Why We Watch: Shane Battier And The Good Life

A lot of people who watch and play NBA basketball think Shane Battier is pretty lame. Shane Battier doesn't care.
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You can learn a lot about a basketball player’s credibility by how and how frequently hip-hop songs deign to mention that player. Michael Jordan remains the standard-bearer, here: nearly a decade after he hoisted his final arthritic, bile-fueled 18-footer, either he or his sneaker line is shouted out every few minutes on Hot 97. Close behind are Nike’s two princes, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, generally referred to in reverential tones, though there has been an exception or two.

And then, much further down the list, is Shane Battier. The only track I’ve found that mentions Battier is J. Cole’s “Rise and Shine,” in which he snarls, “We in two different games, you playin’ patty cake/Brother you’re lame, you’re Shane Battier/You out of shape.” J. Cole is an unabashed UNC fan, which means he’s free not to think much of Battier and challenged with trying to find something that rhymes with “Shammond Williams.” But it seems fair to assume that hip-hop’s foremost Tar Heel loyalist is hardly alone in considering Battier kind of lame.

“Rise and Shine” dropped during the NBA lockout. By season’s end, Battier’s game, lame though it might be, was an integral part of the Heat’s NBA title run. Despite not having averaged double digits in scoring for going on six years, Battier has cleared over $50 million in salary in 11-plus NBA seasons. Money isn’t everything, but consider that figure Battier’s unwitting version of “Ether.”

***

The moribund Grizzlies, then newly arrived in Memphis, drafted Battier out of Duke in 2001 and marketed him as a sorely needed superhero, teaming him with fellow rookie Pau Gasol in a fairly ridiculous comic-book ad campaign. Wildly miscast in that role, Battier nevertheless managed to make a difference in his now-familiar, complementary way; a last place team in his first season, Battier's Grizzlies were a playoff squad in his final three seasons there. In his last year in Memphis, he ranked seventh on the team in scoring, behind Bobby Jackson and Chucky Atkins, among others.

The blueprint was established: Battier would, by focusing on research and defense and the careful concealment of his various athletic shortcomings, thrive as a non-superstar in a superstar-driven league. It kept him around, and kept him earning. Battier excelled after being dealt to the stats-oriented Rockets, with his inspired defense and overall Battier-ness widely (if, necessarily, arbitrarily) cited as instrumental to the team's 22-game winning streak in 2007-08.

Last season, Battier filled a similar void for a Heat team that lacked both a level-headed and ego-light veteran presence and a player willing and able to do the unglamorous on-court chores required to be a domestique forLeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Before games, he’d counsel teammates and settle debates; during games, he’d guard positions 1-5, Westbrook to Durant to Ibaka. On the sport's biggest and best-lit stage, the intricacies and idiosyncrasiesof Battier’s game were seen in new detail.

His blindfold technique on defense, for example, which is something he has used for 15 years or so, was cited as a “secret weapon.” Battier was also unusually productive in the more easily quantifiable aspects of the game. He nailed 15 three-pointers in the five-game Finals, then played it off by saying, "If nothing else, I learned that it is better to be timely than good." This, all of it, was exactly what Battier was expected to do. He did it exceptionally well, as he generally does. It earned him a ring and his salary, but little else.

Given that he plays with LeBron and Wade, Battier isn’t likely the primary reason people watch Heat games. If anything, his dearth of aesthetic value mostly serves to piss people off. “I used to try to talk to people [on other teams],” Battier told Michael Lewis in a glowing 2009 New York Times profile, “but then I figured out no one actually liked me very much.”

Maybe Battier just isn't talking to the right people. With the proliferation of advanced statistics in basketball the past few years—and with the way those stats bear out Battier's worth in a way other stats don't—he is something of a must-watch to the segment of fans that wants to crack The Battier Code. These are the same people who spend hours breaking down video at Synergy Sports to ascertain how efficient Gary Neal is at running the pick-and-roll, but they're also fans who derive some pleasure from watching Battier's attempts to goad Kobe Bryant into lower-percentage shots. To watch Battier with appreciation is to look for the mostly hidden things that the stats—and Battier's apostles in the media—insist are there, to seek the real-time worth latent in the metrics. Nate Silver, no surprise, is a Battier fan. And vice versa.

***

Even for someone who was at Duke with Battier, it’s difficult to reconcile the full-fledged superstar he was back then with the workmanlike player he’s become. The Duke-model Battier possessed the same cerebral approach as the current NBA model, but he also had the ability to score every which way.

Battier was not reluctant to soak in attention back then—he was in college, after all, and is human—but he always seemed a little above the fray. The platitudes he served the media crowded seven-deep around his locker arrived with a wry grin. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether Battier was for real; I always thought he was merely trying to amuse himself with his famous claim that a Discovery Channel documentary on Shaolin monks gave him the necessary “Chi” to inspire a career game. But then eight years later, he was pictured visiting a monastery on a team trip overseas, so, hey, who knows?

Battier was the nation's best college basketball player during his time at Duke, but he was also notably like Max from Rushmore. He was involved with everything: He chaired a student committee that lobbied for stipends for college athletes, and he gleefully performed with the university improv group; the former pursuit was futile, of course, but he was actually pretty good at the other. Knowing there would be cameras on him, he wore a pair of fake buckteeth in the crowd at the McDonald’s All-American Game. There were rumors that he was fluent in German, for some reason. I had a class with Battier during my senior year, and on a day when the teacher couldn’t make it, he strode to the front of the room and seamlessly led the discussion as all sat dumbfounded. Even en route to a national title, surrounded by a student body and national media that adored him in large part for his ability to hit a jump shot, Battier always seemed able to separate the grind of his profession from everything else, and uniquely aware of how vast "everything else" actually was.

I had Battier as a guest on my campus radio show a month before Duke won the title. He politely derailed our interview by asking if we could talk less about basketball, and more about what life was all about. I clumsily gave it a go, and the National College Player of the Year waxed poetic about wanting to make a positive difference in the world off-court, then perhaps hosting his own radio show, before living out his days on some tropical island wanting for nothing but a drink with an umbrella. It was admirable, but it also felt a little unfair that someone so good at basketball could have everything else figured out so well.

***

When I either see or at least perceive Battier out-thinking and out-working bigger, quicker and better players --making it impossible for them to get as much out of their talent as he has gotten out of his—I mainly remember sitting with Battier in that run-down radio studio, listening to him shadowbox his expectations and the standard-issue angst of the soon-to-graduate. The unique style that he has painstakingly mastered, the Battier Code he wrote and still writes, has clearly been a means to an eternally worthwhile end: his wife, his kids, a good book, the good life. "You never feel like you do in the summer, sitting on your deck, having a beer or two,” Battier told ESPN last spring. “That's when you feel perfect."

The image that stuck with me from the aftermath of the Heat’s championship was Battier sitting alone in the locker room, nobody else around, spraying himself with a bottle of really expensive champagne. (Battier sheepishly called it “completely frivolous.”) The photo went somewhat viral and was met with good-natured derision: “Shane Battier and all his friends,” stuff like that.

But there's another way to see it. Maybe that image caught Battier in a fleeting but satisfying instant of sweet, solitary self-validation. My then-fiancée slept in the next room, and there was work in the morning. But I raised a glass all the same, toasting to the pursuit of the good life on one’s own terms.

Illustration by J.F. Frankel.


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