Intelligence Game: Miami Heat Players Speak on Pluses and Minuses of Smarts

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Intelligence Game: Miami Heat Players Speak on Pluses and Minuses of Smarts
Getty Images/Jesse D. Garrabrant

The Miami Heat's logo, save for minor tweaks, has stayed roughly the same for a quarter century. But if it ever requires refreshment, here is a suitable suggestion: a Wifi symbol.

"This is like a hotspot for ideas," Bosh said. "We can capitalize even more if we really put our heads together, and maybe do some things, but we’ve got to play basketball."

Yeah, basketball. That's the day and, well, night job. These are jocks, after all, if not in the stereotypical sense. When measured against the general perception of professional athletes, and even against the reality of other rosters around the NBA, the Heat qualify as an extraordinarily bright bunch.

Brainiacs, even.

Take it from an 18-year veteran.

"Moreso than any team I've been a part of," Ray Allen said. "The things that we’re talking about on the bench, watching the game, understanding the game, it surpasses any team that I’ve had from that point of view."

Take it from a 13-year veteran.

"On the court, it’s the highest IQ basketball team I’ve played on," Shane Battier said. "And you measure that by non-verbal communication, when you have a connection with guys on the team. A lot of the adjustments we make on the fly, we don’t even need to say or verbalize." 

Take it from someone who has played for seven different NBA organizations, along with a few professional outfits overseas.

"Out of a lot of teams that I played for, this is the smartest group of teammates that I’ve ever had, and that’s both on the court as far as basketball IQ, but then off the court as well," Roger Mason Jr. said. "We talk about many, many things that don’t have to do with basketball that I haven’t typically been able to speak to teammates about in the past." 

Battier, a Duke graduate, has found that to be true too: "We have a great diversity of interests off the court. It’s probably the most 'read' team I’ve been a part of, which is rare. I’ve been on teams where I’ve never seen anyone pick up a book and read on a plane. We have a lot of readers on this team, and a lot of guys who are about things outside academics. Art and culture and music. It makes for a well-rounded locker room. I don’t know how much of that plays into our success, but I think it has."

It's certainly made for spirited conversation. 

'Yeah, for sure, Shane, (James Jones), Roger, Ray," Bosh said. "We've got some guys who are very, very sharp, leaders of the players' union, and it’s a unique opportunity to bounce a lot of ideas off. Even LeBron (James) and Dwyane (Wade), they have an immense amount of knowledge about the industry or marketing, because they run their own organizations and everything. Here, you get to talk about everything from politics to the economy to the collective bargaining agreement. You pretty much get everything here."

Sometimes, you don't want to hear any more.

"Sometimes, I have to tell them to shut up," Bosh said. "You set them up, they'll knock 'em down. Then, it's like, 'All right, I'm going to put my headphones on and zone out.' "

We hope you won't do that now. This month, Bleacher Report engaged five of the Heat's most erudite individuals—Bosh, Battier, Allen, Mason and Jones—in extended conversations about intelligence, and its impact on their lives and careers.

As expected, they had no trouble expounding.

***

The engineering club was holding an event in North Dallas, starting at 6 a.m.

Chris Bosh wanted to be there.

But the situation had him feeling a bit bashful.

You see, he needed a ride back, to return to his athletic pursuits. So he had called upon his summer league basketball coach to "scoop me up" around noon and take him to return. He immediately understood the bargain he'd made. He began hoping to get lucky. Maybe the coach wouldn't come inside.

"Because he was a big joke guy, and I knew what he was going to say," Bosh said.

He guessed correctly. 

"He comes in and he’s like, ‘What the hell is going on?’" Bosh said, smiling. "He was just ragging on me the whole day. And I was like, 'Man, you weren’t supposed to see that.' That was an engineering competition with dudes and machines and stuff. But you just have to be confident in yourself and be able to take a joke sometimes."

You do, as a kid and a teen, when your interests are expansive and some of those interests don't fit into the customary "cool" category. At times, with peer groups, the perception of intelligence can prove a burden, a stigma, as if you think you're somehow better. 

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

"I was marginalized every which way till Sunday, being a mixed kid growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, going to a private school, playing my basketball in inner-city Detroit, the Police Athletic League," Battier said. "So I was marginalized every way I looked. And it created in me, character. I knew I was different. But instead of running from it, I embraced it. It made me who I am today. So, intelligence and awareness was just another way I was different from most of the guys I played basketball with growing up. And it was neither here nor there—that’s just what I did."

For Battier, sports were a means of assimilation—one of many multi-syllable words that he learned to define and use early.

