The No-Stats All-Star – An article by Michael Lewis about Houston Rockets Basketball Player- Shane Battier

Another great sports article from Michael Lewis


February 15, 2009

The No-Stats All-Star

Out of Duke University. . . . A 6-foot-8-inch forward. . . .

He had more or less admitted to me that this part of his job left him cold. ‘It’s the same thing every day,’ he said,as he struggled to explain how a man on the receiving end of the raginglove of 18,557 people in a darkened arena could feel nothing. “If youhad filet mignon every single night, you’d stop tasting it.”

To him the only pleasure in these sounds ??? the name of his belovedalma mater, the roar of the crowd ??? was that they marked the end of theworst part of his game day: the 11 minutes between the end of warm-upsand the introductions. Eleven minutes of horsing around and makingsmall talk with players on the other team. All those players makingexaggerated gestures of affection toward one another before the game,who don’t actually know one another, or even want to. “I hate being outon the floor wasting that time,” he said. “I used to try to talk topeople, but then I figured out no one actually liked me very much.”Instead of engaging in the pretense that these other professionalbasketball players actually know and like him, he slips away into thelocker room.

Shane Battier!

And up Shane Battier popped, to the howl of the largest crowd everto watch a basketball game at the Toyota Center in Houston, and jumpedplayfully into Yao Ming(the center “out of China”). Now, finally, came the best part of hisday, when he would be, oddly, most scrutinized and least understood.

Seldom are regular-season games in the N.B.A. easy to get worked up for. Yesterday Battier couldn’t tell me whom the team played three days before. (“The Knicks!”he exclaimed a minute later. “We played the Knicks!”) Tonight, thoughit was a midweek game in the middle of January, was different. Tonightthe Rockets were playing the Los Angeles Lakers, and so Battier would guard Kobe Bryant,the player he says is the most capable of humiliating him. Both Battierand the Rockets’ front office were familiar with the story line. “I’mcertain that Kobe is ready to just destroy Shane,” Daryl Morey, theRockets’ general manager, told me. “Because there’s been story afterstory about how Shane shut Kobe down the last time.” Last time wasMarch 16, 2008, when the Houston Rockets beat the Lakers to win their22nd game in a row ??? the second-longest streak in N.B.A. history. Thegame drew a huge national television audience, which followed Bryantfor his 47 miserable minutes: he shot 11 of 33 from the field andscored 24 points. “A lot of people watched,” Morey said. “Everyone??watches Kobe when the Lakers play. And so everyone saw Kobestruggling. And so for the first time they saw what we’d been seeing.”Battier has routinely ??guarded the league’s most dangerous offensiveplayers ??? LeBron James,Chris Paul, Paul Pierce ??? and has usually managed to render them, ifnot entirely ineffectual, then a lot less effectual than they normallyare. He has done it so quietly that no one really notices what exactlyhe is up to.

Last season, in a bid to draw some attention to Battier’s defense,the Rockets’ public-relations department would send a staff member tothe opponent’s locker room to ask leading questions of whicheversuperstar Battier had just hamstrung: “Why did you have so much troubletonight?” “Did he do something to disrupt your game?” According toBattier: “They usually say they had an off night. They think of me assome chump.” He senses that some players actually look forward to beingguarded by him. “No one dreads being guarded by me,” he said. Moreyconfirmed as much: “That’s actually true. But for two reasons: (a) Theydon’t think anyone can guard them and (b) they really scoff at thenotion Shane Battier could guard them. They allthink his reputation exceeds his ability.” Even as Battier was beingintroduced in the arena, Ahmad Rashad was wrapping up his pregamereport on NBA TV and saying, “Shane Battier will try to stop KobeBryant.” This caused the co-host Gary Payton to laugh and reply, “Ain’t gonna happen,” and the other co-host, Chris Webber, to add, “I think Kobe will score 50, and they’ll win by 19 going away.”

