Who Deserves More Credit? Shane Battier. That’s Who.

Basketball player Shane Battier.
Image via Wikipedia

When I asked my husband who deserves more credit than they’re getting*, he answered like he usually does: tangentially.

He told me about an article by Michael Lewis (“The No-Stats All-Star” from The New York Times, Feb 13, 2009) that he read almost two years ago about how Shane Battier defies all of the NBA’s statistical analyses and makes the teams he’s on into winning teams.

I’ll pause for a second here to mention how thrilled I was to actually know who my husband was talking about. My husband was in grad school at Duke while Shane Battier was playing for the Blue Devils. So, I knew the name, and I knew that I had seen him play (even if I didn’t remember the actual games).

Back to Shane Battier. Lewis writes:

“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.”

When Battier defends superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James (sorry for mentioning his name, Clevelanders), the superstars don’t perform as well as when Battier doesn’t defend them. Bryant and James, when asked why they didn’t do as well when Battier was defending them, say they had an off game. Battier largely does not get credit for his role in decreasing the effectiveness of these all-stars. His own numbers don’t look great, and he’s largely dismissed as a so-so player. But when he’s on the court, his team is more likely to win than when he’s on the bench.

Battier’s not the only one who plays this kind of roll, neither is basketball the only place this kind of under-the-radar assistance makes a huge difference.

Think of a bee hive. The one we always think about is the queen bee. She’s the only one who can reproduce. She’s the biggest and the one that the whole hive revolves around and protects. But if it weren’t for the thousands of worker bees, she’d be nothing. She doesn’t produce honey and doesn’t even care for her own young. But she stands out and the others don’t.

So, what would need to happen to get the worker bees and Shane Battiers more recognition? I think it would require a more collectivist attitude in our culture. We tend to think only of the people who are most visible in a success story. If someone has a serious illness and his life is saved by a medication his doctor prescribes, the doctor is the hero. The doctor saved the person’s life. But what role did the doctor really play? She maybe identified the illness and chose the proper drug to treat it. But did she develop the drug? Does she even know how the drug works, or was she simply acting on the information in the literature the pharmaceutical rep brought her along with lunch the week before? Who knows?

But you know who for sure knows how that drug works and why it’s the best choice for this particular patient? The scientists who developed it. But they’re not heroes because they’re not on the front lines. They are also, by and large, humble about their role in helping people. They see how many pieces must fit together to make it all work, and most I’ve met are hesitant to take too much personal credit for successes. But without them, the doctor couldn’t do much for her patients beyond bloodletting and sugar pills. Even surgery is dependent upon the discoveries made by scientists (the success rate of surgery was not really great until the development of antibiotics).

Back to Lewis’ article about Shane Battier:

“Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates…”

In order to recognize the contributions of the Shane Battiers in whatever field, we need to have more of a sense of the origins of things. We’d need to be more mindful and aware of how the world around us works. We would have to look past the dramatic surface story to the deep and nuanced story behind the story.

But should we give more recognition to these unsung heroes? In Lewis’ article, he writes about Battier’s social struggles in middle school and high school. He was very tall for his age (6-foot-4 in seventh grade). His father was black and his mother was white, which left him in between two worlds racially. He kept to himself a lot, sat alone at lunch, and lost himself in basketball. As Lewis writes, “Losing himself in the game meant fitting into the game, and fitting into the game meant meshing so well that he became hard to see.”

Is the success of someone like Shane Battier dependent on their being invisible? If we brought the glare of attention and the full recognition that someone like Battier deserves, would he cease to be so effective? If every time someone took a medication that saved his life, he asked to shake the hand of each scientist who’d developed it, would those scientists still be able to do the work necessary to make life-saving medications?

Battier is described by some as the most unselfish player in the NBA. Maybe the only way we can have superstars is to have a whole host of unselfish people behind them. The person at the top of her field has most likely done lots of hard work to get there. But it’s not just her work that got her there. If a person’s hard work launches them into the spotlight, is that work more worthy of praise than the hard work of someone who remains in the shadows?

They used to always say, “Behind every great man is a woman.” This reduces the issue to a matter of gender roles, but I think the idea is still apt: In order for someone to rise to the top of any field, she must first be propped up by people who may never be in the spotlight.

Not everyone can be illuminated by the light of fame and adulation. Contrary to what we as Americans like to think, hard work alone won’t lead you to fame and fortune. No one is 100% self-made. If all of us were focused exclusively on getting into the light, no one ever could. As a society, we need the unselfish people who remain in the shadows, content to see their hard work in the success of those around them.

But as a stay-at-home mom, I may be a little biased.

*I asked my husband this question because it was the prompt from today’s The Daily Post, and I found it thought-provoking enough to blog about. Also note that I don’t follow basketball, so perhaps things have changed to such a degree in the intervening years since this article came out that Shane Battier is no longer an enigma and/or is no longer under-appreciated. I think my point still stands even if this is the case.

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