ALBA Berlin center Ben Lammers is in his second campaign as a professional basketball player – and first in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, but there was a time that he thought he would spend his mid-20s doing much different things with his life. Lammers studied engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a school he decided to attend more for its excellence in the sciences than for its famed basketball program.
"I was a mechanical engineering major at Georgia Tech. So I kind of, I guess, had both worlds go in there with some pretty tough classes and also with all the athletics," Lammers said.
"I'd be up with my group mates, like doing a report or building something. And it would be 5:00 in the morning. And then I would have to go to basketball practice."
Lammers wanted to play basketball in a place where he could also acquire quench his thirst for scientific knowledge. He was convinced to go to Georgia Tech after he visited the Invention Studio, a lab at Tech’s main mechanical-engineering building that is full of 3-D printers, oscilloscopes, lathes, bandsaws and other tools to enable students to develop projects.
"It's a lab with a bunch of different machines and so that any student could use at any time," Lammers said. "When I saw that, I was... it made me pretty happy. And yeah, it was definitely one of the things that made me want to go to Tech."
He showed interest in robotics and would spend endless hours working on prototypes. He would practice in the morning and afternoons and study until late at night. Lammers particularly liked a class called Mechanical Engineering 2110 (Creative Decisions and Design), in which students collaborate to build a robot that competes against other teams. Lammers became the team’s main programmer, using LabVIEW, often staying up all night to code.
"We're about like halfway through our college career. It's one of the classes where you have to get a team of four people usually and they have to build these robots that have specific jobs to do. So, for instance, you had to like go grab some stuff off to the side, kind of slam on something and like pick it up and then also reach out across probably like a meter and a half to kind of like drop something off in the center. And like, you get points for all the stuff you collected and all the actions you did. And so that's one of the things we did for the full semester," he explained.
Lammers's team was ranked 27th out of 28 but they surprised everybody: "At the end, everyone's robots competed. And then it's kind of like a tournament where, you know, if you're relatively good enough, it moved on, and ours made it to the semifinals, which is pretty good, given that there was a preliminary round where they ranked you and our robot messed up a little bit. So it kind of made us the underdog," Lammers recalled.
"But this is also a class where I had to stay up pretty much the entire night, multiple nights to kind of do some of these things. And then also what would happen is like I'd be up with my group mates, like doing a report or building something. And it would be 5:00 in the morning. And then I would have to go to practice because we would have an early morning practice. It was a rough summer, but also really fun."
Even though it is hard to compare coding and basketball, there is a rule that applies to both: if you are patient, persevere and keep working hard, it often pays off. And that in many ways describes Lammers on and off the court.
"Sometimes you get frustrated on the court, you're not making all your shots, just like maybe your code doesn't work for a couple hours in a row," Lammers said. "And then the perseverance, you keep on shooting or you keep on trying and eventually everything gets together and you start making shots or the code starts working."
Much to his surprise, Lammers is not the only coder in ALBA Berlin. Head coach Aito Garcia Reneses studied telecommunications when electronic scoreboards were implemented in Spain some 50 years ago. Aito contacted the company that imported those scoreboards to Spain. He created and designed an electronic scoreboard model that was cheaper and was eventually installed in around 30 arenas around the country.
"He told me that actually, like one of the first things he said is that he designed it and there are a bunch of them in Spain which are still there, which was pretty cool. I didn't know that at all. Normally coaches here, they have always been coaches or ex-players and everything. So it is kind of funky that he designed scoreboards and everything. You don't expect that!" Lammers said.
Lammers is not done learning. He continues to study engineering while playing basketball. Last summer he took an online class at Georgia Tech.
"I still try to do some stuff to keep my mind a little active."
"I still try to do some stuff to keep my mind a little active. And this past summer, I learned, basically, how you make a bunch of different things, like if it's like a metal pressed or if it's plastic or a 3D printer kind of things. I like the basics of all that," he said. "I'm kind of used to having to learn by myself a little bit because, with Georgia Tech, my basketball schedule was always so crazy that I wouldn't be at class sometimes for two or three days out of the week. So I'd always just have to read the textbook and catch myself or look up all my videos and stuff. So I'm kind of already used to doing it away from the classroom."
It is no surprise that once he hangs up his basketball shoes, Lammers would like to work as an engineer.
"I think my motto has kind of always been that you can only be a professional basketball player for 10-15 years maybe if you're lucky, but you can be an engineer for... you don't have to be young, agile or anything to be an engineer. You can be kind of old and fat to do it," Lammers said. "So once I figure I'd finish up with basketball, I want to take up engineering again. That's always an option."