Early on, Hoop Scoop magazine named ShaneBattier the fourth-best seventh grader in the United States. When hegraduated from Detroit Country Day School in 1997, he received theNaismith Award as the best high-school basketball player in the nation.When he graduated from Duke in 2001, where he won a record-tying 131college-basketball games, including that year’s N.C.A.A.championship, he received another Naismith Award as the best collegebasketball player in the nation. He was drafted in the first round bythe woeful Memphis Grizzlies,not just a bad basketball team but the one with the worst winningpercentage in N.B.A. history ??? whereupon he was almost instantlydismissed, even by his own franchise, as a lesser talent. The yearafter Battier joined the Grizzlies, the team’s general manager wasfired and the N.B.A. legend Jerry West, a k a the Logo because hissilhouette is the official emblem of the N.B.A., took over the team.”From the minute Jerry West got there he was trying to trade me,”Battier says. If West didn’t have any takers, it was in part becauseBattier seemed limited: most of the other players on the court, andsome of the players on the bench, too, were more obviously gifted thanhe is. “He’s, at best, a marginal N.B.A. athlete,” Morey says.

The Grizzlies went from 23-59 in Battier’s rookie year to 50-32 inhis th
ird year, when they made the N.B.A. playoffs, as they did in eachof his final three seasons with the team. Before the 2006-7 season,Battier was traded to the Houston Rockets, who had just finished 34-48.In his first season with the Rockets, they finished 52-30, and then,last year, went 55-27 ??? including one stretch of 22 wins in a row. Onlythe 1971-2 Los Angeles Lakers have won more games consecutively in theN.B.A. And because of injuries, the Rockets played 11 of those 22 gameswithout their two acknowledged stars, Tracy McGradyand Yao Ming, on the court at the same time; the Rockets player whospent the most time actually playing for the Rockets during the streakwas Shane Battier. This year Battier, recovering from off-seasonsurgery to remove bone spurs from an ankle, has played in just overhalf of the Rockets’ games. That has only highlighted his importance.”This year,” Morey says, “we have been a championship team with him anda bubble playoff team without him.”

Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regardedinside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven bysuperstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired somemagical ability to win.

Solving the mystery is somewhere near the heart of Daryl Morey’sjob. In 2005, the Houston Rockets’ owner, Leslie Alexander, decided tohire new management for his losing team and went looking specificallyfor someone willing to rethink the game. “We now have all this data,”Alexander told me. “And we have computers that can analyze that data.And I wanted to use that data in a progressive way. When I hired Daryl,it was because I wanted somebody that was doing more than just lookingat players in the normal way. I mean, I’m not even sure we’re playingthe game the right way.”

The virus that infected professional baseball in the 1990s, the useof statistics to find new and better ways to value players andstrategies, has found its way into every major sport. Not justbasketball and football, but also soccer and cricketand rugby and, for all I know, snooker and darts ??? each one nowsupports a subculture of smart people who view it not just as a game tobe played but as a problem to be solved. Outcomes that seem, after thefact, all but inevitable ??? of course LeBron James hit that buzzerbeater, of course the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl??? are instead treated as a set of probabilities, even after the fact.The games are games of odds. Like professional card counters, themodern thinkers want to play the odds as efficiently as they can; butof course to play the odds efficiently they must first know the odds.Hence the new statistics, and the quest to acquire new data, and theintense interest in measuring the impact of every little thing a playerdoes on his team’s chances of winning. In its spirit of inquiry, thissubculture inside professional basketball is no different from thesubculture inside baseball or football or darts. The difference inbasketball is that it happens to be the sport that is most like life.

When Alexander, a Wall Street investor, bought the Rockets in 1993,the notion that basketball was awaiting some statistical reformationhadn’t occurred to anyone. At the time, Daryl Morey was at Northwestern University,trying to figure out how to get a job in professional sports andthinking about applying to business schools. He was tall and had playedhigh-school basketball, but otherwise he gave off a quizzical, geekyaura. “A lot of people who are into the new try to hide it,” he says.”With me there was no point.” In the third grade he stumbled upon thework of the baseball writer Bill James ??? the figure most responsiblefor the current upheaval in professional sports ??? and decided that whathe really wanted to do with his life was put Jamesian principles intopractice. He nursed this ambition through a fairly conventionalacademic career, which eventually took him to M.I.T.‘sSloan School of Management. There he opted for the entrepreneurialtrack, not because he actually wanted to be an entrepreneur but becausehe figured that the only way he would ever be allowed to run apro-sports franchise was to own one, and the only way he could imaginehaving enough money to buy one was to create some huge business. “Thisis the 1990s ??? there’s no Theo,” Morey says, referring to Theo Epstein,the statistics-minded general manager of the Boston Red Sox. “Sandy Alderson is progressive, but nobody knows it.” Sandy Alderson, then the general manager of the Oakland Athletics,had also read Bill James and begun to usher in the new age ofstatistical analysis in baseball. “So,” Morey continues, “I justassumed that getting rich was the only way in.” Apart from using it toacquire a pro-sports team, Morey had no exceptional interest in money.

