In his current role as vice president of basketball and analytics for the Miami Heat, Shane Battier is performing off the court in much the same way he did on it for so many years — doing all the little, unnoticed things that enabled every team he played on to win, from grade school to college to the NBA.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be dangerous in the data world,” he says sheepishly, “but I have some really smart young guys who really know the drill, and it’s been fun teaching them the game and learning more about the game through data.”
Typical Battier. Deflecting praise, deferring at all times to his teammates and bringing immediately to mind an insightful story renowned author Michael Lewis wrote about him during his NBA career. Entitled “The No-Stats All Star,” Lewis described Battier as “a basketball mystery: a player who is widely regarded inside the NBA 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.”
Indeed. Battier won two consecutive championships with the Heat, the pinnacle of a 13-year NBA career following four years at Duke University, where he was part of a team that won a record-tying 131 games. He wrapped up his career with the Blue Devils as a key player on the team that won the NCAA championship in 2001. At Detroit Country Day in Beverly Hills, he won the Naismith Award as the country’s best high school basketball player while graduating with a 3.96 GPA and winning the headmaster’s cup as best all-around student.
All of which makes one wonder what was in the water at the Battier house on Yorkshire Road in Birmingham, where Shane grew up with his two brothers and two sisters, and parents who were doting but demanding.
“We were a highly competitive family,” Battier recalls. “I have amazing memories of a really good childhood and a great neighborhood with lots of kids. We loved sports and we played all four seasons, but my parents were huge on education, huge on reading, huge on community, giving back, helping people. They always kept me super grounded and gave me (the) perspective that there’s way more to life than just basketball.”
Sandee Battier left a career as an executive assistant to focus all her energy and attention on her five kids. “She left to make sure we stayed out of trouble,” Battier says affectionately, adding, “Mama Bear.”
Ed Battier ran Michigan Metal Transport, a steel logistics company, in Wayne. “He had a long commute,” Battier says, “but he took me and my brother to school every morning. His job probably wasn’t the most glamorous, but it allowed him to get off early and always coach us, and (he) never, ever missed a game, along with Mom.”
The Battiers encouraged their kids to experience a wide variety of sports and activities. “Kickball one day, kick the can the next, then basketball and sandlot baseball,” Battier says. “We played capture the flag and made up a bunch of games, and then when the street lights came on it was time to go home. It was a very special time for me.”
Battier dreamed about a career as a pro athlete, but not playing basketball.
“To be honest with you, I thought I was going to be a major league pitcher and play for the Tigers,” Battier says, laughing. “I was a good basketball player, obviously, but I was a really good baseball player. My dad, Big Ed, was always the coach, and I think we had only one or two years we didn’t win the city championship. I think I had the home run and strikeout record for a long time.”
Then Battier started to grow. A lot. “I was 6 feet when I was 12, and 6-4 when I was 13, in seventh grade,” he recalls. “By eighth grade I was 6-7 and I said, ‘Yeah, maybe this basketball thing is the ticket here.’ ”
He was a standout at Birmingham’s Harlan Elementary in fourth and fifth grade, and then at Derby Middle School for sixth grade — and not just because of his size, which finally peaked at 6-8 by the time he turned 14.
“I had the fortune of being different growing up,” he says, “because I was mixed — my dad’s black, my mom’s white, and I was tall. I was always different. So everywhere I went, I sort of stuck out like a sore thumb. That’s hard when you’re in first grade and you want to be like everybody else. Where I found refuge was at the kickball lot, on the basketball court, and the baseball sandlot. I found that when I helped people win and I helped my friends win, especially, people loved me and they wanted me around.
“I learned to hone my competitive spirit at Pembroke Park or in the driveways of my friends,” he continues. “I was always the youngest kid; my buddies were three or four years older than me, but I looked like I was four years older, so I played against older kids in basketball, tackle football, and baseball. That made me grow up a lot quicker in sports, and it was a huge advantage for me once I started to play with kids my age.”
At Duke, Battier’s reputation as a doggedly tenacious defender was forever sealed thanks to his willingness — even eagerness — to throw his body in the way of opponents as they drove to the basket. He took endless charges, often crashing to the floor as a result.
