Can Michael Lewis' Shane Battier article make me a better pickup basketball player?

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Feb. 24 2009 5:10 PM

Going Battier

Can Michael Lewis' latest article make me a better pickup basketball player?

Shane Battier. Click image to expand.
Shane Battier

Shane Battier, the ex-Duke star turned Houston Rockets utility man, is not the kind of basketball player who inspires much passion among fans. He's not flashy, and he's not a scorer—he's averaged 10.1 points per game over his pro career. Yet last week Battier appeared in a heroic pose on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, the subject of Michael Lewis' latest inquiry into the world of sport. Lewis posits that Battier, far from being the marginally talented player you thought he was, is actually an unsung hero, a "no-stats all-star," making teams better every time he steps onto the court through preparation, selflessness, and a devotion to defense. Lewis holds up young Rockets GM Daryl Morey as a new breed of basketball exec—one who embraces hard data and finds undervalued players that traditional statistics don't identify. Players like Shane Battier.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor, co-host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

Now, the idea of Michael Lewis writing about a sports exec who's found a new numbers-driven paradigm in player evaluation might sound familiar. (Deadspin immediately dubbed the piece "Moneyball: NBA Edition.") But for sports fans of marginal athletic ability, Lewis' writing about basketball is thrilling: finally, a sabermetric revolution that can improve my middle-aged suburban sporting life!

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Reading Moneyballmight help you understand why the Red Sox finally won a World Series, but it won't help you in your company softball game. How are you supposed to draw a lot of walks when your league doesn't even have walks (or, for that matter, umpires)? And while Lewis' 2006 New York Times Magazine article about offensive lineman Michael Oher gave me newfound admiration for the left tackle—quietly the most important man on an NFL field—there's no such thing as a left tackle in flag football.

Yet reading Lewis' piece on the NBA, I realized with growing excitement that my game is exactly like Shane Battier's. Morey, Battier's own GM, describes Battier as "a marginal NBA athlete." Hey, I'm a marginal athlete. Morey notes that Battier can't create his own shot. I can't create my own shot! Morey says Battier "can't dribble, he's slow and hasn't got much body control." Check, check, and check!

Like Battier, I pride myself on doing the little, unflashy things that help my team win—the screens, the bounce passes, and the hard-nosed defense praised by sportswriters (and derided by playgrounders) as "fundamentally sound." Like Battier, I think of myself as being, well, smart (smart enough to read the New York Times Magazine, anyway). Finally, I have an NBA-approved model to base my game on!

Armed with real data and the Michael Lewis imprimatur, I took the court in my weekly pickup game in a church gym in Arlington, Va., with a new mantra: What Would Shane Battier Do? No longer did my Rec Specs-brand prescription goggles suggest unathletic gooniness ("When I saw those, I thought you might be able to shoot the 3, but I was wrong," a teenager once told me); now they simply meant that I could outthink my opponents, even if I couldn't outplay them.

Battier had given me the courage to play the way marginal athletes should always play basketball: hustling, focusing on defense, and rarely, if ever, shooting. I confidently volunteered to guard Jackson, the opposing team's best player, just as Shane Battier volunteers to guard Kobe Bryant in Lewis' article. I fought through screens to stick with my man, like Shane Battier. I attempted to strip Jackson as he brought the ball up from his waist, like Shane Battier. I tried to force Jackson into taking bad shots and got a hand right up in his face, just like Shane Battier. On offense, I didn't shoot much; I just tried to box out and collect as many cheap rebounds as I could.

And it worked—at least at first. On the opposing team's first possession, I forced Jackson to his left, kept him out of the lane, and got a hand in his face as he shot a jumper on the run. Clang! I tipped the rebound to one of our big men and grinned as the other guys on my team ran the break, scoring at the other end. Watching superior athletes score: That's what Shane Battier would do!

Not long into the game, however, I got really tired. I became too winded to hustle, and my once crisp passes turned lazy and inaccurate. One difference between myself and Shane Battier, it occurred to me, is that he is 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, whereas I am 5-foot-9 and ... uh ... not quite 220 pounds. Playing like Shane Battier may not require finesse, but it does require stamina, and here may lie the limit of his influence on the pickup-playing, Times Magazine-reading people of America. It was slim consolation for my teammates—after Jackson hit, yes, a lefty runner to win the game—that in Lewis' article, Kobe drains a game-winning 3 over Battier. (Even low-percentage shots go in sometimes.)

Hopefully, Michael Lewis' inevitable best-selling book (Battierball?) will identify a few more skills I can work on in my effort to be a no-stat all-star. (Skills that don't involve running would be most welcome.) I suppose, in the meantime, I could hire a couple of grad students to haul video cameras into the church gym on Tuesday nights and chart my opponents' offensive tendencies, but it's possible that would be frowned upon by the dudes in my league. And to be honest, my Battier-inspired style of play was just a Duke-style floor-slap short of being supremely annoying to my opponents already. On the other hand, maybe you can't play Battierball and be loved: The anti-social Battier himself notes that pretty much nobody in the NBA likes him.

Lewis' article mentions a secret list Morey keeps of 15 undervalued NBA players—that is, 15 other Shane Battiers. Hopefully Battierball will identify some of those guys; I'd love to model my pickup game on a player I didn't derisively call "Shane Raisinhead" throughout his college years. Bruce Bowen? Andrew Bogut? Or perhaps I should cast my mind back in time, to the Shane Battiers of bygone days, players who never scored but who were essential pieces of all-time great NBA teams. Maybe I'll buy this sweet Kurt Rambis throwback. It'll look great with my Rec Specs.

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