Professional athletes, or really most anyone who's good at sports at any level, typically have reputations as dumb jocks. The idea is that, because they were blessed with the ability to kick or throw or run or jump, these people never had to (or never could) succeed with the same skills as the less physically gifted. It's an unfair characterization that's also intuitively correct — we see them do great athletic things and assume that's the bulk of their worth.
Certain athletes, however, buck that impression in obvious ways. The Miami Heat, well known as highlight producers due to LeBron James and (to a lesser extent than ever) Dwyane Wade, have several players who stand out for the intelligence they bring on and off the court. Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report recently spoke to several of them about dealing with stereotypes and their interests off the court:
"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." [...]
"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."
[Shane] 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." [...]
"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." [...]
"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."
Skolnick is right to single out many of the players mentioned in this piece — Allen has earned attention as an art collector for much of his career, Battier was discussed as a future presidential candidate as soon as he arrived at Duke in the late-'90s, Mason has held a leadership position in the players' union, and Chris Bosh has opened himself to all manner of punchlines for embracing a different sort of athlete persona. The piece is full of interesting reflections from each man on his place within the league, and it's worth taking a closer look.
Nevertheless, singling these players out as intellectually superior possibly does their peers a disservice. As Allen notes within the article, understanding the intricacies of on-court systems and finding a place in a rotation requires high levels of intellect and emotional intelligence. Succeeding in any workplace environment involves a lot of long-term and spontaneous thinking, and playing in the NBA is no different. Very few players get by on little more than their natural talent, and those who do are typically marked out as lacking some sort of essential understanding that would allow them to fulfill their considerable potential.
It's better, then, to say that the players described by Skolnick are more intellectually adventurous, not necessarily smarter. For various reasons (including, as Bosh mentions, his upbringing in a two-parent household that focused on education), they have been exposed to different kinds of intellectual stimulation than many of their less fortunate. Intelligence can be defined in many ways, and we shouldn't act as if those who conform to the dominant paradigm are the only ones who have it. Perhaps the Heat stand out because the organization understands that promoting these preexisting qualities can create new benefits.
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