Blog Post

Shane Battier, Collaboration, and Your Brain on the Internet

Michael Lewis has written a wonderful, in-depth, and very long piece for the New York Times on Shane Battier called "The No-Stats All-Star" in which he is trying to understand why a basketball player with no particularly great stats is responsible for great wins. And also for making the great player he is defending against have an "off day." It is an extremely thoughtful re-examination of what isn't counted and its importance. This is a major theme of my "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" course and we are often taking common situations and asking, "What if we reverse it? What is we assume x isn't the 'main thing.' If not, then what is?" Our argument is that repeated behavior (i.e. learning) focuses our attention and helps us predict how to act such that many things become automatic. And that's the problem. Once automatic, we stop seeing what else there is. So our class is about constantly asking "what else" and proposes the HASTAC model of "collaboration by difference" precisely as the interdisciplinary answer to the disciplinary blindspots that professionalize us and also make us incapable of seeing what we are missing.

 

Shane Battier has an ability to see what other people are missing. And to understand how groups work in certain patterns and behaviors that they are not aware of. He is aware. He sees the pattern, predicts the next behavior, anticipates and prevents. And his unsuspecting opponent then has an "off" night. And doesn't know why. Shane sees not just the action or the play or even the intangible known as "that night's game" (and all its variables) but deeper patterns of performance and interaction that we do not have ways of measuring but that he is especially good at either supporting (among his own teammates) or disrupting (when it is his opponents).

 

Personal anecdote here: when we opened the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, a wonderful collaborative and cooperative space in honor of the great historian and civil rights intellectual John Hope Franklin, we invited the entire community to be part of the event. Shane Battier was an top, honors student then, a Religion major studying comparative histories of religion. His profs all remarked on his uncommon thoughtfulness, depth, analytical mind, but also his good humor and humility. My office had a call from Shane before the opening of the Franklin Center. He wanted to be there to be part of the honor to this great man . . . but he knew his appearance there would cause a stir (he was adored at Duke) and he didn't want to detract in any way from this special day for John Hope. How many twenty-year-olds have such a sense of themselves, of others, of history, of place, that they would ask such a question? And, to finish this story that is a bit off the point now, but I love telling it, for John Hope's part, when we asked him, he laughed and said, quite characteristically of his humor and wisdom, "I don't mind sharing with Shane!" A very young man and a man in his eighties, then, each with a similarly singular sense of history, purpose, and perspective.

 

How do you measure that greater sense statistically? We have no metric for this form of social, group, interactive canniness.  Yet, when I read this NY Times article, the quality I'm recognizing in this description of Shane Battier is that considerate and wise-beyond-his-years young undergrad student who understands a larger, subtle, social, human dynamics in such a way that he can make you have a "bad day" or a good one. For if you watch him on the court, he is also constantly feeding into his teammates at just the right time. And with just the right attitude.   It's never about him, but about what he can do to make the larger situation better.  Here's the url for Michael Lewis's article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/magazine/15Battier-t.html?emc=eta1

I suspect that the "concept" of Shane Battier as a no-stats giant is going to start changing how ballplayers are evaluated. I know memorizing stats is one of the features of sports that sports-lovers lover. I mean, why bother if you can't rattle off the numbers? But I am also sure that this indefinable quality is actually a greater contributor to success or failure of the teams on which one plays than the stats. Most great players have both, of course, but this "extra something" about Shane may well be the reason why so many talented ballplayers don't go anywhere in the pros or are never on a winning team, while others are.

 

It's more than the stats. It's more than what we can measure.  When all is said and done, there's no way to measure everything that makes a winner.

 

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Special thanks to the Flickr community member for posting this photograph of Shane Battier. If you click on the image, you will find complete documentation and more of the photostream.

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