For your information: The Boston Globe, after this article was written, corrected the error stating that Jonathan Niednagel helped the Minnesota Timberwolves in picking Marcus Taylor of Michigan State.
By Peter May, Globe Staff, 5/18/2003
‘‘You can take Red Auerbach, Jerry West, Phil Jackson. I’d take Jon Niednagel.”
-Danny Ainge, July 21, 2002
He’s called, simply, The Brain Doctor. He’s well-known around the NBA and in other sports as well. He has advised Kevin McHale, Kiki Vandeweghe, and John Gabriel among NBA general managers. New Celtics basketball boss Danny Ainge swears by him.
”The guy has more credibility in my eyes than anyone I’ve been around in the world of sports in terms of talent evaluation,’‘ Ainge said. ”He has a unique talent.”
The brain doc is Jonathan Niednagel. He runs the Brain Typing Institute in Thornhill, Mo., and he has been brain-typing athletes as to their future success for some time. His biggest claim to fame: He strongly advised the San Diego Chargers not to select Ryan Leaf in the NFL draft, because his observations of Leaf pointed to a man headed for a meltdown.
This past Wednesday, while Ainge was coming out in support of Antoine Walker and Jim O’Brien, Niednagel was right there with him in Boston. Ainge said the two converse on a weekly basis.
‘‘I don’t know if I can afford him, but I’d like to have him come work for the Celtics,” said Ainge.
That isn’t likely to happen soon because Niednagel is employed, exclusively, by the Denver Nuggets.
”He works for us,” Denver GM Vandeweghe said Friday.
Niednagel has spent more than three decades studying what he calls ”brain types,” of which he says there are 16. He can do this by simply watching an athlete, either in person, on tape, or both. Each brain type is based on four psychological criteria. Michael Jordan’s type, for instance, is ”ISTP” (Intuitive, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving). That, according to Neidnagel, is the best type to have, the total package, for an NBA player.
Undeniably, Niednagel has had a big influence on Ainge since the two met some 14 years ago. Ainge admits he was skeptical when he first heard Niednagel’s theories.
”It was like, `Come on, give me a break,”’ Ainge said. ”I didn’t buy into it and I was teasing him.”
Only when he started coaching did Ainge start seeing some of the things that Niednagel and he had discussed. When he took over the Suns’ head job, he hired Niednagel.
”He was absolutely fantastic,’‘ Ainge said.
Some in the Phoenix organization might disagree. They still feel Ainge relied too heavily on Niednagel. One story circulating is that Antonio McDyess decided to leave Phoenix for Denver as a free agent in part because of playing time issues he felt were dictated by Niednagel. Ainge said that is a crock.
”The single biggest lie, ever,” he said. ‘‘The people in Phoenix who say that should look internally. When no one in the organization could reach Antonio during that period, the one phone call he did return was to Jon.”
There are a number of testimonials to Niednagel’s work on his website, ranging from Ainge to Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden to Sammy Sosa to 49ers boss Terry Donahue. His work also led the Suns to select Steve Nash in the first round of the 1996 draft. (The Suns traded him to Dallas for three players and a draft pick, which Phoenix used to take Shawn Marion.)
”It’s a full step beyond what you may be looking at it,” reported Gabriel, the general manager of the Orlando Magic. He is listed on the testimonials page as well, although he said last week that he hasn’t used Niednagel for a while because the doc got too expensive. (Niednagel said his fee was in ”six figures” when asked about it on ESPN’s ”Outside the Lines” last summer.)
”He looked at [Tracy] McGrady coming out of high school and identified him as a must-get guy,” Gabriel said. ”We used that as part of our process when we were going after T-Mac in free agency.”
Then there’s Larry Bird’s thoughts about it, as explained in his book, ”Bird Watching.”:
”Danny has this guy he hired for his Phoenix team that can look at your facial expressions and your brain waves and tell you what kind of person you are. It’s this formula that determines if you have leadership potential or not. Danny is really into it and he was telling me about it. I’m sitting here listening and thinking, `This guy has lost his mind.’ I was laughing my butt off. He said, `Larry, you are an intense, high-personality guy. A lot of serial killers have the same profile as you.’ I said, `Yeah, Danny, I ought to kill you for saying that.”’
Bird said he relies on his gut to evaluate players.
A clinical psychologist in Davis, Calif., Dr. Terry Sandbek, was also on the ”Outside The Lines” show and he said Niednagel’s system was based on ”hype and hope – no science at all.”
Niednagel, who declined to be interviewed for this report, believes executives, too, can be ”wired,” which is his word for having everything in place from a brain-typing perspective. In last fall’s NBA preview, ESPN The Magazine went to Niednagel for his advice on which general manager was the closest to Jerry West. His response: Vandeweghe (which might explain why he’s under contract to them; as Vandeweghe said, ”flattery will get you a good job”).
At Ainge’s urging, McHale consulted with Niednagel prior to last year’s draft, when the Timberwolves had only a second-round pick. The pick, Marcus Taylor of Michigan State, didn’t pan out.
Vandeweghe said he uses Niednagel not so much from a judgment standpoint but from an improvement standpoint.
“I think when he was in Phoenix, it was, `OK, tell us about the player. Does he perform well under pressure?’ To me, it’s much more,” Vandeweghe said. ”It’s, `How can I help the player to be better? What’s the best way to get through to him?’ It goes a bit beyond basketball.”
Ainge said after leaving the Suns that if he ever headed up a sports organization, as he is now, that Niednagel would be his first hire. That won’t happen as long as the Nuggets have him under contract. But, as Ainge noted, ”Somewhere down the line, I’d like to have him working for the Celtics. Maybe not this year, but hopefully soon. He really has a gift.”