"I was accepted when I played well," Battier said. "And at the end of the day, that’s all you want out of a teammate. You don’t care if they collect miniature Shih Tzus in their free time; if you can play and help the team, that’s all that matters. That’s one of the lessons of sports. And that’s why it’s important for kids to play and be part of."

Mason, whose late father was a doctor and whose mother was a Latin scholar, didn't always find it easy, even when he excelled athletically.

How so?

"On AAU teams, I was always looked at with how I spoke," Mason said. "And speaking proper English in those settings may not have been the cool way to be, when you’re young. So yeah, you want to be accepted—every kid wants to be accepted—but at the same time, you just stay true to you."

But here's the thing: His intelligence didn't cease being an issue, even after he left the University of Virginia, where he studied architecture, and officially entered adulthood.

"When I first came in the league, it wasn’t socially accepted within the locker room," Mason said. "I was looked at that I talked proper, I was told that I was square, all those types of things. But the interesting thing with me is that I grew up in many different settings: suburbs, city. So I had a different paradigm. But in this league, early on, it was known as a hip-hop league, so guys that didn’t necessarily fit that mold weren’t the norm, so to speak. Things are a little different now. But early in my career, I definitely saw that."

So, safe to say that intelligence can make life harder for an athlete?

"It definitely does," Mason said. "One hundred percent."

***

Ray Allen isn't the type to apologize for his intelligence.

Rather, he believes it's one of the essential assets for ongoing growth, both on the court and off.

"The game of basketball, there’s a great identity of understanding the language that is associated with it, and you have to be very knowledgeable in it, not only as players but the coaches as well," Allen said. "So you talk about guys who really understand the game are smart, but then to achieve that other level of intellect is to understand the world around you and relationships and people as you grow in your basketball career. That’s only how you become a better basketball player. Because it’s dealing with relationships, understanding your space within a team, within the concept of the game."

Still, he's not oblivious either. 

"It's definitely not the in thing to do or be," Allen said.

Not in basketball culture.

"I’ve had teammates that say, 'Screw a book,' " he said. "I've had coaches tell me that I was too smart. They just wanted me to be quiet and just play basketball. So, I've found it to be a struggle to be a person—not that I'm trying to be smart, but I want to learn, I want to figure the world out, and observe things, and learn from people, and that’s never been taken as well, as easy by some players and organizations. Because they just want you to not question—they just want you to go forward and just be an athlete."

Some coaches feel challenged by intelligence?

"They are intimidated," Mason said. "Oh yeah. Hundred percent. Hundred percent. I’ve had that, where it’s worked against me that I had an opinion and was a smart guy. Maybe sometimes that’s what it is, and I don’t know if there’s a thought that it’s easier to coach guys who don’t really have brains, I don’t know. But I think that’s what Ray is getting at."

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Battier certainly understood what was Allen was getting at.

"No question," Battier said. "No question. Yes, luckily I’ve played for some of the best coaches in basketball, so I haven’t had the need to question them. But I’ve been in a few situations where I have had to question the rationale behind why we play, and it was not met with much open-mindedness. So I’ve been very fortunate. I think coaches know when I was on their team that they can’t throw the fastball by me. And if their rationale wasn’t sound, I was going to call them on it. As you should. You always question authority. I know coming out of the (2001) draft that it worked against me. That I was too smart, that I was a know-it-all."

Jones, who graduated with honors from the University of Miami, offered an explanation for that institutional attitude.

"It's all about systems, and it’s all about schemes, and it’s all about plans," Jones said. "And a lot of coaches, they live and they die by their system. And there’s always a way to work smarter."

Smart guys tend to see that alternative.

"So it can be looked as a negative when you assess something, you see something that can be done a better way," Jones said. "A lot of coaches, a lot of people take that as a personal attack on their philosophy, on their abilities, and that’s not the case. But understanding that this is a sport of egos. A lot of times it’s not about what’s right, what’s smart, what’s intelligent. It’s about any type of suggestion, any type of resistance or questioning is viewed as undermining their authority or insubordination. So you get it.

"That’s the thing in sports you have to deal with, that’s a part of it, that will always be a part of it, because it’s a constant battle between coaches wanting to exert their authority on the players and the players also saying, 'Hey, we’re out here playing, we’re the ones who make it go.' It just depends on the coach, but unfortunately a lot of times, that’s the way it’s perceived. That happens."

***

Perception is a funny, sometimes frustrating thing, when it comes to intelligence. What makes it hard to be smart in sports?

For Bosh, it's this: It doesn't square with the stereotype.

"People don’t expect you to be smart," Bosh said. "They want you to be dumb so they can rip you off. Off the court. That’s where it comes in, is off the court. On the court, you can pretty much be a soldier and do what’s normal and easy, which is just play basketball and not have to think about anything else. But off the court, you have a business to take care of, and you have other responsibility, and you have to deal with it in intelligent ways. You have to be socially intelligent, because you are going to deal with people, you have to have great awareness, and you have to have basic stuff down, or people can get stuff by you."

