THE INVENTOR:  MICHAEL COSTABILE

 

Q -- So Michael, what's your back ground?  Where are you from and where did you get your love for sports, and also specifically basketball?

 

I was born in Mt. Vernon New York and my family relocated to North Carolina when I was a young child. My love for sports came from the first time I was able to watch a college basketball game. Dean Smith came into my parents’ restaurant and invited me to come see a game. Ever since then, I’ve been a basketball fan.

 

Q -- At what point in your life did you see that there was an immense NEED for such a thing as Precision Time Systems?

 

I followed my father’s and brother’s footsteps into officiating.  Beginning in high school athletics in 1980, then in Division I college athletics in 1983, and eventually officiating with the National Basketball Association in 1989.  During my time with the NBA I was involved in a game where there was a timing issue. That basically got the ball rolling in my head.  I knew there was a serious need to remove the effect human reaction time and human error had on the game clock. 

 

Q-- You also had to have a highly developed background in electronics to invent precision time...where did that come from?

 

I’ve been a ham radio operator since my teens, learning about and experimenting with radio frequencies.  I’ve also been a licensed Optician since 1980 learning and using light theories. Both of these have contributed to the development and evolution of Precision Time System.

 

Q -- What is a "Remote Whistle Timing System"?

 

An electronic device consisting of two components:

 

A beltpack, worn by the game official, with the capability of receiving the frequency response of the Fox 40 Whistle and transmits the signal to the base station .

 

The radio base station that receives the signal from the beltpack , immediately stopping the clock.

 

All of this takes place at the speed of light, eliminating human reaction time.  The game official also has the ability to start the clock from the court.  The game clock operator is still able to start and stop the clock.

 

Q -- How hard was it to get colleges to support & use the system?

 

It was difficult because it was a big paradigm shift. It took around 20 years for some organizations to adopt the system.

 

Q -- Anyone who has seen an NBA or recent Olympic Games basketball game has seen Precision Time in action...when did the NBA and Olympics come on line?

 

We introduced our equipment to the NBA in 1997.  They eventually adopted the system in 1999.   We were in the World Championships in 2002, which was our first time working with FIBA. We were first used in the 2004 Olympics.

 

 

Q -- You have even developed your own batteries?

 

When needed a high capacity battery that gives us the battery life necessary in order to last through several games.  We were unable to find that in existing batteries so we went to the drawing board and developed a battery that would provide the capacity our Precision Time customers deserved.

 

 

Q -- How crucial is it to use the FOX 40 whistle?

 

We tested hundreds of whistles and found the Fox 40 whistle to have the best tolerances of reproducibility. This is the only whistle that can be used with the system.

 

Q -- Can it be hacked by someone in the stands?

 

We went through great strides, testing hundreds of whistles,  to choose a whistle with the consistency needed for game clock accuracy and security.  The Fox 40 is the only whistle to have consistent tolerances of reproducibility. It is the only whistle used with the Precision Time System.  No crowd whistles or noise can affect the system.

 

 

Q -- Does that include venue crowd noise up to say 30 dB?

 

That includes crowd noise up to 112 dB.

 

 

Q -- How do you feel when you flip on the TV and see Precision Time belt packs on the Refs?

 

It gives me a great sense of pride to see the system being used.   Elimination of human reaction time and potential human error from the game clock is all I need to see.

 

 
 
 

Precision Time Congratulates,
Bolivia man who makes time stand still,
on basketball courts...

By Dan Spears
Assistant Sports Editor Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 6:01 a.m. Last Modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 7:34 a.m
.

 

Mike Costabile, of Bolivia, has developed a system to stop the clock as quickly as possible in basketball games, Click to enlarge
Mike Costabile, of Bolivia, has developed a system to stop the clock as quickly as possible in basketball games
The scenario has played out hundreds of times in basketball games around the world. The score is tight, time is winding down.

Then it happens. A player is fouled. Or the ball goes out of bounds. The whistle blows, the clock stops, sometimes with mere tenths of a second remaining. Fans jump out of their seats or pound a fist into their couch, thinking, “How can they stop the clock there? How can time not run out? It’s impossible to stop the clock right there!”

The answers to those questions – and a quick rebuttal to the proclamation – can be found right here in Southeastern North Carolina, if you’re willing to do some digging. Precision Time System has changed the game of basketball, but there is no big neon sign to show its importance.

Instead, go through Bolivia, turn down a country road and onto a long, gravel driveway through a grove of trees. Then head for Mike Costabile’s attic, where, amid controlled chaos and hundreds of computer chips and plastic housings, the latest in basketball technology is spread to the masses.

“You want to watch Precision Time, other than coming here and getting up close and personal with it, turn the TV set on tonight,” Costabile said. “Somewhere in the world, that system is used every single night.”

For two decades, Costabile was a basketball official himself. First for high schools, then at the college level across the Southeast, including the Colonial Athletic Association and the Atlantic Coast Conference. It eventually led to a spot in the NBA rotation.

Then it happened. The Milwaukee Bucks were at the Philadelphia 76ers. Tight game, Charles Barkley with the ball. Barkley shoots, Jack Sikma fouls, the whistle blows, the buzzer sounds – but in what order?

Costabile decided the foul was before the buzzer and gave Bark­ley two free throws. He made both and the Sixers won.

Costabile said there was plenty of bickering about that game. He believes it eventually led to the NBA not renewing his contract. But instead of letting the situation become his downfall, he turned the tables.