He didn’t need great wealth, as it turned out. After graduating frombusiness school, he went to work for a consulting firm in Boston calledParthenon, where he was tapped in 2001 to advise a group trying to buythe Red Sox. The bid failed, but a related group went and bought the Celtics??? and hired Morey to help reorganize the business. In addition tofiguring out where to set ticket prices, Morey helped to find a newgeneral manager and new people looking for better ways to valuebasketball players. The Celtics improved. Leslie Alexander heardwhispers that Morey, who was 33, was out in front of those trying torethink the game, so he hired him to remake the Houston Rockets.

When Morey came to the Rockets, a huge chunk of the team’s allottedpayroll ??? the N.B.A. caps payrolls and taxes teams that exceed them ???was committed, for many years to come, to two superstars: Tracy??McGrady and Yao Ming. Morey had to find ways to improve the Rocketswithout spending money. “We couldn’t afford another superstar,” hesays, “so we went looking for nonsuperstars that we thought wereundervalued.” He went looking, essentially, for underpaid players.”That’s the scarce resource in the N.B.A.,” he says. “Not the superstarbut the undervalued player.” Sifting the population of midlevel N.B.A.players, he came up with a list of 15, near the top of which was theMemphis Grizzlies’ forward Shane Battier. This perplexed even the manwho hired Morey to rethink basketball. “All I knew was Shane’s stats,”Alexander says, “and obviously they weren’t great. He had to sell me.It was
hard for me to see it.”

Alexander wasn’t alone. It was, and is, far easier to spot whatBattier doesn’t do than what he does. His conventional statistics areunremarkable: he doesn’t score many points, snag many rebounds, blockmany shots, steal many balls or dish out many assists. On top of that,it is easy to see what he can never do: what points he scores tend tocome from jump shots taken immediately after receiving a pass. “That’sthe telltale sign of someone who can’t ramp up his offense,” Moreysays. “Because you can guard that shot with one player. And until youcan’t guard someone with one player, you really haven’t created anoffensive situation. Shane can’t create an offensive situation. Heneeds to be open.” For fun, Morey shows me video of a few rareinstances of Battier scoring when he hasn’t ??exactly been open. Somelarge percentage of them came when he was being guarded by an inferiordefender ??? whereupon Battier backed him down and tossed in a leftjump-hook. “This is probably, to be honest with you, his only offensivemove,” Morey says. “But look, see how he pump fakes.” Battier indeedpump faked, several times, before he shot over a defender. “He doesthat because he’s worried about his shot being blocked.” Battier’sweaknesses arise from physical limitations. Or, as Morey puts it, “Hecan’t dribble, he’s slow and hasn’t got much body control.”

Battier’s game is a weird combination ofobvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on thecourt, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponentsget worse ??? often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers ofrebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only themost efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball toteammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits fewturnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s mostprolific scorers, he significantly ??reduces their shooting percentages.At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of histeammates ??? probably, Morey surmises, by helping them out in all sortsof subtle ways. “I call him Lego,” Morey says. “When he’s on the court,all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads towinning that you can get to through intellect instead of innateability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile ofevery category.”

There are other things Morey has noticed too, but declines todiscuss as there is right now in pro basketball real value to newinformation, and the Rockets feel they have some. What he will say,however, is that the big challenge on any basketball court is tomeasure the right things. The five players on any basketball team arefar more than the sum of their parts; the Rockets devote a lot ofenergy to untangling subtle interactions among the team’s elements. Toget at this they need something that basketball hasn’t historicallysupplied: meaningful statistics. For most of its history basketball hasmeasured not so much what is important as what is easy to measure ???points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots ??? and thesemeasurements have warped perceptions of the game. (“Someone created thebox score,” Morey says, “and he should be shot.”) How many points aplayer scores, for example, is no true indication of how much he hashelped his team. Another example: if you want to know a player’s valueas a ??rebounder, you need to know not whether he got a rebound but thelikelihood of the team getting the rebound when a missed shot enters that player’s zone.

