January 17, 2014

The Brains of Basketball: Interview with Krossover's Vasu Kulkarni

Every young basketball aspirant reaches a point when they have to make perhaps the most important career decision of their life: Do I keep on this tough and unlikely path of hoops to see where it leads me professionally? Or do I quit the game now and come back to 'real life', for a white collar profession with occasional pick-up hoops to keep the hobby alive?

When Vasu Kulkarni faced that moment, he did what few people do: he chose both options.

LA-born Kulkarni was raised in India but returned to the States after High School. An aspiring young player with hoop dreams - who actually learned the trades of his craft in Bangalore - Kulkarni wanted to stick with basketball even when doing that dream seemed to be getting out of reach. So he used the creativity he picked up on court and applied it off the court. In 2010, Kulkarni's company Krossover - featuring a service that breaks down game-tape to expose advanced data and analytics - went live. Four years later, Krossover has become a game-changer in the field, and Kulkarni's pet project is now working with America's top high school, college, and some professional coaches and breaking down hundreds of games every day.

Currently, Krossover is providing services for around 2000 clients in basketball, American football, and lacrosse, with a diversity of customers including the Cleveland Cavaliers, University of Kentucky, Georgetown, the D-League's Springfield Armor, Amherst College, and St. Anthony's High School. The 27-year-old Kulkarni's company is growing every day in their clients, services, and freelances contributors from across the US. Most importantly, Krossover's heart - or brain - is rooted to the love of the game, and with the purpose of making everyone involved in basketball a lot smarter.

I got a chance to interview Kulkarni, the CEO of Krossover, about the influence of India on his basketball addiction, the birth, growth, and ambitions of Krossover, and about bringing it all back to potentially contributing to hoops in India.

Hoopistani: So tell me about your background - you were raised in Bangalore?

Kulkarni: I was born in LA, but my family moved back to India when I was nine. I lived in Bangalore till age 18, and then came back to the States for college, and have been here since for the past nine years.

Hoopistani: And when did you start taking basketball seriously?

Kulkarni: I've always loved basketball. My earlier memory in life was watching Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan at the '91 Finals between the Lakers and Bulls on TV. Even when I was just a toddler, I must've watched a lot of hoops since my babysitter was a huge NBA fan! But I didn't play too much basketball in the States: I was an awful athlete, and in the US, I felt like a small fish in a big pond. Ironically, I had to go to India to really learn the game.

In India, I was one of the taller guys and suddenly became a big fish in basketball's small pond. I might have never picked up the game had it not been in India, where I started to improve a lot and made it to my High School team in Bangalore.

I moved back to the States to the University of Pennsylvania, and after playing well in India, I assumed that I could easily play D1 basketball. Of course, the reality was a lot different and more difficult than that. It took me a while to find my place playing basketball in the States, and I had learn the game in a more enhanced way again. In my senior year, I got a tryout with Penn's JV team and made it. That was - and still is - the highlight of my life. Playing for a team, having a locker room, wearing the jerseys, and hearing the national anthem before a game: it was a wonderful experience.

Hoopistani: Was that experience the building block for Krossover?

Kulkarni: Well, even after college, I wanted to remain involved in sports; nothing else could make me happy. I wanted to build a technology for sports teams. Wanted to do something in analytics. After some on-field research, and after taking some time figuring out our pricing scheme, I was able to develop what type of product basketball teams needed to use.

Hoopistani: The advanced stats and analytics revolution has taken over basketball in a big way in the last few years. But when Krossover started out, you must have been one of the first dipping your nose in the field.

Kulkarni: Well, Synergy were really the pioneers of advanced stats. They were ahead of their time, but no one else was really thinking about advanced stats or analytics four or five years ago. And a lot of other companies couldn't figure out anything new to do with basketball. We have been able to incorporate stats in basketball and a few other sports to make it useful in the same way as it is in baseball.

Hoopistani: With basketball though, unlike baseball, I feel there will always be room for a lot more creativity that can't be 'statified' the same way...

Kulkarni: Yes. As someone selling the product, I obviously want more stats, but as a fan of the game, I wish that the game remains much more than just numbers. When it comes down to it, basketball players are so crafty and creative that their tendencies can never be as predictable as baseball players, for example.

Hoopistani: Krossover got a major boost last year by adding the Cleveland Cavaliers as one of the clients...

Kulkarni: The deal with the Cavs has of course been a great boost for us: we breakdown every NCAA Division 1 game every day, so now, scouts from the Cavs can look at all of their prospects in depth. I think an advantage of Krossover is that it is really easy to use and so NBA scouts feel comfortable with it. The Cavs can use it to breakdown and analyze NBA players too and use the knowledge to make trades - like they did with Luol Deng a few weeks ago.

But the real value of our service comes from lower levels that the NBA, from the NCAA or from High School basketball. All of our NCAA clients closely examine the High School level games we breakdown - which are around 600 every day! So our service becomes great value for money for scouts instead of flying all over the country to watch all of those games.

Hoopistani: How many teams are you currently working with?

Kulkarni: We are closing in on around 2000 High School and College teams - 85 percent of our clients are High School teams. The US has the most organized senior sports programmmes in the world, so we have a potential for a lot more expansion, and we aim to get up to 10, 20, or even 30 thousand clients in the next two to three years.

Hoopistani: It's great to see the company grow so dramatically, especially since, I guess when it began the entire project was manned by you alone...

Kulkarni: In 2009, Krossover had one person on their staff-list: me. Then, there were two more. Two or three times, it seemed that things were going to die out and Krossover would never make it. But we survived and grew, and now we have grown to 40-50 people working at the New York office. But the chunk of the breakdown is provided by 2000 or so people who live around the country. These people are not employees but earn money for each game they break down by taking recording of games from their local teams. We will probably process breakdowns of 50,000 games this season.

Hoopistani: What are the objectives for growth in the future? Will you be looking to bring in more clients from the NBA?

Kulkarni: The NBA stuff is nice, particularly from a marketing standpoint, but to us, a High School team is just as valuable. We wanna change the way people think about the game. We want to get to 6000 teams - three times our current number - by the end of this year. After basketball, American football, and lacrosse, we will also be expanding to volleyball soon.

We've created an app called SIQ (sports IQ) to test the knowledge of fans via video quizzes, too. [Kulkarni described the app here in this video for Grantland last year].

Hoopistani: Lets bring the story to where it began. Have you been keeping track of basketball in India?

Kulkarni: I was back in India to take part in the Mahindra NBA Challenge in Bangalore, where we put together a team that won the whole thing! I feel that the level of competition in India is still low: any team off the street in the US could win a tournament like that in India. I've spoken to NBA people and others in India and feel that there is a lot of frustration about the slow bureaucracy and red-tape in the country. They need to pursue greater efforts in the grassroots - like the efforts of Subhash Mahajan in Karnataka. The aim should be all about getting kids in India passionate about that round orange ball.

India needs to invest its money on infrastructure; I feel that's what happened in China to support basketball there. I hope that one day the game can become a bigger part of the culture and way of life there.

Hoopistani: Do you think Krossover could ever contribute in basketball or other sports in India?

Kulkarni: We can make it happen anywhere if games are filmed with half-decent cameras. That's all we need!

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