“My engineer, John Guerrero, I sat down with him and some others,” said Costabile, who credits the inspiration to his ham radio experiences growing up. The Precision Time System was born. Raised in the Triangle, he relied on friends in that area to build the guts of the product. Then he became a salesman.

The early going wasn’t easy. Eventually, the Pacific-10 Conference picked it up for its basketball teams in 1995. Soon, the bandwagon took on members from everywhere.

“I took it to the NBA,” Costabile said. “The VP of basketball operations kinda laughed at me. And then, four years later, they bought it.”

That was under Rod Thorn, now the president of the New Jersey Nets. But Thorn’s successor knows why the NBA eventually changed its mind for Costabile’s product.

“The value of the product has been recognized by these leagues and officials,” said Steve Hellmuth, NBA executive vice president of operations and technology. “The fact that the guy has a detailed experience and is behind the product.”

Now, the phone rings off the hook in Costabile’s attic. In one hour on a mid-February afternoon, the calls come from far and wide: the University of San Francisco, Kent State, Hartford, the Atlantic 10, the Seattle SuperSonics. On top of a stack of FedEx boxes sits a backpack full of equipment, headed to Atlanta for the SEC Tournament.

“We calculated like 80,000 basketball games since it’s been used,” Costabile said. “Just in the NBA, it’s been 15,000 games since we put it in there.”

The system’s purpose is to stop the clock as quickly as possible, taking human error and reaction time out of the equation.

A microphone is placed next to an official’s whistle. When the whistle blows, a signal is sent to the computer pack on the official’s belt, which bounces to the main computer, which is attached to the game clock.

As a backup, the official timekeeper also has buttons to stop and start the clock, and is required to continue to push the button to stop the clock when he hears the whistle. But the whistle is the winner every time.

“I’m not sure how much time is saved, but you don’t have to depend on reaction time from the table,” said John Clougherty, a former college official and now coordinator of officials for both the ACC and CAA.

“We’re sure of the time. It’s got great value there.”

Costabile says the official’s whistle is always right and is always willing to put his money where his mouth is. His whistle stops the clock faster than anyone’s finger on the stop button.

Science, after all, says the speed of light beats the speed of sound.

“We’ve eliminated the human reaction time,” Costabile said. He doesn’t know how it can get any faster, “unless we go to the Vulcan mind trick.”

As good as the system is, there are flaws. Clougherty says his officials have inadvertently stopped the clock by talking into the whistle loudly enough. Kellum Fipps, head of the Southeastern Basketball Officials Association for the past 16 seasons, said high schools must be careful to have backup batteries ready, especially with the number of doubleheaders at that level.

Earlier this season, the system was brought into the spotlight during the end of the nationally televised Rutgers-Tennessee women’s game, when the clock was stopped with 0.2 seconds left, despite the whistle not blowing.

Costabile told The Associated Press that the mistake could be attributed to human error, but his solution to that problem was already in the works. He’s sent off a new device for a patent, what he calls a “data center,” which keeps a log of who stopped and started the clock, and when they did it.

During the confusion that night, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer can be seen asking, “Who stopped the clock?”

“You wanna know why?” Costabile said. “You want to know who one of the test sites for (the data center) is? Rutgers.”

He later added: “If you think about all the stuff that’s gone on in the NCAA, you don’t hear about Precision Time that much. You heard about the Tennessee game, and you hear about a battery. And this thing’s been out since 1995. … All the other games, there’s thousands of them, the reliability’s pretty good.”

The system is used virtually everywhere, yet Costabile is continually trying to build a better mousetrap. He and Hellmuth get together six or seven times a year to discuss improvements – trying to find a way to stop the clock as soon as the ball goes through the net is on their list right now.

He’ll head to China this summer and make sure everything works fine for the Olympics. The Euroleague. The world championships. The Division II and III national tournaments. Virtually every conference in Division I basketball.

The Atlantic Sun Conference, which includes N.C. schools Campbell and Gardner-Webb, is voting in June to adopt the system.

“None of (our schools) are currently using it. And we would make that decision to make it conference wide,” Atlantic Sun assistant commissioner Matt Wilson said.

“I think there’s only a handful of conferences that don’t have it now. It seems to be a piece of technology that’s caught on.”

But if you don’t see it in every NCAA Tournament game you watch over the next three weeks, don’t panic. It’s not required there. Yet.

“With all the leagues that are using it, and all the value it has, I would think that the NCAA would see that as a positive,” Clougherty said. “I don’t know ... why they don’t, in my opinion.”

Costabile’s system is also growing into the high school arena. Several states, including North Carolina, use it for their state championships. Most local schools have it. For every in-state school that buys one, Precision Time makes a donation to the NCHSAA endowment fund and offers free maintenance.

“A majority of our schools have it,” Fipps said. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they all had it in four or five years. It’s that good of equipment.”

Fifteen years after seeing that “there was a problem that just needed to be fixed,” the future of Precision Time is bright. Costabile’s attic can’t hold the operation, so he’s moving to a bigger building – on the other side of his driveway.

It’s got a little more space, more room for him to keep everything in order, and still lets him enjoy time at home with his fiancée and their dogs on their 15 acres.

Just don’t expect him to get tired of it any time soon.

“Yeah, it’s been kinda busy,” he said. “I don’t ever really sit back and look at what happened, because I’m still in the middle of it.”

Dan Spears: 343-2038

 

 

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