Shane Battier is 30 minutes away from the biggest moment of his life. "I just want it to be over," Battier says to a few inquisitive photographers as he waits patiently in the "Green Room" at New York's Madison Square Garden.
It's the start of the 2001 NBA draft and everybody who is anybody in the sports-reporting world is assembled, ready to pounce on the prospective draftees as soon as each is chosen. In the midst of all this, Battier, understandably anxious but for the most part characteristically unfazed, eyes a familiar face from Duke, smiles widely, and says, "How are you doing, Craig?" After being interviewed by seemingly every big-time sports journalist in every major media market around the country over the past few weeks, the fact that Battier even remembers my name is astonishing. I felt honored that he would seek out the sports editor of Duke's student newspaper on this auspicious evening.
It was a fantastic moment for me, but here at Duke we already know that Shane Battier is everything that people tout him to be. Not only did he reach a level of success that is unparalleled in college basketball, but he did so with a level of grace, modesty, and work ethic that few have seen in the past and which will be difficult for anyone else to replicate in the future.
Sometimes he seems almost too good to be true.
He can't be that great a player, can he? He isn't that smart or that mature, is he? Certainly, with all of his success, he can't be modest and levelheaded?
In the midst of his junior season, Battier told me that the reason he did not want to bolt Duke early for the NBA was that he still "had some things left to accomplish." Well, the accomplishments of his senior season were astounding: 133 career wins, three straight Atlantic Coast Conference championships, a consensus national player of the year award, and most important to him, a national championship to end his college career. As Battier said immediately after the NCAA finals game against Arizona: "All that's left for me to do is ride off on a white horse into the sunset."
But these achievements are only half the story when it comes to the Birmingham, Michigan, native. As the team's on-court leader, Battier motivated and inspired his teammates to compete on a championship level. In fact, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was so impressed with the responsiveness of his players to Battier's constant motivational speeches that he allowed the senior to give a pep talk to his teammates before the start of every practice.
"I trust his leadership so much and what he's going to say that at the start of every practice, I allow him to be the guy speaking," Krzyzewski reminisced in the wake of Duke's national championship victory. "Usually, as a coach, I would get in their huddle and say something to them before each practice. After about three days in October, I just stopped doing that and I allowed Shane to talk to the team. I've never done that with a kid."
On a personal level, Battier embodied the essence of the student athlete. His grade point average of nearly 3.5 at one of the nation's most competitive universities was quite a feat, not to mention the envy of many fellow Duke students, myself included.
But more important, he demonstrated a passion for learning that extended beyond the classroom. He immersed himself in religion classes as a way to explore his own faith. He served as the chair of the NCAA Student Basketball Council to help sort out college basketball's most pressing issues and even vocally, yet respectfully, disagreed with his mentor, Krzyzewski, on the issue of whether college athletes deserve compensation for their efforts. Often, to the dismay of his senior-year roommate, forward Mike Dunleavy, he practiced to perfect his trumpet-playing.
Despite constant, almost overbearing, attention from the local and national media, Battier was also quite helpful to every journalist who crossed his path looking for a story. Before practice every day, Battier would be the first to arrive so he could leave plenty of time to talk to reporters and still be the first Blue Devil to warm up. Somehow, the lanky forward always added something new or interesting to report on or came up with a thoughtful, creative analogy. Just when we thought the well was dry, Battier would give us a new tidbit to chew on.
When I talked to him just before the start of the NCAA tournament last March, Battier told me that there had only been one instance all season when he turned down a media request. Fox Sports Net had asked him if he would open up his apartment for their crew to film, a request that Battier felt was too much to ask. "I told them no," Battier said. "It's the last bastion of privacy I have."
Of course, if many in the Duke community have their way, Battier may one day be forced to share his home with the public, because this particular home would be located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Okay, so it might be a little far-fetched, but there are people on the Duke campus who truly believe that Battier is destined for greatness beyond the game of basketball. They have witnessed his close attention to political issues and have listened intently to his ideas about leadership and teamwork. And just as important, they know that, if he decides to pursue a career as a statesman, he has the brains and the drive to do so.
"He has been such a remarkable ambassador for Duke and for higher education," Duke interim dean of student development Sue Wasiolek told The Chronicle, Duke's daily independent newspaper, last November, days before the 2000 general election. "I think he can be a leader far beyond Duke. He has my vote without even campaigning."
Is Shane Battier the next Bill Bradley? We'll just have to wait and see on that one. But for now, Memphis, we here at Duke can tell you that we are feeling the effects of a huge void in our lives. Hopefully, Battier will bring your city the same level of success, happiness, and exemplary behavior that characterized his four-year stay in Durham.
Craig Saperstein is the sports editor for the Duke University student newspaper.