The Sixers are leading the way in the NBA when it comes to putting women in charge. Meet Ivana Seric, data scientist, and read our other profiles here.
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- VP of business operations Susan Williamson is a team player — and not just for the Sixers
Take a five-position Division I college player who started all four years. Give that player a PhD in computational fluid dynamics that makes her a whiz at computer programming and math. Make that player an expert in global basketball, then tap that player’s passion for working in the NBA. Do these things and you’ll produce Ivana Seric, the Sixers’ 6-foot-2, 30-year-old Croatian unicorn.
She’s what would happen if Diana Taurasi and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory had a baby.
“Ivana is an exceptional and talented individual who possesses a rare mix of elite technical skills and rich basketball experience,” said Alex Rucker, the Sixers’ executive vice president of basketball operations, who built the team’s analytics wing. “We hired her for those reasons."
She couldn’t believe her timing when the Sixers expanded their analytics department in 2017, the same time she finished the six-year PhD program at New Jersey Institute of Technology. She figured she’d become another anonymous researcher for a pharmaceutical company, or maybe the government.
“I’ve always been torn between math and basketball,” Seric said. "When I found out NBA teams had these kinds of positions, I thought, ‘That would be perfect!’ "
Like Lindsey Harding, who scouted for the Sixers this past season before she they promoted her to player development coach, Seric, one of two women on the Sixers’ 11-person analytics team, is elbow-deep in developing daily strategies — offensive game plans, defensive schemes, which players should do what, and when. She writes programs that interpret the data the Sixers and the league supply. She is one of two analysts who sit in on the daily coaches’ meetings. If the Sixers choose to sag off D’Angelo Russell when he’s in the corner but pressure him at the top of the key, that might be a Seric recommendation.
“Ivana provides a comprehensive scouting report that looks at the tendencies and the statistical qualities of our opposition, individually and as a team,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “She plays a significant role in choosing how we play offense or defense.”
She helped coach the Sixers’ summer league team in 2018. And, occasionally, she still flexes her baller muscles.
“She plays pickup games with us,” said general manager Elton Brand, who scored almost 17,000 points in 17 NBA seasons. “She hoops, man. I mean, she hoops."
What does all of this portend? Quick ascension — especially with this progressive franchise. Harding, the seventh female assistant in NBA history, and Seric, one of a handful of women to have coached in the summer league, might be the most visible of the women who work for the Sixers because they’re on the sidelines.
With her mastery of both the numbers and the artistry that basketball has become, none of them is as specifically qualified to be a head coach as Seric. Perhaps no one in the league is. That’s fine with her.
“To have all this data to explore is amazing. I like the coaching side,” she said. “Strategy. Developing plays. There are a lot more things we can do, integrating basketball and data.”
The integration began in 2001, when, as a 12-year-old in Split, Croatia, whose love of basketball did not match that of her basketball-crazed father, Ivica, Seric watched Tamika Catchings playing for Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament.
“I was a huge Catch fan,” Seric said.
She made up her mind that night: She would play college basketball in America. Six years later, a family friend used a connection to Margaret McKeon, coach at NJIT. McKeon offered Seric a scholarship after seeing just one game tape — a tape that showed Seric playing everything from point guard to center.
NJIT had just become a Division-I program, but Seric was attracted to the academics as much as the athletics.
“Once I found out the mathematics department was good, it was a no-brainer,” Seric said, laughing.
She never considered her gender to be an obstacle. Her mother, Nina, is a retired a doctor. Older brothers Antonio, who is three years older, and Nino, who is two years older, treated her like one of the boys.
When she arrived in Newark, N.J., there were adjustments, of course. Ivana studied English since fourth grade, but she picked most of it up watching American television with Croatian subtitles. She sometimes didn’t know which drills McKeon wanted her to do: "The drills are the same, but we have different words for them. I’d stand on the side and then join in,” Seric said.
She now speaks fluently, and language was never an issue in the classroom: “Mathematics is the same in every language.”
So, what language is “computational fluid dynamics”?
“There are different equations that tell you how fluids behave. Computational fluid dynamics is finding numerical computations or solutions to these equations,” she explained. "You design a program to solve the equation. It’s an approximate solution, because these equations cannot be solved exactly."
If that sounds a lot like sports, it is. Seric appreciates the intersection of art and science when she’s trying to figure out something like the efficiency of LeBron’s defensive positioning (astronomical).
“We could get some insights, but there’s also a balance between the information we get from data and watching him play, like the coaches do,” Seric said. “There has to be a balance between the experienced eye and the data.”
So, she’s practical, too. Is she the smartest person in the organization? “Define ‘smart.’ ”
Is she happiest when speaking with other brilliant people? “Yes. sometimes I forget how normal people are!” She laughs. “Just kidding.”
She’s not kidding.
Does being a female scientist working in the NBA carry extra responsibility as a trailblazer for other women?
“Math and science are catching up faster than the sports world,” she said. “But that’s one of the motivations for this job — to show other women, and girls, there is space for them in sports and in science.”