There is a tension, peculiar to basketball, between the interests ofthe team and the interests of the individual. The game continuallytempts the people who play it to do things that are not in the interestof the group. On the baseball field, it would be hard for a player tosacrifice his team’s interest for his own. Baseball is an individualsport masquerading as a team one: by doing what’s best for himself, theplayer nearly always also does what is best for his team. “There is noway to selfishly get across home plate,” as Morey puts it. “If insteadof there being a lineup, I could muscle my way to the plate and hitevery single time and damage the efficiency of the team ??? that would bethe analogy. Manny Ramirezcan’t take at-bats away from David Ortiz. We had a point guard inBoston who refused to pass the ball to a certain guy.” In football thecoach has so much control over who gets the ball that selfishness windsup being self-defeating. The players most famous for being selfish ???the Dallas Cowboys’ wide receiver Terrell Owens, for instance ??? are usually not so much selfish as attention seeking. Their sins tend to occur off the field.

It is in basketball where the problems are most likely to be in thegame ??? where the player, in his play, faces choices between maximizinghis own perceived self-interest and winning. The choices aresufficiently complex that there is a fair chance he doesn’t fully graspthat he is making them.

Taking a bad shot when you don’t need to is only the most obviousexample. A point guard might selfishly give up an open shot for anassist. You can see it happen every night, when he’s racing down courtfor an open layup, and instead of taking it, he passes it back to atrailing teammate. The teammate usually finishes with some sensationaldunk, but the likelihood of scoring nevertheless declined. “Themarginal assist is worth more money to the point guard than themarginal point,” Morey says. Blocked shots ??? they look great, butunless you secure the ball afterward, you haven’t helped your team allthat much. Players love the spectacle of a ball being swatted into thefifth row, and it becomes a matter of personal indifference that theother team still gets the ball back. Dikembe Mutombo,Houston’s 42-year-old backup center, famous for blocking shots, “hasalways been the best in the league in the recovery of the ball afterhis block,” says Morey, as he begins to make a case for Mutombo’sunselfishness before he stops and laughs. “But even to Dikembe there’sa selfish component. He made his name by doing the finger wag.” Thefinger wag: Mutombo swats the ball, grabs it, holds it against his hipand wags his finger at the opponent. Not in my house! “And if hedoesn’t catch the ball,” Morey says, “he can’t do the finger wag. Andhe loves the finger wag.” His team of course would be better off ifMutombo didn’t hold onto the ball long enough to do his finger wag.”We’ve had to yell at him: start the break, start the break ??? then doyour finger wag!”

When I ask Morey if he can think of any basketball statistic thatcan’t benefit a player at the expense of his team, he has to thinkhard. “Offensive rebounding,” he says, then reverses himself. “But eventhat can be counterproductive to the team if your job is to get back ondefense.” It turns out there is no statistic that a basketball playeraccumulates that cannot be amassed selfishly. “We think about thisdeeply whenever we’re talking about contractual incentives,” he says.”We don’t want to incent a guy to do things that hurt the team” ??? andthe amazing thing about basketball is how easy this is to do. “They allmaximize what they think they’re being paid for,” he says. He laughs.”It’s a tough environment for a player now because you have a lot ofteams starting to think differently. They’ve got to rethink how they’regetting paid.”

Having watched Battier play for the past two and a half years, Moreyhas come to think of him as an exception: the most abnor
mally unselfishbasketball player he has ever seen. Or rather, the player who seems onestep ahead of the analysts, helping the team in all sorts of subtle,hard-to-measure ways that appear to violate his own personal interests.”Our last coach dragged him into a meeting and told him he needed toshoot more,” Morey says. “I’m not sure that that ever happened.” Lastseason when the Rockets played the San Antonio SpursBattier was assigned to guard their most dangerous scorer, ManuGin??bili. Gin??bili comes off the bench, however, and his minutes arenot in sync with the minutes of a starter like Battier. Battierprivately went to Coach Rick Adelman and told him to bench him andbring him in when Gin??bili entered the game. “No one in the N.B.A. doesthat,” Morey says. “No one says put me on the bench so I can guardtheir best scorer all the time.”

