DENVER — Shane Battier had to be exhausted. The rookie forward had played 39 minutes for the Memphis Grizzlies in a December loss to the Denver Nuggets. But he was upbeat when a reporter sympathized, "That's a lot of minutes."
"It's better than the alternative," Battier noted dryly.
Battier's wry wit and perspective have served him well this year, through a difficult rookie season in the NBA. Watching him labor for the Grizzlies is a striking reminder of what a difference a year can make in the life of an athlete.
Last March, it seemed Battier shone from the cover of every other sports magazine as Duke University marched through the NCAA playoffs on its way to a national title. Battier was a fireball of energy - a coach on the floor - and at season's end, he was named NCAA National Player of the Year.
But then he was drafted in the first round by the Grizzlies, one of the lowliest entries in the National Basketball Association (NBA), and out of the limelight. (Before last night's game against Utah, the Grizzlies were 15-41; only the Chicago Bulls had a worse record.) During the summer, the Grizzlies moved from one small-market city to another: from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Memphis, Tenn. Neither place garners much national media exposure.
This year, there are no TV shots of Battier pumping his fist. No pep talks in the huddle. The rookie is serving a quiet apprenticeship in the NBA.
Sidney Lowe, head coach of the Grizzlies, understands the transition. As a college player in 1983, he helped lead North Carolina State to the national title under coach Jim Valvano. Then Lowe went on to an itinerant career in the NBA, playing for five different teams.
"It's a big adjustment, a huge adjustment," Lowe recalls. "You're trying, one, to get used to the players you're playing against. A different caliber of player.
"You're also trying to make the adjustment to the number of games. Where you might play 30 in college [per season, you play] 30 here, and you're not even midway through the season.
"Then, too, in college Shane Battier probably lost seven games in four years. You get on this level, and you might lose seven games in a couple weeks. So, you have to get used to that as well."
The Grizzlies are a young team building for the future. After a long run of losing seasons in Vancouver, the Griz cleaned house before moving south. Only a half-dozen players on the current team were on last year's squad.
Then came a rash of injuries. The starting center and shooting guard were hurt, followed by backup center Bryant Reeves, who was forced to retire because of back problems. Then point guard Jason Williams went down, followed by his replacement, Brevan Knight. With all of his team's injuries, Battier has averaged 40 minutes per game - more than any other rookie in the league.
One night, the 6 ft., 8 in., 220-lb. forward was astonished to find himself thrust into the role of point guard, bringing up the ball against much smaller, more agile players.
"I've always prided myself on being a Renaissance man, but this is ridiculous," he quips.
Though he's getting precious little national TV time, Battier is putting up good numbers. Among NBA rookies this year, he ranks second in scoring (14.9 points per game, behind teammate Pau Gasol), second in steals, and third in assists.
Battier is remembered at Duke, where he graduated with honors and was named an Academic All-American, for his intellect and leadership. His professors in the religion department are ardent fans.
"One of my brightest students," religion professor Kalman Bland recalls. Bland says he believes Battier benefited enormously by staying in school and not leaving early for the NBA draft: "His thought process deepened."
(An exception to the trend of ever-younger players entering the NBA, Battier was the only college senior among the top 19 picks in last year's draft.)
"He's curious, bright, with incredible imagination and intelligence," adds Bruce Lawrence, who heads Duke's religion department. "Even if he didn't have that height and physique, he'd have stood out at Duke."
Lawrence compares Battier to former Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, who played for Princeton and then for the New York Knicks. He feels that, given time, Battier will emerge as a leader.
"I think he's a little hesitant at this point, this early stage of the game, to really speak out on the floor," Lowe says. "There are some times when he will say certain things. But I think he pulls back just because he's a rookie, and I guess he wants to sort of earn his dues first."
Battier concurs. "I always like to know my environment, my surroundings - whether it's at home, in a new city, or a basketball court. I've always prided myself on being able to figure things out quickly, and move forward."
"Off the floor, I mean, he's a leader - absolutely," Lowe exclaims. "If you say 'Memphis Grizzlies' off the floor, you say 'Shane Battier.' He's an ambassador in the community."
For all the travail of a tough year, Battier seems mightily pleased to be part of the NBA. "I'm living my dream," he says. "My religious studies showed me that most people search to be part of something bigger than themselves - whether it's a religion, a social group, a sports team, a circle of friends. People yearn to work toward something bigger. That's probably what I came out with after studying for four years at Duke.