There was nobody Shane Battier respected more than his basketball adversary. ‘So much of my career was tied to me being his foil and him being my foil,’ he says.
Kobe Bryant wrote what he knew. In the book he published before his death, he wrote about Michael Jordan and LeBron James, Jerry West and Magic Johnson, the players who helped define his two decades in the NBA and, of course, himself.
He also wrote about Shane Battier.
“I never spoke to Kobe outside the arena—ever,” Battier said this week. “I didn’t have a relationship with him. But I knew him intimately.”
Battier was the man known around the NBA as the greatest of the “Kobe Stoppers,” the select group of players who were paid to defend one of the most prolific scorers the game has ever seen. He was smart enough not to call himself a Kobe Stopper, this peculiar species that Bryant delighted in humiliating, because he understood that declaring you could stop Kobe happened to be the worst strategy for actually doing so. Nobody could stop Kobe. The best you could do was slow him down. And so it became Battier’s goal to be a human yellow light.
There are few players in NBA history whose value was so inextricably linked to someone else’s. Battier thought of himself as Captain Ahab. Bryant was his Moby Dick.
“So much of my career was tied to me being his foil and him being my foil,” he said.
Born only weeks apart, they were technically contemporaries, but it never felt that way to Battier. There was nobody he respected more than Bryant. There was also nobody who vexed him as much as Bryant.
By the time he retired in 2014, Battier had an encyclopedic understanding of almost everyone he defended—who they were, who they weren’t and how he could use that information to his advantage. But there was one he could never crack. “He was the only guy,” Battier said. “What Kobe represents is the absolute pinnacle of challenge in my profession.”
Battier, who is now an executive with the Miami Heat, felt the death of his basketball adversary in ways that he might not have expected. He’s nostalgic about their 44 games against each other—Bryant’s teams went 24-20—and wistful about beers they never shared together. He’s even thought about what he would’ve told Bryant if he ever got the chance.
“He made me feel the most alive I ever did on the basketball court,” Battier said. “I knew I had to be at my absolute best. If I wasn’t, I was in serious trouble. Even when I was, I was in serious trouble.”
Bryant and Battier were maniacal competitors, but Battier knew he couldn’t compete with Bryant physically, which meant he would have to compete with the author of a book called “The Mamba Mentality” on a psychological level.
The ingenious part of his plan was how he went about pulling it off: Battier embraced Bryant’s perception of him. He wouldn’t act better than he was. He would pretend to be worse. Battier insisted he was slow and unathletic and extraordinarily lucky that a basketball legend happened to keep picking the nights they were on the court together to miss an unusual percentage of his shots. He made Eeyore sound confident.
It was a wonderful idea in theory. The problem was that NBA games are played in reality.
“I saw through that tactic, understood his premeditated modesty and attacked him because of it,” Bryant wrote.
“And I knew that he knew,” Battier said.
“I prided myself on playing any so-called Kobe Stopper,” Bryant wrote.
“I always prided myself as a guy who could get in the mind of another player,” Battier said.
“Safe to say,” Bryant wrote, “I had a lot of fun playing against him.”
“Nothing in my life has even come close to replicating that,” Battier said.
The professional rivalry between this one guy who believed he was the greatest and this other guy who purported to be terrible would become plain to see when it was highlighted on national television broadcasts and in a New York Times Magazine cover story—which added yet another layer of complexity to the curious game of cat and mouse they were playing while everyone around them was busy with a basketball game.
The first time that Battier had the misfortune of guarding Bryant was in his rookie season of 2002. He was petrified. On the bus ride to the Lakers’ arena, however, Battier tried to inject himself with confidence. “How good can this guy really be?” he thought.
It turned out to be a rhetorical question.
This was the night he would make his maiden voyage to a place he called Kobe Island. He soon found himself marooned. The only person who would stop Kobe that night was Kobe himself. Bryant scored 56 points in three quarters and was too good to keep playing.
“Everyone remembers his 81-point game,” Battier said. “There’s no question he would’ve scored 80 points if he’d played the fourth quarter.”
The next formative Bryant experience in Battier’s life would come seven years later. By then he was on a Rockets team riding a magical 21-game winning streak with the Lakers coming to Houston one night in 2008.
It was on Bryant to stop them. It was on Battier to stop Bryant.
Battier had never known so much about this player he didn’t really know. He immersed himself in data. He internalized scouting reports that were finally worth reading. He even hydrated properly. “Instead of having a second glass of wine, I usually stopped at one,” Battier said. He would never feel good about guarding Bryant. But at least he could feel less bad.
All that information suggested the worst shot for Bryant was a long 2-pointer off the dribble while moving left, and Battier attempted to bait him into settling for exactly that shot. He was willing to try anything to make this happen. He even turned his own hand into a blindfold. Instead of trying to block Bryant’s shots, Battier tried to block his vision.
But that wasn’t the only reason he made a habit of sticking his hand over another man’s eyes.
“This is one of the things I’ll lament that I’ll never be able to tell him over a beer,” Battier said. “When I put my hand in people’s faces, I didn’t care if they made it or not. I really, really didn’t. For a guy like Kobe, I knew he would take that as a personal affront—that that was the only way I could guard him. In truth, it probably was. I was completely fine with him trying to prove that it didn’t work. That was my best-case scenario.”
Bryant played 47 minutes and 4 seconds that night. Battier was on the court for all but 40 seconds of them. Bryant went 11-for-33 and the Rockets won again. Battier considers it the single greatest defensive game of his career.
He would never have the opportunity to discuss it with Bryant.
“The physical battles were what they were, but there are very few people who could understand the psychological battles,” Battier said. “I don’t think I could have that conversation with anybody else in the world.”