Celtics consultant uses innovative typing technique to help predict athletic performance, and Ainge, among others, is buying into it
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Jon Niednagel knows how it sounds to group Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Doc Rivers, and Gary Payton with serial killers. He changes topics when asked about criminal profiles he keeps. As someone who has made an unexpected career out of predicting behavior patterns, the Celtics consultant nicknamed ``The Brain Doctor'' anticipates the rolling eyes of skeptics who view brain typing as a bastard science.
But Niednagel cannot deny the evidence he has collected that indicates some murderers and some NBA Hall of Famers share the intense ISTP brain type -- one of 16 four-letter designations the Brain Doctor borrowed from personality testing. He also recognizes the odd coupling that places LeBron James with Britney Spears (ESFP), Paul Pierce with Grady Little (ISFP), and Antoine Walker with Winston Churchill (ENTP) raises more questions about what he does.
Working closely with Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, Niednagel offers advice on draft prospects, NBA personnel, and player development, a role that falls somewhere between scout and sports psychologist.
``I cannot prove to you at this moment that what I'm saying is true, though I can give you tons of empirical evidence and scientific evidence that looks like it's truthful," said Niednagel. "Brain typing is so much bigger than me. Brain typing will be a multibillion-dollar industry in the years ahead. It will be as big as anything. It transcends race, color, creed, whatever it is. "There isn't a person on the planet who wouldn't want this information, whether it be corporate America, educational America, government, parents, athletics. I'm not trying to boast. I'm not a prophet, but I've seen enough of what is [out there]."
From interviewing people for jobs and coaching youth teams, Niednagel saw connections between behavior patterns and motor skills. Brain typing is his attempt to link physical tendencies to brain function, which represents the fundamental hypothesis of his work. If brain types or links between the way people behave and their brains function exist, then fairly accurate conclusions can be reached about how people will respond in certain situations, on a basketball court or elsewhere.
Niednagel cautions, however, that brain type accounts for only 65 percent of what a person may be or become. Environment, upbringing, genetics, and other variables account for the remaining 35 percent.
Applied to sports, a player's brain type is viewed as a helpful predictor of how he will perform as a professional athlete.
"I believe in Jon's evaluation," said Ainge. "He's not 100 percent right. There's been times when I've been right and he's been wrong. There's been times when I question his overall conclusion. There's a lot that factors into success. [Brain typing] is just a measurement, one of a lot of things in the process.
"Not until I really like a player do I usually have Jon look at him. But he's not afraid of giving his opinion. He's passionate about his decisions and I like that. It's controversial for anybody who doesn't know [brain typing]. But I like Jon because of my history with him. I'm working with a guy I trust."
Acronyms and analysis When Niednagel discusses brain typing, he speaks in what sounds like a secret code: ISTP, INTJ, ESTP, ENTP, ENFP, INFJ.
Like the Myers-Briggs personality test used in business for personnel evaluation, Niednagel identifies 16 types. Because he has postulated a connection between brain type and brain function, Niednagel claims brain types look behind personality to inborn design.
Carl Jung and Isabel Myers identified eight psychological preferences in four categories of opposites: Introvert (I) and Extravert (E); Sensate (S) and Intuitive (N); Thinker (T) and Feeler (F); Judger (J) and Perceiver (P). Jungian psychological types and Myers-Briggs personality types, however, should not be confused with brain types.
Niednagel links the different categories to different areas of the brain. (Extraversion indicates a strong front brain, Perceiving a strong right brain, etc.) According to Niednagel and his research as described in his book, "Your Key to Sports Success," those connections between category and brain function allow him to make predictions about motor skills and mental strengths.
"I think I can guarantee, hopefully before I'm dead and gone, that this will be substantiated," said Niednagel. "People will begin to see my concerns, my excitement, my joys, my frustrations. All of that. They'll begin to say, `Oh, now I can see why Jon was saying such and such.' "
Study in observation The Springfield-Branson Regional Airport in the shadow of the Ozark Mountains could not be more removed from the ivy towers of academic research and the corridors of corporate power. It is hard to imagine someone who has influenced multimillion-dollar decisions by NBA, NFL, and major league baseball teams waiting by the entrance. But Niednagel picked the airport as a convenient meeting place. He was traveling from home and the Brain Type Institute he established two hours east in Thornfield, Mo., to a Celtics scouting assignment in Oklahoma City.
Wearing a gray track suit that drapes his thin, almost gaunt frame, Niednagel, 57, blends into the surroundings. It is a useful camouflage. He has built a reputation by observing people and drawing influential conclusions.
"Everybody does what I do when they first meet people," said Niednagel. "They just don't apply my methodology. People think this is hocus-pocus, but I'm trying to teach how to do this. I'm not a guru."
