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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Quote of the Day | February 17, 2009: The No-Stats All-Star, Part 3

From Moneyball author Michael Lewis' latest New York Times piece on Shane Battier, "The No-Stats All-Star."

Bryant is one of the great jawboners in the history of the N.B.A. A major-league baseball player once showed me a slow-motion replay of the Yankees' third baseman Alex Rodriguez in the batter’s box. Glancing back to see where the catcher has set up is not strictly against baseball’s rules, but it violates the code. A hitter who does it is likely to find the next pitch aimed in the general direction of his eyes. A-Rod, the best hitter in baseball, mastered the art of glancing back by moving not his head, but his eyes, at just the right time. It was like watching a billionaire find some trivial and dubious deduction to take on his tax returns. Why bother? I thought, and then realized: this is the instinct that separates A-Rod from mere stars. Kobe Bryant has the same instinct. Tonight Bryant complained that Battier was grabbing his jersey, Battier was pushing when no one was looking, Battier was committing crimes against humanity. Just before the half ended, Battier took a referee aside and said: “You and I both know Kobe does this all the time. I’m playing him honest. Don’t fall for his stuff.” Moments later, after failing to get a call, Bryant hurled the ball, screamed at the ref and was whistled for a technical foul.

Just after that, the half ended, but not before Battier was tempted by a tiny act of basketball selfishness. The Rockets’ front office has picked up a glitch in Battier’s philanthropic approach to the game: in the final second of any quarter, finding himself with the ball and on the wrong side of the half-court line, Battier refuses to heave it honestly at the basket, in an improbable but not impossible attempt to score. He heaves it disingenuously, and a millisecond after the buzzer sounds. Daryl Morey could think of only one explanation: a miss lowers Battier’s shooting percentage. “I tell him we don’t count heaves in our stats,” Morey says, “but Shane’s smart enough to know that his next team might not be smart enough to take the heaves out.”

. . .

In the statistically insignificant sample of professional athletes I’ve come to know a bit, two patterns have emerged. The first is, they tell you meaningful things only when you talk to them in places other than where they have been trained to answer questions. It’s pointless, for instance, to ask a basketball player about himself inside his locker room. For a start, he is naked; for another, he’s surrounded by the people he has learned to mistrust, his own teammates. The second pattern is the fact that seemingly trivial events in their childhoods have had huge influence on their careers. A cleanup hitter lives and dies by a swing he perfected when he was 7; a quarterback has a hitch in his throwing motion because he imitated his father. Here, in the Detroit Country Day School library, a few yards from the gym, Battier was back where he became a basketball player. And he was far less interested in what happened between him and Kobe Bryant four months ago than what happened when he was 12.

When he entered Detroit Country Day in seventh grade, he was already conspicuous at 6-foot-4, and a year later he would be 6-foot-7. “Growing up tall was something I got used to,” he said. “I was the kid about whom they always said, ‘Check his birth certificate.’ ” He was also the only kid in school with a black father and a white mother. Oddly enough, the school had just graduated a famous black basketball player, Chris Webber. Webber won three state championships and was named national high-school player of the year. “Chris was a man-child,” says his high school basketball coach, Kurt Keener. “Everyone wanted Shane to be the next Chris Webber, but Shane wasn’t like that.” Battier had never heard of Webber and didn’t understand why, when he took to the Amateur Athletic Union circuit and played with black inner-city kids, he found himself compared unfavorably with Webber: “I kept hearing ‘He’s too soft’ or ‘He’s not an athlete.’ ” His high-school coach was aware of the problems he had when he moved from white high-school games to the black A.A.U. circuit. “I remember trying to add some flair to his game,” Keener says, “but it was like teaching a classical dancer to do hip-hop. I came to the conclusion he didn’t have the ego for it.”

Battier was half-white and half-black, but basketball, it seemed, was either black or white. A small library of Ph.D. theses might usefully be devoted to the reasons for this. For instance, is it a coincidence that many of the things a player does in white basketball to prove his character — take a charge, scramble for a loose ball — are more pleasantly done on a polished wooden floor than they are on inner-city asphalt? Is it easier to “play for the team” when that team is part of some larger institution? At any rate, the inner-city kids with whom he played on the A.A.U. circuit treated Battier like a suburban kid with a white game, and the suburban kids he played with during the regular season treated him like a visitor from the planet where they kept the black people. “On Martin Luther King Day, everyone in class would look at me like I was supposed to know who he was and why he was important,” Battier said. “When we had an official school picture, every other kid was given a comb. I was the only one given a pick.” He was awkward and shy, or as he put it: “I didn’t present well. But I’m in the eighth grade! I’m just trying to fit in!” And yet here he was shuttling between a black world that treated him as white and a white world that treated him as black. ‘‘Everything I’ve done since then is because of what I went through with this,” he said. “What I did is alienate myself from everybody. I’d eat lunch by myself. I’d study by myself. And I sort of lost myself in the game.”

Tags: Michael Lewis, Shane Battier, The No-Stats All-Star, New Journalism

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