- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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THE HEEL OF a high-top basketball shoe, when attached to the foot of a large man and applied with force, can mimic a sledgehammer. Shane Battier's big toes, at a rate far exceeding expected odds, have found themselves on the receiving end of those pneumatic heels. Right big toe smashed one week, left big toe smashed the next. Barring the invention of steel-toed basketball shoes, the jackhammering of heel into toe in post-up situations will remain a little-known NBA occupational hazard.
Battier is an 11-year veteran in his first season with the Heat. The 6-foot-8 forward is in the throes of a post-lockout, 66-game compressed schedule, and chronic toe misery is the last thing he needs. Toenail regeneration, for the uninitiated, is both unsightly and lengthy. At the risk of taking you too far down a road you didn't choose: Trauma kills the nail, which gradually decays and blackens over the course of three weeks before falling off entirely. Then
a new nail, growing at a rate of around 0.033 of a millimeter per day, eventually fills the raw and exposed nail bed. Which means, in the only terms pertinent to a basketball player, that each hammered toe is at least a five- to six-month nuisance.
Battier doesn't have time for that. There are games to play, charges to take, post-up moves to defend and the occasional spot-up three to knock down, all the while knowing the next piercing, eye-watering hammer blow is but a clumsy drop step away. Still, much as he might want to will away the existence of these savaged toes, they demand his attention. On the final Sunday in January, as Battier and the Heat prepare for a late-afternoon game against the Bulls, feet come first. He arrives at AmericanAirlines Arena roughly two hours before the game and heads immediately to the whirlpool, where he sits on the edge with his feet submerged and begins reading the scouting report for that day's game. He pays specific attention to details on his likely matchups: Ronnie Brewer, Rip Hamilton and Kyle Korver. They help take his focus off the toes. "Warming up my feet," he says. "That's where I start to get my head into game mode."
Battier's feet disappear amid the bubbles; one toenail is in its infancy, sprouting shyly from a grisly, raw nail bed that looks as if it was scooped out with a melon baller. The other is dead and black, in an advanced stage of necrosis. Inspecting it, Battier estimates two or three days will pass before it falls off. "You feel it every step," he says. "Every. Single. Step."
This diversion into the life cycle of the traumatized toenail is meant to elucidate the tribulations of a longtime NBA veteran, one known for a willingness to perform the game's more unsavory tasks, working under the unusual circumstances of a short, game-heavy schedule. Pick your statistic -- two extra games one week, three in three days, five in seven -- it all adds up to far less time for a 33-year-old body like Battier's to recover between
poundings. "I knew it would be hard, but it's even worse than I imagined," he says. "There's no time for recovery, no time at all."
And oh, how bright the day would be if the toes were the only worry. Roll an anatomy-class skeleton next to Battier's locker and let him take you for a tour. Pick a spot, any spot. His arthritic ankles need to be professionally massaged and manipulated before every game to alleviate stiffness. His knees are gnarled and painful, bruised purple from diving for loose balls. A thigh bruise is from something he can't remember. An obstinate butt contusion, which simply won't heal, is from taking charges (the masseuse will get to work on that as soon as he finishes with the ankles). Back pain is from the constant pounding of feet on wood. And the toenails ... well, you know enough about the toenails. Playing defense the way Battier does, which often includes standing motionless while huge, fast men propel their bodies into his chest, is hell on the skeletal system. Pain is background noise. It's a fact of life.
Fast-forward a couple of hours to the game. Battier enters with 4:32 left in the first quarter and moments later finds himself isolated on the left block against Chicago's 6-11 center, Joakim Noah, whose frantic demands for the ball recall an amphetamine-fueled game-show contestant. Battier attempts to offset his size disadvantage with positioning, shading to his left as he jams his bruised knees into the back of Noah's thighs. This real-estate jockeying is accompanied by a small, sensible voice in Battier's head praying that Noah's heels don't piston into either one of those big toes. Noah gets the ball, leans back and pivots to his right. Battier, knowing Noah's tendencies, anticipates the move and plants his chest in the path of Noah's right shoulder. The collision appears to be less violent than Battier's dramatic fall, but Miami coach Erik Spoelstra raises both hands toward the arena's roof as Noah flips in a righthand scoop without a whistle.