And, often, people just don't get it.

It is possible, after all, to bounce a ball, chew gum and expand your understanding about matter in the universe—one of Bosh's passions—at the same time.

"I'll go out in public, and they're like, 'What's the last book you read?' " Bosh said. "And I'll say I'm reading this."

This, in this case, could be anything from Good to Great to How the Mighty Fall to David and Goliath to Blink to Outliers to his latest selection, Hatching Twitter.

"You read?!" Bosh said, mocking those skeptics. "Yeah, I read. I know I’m an athlete, but I read. It’s crazy, right?"

Insulting?

"It is, but I get it," Bosh said. "But you know, people don’t know. Oh wow, you read. Yeah, thank you."

Battier has experienced the opposite.

People know he reads. But, because there's so much emphasis on his intellect, it's led to less appreciation for his other assets. 

"In the court of public perception, it’s always worked against me," Battier said. "People have felt the need to always qualify my successes with the fact that either I am a cerebral player or I lack athleticism. For the most part, if you unbiasedly look at most of what’s been written about me over my career, I’m not like everybody else, writers try to explain how this guy who lacks athleticism has succeeded. And obviously intellect is part of the equation."

Battier paused, before continuing.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

"I wouldn’t call it intellect," he said. "I would just say I just have very good awareness of a basketball game, of the flow, and what you’re supposed to do. And I’m able to think every possession, and that’s been a strength of mine from early, early on. And it’s allowed me to stay on the floor. And as a player, that’s all you’re trying to do. I don’t care what your skill set is. If you’re an amazing rebounder, you’re trying to rebound every single ball on the glass. If you’re a great shooter, you’re trying to make every shot that you get.

For me, my awareness, I’m trying to think every single possession. You’d be surprised how many players, great players, don’t have that ability."

Over the course of his career, Battier has been seen as such an outlier that he's bordered on an overly explained phenomenon.

"There was actually a Harvard case study on my career," Battier said. "I didn’t know this, but when they were arguing about the trade to Houston from Memphis (in 2006), there were many people in Houston who questioned my toughness because of my intelligence. That’s where I see it the most. People think because I’m well-spoken, because I have varied interests, it’s an inverse. Not so much 'can I play?' I know I can play. I've fought my entire career (to prove) that I'm tough, or I wouldn't be here."

This will likely be his last season. If so, he'll walk away with at least two championships, some respect and plenty of bruises.

"Even today, I find guys going at me—yeah, I’m playing power forward, and I’m undersized, and they’re trying to take advantage of my physical limitations—but more often than not, because I’m well-spoken, and a future blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, (they believe) that I can’t be tough," Battier said. "So that’s where I get in skirmishes sometimes."

Sometimes, he feels the need to show...

"That I'm not a punching bag," he said. "And I wouldn’t survive 13 years in the NBA without an element of toughness. And sometimes I have to announce that."

Jones does acknowledge that intelligence has the potential to slow you down as a player, but not in the way that the toughness testers may assume.

"Your strength can be your biggest weakness a lot of times, because so much of basketball is mental, but there is a huge physical component," Jones said. "You can kind of neglect the physical sometimes by paying too much attention to the mental. So, intelligence, trying to dissect everything, trying to think of alternative routes and trying to justify and rationalize, can get caught up and bog you down from doing what you need to do, which is just to react. So it’s one of those things where it definitely can hinder you in situations. But overall, it’s extremely more beneficial to be an intelligent player. Because as you progress the longer you play. Your physical skills diminish. And the only way to combat that is to increase your IQ. And if you already have an IQ, you put yourself in a position to maneuver and sustain a lot longer."

Even if some will always assume that the abundance of one asset means a deficiency in another.

"Oh yeah, without a doubt," Jones said. "Because this game is basically a combination of those two things, and so everybody always looks at it in a finite capacity, so if your makeup is 100 percent— if you’re an extremely bright guy, then logic says that you are not as athletic, you are not as tough on that scale. But I think that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Your intelligence is like the icing on the cake."

***

Chris Bosh, now a highly successful adult, is beyond being bashful.

He has made it a point to show he's comfortable being more than merely a "baller," whether creating his own comedic videos, appearing on television shows such as Parks and Recreation and Law and Order: SVU, taking Spanish lessons, taking goodwill missions to faraway places or recently endorsing kids' video games (Skylander Giants).

But when it comes to demonstrating his diversity, nothing tops his touting of computer programming.

He had already done some work with Code.org, even appearing in a promotional video. 

