office and shut the door. Next thing I know, he is telling me to be quiet as his phone rings. He puts the caller on the speaker as he discusses potential trades and the other team’s draft board. After he gets off the phone we just talked basketball for over an hour. It is still crazy to me that I was able to hang with an NBA Hall of Famer just by jokingly asking a question.
My favorite place to study is …
Definitely either my room or the study room in my apartment. I never have to worry about finding a place work or it being too loud. I also highly recommend studying with a partner. When I am not understanding material, it is great to have another person to work through the problem with me. You both end up more knowledgeable in the end. More importantly, it is very reassuring when you aren’t the only person who has no idea what’s going on in class. I am actually currently writing this in my apartment study room with my roommate of three years, Michael Bowler (he’s begging me for a shout-out).
My favorite professor is …
This is a tough one because I have had so many great professors. I have to put Spenser Simrill on the list, because he is one of the few professors I like to talk with about topics other than what we are going over in class. Every time we talk we start off and end with current events in the world of sports. Dr. Simrill genuinely cares about his students and tailors his English class to allow students to research what matters to them. I was able to research my family history and create an in-depth video essay about my mother’s side of the family. Since his class, I built great relationships with some of my extended family members I otherwise would have just known about.
I also need to put Keith Dougherty as one of my favorite professors. I went into “Intro to American Government” thinking I was just going to check a prerequisite off the list, but his class was so much more than a checkbox. I learned how to truly formulate my thoughts and argue my points during debates. I took Dr. Dougherty’s class my first semester at UGA and it still is one of my favorite classes. His class almost convinced me to switch back to my dream of becoming secretary of state. Almost.
Other amazing professors include Mark Huber, Annette Poulsen and Alex Reed.
Finally, even though he is not a professor, I definitely have to add TJ Saint to the list as well. TJ is the director of basketball strategy at UGA and I mainly work for and with him. TJ has become a great mentor for me and has taught me so much about the game of basketball. I am not even sure if he knows how much he has taught me, but when he speaks I try to soak in as much as possible. His experience with both college and professional basketball has provided me with a blueprint to how to rise in the ranks of a basketball front office. Coach Crean also has my gratitude for bringing me on board with the team.
If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with …
… President Barack Obama. At one of the Sloan Conferences I attended, I had the opportunity to listen to President Obama give a speech. He talked about the role of analytics in his presidential campaign and in the decisions he had to make as president. Even before this speech, I looked up to President Obama and what he stood for. To me, he represents following your passion, being intentional in your actions, and breaking down societal barriers. Thinking back to the night he was elected president reminds me that I am the one who decides my limitations. Having an afternoon with President Obama will allow me to pick his brain about continuing on the path of success in the face of doubters and societal stigmas. Maybe we could meet up on the basketball court.
If I knew I could not fail, I would …
Develop a tool that perfectly analyzes basketball players as they transition from one level to another. For example, this tool would predict college basketball stats given their high school/AAU production. It would also predict their NBA career based on their college production. I know there are similar tools that NBA teams have access to, but there are always factors that pure statistics cannot account for. My tool would take into account all the important factors for success including stats, personality, mental toughness, attention to detail, work ethic, etc. With this tool, I could build an NBA super team.
If money was not a consideration, I would love to …
Invite my family and friends to go on a worldwide cruise. I love exploring different cultures and understanding other points of view. With my friends and family by my side, I couldn’t imagine a better group to travel the world. We could catch some waves in Hawaii and eat pizza in Italy all on the same vacation.
What is your passion and how are you committed to pursuing it?
I hope if you’ve read this far you can tell I have a passion for basketball analytics. I grew up loving the sport, but I quickly realized my skills on the court were nowhere near NBA quality. I learned I would have to rely on something else to remain involved with the sport, and that turned out to be my passion for numbers and analytics. I keep my goal of becoming director of basketball operations for an NBA team in mind with every major decision I make. With the connections I am making in both my internship in LA and work with UGA’s team, I feel I am well positioned to pursue my dream. “Nothing happens unless first we dream” — Carl Sandburg
After graduation, I plan to …
Work for any NBA team that wants to hire me. I have the honor of going back to the Clippers this upcoming summer and hopefully that might turn into a full-time job after my senior year. If the whole NBA thing doesn’t work out, I guess I have to go back to square one: secretary of state.
The one UGA experience I will always remember will be …
… Dec. 2, 2017, otherwise known as UGA’s SEC Championship victory over Auburn. There is no better feeling than winning a championship over a bitter rival. Watching the game on TV with my closest friends was definitely a remarkable experience. Because we lost to Auburn earlier in the year, I have to admit I was scared to play them again, but the Dawgs were ready to play in Atlanta. A close second is any victory over UF, because I have many friends from high school that attend school in Gainesville. Any time we win, I get to talk a little trash with my head held high. Go Dawgs!
(Originally published Feb. 24, 2019)