Any thought of the butt contusion healing today is gone with the impact. The pain goes through Battier like a tuning fork. He rises slowly and runs downcourt without changing expression. "Yeah, that was a charge," he'll say later. "That's pretty textbook. The funny thing about charges, they're situational. If it's early in the game like that, you're less apt to get one. I don't necessarily want that call then; I want it later. That's why I didn't go crazy."
Battier's an amiable and eminently sensible man, a Duke graduate, a guy who's constantly told he should go into politics. He likes to downplay his talents and accomplishments, and he has approached the idea of chronicling his old-guy-in-a-brutal-season troubles with equanimity and good humor. "You never feel great," he says. "You never feel like you do in the summer, sitting on your deck, having a beer or two. That's when you feel perfect."
He quickly interrupts his own reverie, pulling back his mind from the deck and the beer and the sweet irresponsibility of summer. "Oh, don't forget the headache," he says, laughing. "We can't forget the constant headache."
NEARING THE END of his NBA earning cycle (his career earnings are an estimated $55 million), Battier is grateful for the season, painful as it may be. "Trust me, I'd rather play 66 games than none at all," he says, dropping his voice an octave and adding in the tone of a CNBC anchor: "I need to maximize my earning potential."
Battier has crafted a career that is both strange and singular. He is undoubtedly the only college player of the year and NBA vet to have his game described as "a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths." That description, as well as others in the lengthy and fascinating 2009 piece on Battier in The New York Times Magazine by Michael Lewis (Moneyball) can be filed under the heading "Disparaging Compliments."
Of the litany of disparagements -- slow, devoid of moves, uncoordinated -- Battier says, "That was the movie version. The more of a schlep they made me look, the richer the story." In truth, Battier might be one of the better players in NBA history to average fewer than 10 points a game.
Consider him a radical basketball environmentalist, fanatical about leaving every game better than he found it. Battier is a huge believer in the plus/minus statistic. He discovered his statistical Svengali in Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who made sure Battier received every conceivable -- and in some cases inconceivable -- kind of statistical data to prepare for each game. Asked whether he's getting all the information he needs with the Heat, Battier laughs, pauses and says, "Uh ... we're working toward that. I've told them the more information I have, the better. Let me decide what's important and what's not. Just give me data."
He is practical to a fault, but there's something that draws him to the game, something deeper than the money and the attention, something about the spacing, the geometry, the puzzle of it all. Why does someone go better to his left but almost always go to his right? Battier's game hinges on these shreds of knowledge and on being able to force a player to do the things he does worse. The trick is to take them from the stark fiber of the scouting sheets and transfer them to real-time decisions on the court. It's one thing to know that Noah likes to catch an entry pass, lean back and spin to his left, quite another to assess the situation, beat him to the spot and take a shoulder to the chest. This is Battier's gift and something he addresses by simply shrugging and saying, "It's practice. It's figuring something out and doing it over and over.
"A lot of coaches would probably disagree with the way I look at the game," Battier explains. "And a lot of 'basketball purists'" -- here his hands make flamboyant air quotes with a roll of the eyes -- "don't like it because it's a little less emotional and more statistical. I look at a game and realize it's not as random as you think. People are going to perform at levels they have done so historically most of the time. There's a way to quantify that."
His worldview seems to fall somewhere between wry and fatalist, Nietzsche-meets-Eeyore. He either outgrew the frivolity of the game or never saw the appeal in the first place. During pregame warmups, as his teammates frolic above the rim and smile and dance, he calmly banks his layups off the backboard. If you hear of an NBA player performing a perfect box-out in warmups, your first guess should be Battier. During the national anthem, as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Udonis Haslem bounce from foot to foot, the kinetic energy fighting to get out, Battier stands Marine still. He is in the game but slightly above it, a player partaking in the spectacle and viewing it from a distance at the same time. He is the slow car in the fast lane.
