Sunday, February 15, 2009

Love and basketball

A few years ago, I spent way too many evenings staying up way too late, and drinking way too much. Fortunately, most of my friends also spent their evenings the same way, and quite often I would spend the wee hours of the morning chatting with a friend about, well, life. Quarter-life funks were all the rage back then (perhaps it still is), and our conversations would invariably turn to issues at work. After a particularly rough evening, I found myself trying to find words to make her feel better about the job she was doing, which isn't really a good idea after six (or seven, or eight) beers.

"In basketball," I told her, "there's the glue guy. There's this guy on the Rockets, Shane Battier, who's the reason for their resurgence. He's not a superstar, he doesn't score the most points, he doesn't hit any fancy shots, no dunks, no highlights for him on ESPN. And yet, anyone who knew anything about basketball would know just how important he is to the team; they don't win without him. To the team, he's just as essential as the superstars who grab the headlines."

"Do you have a point?"

"My point is, on your team, you're the glue guy. You might not get any of the headlines, but you're the one makes things happen. You're the one who always knows what to do when issues come up. You're the one everyone could turn to when they hit a snag. And you never lose your cool at the heat of the moment; you remain calm and everyone else draws from that. And I guess you just let it all out when we go out drinking afterwards, like, you know, now."

She took a puff, and sighed. I wasn't sure at that point if she was still listening to me. She probably wasn't. I continued.

"See, the thing is, you're just as important as anyone else on your team. And everyone who knows about what you do would--should--know how much you mean to everyone. And I'm sure everyone appreciates you. Everyone sees that. I see that."

Obviously, there are a couple of things to take away from this: (1) alcohol really does kill your brain cells; and, (2) comparing women to 6-8 NBA forwards with weird hairlines is never a good idea.

But I was reminded of this episode in my life because of an article about Battier in this weekend's New York Times magazine. The lengthy piece was written by Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, which chronicled one team's use of statistical tools to run a baseball team, and which ended up revolutionizing how most teams in Major League Baseball are run.

The story examines Battier's impact on the Rockets, whose GM Daryl Morey is one of the proponents of the use of objective metrics for basketball analysis. Why is Battier, with his marginal stats and limited offensive game, just as important to his team as an all-world superstar like Yao Ming?

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. Only the 1971-2 Los Angeles Lakers have won more games consecutively in the N.B.A. And because of injuries, the Rockets played 11 of those 22 games without their two acknowledged stars, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, on the court at the same time; the Rockets player who spent the most time actually playing for the Rockets during the streak was Shane Battier. This year Battier, recovering from off-season surgery to remove bone spurs from an ankle, has played in just over half of the Rockets’ games. That has only highlighted his importance. “This year,” Morey says, “we have been a championship team with him and a bubble playoff team without him.”

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

Of course, this is part of my original thesis in the tragic comparison I mentioned above. Any smart basketball fan of course would know just how important players like Battier are. (Dumb basketball fans, on the other hand, just root for Kobe Bryant.)

But anyway, you should read the Michael Lewis article if you are: (a) any kind of basketball fan, because it details not just why, but how, Battier makes himself so important to his team (i.e. while guarding a bad rebounder, he gravitates to Lakers' center Pau Gasol to help his teammates block out, a move that is never reflected on the box score); (b) you're the girl mentioned in the anecdote above, if you still read this blog; or, (c) you have friends who are prone to bring up basketball analogies in the wee hours of the morning after late night drinking sessions.



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