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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

Looking Forward

Duke's Battier draws attention to himself not with outrageousness but with a solid handle on life.

March 20, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

DURHAM, N.C. — He's too smart. He's too thoughtful. He's too good.

C'mon, Shane Battier, show us that tattoo on your hip, the one with a tiny Blue Devil sticking his pitchfork through the words, "IMA FREAK."

"I'm just plain Shane," he apologizes. "That's not a cliche, is it?"

What's wrong with cliches, especially the ones that stay within themselves and take it one game at a time?

"I like to challenge you guys," he says.

Fine, no cliches and no tats. But how about those diamond studs and the 25-pound silver chain you wear around your party den every night?

You really expect us to believe that this country's most complete college basketball player will dare lead top-ranked Duke against UCLA in the East Regional semifinal Thursday night . . . accessory-free?

"I don't have any of those things because I like who I am," Battier says. "I like the way I look. Besides, my mother wouldn't let me come home if I did."

You do have a party den, right? A place where you watch "Cops" and chill with other famously gifted young athletes with attitudes larger than their jackets?

"I watch Discovery Channel and TLC," Battier says.

Is it true that last season, after scoring 28 points for Duke against Maryland, this religion major claimed inspiration from a TV show on the Shaolin monks of China?

"I do have nerdish tendencies," Battier says.

But surely you do party. Surely, if Duke wins the national title that you have pursued for four years, you will dance down the Durham streets with your hands in the air, showing you just don't care?

"I'm on the Web all night, searching for useless information," he says.

What about that awful noise coming from your apartment the other evening? Big athlete beating somebody up, right?

No? That was just your trumpet, the one your parents sent you from home so you could have something to do?

"I figured, I'm a senior; I have a little more time on my hands," the forward tells reporters. "I'd better stay out of trouble. I'd better find a hobby."

Time on his hands? A hobby? For the 6-foot-8 leader of the free basketball world?

"Sometime Shane gets a little too storybook," says Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Indeed. Just because the guy drew a few charging fouls--OK, more than any other player in Duke history--doesn't mean he's Gandhi.

Just because, as a high school junior in suburban Detroit, he gave the commencement address at another high school, that doesn't mean he's Bill Bradley.

Rising from the unsettled state of big-time college athletics, the legend of an earnest young star is enhanced like that of a giant pumpkin in a turnip patch.

With every athlete who turns pro at age 18, Battier gets smarter.

With every athlete who scowls, Battier's smile gets bigger.

With every athlete who is openly selfish, Battier looks more like Kissinger.

Storybook? Surely there is a dog-eared page in here somewhere.

"Good luck," says one Duke official. "People have tried."

They wonder about the sincerity of his introspection. Then he says it sprang from the pain of being a mixed-race child at an affluent high school.

They wonder about the sincerity of his lofty academic studies. Then a veteran teacher reports that he is the first student-athlete who, before trips, has not asked for extensions . . . because he turns in his assignments in advance.

Here's something! While Battier will win all of the postseason awards, he has had to share the spotlight this season with the emerging guard, Jason Williams.

Williams is the team's leading scorer, not Battier. Williams has taken 45 more shots. Williams has only five fewer steals.

While Williams treats the court as a dance floor, Battier treats it as a chessboard. Watching Williams makes you jump. Watching Battier makes you think.

When Williams suffered an ankle injury two weeks ago, folks said the Blue Devils could not win a title without him, no matter what Battier did.

Do we sense an opening for jealousy there?

"No, it's a symbiotic relationship," Battier says.

A who?

"Jason and I know we can thrive off each other," Battier says.

You say jealousy, he says symbiotic.

Symbiotic doesn't sell. Symbiotic doesn't get booked on Leno and Letterman.

Keyshawn Johnson never wrote a book, "Give My Teammates the Damn Ball."

Battier smiles. We have not seen him once in the last week when he has not been smiling.

He smiles so much, you don't know whether to hug him or slug him.

"I think I have received just as much attention by not being out for myself, by caring about my teammates, by caring about Duke," he says.

But what about that national title he has never won?

This year, he turned down an opportunity to apply for a Rhodes scholarship because he wanted to win a championship before he left school. Would failure give an "incomplete" grade to his career?

"To say I left this school empty-handed would be to sell my experience short," he says. "I won't do it."

That experience includes becoming one of four players in NCAA history with more than 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 200 steals, 200 assists and 200 blocked shots.

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