One well-known statistic the Rockets’ front office pays attention tois plus-minus, which simply measures what happens to the score when anygiven player is on the court. In its crude form, plus-minus is hardlyperfect: a player who finds himself on the same team with the world’sfour best basketball players, and who plays only when they do, willhave a plus-minus that looks pretty good, even if it says little abouthis play. Morey says that he and his staff can adjust for thesepotential distortions ??? though he is coy about how they do it ??? andrender plus-minus a useful measure of a player’s effect on a basketballgame. A good player might be a plus 3 ??? that is, his team averages 3points more per game than its opponent when he is on the floor. In hisbest season, the superstar point guard Steve Nash was a plus 14.5. Atthe time of the Lakers game, Battier was a plus 10, which put him inthe company of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett,both perennial All-Stars. For his career he’s a plus 6. “Plus 6 isenormous,” Morey says. “It’s the difference between 41 wins and 60wins.” He names a few other players who were a plus 6 last season: Vince Carter, Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady.

As the game against the Lakers started, Moreytook his seat, on the aisle, nine rows behind the Rockets’ bench. Theodds, on this night, were not good. Houston was playing without itsinjured superstar, McGrady (who was in the clubhouse watching TV), andits injured best supporting actor, Ron Artest(cheering in street clothes from the bench). The Lakers were staffed byhousehold names. The only Rockets player on the floor with aconspicuous shoe contract was the center Yao Ming ??? who opened the gameby tipping the ball backward. Shane Battier began his game by grabbingit.

Before the Rockets traded for Battier, the front-office analystsobviously studied his value. They knew all sorts of details about hisefficiency and his ability to reduce the efficiency of his opponents.They knew, for example, that stars guarded by Battier suddenly losetheir shooting touch. What they didn’t know was why. Morey recognizedBattier’s effects, but he didn’t know how he achieved them. Two hundredor so basketball games later, he’s the world’s expert on the subject ???which he was studying all over again tonight. He pointed out how,instead of grabbing uncertainly for a rebound, for instance, Battierwould tip the ball more certainly to a teammate. Guarding a lesserrebounder, Battier would, when the ball was in the air, leave his ownman and block out the other team’s best rebounder. “Watch him,” aHouston front-office analyst told me before the game. “When the shotgoes up, he’ll go sit on Gasol’s knee.” (Pau Gasol often plays centerfor the Lakers.) On defense, it was as if Battier had set out tomaximize the misery Bryant experiences shooting a basketball, withouthaving his presence recorded in any box score. He blocked the ball whenBryant was taking it from his waist to his chin, for instance, ratherthan when it was far higher and Bryant was in the act of shooting.”When you watch him,” Morey says, “you see that his whole thing is tostay in front of guys and try to block the player’s vision when heshoots. We didn’t even notice what he was doing until he got here. Iwish we could say we did, but we didn’t.”

People often say that Kobe Bryant has no weaknesses to his game, butthat’s not really true. Before the game, Battier was given his specialpackage of information. “He’s the only player we give it to,” Moreysays. “We can give him this fire hose of data and let him sift. Mostplayers are like golfers. You don’t want them swinging while they’rethinking.” The data essentially broke down the floor into many discretezones and calculated the odds of Bryant making shots from differentplaces on the court, under different degrees of defensive pressure, indifferent relationships to other players ??? how well he scored offscreens, off pick-and-rolls, off catch-and-shoots and so on. Battierlearns a lot from studying the data on the superstars he is usuallyassigned to guard. For instance, the numbers show him that Allen Iversonis one of the most efficient scorers in the N.B.A. when he goes to hisright; when he goes to his left he kills his team. The Golden StateWarriors forward Stephen Jackson is an even stranger case. “SteveJackson,” Battier says, “is statistically better going to his right,but he loves to go to his left ??? and goesto his left almost twice as often.” The San Antonio Spurs’ ManuGin??bili is a statistical freak: he has no imbalance whatsoever in hisgame ??? there is no one way to play him that is better than another. Heis equally efficient both off the dribble and off the pass, going leftand right and from any spot on the floor.

Bryant isn’t like that. He is better at pretty much everything thaneveryone else, but there are places on the court, and starting pointsfor his shot, that render him less likely to help his team. When hedrives to the basket, he is exactly as likely to go to his left as tohis right, but when he goes to his left, he is less effective. When heshoots directly after receiving a pass, he is more efficient than whenhe shoots after dribbling. He’s deadly if he gets into the lane andalso if he gets to the baseline; between the two, less so. “Theabsolute worst thing to do,” Battier says, “is to foul him.” It isn’tthat Bryant is an especially good free-throw shooter but that, as Moreyputs it, “the foul is the worst result of a defensive play.” One waythe Rockets can see which teams think about the game as they do is byidentifying those that “try dramatically not to foul.” The idealoutcome, from the Rockets’ statistical point of view, is for Bryant todribble left and pull up for an 18-foot jump shot; force that to happenoften enough and you have to be satisfied with your night. “If he has40 points on 40 shots, I can live with that,” Battier says. “My job isnot to keep him from scoring points but to make him as inefficient aspossible.” The court doesn’t have little squares all over it to tellhim what percentage Bryant is likely to shoot from any given spo
t, butit might as well.

