This is the second installment in a series on coaching, where I detail how great coaching has significantly impacted both my life and my basketball career. You can find the first part, focusing on my dad, Big Ed Battier, HERE.
So, Big Ed gave me my base. After his teaching, I played under a lot of coaches, from childhood up through high school, various camps, college, and the pros. And going in the door, I always respected my coaches. I believed that coaches occupied a position that deserved that respect. I also believed that they deserved my energy, my focus, and the benefit of the doubt, and I gave them all those things.
But my journey wasn’t an easy one—far from it. It’s pretty obvious, when you’re 6 feet tall in sixth grade and 6′4′ in seventh grade and 6′8′ in eighth grade, that you’ve got the right body type for basketball. But there’s so much more to the game than height and athleticism. I’ve been so fortunate to have just terrific coaches, who’ve shown me not only the technical and tactical aspects of the game, but the psychological and strategic aspects as well, and who have enhanced every step of my journey. Moreover, they saw the potential in me and had the patience and the foresight to invest their energy in me.
For instance, my Amateur Athletic Union coach, Burk Kozlowksi; my assistant high school coach, Jay Schwartz; and my high school coach, Kurt Keener, all spent an incredible number of hours in the gym with me. I was a total gym rat. I was the equivalent of a Labrador retriever that would keep fetching the ball and fetching the ball till his joints gave out. I was constantly in the gym. And to have my coaches join me there, and come along on the journey because they believed in me…that was an unbelievable motivator.
Not only did they help me hone my skills and boost my confidence, but also, thanks to them, I realized that I wasn’t alone. And that was amazing. All that effort, all that striving and striving, can be a pretty lonely thing. Plus you’re a kid: you can’t grasp everything psychologically; you’re just trying to get through puberty alive.
I’m pretty sure that every kid that age experiences uncomfortable self-consciousness and some degree of loneliness. In my case, those feelings were exacerbated by the fact that I was always an outlier. For me, the ultimate motivator was always fear. I was scared that I wasn’t good enough, that whatever success I had was just a dream, that I’d wake up and I’d be by myself.
The main thing that defined me as an individual was growing up mixed, with a black father and a white mother. At Pembroke Elementary School, my buddy Eddie Toma was the token Hispanic, and I was the token black kid. Everyone else was white. When you’re just trying to fit in, that’s tough for a kid to digest.
And so, on class picture day, when everyone got a comb, I got a pick. And there I was, an outlier, a foot taller than everybody else and the black kid. And when I went into downtown Detroit to get some competition at basketball, the brothers were saying, “Look at that kid from the suburbs who talks so white; look at him.” So no matter where I went, I was always different.
But in the end there was one kind of place where I did fit in: on the local sandlot, on the basketball court, and on the kickball field. I realized at an early age that when I helped people win, they liked me and I did fit in. So for me, winning was a social survival tool. And it wasn’t about winning by dazzling everybody else with my skills. It was about winning by helping our team—all of us—feel good and play our best. So that’s where I learned it. And that’s what my legacy is to this day: I always played, at every level, to make whatever team I was on as good as it could be.
So, that was a seminal period in my life; it shaped me, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. It was hard as hell when I went through it, but it galvanized me. And having great guides along at my side, acting as a stabilizing force, a motivating force, and allies—that was invaluable.
The other fundamentally invaluable support I had came from my mother and father. They never, ever put any pressure on me to practice sports or to earn high grades in school. The only thing they ever asked of me was to do my best at whatever I was doing. I always knew that they were there for me. They never missed a game I played in, and they were endlessly willing to drive me all over the country to various gyms and games and training opportunities. I always knew I had their absolute support and love.
With all this support from my family and coaches, and with my experience on lots of teams, eventually I realized, “Okay, I’m different, but who cares?” I learned to love being different!
In my senior year of high school, our team—the Detroit Country Day School Yellowjackets—won the Class B state championship. I was named Mr. Basketball for the state of Michigan as well as the Naismith national High School Player of the Year.
Of course, playing at the college level would be a whole different game…