“That’s Detroit,” he says, with a matter-of-fact chuckle. “I think that’s the true Detroit mentality, and it’s been the hallmark my entire basketball career. It’s a tough sport, and I used to laugh (because) people saw I was from Birmingham and went to Country Day, and they had a certain depiction of who I was and what I was about. But after playing against me, they felt the Detroit in me.”
By the time Battier left Duke in 2001 he’d not only added that NCAA title to his resume, but he’d won yet another Naismith Award — this time as the nation’s best college basketball player. Taken sixth overall in that year’s first round of the NBA draft by the woeful Memphis Grizzlies, his true value as a bonafide NBA player wasn’t realized until he was traded several years later to the Houston Rockets, who were at the forefront of a trend just being introduced to all professional sports: the utilization of data and statistics to more accurately value players and determine how to win more games.
“I learned how data plays a huge part in basketball,” Battier says, “and I totally changed my thinking about the game in terms of probabilities versus makes and misses. I think it gave me a big advantage and allowed me to stay in the league for 13 years, even though I was kind of slow and couldn’t jump and wasn’t that athletic.”
Battier was the consummate selfless teammate, as eager to fit in, perform, and please at the game’s highest level as he was all those years earlier at Pembroke Park. “I didn’t care about my personal stats as long as the team won,” he says. “Being a part of a great team and helping people win became my main motivation. I think that’s the true Detroit mentality, and it’s been the hallmark my entire basketball career.”
It’s also a driving force behind his aptly named Battier Take Charge Foundation, which was established in 2010 by Battier and his wife, Heidi, his high school sweetheart and a former schoolteacher.
“We believe that education is the most important way to improve your life and to get ahead,” he says, “and so we’re super passionate about helping some bright kids take their lives to another level through education.”
The foundation focuses on candidates in Miami, Houston, and, of course, his and Heidi’s hometown. “We come back every year and personally interview the kids in the Horizons–Upward Bound program at Cranbrook,” Battier says. “(It’s) a fantastic program for kids in Detroit, and we award one or two scholarships every year. We’ve graduated over 12 kids from college; we just had our first cohort of 20 students from Miami who are now matriculated freshman who received full scholarships from our program, and we’ve committed over $1.5 million to scholarships and (the) programming we started.”
Battier’s connections to his hometown are especially strong these days. He and Heidi have two young children and both sets of parents still live in Birmingham, so there’s no such thing as too many visits from the grandkids.
“I come back to Michigan every summer and spend a lot of time there,” Battier says. “Nothing beats Michigan summers.”
He marvels at all that’s happening in his hometown, and while the signs of tremendous progress are certainly obvious to him, it’s more about what he feels every time he visits.
“You know, every Saturday I used to go to 1300 Beaubien,” he says, referring to the address of the former headquarters of Detroit’s police department. “We’d play in the PAL (Police Athletic League) gym and then walk around Greektown. For a long time there was no optimism when you went south of Eight Mile Road, and you felt that extending all the way out to the suburbs. It was just really struggling. But going back there now, you sense the energy and optimism and hope, and the potential for something different. It’s just really inspiring to go downtown and see the growth. When it really transforms, it’s gonna be something.”
Of course, given the goal of his foundation, Battier knows a thing or two about the power of growth, transformation, and hope. And it turns out the inspiration for what ultimately became Take Charge was hatched long ago, perhaps even on one of his long walks through Greektown after a pickup game at the PAL gym.
“When I was young,” he remembers, “I said, ‘Look, if I ever make it, it’s my duty and my responsibility to help those kids who were just like me and who were going to do big things and just needed a vehicle to help them get on their way, a little boost to help unlock their potential.’
“I’ve been so blessed in in my life to have amazing opportunities,” he continues. “Whether it was Country Day, or Duke University, or playing in the NBA, I’ve never lost perspective that I’m truly, truly lucky.”
Battier is also a proud product of his roots in the city he still loves, and he values how it’s influenced virtually every move he’s made.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have the assembly line mentality,” he says emphatically, “and that’s Detroit. You punch in, you work your tail off, you show up every single day whether you’re sick, hurt, tired, injured, you do your best, and you punch out when it’s time to go home.”
At 41 years old, with so much already accomplished in his life, Battier feels there’s still plenty more to do. Punch-out time will have to wait.