The reason the Rockets insist that Battier guard Bryant is his giftfor encouraging him into his zones of lowest efficiency. The effect ofdoing this is astonishing: Bryant doesn’t merely help his team lesswhen Battier guards him than when someone else does. When Bryant is inthe game and Battier is on him, the Lakers’ offense is worse than ifthe N.B.A.’s best player had taken the night off. “The Lakers’ offenseshould obviously be better with Kobe in,” Morey says. “But if Shane ison him, it isn’t.” A player whom Morey describes as “a marginal N.B.A.athlete” not only guards one of the greatest ??? and smartest ??? offensivethreats ever to play the game. He renders him a detriment to his team.

And if you knew none of this, you would never guess any of it fromwatching the game. Bryant was quicker than Battier, so the latter spentmuch of his time chasing around after him, Keystone Cops-like. Bryantshot early and often, but he looked pretty good from everywhere. Ondefense, Battier talked to his teammates a lot more than anyone else onthe court, but from the stands it was hard to see any point to this.And yet, he swears, there’s a reason to almost all of it: when hedecides where to be on the court and what angles to take, he isconstantly reminding himself of the odds on the stack of papers he readthrough an hour earlier as his feet soaked in the whirlpool. “Thenumbers either refute my thinking or support my thinking,” he says,”and when there’s any question, I trust the numbers. The numbers don’tlie.” Even when the numbers agree with his intuitions, they have aneffect. “It’s a subtle difference,” Morey says, “but it has bigimplications. If you have an intuition of something but no hardevidence to back it up, you might kind of sort of go about putting that intuition into practice, because there’s still some uncertainty if it’s right or wrong.”

Knowing the odds, Battier can pursue an inherently uncertainstrategy with total certainty. He can devote himself to a process anddisregard the outcome of any given encounter. This is critical becausein basketball, as in everything else, luck plays a role, and Battiercannot afford to let it distract him. Only once during the Lakers gamedid we glimpse a clean, satisfying comparison of the efficient strategyand the inefficient one ??? that is, an outcome that reflected the odds.Ten feet from the hoop, Bryant got the ball with his back to thebasket; with Battier pressing against him, he fell back and missed a12-foot shot off the front of the rim. Moments earlier, with Battierreclining in the deep soft chair that masquerades as an N.B.A. bench,his teammate Brent Barry found himself in an analogous position. Bryantleaned into Barry, hit a six-foot shot and drew a foul. But this wasthe exception; normally you don’t get perfect comparisons. You couldn’tsee the odds shifting subtly away from the Lakers and toward theRockets as Bryant was forced from 6 feet out to 12 feet from thebasket, or when he had Battier’s hand in his eyes. All you saw were thestatistics on the board, and as the seconds ticked off to halftime, thegame tied 54-54, Bryant led all scorers with 16 points.

But he required 20 possessions to get them. And he had startedmoaning to the referees. Bryant is one of the great jawboners in thehistory of the N.B.A. A major-league baseball player once showed me aslow-motion replay of the Yankees‘third baseman Alex Rodriguez in the batter’s box. Glancing back to seewhere the catcher has set up is not strictly against baseball’s rules,but it violates the code. A hitter who does it is likely to find thenext pitch aimed in the general direction of his eyes. A-Rod, the besthitter in baseball, mastered the art of glancing back by moving not hishead, but his eyes, at just the right time. It was like watching abillionaire find some trivial and dubious deduction to take on his taxreturns. Why bother? I thought, and then realized: this is the instinctthat separates A-Rod from mere stars. Kobe Bryant has the sameinstinct. Tonight Bryant complained that Battier was grabbing hisjersey, Battier was pushing when no one was looking, Battier wascommitting crimes against humanity. Just before the half ended, Battiertook a referee aside and said: “You and I both know Kobe does this allthe time. I’m playing him honest. Don’t fall for his stuff.” Momentslater, after failing to get a call, Bryant hurled the ball, screamed atthe ref and was whistled for a technical foul.