To be sure, he is a Heat oddball, the ultimate team guy on the ultimate
individual team, the ultimate fundamental player in the ultimate flash city. He wears Peak shoes, the only NBA player to regularly wear the Chinese brand. He says things like, "Bill Russell once said, 'Hustle is skill.'" The night before the Bulls game, he attended his eighth Jimmy Buffett concert and issued a three-word review: "Jimmy never fails." Whatever James and Wade are, he isn't. "Shane's a perfect fit here," says Heat forward Mike Miller, himself a 12-year NBA vet. "Always in the right position offensively and defensively. A perfect complement." Says Battier: "Me on this team? There's irony in there somewhere, but that's why I'm here. I've always played best with great players."
Battier is the resident sage, dispensing wisdom to younger players with the hope that they someday will remember. This off-season he will join the Washington Speakers Bureau, putting his name and face alongside those of Jon Huntsman Jr., Tony La Russa and Madeleine Albright. "Whenever we don't
know something we ask Shane," says Miller, sitting in the locker room before tip-off with bags of ice strapped to each knee. He and some of the guys are having a conversation about the corner three and why it's considered the most efficient shot in basketball. Seconds later, right on cue, Battier walks in from the training room. "I don't know why it's the most efficient -- I'm a wing three guy myself," Miller says. "But I know who would know: my man Shane here."
As if reading from a study, Battier says, "The corner three is the most efficient shot because it's the closest three, and there's obviously a direct correlation between distance and efficiency. The ratio between distance and efficiency, and the extra point, is what makes it the most efficient."
It's no coincidence that most Heat offensive sets with Battier on the floor include his spotting up in the corner, waiting to hit a three. The opportunities are rare. "I know I'm the fifth option," he says. "I look at myself as something like a pinch-hitter in baseball. You're sitting on the bench, and then all of a sudden you get the call. Well, guess what. You better put the ball in play. I don't devalue what I do. It's not glamorous, but it's important."
On this Sunday afternoon, he will take one shot in 19 minutes -- a long three from the wing, not the corner -- that will give the Heat an eight-point lead 22 seconds into the fourth quarter. The pinch-hitter got his pitch and put the ball in play.
BATTIER'S 19 MINUTES against the Bulls are relatively easy: no charges, no all-out dives for loose balls, just the one Noah-induced bounce off the floor. After the game, he gets a quick massage and straps bags of ice to his knees. "A wise veteran once told me: 'Ice your knees after every game. It'll add three years to your career,'" Battier says. "I don't know if he was right or not, but I'm still here, so I'm not going to chance it."
A good win in hand, he's ready to head home, see his two young children, hang out with his wife and drink a glass of nice red. Before he leaves the training room, though, he takes stock of his contusions, abrasions and lacerations. He nods and says, "Not a bad day today. Not too many collisions. I'll be good to go tomorrow."
Tomorrow is no mere abstraction. The Hornets are in town tomorrow, no time to recover. He'll start the same way, checking the status of the black nail and the raw nail bed that's 0.033 of a millimeter closer to healing. He'll drop his feet into the bubbling water, study the (insufficient) data and get his mind ready for the next shoulder to the chest, the next grimacing dive to the floor and -- god forbid -- the next heel to the toe.
First, though, there's one final obligation for this Sunday evening: He's needed upstairs for a fan event. Ever the data wonk, Battier turns from his locker and addresses a Heat employee waiting to escort him up the concourse: "Okay, so what's my demographic here?"
Told that it's light duty, shaking hands and posing for photos with about 100 season-ticket holders, Battier is satisfied. "I always like to know what I'm dealing with," he says.
Dressed in an untucked long-sleeve dress shirt and jeans, he turns back to his locker and grabs his shoes. He winces a bit as he places his right foot inside one shoe, a bit more when he repeats the act with his left. About halfway through the process you realize: The shoes are slip-ons, naturally.