Chelsea residentJennifer Wilkinson relives magical experience at NCAA Tournament
Published 9:41 am Thursday, March 30, 2023
By ANDREW SIMONSON | Special to the Reporter
Most people wouldn’t use their vacation time to work a side job, but Jennifer Wilkinson isn’t most people, and she doesn’t just work any side job.
Wilkinson is one of Birmingham’s most seasoned basketball statisticians, and she took time off work at the beginning of March to keep stats for all 26 games of the Sun Belt Tournament in Pensacola, Florida.
That, however, was just the beginning of a memorable stretch.
The next week, she worked at the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena, including Alabama and Auburn’s games, and both of UAB’s home games in the NIT.
It’s a job that somebody has to do in every arena, and Wilkinson is happy to be the one to do it. She is a great advocate for the statistics field, and she enjoys telling fans about everything that goes into her work.
“They ask me what I do, and they think that I’m just keeping the book, and I tell them what all I do, and I guess you realize that somebody does it, but you don’t realize that it’s one or two people sitting there doing all of it,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson grew up in Anniston surrounded by basketball. Her parents were from North Carolina, so they introduced her to UNC basketball while Michael Jordan played for the Tar Heels.
That hooked her. She started keeping the stats book in high school as a way to get involved with the team, and she used that experience when she went to college at Birmingham Southern to do stats for them.
Now, 31 years later, Wilkinson is a lawyer by day in Chelsea, but after work ends, she is also a main statistician for the NBA G-League’s Birmingham Squadron and works with UAB, Samford, Montevallo and area high schools.
She has gone from doing every stat by hand for an NAIA program to working with teams of statisticians and computer programs for some of the biggest basketball teams in the state.
Her work is vital to player development, advanced analytics and media coverage. She enjoys seeing her work used to improve teams and being shared with the world.
“Working for UAB, for example, I’ve seen these players for a couple of years and watched how they develop and see how they become better players, and also how they use our statistics to figure out different points during the game,” Wilkinson said. “They know if this player’s a better blocker because he draws a lot of charges and things like that, they can keep up with. And so, it’s neat that they can take what we do, and that’s really evolved a lot over the years.
“So that’s kind of rewarding to see that what we do is not just immediately shown on the TV, but it’s something that they use for the rest of the season.”
Wilkinson has also had some interesting encounters during those years. She sat next to Dominique Wilkins while inputting stats for the Hawks vs. Pelicans NBA preseason game at Legacy Arena last October. Just last week, she sat across the way from CBS Sports commentator Jim Nantz, while he called his final NCAA Tournament. And right under his monitor was a sheet of Wilkinson’s stats that he read off during the broadcast on CBS, TNT and TBS.
Wilkinson said that she takes pride when millions of viewers see her team’s work on shows like Inside March Madness.
“All of us came home that night and were watching the analysts go over the games of the day, and they were holding up stat sheets,” Wilkinson said. “And it dawned on me that they were reading off what we had input. And so, to watch Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley and Candace Parker read what we did, it was an amazing moment.”
While many know about how to stay involved in sports by playing professionally or joining the media, Wilkinson hopes that more kids will realize the many other careers that sports provide, like sports marketing, sports administration, coaching, and yes, statistics.
Many Shelby County schools and local universities offer sports marketing and sports management electives, and she said those skills fill vital roles for every team.
“They know somebody does it,” Wilkinson said. “But I don’t think people realize that there’s somebody like me in every college and professional sport keeping those statistics. And I’ve also tried to tell people, especially kids that are high school students that are playing different sports, that you can stay involved in sports without playing sports. And they don’t realize that I sat courtside at the NCAA regionals, I sat courtside for the Atlanta Hawks-Pelicans game and did their stats, sat next to Dominique Wilkins. So, things like that, you don’t realize that you can still do. And I wish more kids would look at it and get involved.”
Ultimately, Wilkinson is just a basketball fan, and she sees stats as a way to stay close to the game she’s loved for over three decades.
And when you love something for that long, why wouldn’t you use your vacation time on it?