Just after that, the half ended, but not before Battier was temptedby a tiny act of basketball selfishness. The Rockets’ front office haspicked up a glitch in Battier’s philanthropic approach to the game: inthe final second of any quarter, finding himself with the ball and onthe wrong side of the half-court line, Battier refuses to heave ithonestly at the basket, in an improbable but not impossible attempt toscore. He heaves it disingenuously, and a millisecond after the buzzersounds. Daryl Morey could think of only one explanation: a miss lowersBattier’s shooting percentage. “I tell him we don’t count heaves in ourstats,” Morey says, “but Shane’s smart enough to know that his nextteam might not be smart enough to take the heaves out.”

Tonight, the ball landed in Battier’s hands milliseconds before thehalf finished. He moved just slowly enough for the buzzer to sound,heaved the ball the length of the floor and then sprinted to the lockerroom ??? having not taken a single shot.

In 1996 a young writer for The BasketballTimes named Dan Wetzel thought it might be neat to move into the lifeof a star high-school basketball ??player and watch up close as big-timebasketball colleges recruited him. He picked Shane Battier, and thenspent five months trailing him, with growing incredulity. “I’d coveredhigh-school basketball for eight years and talked to hundreds andhundreds and hundreds of kids ??? really every single prominenthigh-school basketball player in the country,” Wetzel says. “There’sthis public perception that they’re all thugs. But they aren’t. A lotof them are really good guys, and some of them are very, very bright.Kobe’s very bright. LeBron’s very bright. But there’s absolutely neverbeen anything like Shane Battier.”

Wetzel watched this kid, inundated with offers of every kind, takecharge of an unprincipled process. Battier narrowed his choices to sixschools ??? Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan and Michigan State??? and told everyone else, politely, to leave him be. He then set out tominimize the degree to which the chosen schools could interfere withhis studies; he had a 3.96 G.P.A. and was poised to claim DetroitCountry Day School’s headmaster’s cup for best all-around student. Hegranted each head coach a weekly 15-minute window in which to phonehim. These men happened to be among the most famous basketball coachesin the world and the most persistent recruiters, but Battier granted noexceptions. When the Kentucky coach Rick Pitino,who had just won a national championship, tried to call Battier outsidehis assigned time, Battier simply removed Kentucky from his list. “What17-year-old has the stones to do that?” Wetzel asks. “To just cut offRick Pitino because he calls outside his window?” Wetzel answers hisown question: “It wasn’t like, ‘This is a really interesting17-year-old.’ It was like, ‘This isn’t real.’ “

Battier, even as a teenager, was as shrewd as he was disciplined.The minute he figured out where he was headed, he called a sensationalhigh-school power forward in Peekskill, N.Y., named Elton Brand ??? and talked him into joining him at Duke. (Brand now plays for the Philadelphia 76ers.) “I thought he’d be the first black president,” Wetzel says. “He was Barack Obama before Barack Obama.”

Last July, as we sat in the library of the Detroit Country DaySchool, watching, or trying to watch, his March 2008 performanceagainst Kobe Bryant, Battier was much happier instead talking aboutObama, both of whose books he had read. (“The first was better than thesecond,” he said.) He said he hated watching himself play, then provedit by refusing to watch himself play. My every attempt to draw hisattention to the action on the video monitor was met by somedistraction.

I pointed to his footwork; he pointed to a gorgeous young woman inthe stands wearing a ??Battier jersey. (“You don’t see too manygood-looking girls with Battier jerseys on,” he said. “It’s usually 12and under or 60 and over. That’s my demographic.”) I noted the uncannyway in which he got his hand right in front of Bryant’s eyes before ashot; he motioned to his old high school library (“I came in here everyday before classes”). He took my excessive interest in this one game asproof of a certain lack of imagination, I’m pretty sure. “I’ve beendoing the same thing for seven years,” he said, “and this is the onlygame anyone wants to talk about. It’s like, Oh, you can play defense?”It grew clear that one reason he didn’t particularly care to watchhimself play, apart from the tedium of it, was that he plays the gameso self-consciously. Unable to count on the game to properly measurehis performance, he learned to do so himself. He had, in some sense,already seen the video. When I finally compelled him to watch, he wasknocking the ball out of Bryant’s hands as Bryant raised it from hiswaist to his chin. “If I get to be commissioner, that will count as ablocked shot,” Battier said. “But it’s nothing. They don’t count it asa blocked shot. I do that at least 30 times a season.”