Then, Wired magazine asked him to write an essay urging kids to learn to code, to, as he put it, "tell my little piece of history," which included being raised in a family that valued education, technology and tinkering. 

There was no hesitation or trepidation.

"I’m just glad it came out as it did," Bosh said. "A lot of people complimented me on it, which is awesome."

Those compliments came not just from Wired readers, but from those without the slightest interest in computers, those who viewed it as a worthy but unusual cause for a prominent athlete.

"Yeah, for sure," Bosh said. "It’s not very glamorous, but in a sense it is, because everything uses apps now, and eventually everything will. And you know, there’s not many athletes where you hear, ‘Oh yeah, I wanted to be an engineer.’ You don’t get that much. It’s a very unique opportunity to tell kids it’s OK to be smart and it’s OK to give yourself opportunities. Because it’s a huge void for the future that needs to be filled, and there’s not enough kids out there to fill it. But there can be."

There can be something else:

A high-profile athletic role model for smart kids.

That's a role Bosh says he wants to help fill.

"I want to let kids know that it’s OK to be smart," Bosh said. "And that you can be confident. I think that’s what it’s all about with kids. You have to be confident. Luckily, I had great self-esteem growing up and basketball gave me that outlet, because everybody liked basketball and that was cool, and I was one of the best out there, so I could do what I wanted off the court. And it’s like, 'You can make fun of me, but you’re out at the basketball court cheering for me, so what does that say?' Every kid doesn’t get that opportunity."

Not every kid has sports as that sanctuary. Their other, non-conforming, interest is their primary interest. Maybe their only interest.

"And it’s unfortunate, but you might get bullied, you might get (made) fun of for being a smart kid," Bosh said. "But I think you have the chance to really be confident and just know there’s a future in it, and know you’re helping yourself out."

He acknowledged that he had an advantage, a two-parent household with parents that "pounded that message home to me," that, "You need to read. You need to do well in school." He spoke of the import of bringing that same message to the black community at large, that athletics and education shouldn't be mutually exclusive.

"It's a culture where not everyone wants you to do too good," Bosh said. "I think it can change, where we can encourage you to find your niche, to do what you do, and hey, if you want to move away from this, everybody has that ability.

"People kind of get in this vicious cycle, where, ah nah, I’m not good enough, I can’t do this, I can’t do that. Yeah you are. Anybody can do anything if they work hard. Anybody can be smart—you just have to study. It might come quicker to others, but you still have the ability to do it. Too many people just make too many excuses saying they can’t do it, but they can. You just have to understand that, you have to believe in it. Everybody didn’t encourage me. But you just keep pushing. It was a challenge for me, and that’s how I took it. That’s how I took everything."

Mason, Allen, Battier and Jones all sounded open to taking some of that same message out there.

Mason said "anybody who feels they can relate to me, I'll be a role model to them."

Allen said he preaches to kids that "just because you graduate from high school, from college, doesn’t mean you stop learning. Learning is every day. That’s how you improve who you are. You don’t just stop wanting to get better at something, anything, whether it’s sport, whether it’s an education."

Battier said he tells kids "to do it all. Don't think that athletic success and academic success are mutually exclusive. Because that’s the fallacy, and that’s the narrative that’s played out. That, oh, if I’m a good student, I can’t be a good basketball player. And that’s bunk. You can do it all. It’s difficult, it takes time, it takes effort, but you can do it. A guy like Chris, a guy like Ray Allen, a guy like LeBron, who is extremely intelligent, do it all, do it all, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t."

Jones said he believes the "message that comes from a smart, intelligent athlete reaches a lot further from just a guy who can just jump." And that's even while he recognizes that intelligence will always be an underrated attribute, because it isn't as "sexy or flashy."

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

"That's not a highlight," Jones said. "Smarts and intellect rarely makes the top 10 plays. It’s always going to be the guy who can jump 60 inches in the air and that type of stuff. Because the physical traits are something you can’t teach and can’t study. That’s just God-given and athletic development that, regardless of how hard you train, sometimes you can’t reach those levels. So they accentuate the physical... But, honestly a lot of the athletes are intelligent. It takes a certain level of intelligence to be able to play at this level and sustain for a long time."

And maybe it's becoming more acceptable to show off those smarts.

For evidence, just look at the NBA's analytics movement.

"We live in a nerd generation," Battier said. "I think that my career path would be different if I played 10 years earlier, before Steve Jobs, before Bill Gates. That’s just a generational thing, where nerds are as valued as they ever have been in our country, in our society. No longer is it 'nerd.' It's, 'That guy is using his brain to get ahead.' "

It clearly has helped the Heat get ahead.

Even if, when all of these deep discussions start, it can be much tougher to get some rest.

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.

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