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