Posted by Brian Windhorst
Pat Zipfel has one of the most demanding jobs in the NBA and his work directly affects the outcome of games. Yet you probably have never heard of him or most people like him. He's an advance scout for the Houston Rockets and, if you listen to his peers, one of the league's best. He's been "doing advance" as they say in the NBA for seven years now, also having worked for the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers. He's former point guard who fell in love with Xs and Os while playing at Cabrini College in Philadelphia. He's also been the head coach at Centenary College and an assistant at The Citadel. On a six-hour flight from Orlando to Seattle last week, Pat agreed to answer some questions for TrueHoop about the grueling yet fascinating nature of his job.
What exactly is an advance scout?
There are two types of scouts in the NBA. There are personnel scouts, who look at players and decide if they can play, fit their system and are the type of player that will be successful with the salary fitting. The advance scout is responsible for watching the opponent, diagramming all their plays, knowing their calls, knowing their side out of bounds plays and end of game plays. Then you report back to the coaching staff and suggest a game plan on how to win that game. The advance scout specializes in the knowledge of the game.
The job of advance scout is not just a job but a lifestyle. During the NBA season, it is a marathon of traveling and watching games and writing reports. Whether your team wins or loses you feel you played a part in preparing them for the game and are fully vested in every game.
So, you feel the highs and lows of winning and losing, even though you are already ahead working on the next opponent. The truth is that It can be a bit lonely when you play a game that you spent so much time helping prepare your coaching staff and you find yourself alone in a hotel room checking the scores online to see if your team won. No one is with you to celebrate victory or share defeat.
If being around the team and getting to know the players sounds great to you, then the job of advance scout is not for you. Most of our players wouldn't recognize me since they only see me a few times a year other than during training camp. Every game they read the reports and get prepared by the coaches but almost all are unaware of the process it took to get that information to them.
How many NBA games do you see in person during a season?
Last season, I saw 144 NBA games in person during the regular season. So far this season I have seen about 65 games. But coupled with the amount of games on tape, I can't actually count how many games I have seen. While it is a dream job if you love the game of basketball, it requires a level of commitment and work ethic during the season that is grueling.
So that includes lots of time in hotels and on airplanes?
Since training camp started, I've been in my own bed (outside Philadelphia) for eight nights. Typically, I fly every day of the week, this job requires at least 100,000 miles in the air every year. A large part of the daily routine of this job is logistics, getting from one city to the next. Getting all the flights, taxis, rental cars, hotels and the whole time trying to be budget conscious is a challenge. It's not easy, especially since most of the season happens in the winter. Once last season a game in New York went to overtime and I missed the last train out of the city and all the hotel rooms were booked. I ended up sleeping in Penn Station. Because I'm up late after games working on reports and then up early to catch flights, I get most of my sleep on planes.
So who does your laundry and have you every flown to the wrong city?
Most of the 30 advance scouts in the NBA could write a travel book on how to travel in and out of the 30 NBA cities. Most of us know which airlines have direct flights, what cities and airports are the best and worst to deal with, who has the friendliest cab drivers, and even where to get laundry/dry cleaning done on short notice in each city. We see the airport, the hotel and the arena, that's it.
Most scouts stay at Marriott hotels, because you know what you are going to get and it is dependable. But because the rooms all look the same, yes, you wake up sometimes and dont exactly know where you are.
How do you get the information to your team and how has technology helped?
Advance scouting in the NBA was originally done by Bill Bertka of the Los Angeles Lakers. He could be considered the godfather of advance scouting. He was the first person to go out and watch the opponent play and report back to his team his suggestions on how to beat the opponent. Over the years, the position went from pen and paper to laptops, e-mail, software and .pdf files. Back then and now the goal is the same: to know your opponent and try to find ways to beat them.
The process following every game is the scout will go back to his hotel and input all the plays in the software that were used on that night and write a report following the game that will prepare the coaching staff on the opposing teams. That includes personnel, tendencies, play calls, frequency, and even who to suggest to foul in a close game. This information is emailed to directly to the coaching staff. Just few years ago this meant lots of faxing and FedExing but the software now allows you to do it all electronically.
The Rockets are one of the most computer savvy teams in the league, how does it carry over to your job?
Having worked for three different NBA teams, the Rockets are cutting edge with their ability to marry technology and basketball. Aside from the standard personnel database that teams have started using the past few years, the statistical and analytical work of the Rockets' front office technology team gives the coaching staff and personnel department every possible advantage. This goes back to our (general manager) Daryl Morey and (vice president of basketball operations) Sam Hinkie, they are two of the best in the business at it.
How important is getting the play calls and signals?
For our team, Shane Battier is excellent at hearing opponents calls during the game and knowing what is going to happen before the opponent runs the play and letting our coaching staff know. That type of advantage could be the difference between 2-3 possessions a game and determine the outcome.
There are lots of players
who make it a priority. If you sat close enough to the court of a Dallas Mavericks game, Dirk Nowitzki does a great job of calling out the other teams plays to their bench, as does Jarrett Jack of the Portland Trail Blazers for his team. If Mike Dunleavy of the Pacers knows the play, he will call it out in his teams term just to get a small edge.
How much of the job is technical (X and Os) and how much is intuitive?
The ability to watch a game and know where all 10 players are on the floor is invaluable for the job. Being able to draw up all the plays and where each player goes is important for the coaches when they see the report. But you also have to be able to suggest ways to counteract what the opponent does, which means you have that part of your mind working, too.
So after all that, do you like your job?
As a former NCAA head coach, I know the importance of knowing how to defend the other team. I have always felt this job was valuable since we are in the business of winning games and beating our opponents. So I know how important the job is and that's important to me.
Every day I hear from people what a great job it must be and even after 7 years, I cannot tell you how blessed I feel to be sitting front row every night in the NBA, the highest level of basketball in the world. Just last week, I saw Kobe, Carmelo, and LeBron play in person in a three-day span. And if you love the game of basketball, that sounds like a dream job.