In the statistically insignificant sample of professional athletesI’ve come to know a bit, two patterns have emerged. The first is, theytell you meaningful things only when you talk to them in places otherthan where they have been trained to answer questions. It’s pointless,for instance, to ask a basketball player about himself inside hislocker room. For a start, he is naked; for another, he’s surrounded bythe people he has learned to mistrust, his own teammates. The secondpattern is the fact that seemingly trivial events in their childhoodshave had huge influence on their careers. A cleanup hitter lives anddies by a swing he perfected when he was 7; a quarterback has a hitchin his throwing motion because he imitated his father. Here, in theDetroit Country Day School library, a few yards from the gym, Battierwas back where he became a basketball player. And he was far lessinterested in what happened between him and Kobe Bryant four months agothan what happened when he was 12.

When he entered Detroit Country Day in seventh grade, he was alreadyconspicuous at 6-foot-4, and a year later he would be 6-foot-7.”Growing up tall was something I got used to,” he said. “I was the kidabout whom they always said, ‘Check his birth certificate.’ ” He wasalso the only kid in school with a black father and a white mother.Oddly enough, the school had just graduated a famous black basketballplayer, Chris Webber. Webber won three state championships and wasnamed national high-school player of the year. “Chris was a man-child,”says his high school basketball coach, Kurt Keener. “Everyone wantedShane to be the next Chris Webber, but Shane wasn’t like that.” Battierhad never heard of Webber and didn’t understand why, when he took tothe Amateur Athletic Union circuit and played with black inner-citykids, he found himself compared unfavorably with Webber: “I kepthearing ‘He’s too soft’ or ‘He’s not an athlete.’ ” His high-schoolcoach was aware of the problems he had when he moved from whitehigh-school games to the black A.A.U. circuit. “I remember trying toadd some flair to his game,” Keener says, “but it was like teaching aclassical dancer to do hip-hop. I came to the conclusion he didn’t havethe ego for it.”

Battier was half-white and half-black, but basketball, it seemed,was either black or white. A small library of Ph.D. theses mightusefully be devoted to the reasons for this. For instance, is it acoincidence that many of the things a player does in white basketballto prove his character ??? take a charge, scramble for a loose ball ??? aremore pleasantly done on a polished wooden floor than they are oninner-city asphalt? Is it easier to “play for the team” when that teamis part of some larger institution? At any rate, the inner-city kidswith whom he played on the A.A.U. circuit treated Battier like asuburban kid with a white game, and the suburban kids he played withduring the regular season treated him like a visitor from the planetwhere they kept the black people. “On Martin Luther KingDay, everyone in class would look at me like I was supposed to know whohe was and why he was important,” Battier said. “When we had anofficial school picture, every other kid was given a comb. I was theonly one given a pick.” He was awkward and shy, or as he put it: “Ididn’t present well. But I’m in the eighth grade! I’m just trying tofit in!” And yet here he was shuttling between a black world thattreated him as white and a white world that treated him as black. ‘‘EverythingI’ve done since then is because of what I went through with this,” hesaid. “What I did is alienate myself from everybody. I’d eat lunch bymyself. I’d study by myself. And I sort of lost myself in the game.”

Losing himself in the game meant fitting into the game, and fittinginto the game meant meshing so well that he became hard to see. In highschool he was almost always the best player on the court, but even thenhe didn’t embrace the starring role. “He had a tendency to defer,”Keener says. “He had this incredible ability to make everyone aroundhim better. But I had to tell him to be more assertive. The one game welost his freshman year, it was because he deferred to the seniors.”Even when he was clearly the best player and could have shot the ballat will, he was more interested in his role in the larger unit. But itis a mistake to see in his detachment from self an absence of ego, orambition, or even desire for attention. When Battier finished tellingme the story of this unpleasant period in his life, he said: “ChrisWebber won three state championships, the Mr. Basketball Award and theNaismith Award. I won three state championships, Mr. Basketball and theNaismith Awards. All the things they said I wasn’t able to do, when Iwas in the eighth grade.”

“Who’s they?” I asked.

“Pretty much everyone,” he said.

“White people?”

“No,” he said. “The street.”

As the third quarter began, Battier’s faceappeared overhead, on the Jumbotron, where he hammed it up and exhortedthe crowd. Throughout the game he was up on the thing more than anyother player: plugging teeth-whitening formulas, praising localjewelers, ma

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