Upon first meeting Niednagel, there is an inevitable self-consciousness, as his slightly bulging eyes seemingly scan for clues. He usually can type a person in minutes, though he prefers more time to ensure accuracy. He looks at facial expressions, the glint or glare in a person's eyes. He listens to speech patterns. Brain typing doesn't require a written exam or formal interview.
"When I got into this about three decades ago, I didn't know where I was going with this," said Niednagel. "I just wanted to better understand people. I was hiring people and I knew that people looked their best on the obituary page and resumes. I thought there's got to be some better way of evaluating people."
The Celtics thought the same could be true for players. Last summer, the team officially hired Niednagel as a consultant.
Introverted, according to his own research, Niednagel tries to maintain an unobtrusive presence around the team, though he was easily spotted prior to the 2004 draft at the Celtics' training facility in Waltham, at preseason workouts in Burlington, Vt., and during a December road trip on the West Coast. At the annual NBA predraft camp in Chicago and during college game warmups, Niednagel positions himself under the basket and watches.
"Look, I don't know nothing about the guy's profession," said Bird, the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations. "I've seen him scouting and I've seen him writing stuff down. I don't have a clue what it's all about. Danny sat down and gave me the whole spiel one day. And I finally said, `Hey, Danny, shut up. I can pick these players out without all that stuff.'
"I'd rather go on my instincts. I've been in this game my whole life. Danny's talking about this guy one day and all of a sudden I hear Kevin [McHale] is using him, too [in Minnesota]. Maybe I'm missing something here. I don't want to trash the guy. But I don't get it. Maybe I'm not smart enough. If it works for [Ainge and McHale], God bless them. I know one thing. The guy is making a hell of a lot of money for himself."
Offering another perspective, Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said, "I would challenge anyone to spend 30 honest minutes with Jon and not find what he does compelling. The question then becomes, how and to what extent do you utilize the information?"
Behind the research Prior to joining the Celtics, Niednagel also consulted for the San Diego Chargers, Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Phoenix Suns, among others, for fees that reached into the six-figure range. The Celtics pay Niednagel approximately $200,000 annually, comparable to most mid-level NBA executives.
"Jon is not just a brain typer," said Ainge. "He played basketball. He can see all the factors. I have confidence in my own abilities, but I believe I don't have all the answers just from my own experience. He's a very good evaluator in his way. Whether it's proven or unproven, experts believe in it or not, all I know is that he's had great success over the years. That's all that matters to me. That's the only reason he works with me."
With a bachelor's degree in finance from Long Beach State, Niednagel originally pursued a career with the Chicago Board of Trade as a commodities futures analyst and then real estate. Niednagel has no formal background in psychology or cognitive neuroscience; he taught himself the science needed to prove his theories.
On the long trips to college towns such as Oklahoma City and Fayetteville, Ark., he drives an SUV loaded with brain imaging equipment, nylon caps with protruding wires, and an EEG machine. Niednagel realizes that his anecdotal evidence must find expression in replicable hard science. So, when not scouting for the Celtics, he pores over brightly hued pictures of brains. He also has been exploring a genetic link to brain types. But by casting a wide net with his research, the connections he makes between brain typing and established neuroscience are tenuous.
"He could be a brilliant clinician," said Dr. Stephen Kosslyn, professor of psychology at Harvard University. "It wouldn't surprise me, given all the people who have bought into his work. What he has to say is not totally off the wall, but he seems to have extrapolated far beyond what the actual data would justify.
"As a hypothesis, I find his classification system implausible because the categories don't seem like the kind of things that are tightly mapped to what the brain actually does. But that doesn't mean he hasn't been very good at picking up on laboratory findings and using them as a clinician to come up with something that turns out to have utility.
"It could be that he's a very talented, intuitive person, who's able to use these nuggets that he's picked up in very creative ways. The fact that he's looking to test his system is interesting. That's a whole lot better than just selling a bill of goods and claiming that it's backed up by what's already known."
Prediction on the mark For sports franchises, typing players may be the most exciting application of Niednagel's research. Every executive wants to remove as much guesswork from the draft and trades as possible. That was why the Chargers hired Niednagel prior to the 1998 NFL Draft. While scouts debated whether Manning or Ryan Leaf would develop into the better quarterback, Niednagel believed without a doubt that Manning was wired for success. Many might argue that Manning, with an NFL quarterback for a father, was a safer bet regardless of brain type.
But at the time, it sounded like a bold prediction, one that did not exactly sit well with the San Diego front office. The Chargers selected Leaf, despite his ESTJ brain type, and it proved disastrous. According to Niednagel, ESTJs perform poorly under pressure, developing tunnel vision and a more mechanical throwing motion in stressful situations.
"I couldn't hardly wait to get to the office after seeing Jon on TV one night [discussing the NFL draft]," said former Chargers quarterback coach June Jones. "I told [general manager] Bobby Beathard about Jon. He said, `Yeah, we're paying him.' I said, `We're paying him and we're moving up to draft Ryan Leaf?' But it was so new at that time that nobody trusted it. So that was about a $15 million mistake. I think Danny was one of the first guys that really trusted Jonathan."
In the NBA more than any other professional sport, acquiring talent has become a potential-based proposition. And without padding and helmets, basketball lends itself to the observations necessary for brain typing better than any other sport.
"I've studied championship teams over the last 25 years and there's no pattern whatsoever with successful teams and types," said Ainge. "You've got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar [INFP] and Magic Johnson [ESFP]. You've got Larry Bird [ISTP] and Michael Jordan [ISTP]. You've got Isiah Thomas [ESFP], Shaquille O'Neal [ISTP], and Kobe Bryant [ISFP]. There's more ISTPs in that group than other types, but as far as the teammates and the team built around them, I think you need a combination of energy guys and poised guys and thinking guys.
"I have a tendency to like almost all types. You need some sort of balance. But I look at each individual and how they can help our team and where we're going. It's not like I sit there and go, `Oh, in this year's draft, I need to get an ISTP and an ENFP.' "
Valuable assistance Brain typing as a developmental tool may be the easiest sell for Niednagel. Results often come quicker and more quantitatively than with scouting. A coach or player can talk with Niednagel before a game, then look to the box score. Although he now works exclusively for the Celtics, Niednagel still offers interested athletes suggestions on how to improve.
An ideal basketball ISTP brain type with underwhelming athleticism, New Jersey Nets forward Brian Scalabrine doesn't see the Hall of Fame in his future. But he makes the most of his natural abilities and wiring by calling on the Brain Doctor.
Scalabrine estimates that eight of his 10 best NBA performances followed pregame conversations with Niednagel, including Game 5 of the 2004 Eastern Conference semifinals against Detroit. In the Nets' triple-overtime victory, Scalabrine set playoff career highs for points (17), 3-pointers made and attempted (4 for 4), and field goals made and attempted (6 for 7).
"Jon always can get me to a point where I can just go out there and do what I need to do," said Scalabrine. "I'm a spatial player. I can't just focus in on one thing. I have to take in everything around me. With that [information], I get into a zone.
"I'll never play like Michael Jordan, but by learning about my brain type, I can maximize my own potential. That's what it's all about. Every time I'm struggling a little bit, I call Jon and he gets me back on track.
"Except right before we play the Celtics, he doesn't return my calls. What's up with that?"
Unlike Scalabrine, the Boston players generally don't see Niednagel as a resource; most remain uncertain of exactly what the Brain Doctor does. Forward Tom Gugliotta is one of the few Boston players familiar with brain typing, having learned about the methodology while playing for Phoenix when Ainge was the coach there.
"It definitely has a place," said Gugliotta. "When you get guys with the same skill level, what makes one achieve more than the other? I've learned some of his types and you can begin to see why a certain player does well. It's another piece of knowledge. It's not an end-all, but why not know that about a guy? I would like to know how a guy responds under pressure, with adversity, those type of things."
For now, Niednagel focuses on advising Ainge and Rivers. Ainge dismisses rumors that Niednagel influenced playing time in Phoenix, though such suspicions can be common when Niednagel joins an organization.
When asked if brain typing helped his franchise, Phoenix president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said, "Actually, it was somewhat counterproductive and proved divisive for us because of the doubt that existed on the staff. There were even a few players that questioned Jon's presence and role with the team."
Colangelo would not bring back Niednagel, but McHale would gladly hire the Brain Doctor again.
"I use Jon a lot," said McHale. "But everybody [in the organization] has got to buy in. I bought in at my level. I really think what he does is very, very valuable. But I think you can see how people start thinking it's weird science, like, `Whoa, what is this stuff? This is mystical voodoo, witchcraft stuff.'
"Unfortunately, Jon's faced this different places. I think as time goes by it's going to be very, very commonplace to say, `Oh, this is how this guy is wired.' "
Niednagel grudgingly accepts that the path to a better understanding of brain typing is paved with misunderstandings, which explains why he sounds uncomfortable summarizing his theories for public dissemination. He also remains extremely protective of brain typing.
He trusts Ainge will use brain typing the right way. And he knows the Celtics are more receptive from top to bottom than most organizations.
"He's extremely useful," said Rivers. "Is what he says foolproof? I don't believe that. I don't think anything is foolproof. His importance is telling you the type of personalities people are, then telling you the things you can look for in those personalities. It gives you a start on how certain players are. We should take advantage of it, and we do."