Ba­tum broke free from mem­ory of dad’s death

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY RICK BONNELL rbon­[email protected]­lot­teob­ Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick­_bon­nell

No one re­calls Richard Ba­tum ever be­ing sick.

A rugged power for­ward in the sec­ond di­vi­sion of France’s pro bas­ket­ball leagues — the tough guy al­ways ready for a fight — he got fouled that night in 1991, with his wife and son watch­ing from the stands.

He went to the foul line for free throws. Then, with no warn­ing he was ill, he col­lapsed to the floor.

“Gone! Like that,” Ni­co­las Ba­tum re­called with a fin­ger-snap, of his father’s sud­den death at 30 of a still un­de­ter­mined cause.

That’s Ba­tum’s first mem­ory. His worst mem­ory. He was 21⁄2 years old then, and had no idea that mo­ment would one day al­most de­rail his ca­reer.

“I had to grow up with this,” Ba­tum, now 31, re­called. “Peo­ple ask­ing, ‘Will this hap­pen to Nico?’ And then it all came back again be­fore the draft.”

With the Hor­nets play­ing the Milwaukee Bucks on Fri­day in the NBA’s first reg­u­lar-sea­son game in Paris, Ba­tum and his Paris-based agent, Bouna N’di­aye, dis­cussed in de­tail with the Ob­server how Richard Ba­tum’s early death sparked a young Nic in bas­ket­ball, how its af­ter­ef­fect could have ended his NBA ca­reer be­fore it started, and how the mem­ory haunted Nic when his son, Ay­den, was an in­fant.


Nic turned 31 in De­cem­ber.

“So many peo­ple in my fam­ily were scared for me. I made it” past his father’s pass­ing, Ba­tum said.

That fear — would he, too, die young? — sur­faced con­sciously and sub­con­sciously for many years. While he was just be­yond in­fancy — his younger sis­ter a month old — Ba­tum re­calls watch­ing his father’s death as if the funeral was last week.

“I re­mem­ber it all. When you see your dad die be­fore your eyes, it’s so dif­fi­cult to grow up with,” Ba­tum said.

Tele­vi­sion crews sur­rounded their home the next day. Ba­tum couldn’t com­pre­hend the fi­nal­ity of it all, that his father had passed away.

“It’s a hard thing to grow up with,” he said. “I had to do some­thing for him.

“... I started play­ing very early. I felt I had to do some­thing in bas­ket­ball to fin­ish it.”

Ba­tum grew up in a small town in the Nor­mandy re­gion, and it quickly be­came ap­par­ent he had the bas­ket­ball tal­ent his dad pos­sessed.

At 12, he was sent to a school with sports spe­cial­iza­tion to prac­tice daily. By 14, he was play­ing and liv­ing in Le Mans, a 90-minute drive from his home, ef­fec­tively an ap­pren­tice pro­fes­sional, com­ing home only on oc­ca­sional va­ca­tions when his team and na­tional age-group obli­ga­tions al­lowed.

“You can’t be a nor­mal teenager,” Ba­tum said of his up­bring­ing. “You fin­ish school in May or June and then you go straight to na­tional team to pre­pare for Eurobas­ket. Then, train­ing camp starts in Au­gust. You maybe have 10 days” to be a kid.

But the trade-off felt worth it when 19-year-old Ba­tum, now 6-foot-8, was on the NBA’s radar. Tony Parker, six years older, had shown with the San An­to­nio Spurs that French­men could be NBAready. (One of Ba­tum’s dreams was to play with Parker, which hap­pened last sea­son with the Hor­nets.)

Ba­tum trav­eled to North Amer­ica for the stan­dard work­outs and phys­i­cals that pre­cede ev­ery draft. That’s when his ca­reer nearly un­rav­eled.


Ba­tum wept un­con­trol­lably in June 2008, re­peat­ing, “Why me? Why now?”

N’di­aye, who rep­re­sents nu­mer­ous French play­ers, in­clud­ing Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert, replied, “Trust me. We will still make it hap­pen.”

Ba­tum’s draft sta­tus was crum­bling. An elec­tro­car­dio­gram raised con­cern dur­ing his work­out with the Rap­tors, and Toronto’s team physi­cian asked if any of Ba­tum’s fam­ily mem­bers had heart is­sues or had died young. Ba­tum told the Rap­tors about his father dy­ing at 30. That set off pre-draft con­cern around the league.

“He was red-flagged — no one would work him out,” N’di­aye re­called of the re­ac­tion.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ba­tum felt the NBA was ques­tion­ing his in­tegrity: “I had to prove I was in good con­di­tion. I was ac­cused, like, ‘He’s ready to lie about his dad’s death for money!’ I was 19 years old and new to this coun­try. I was talk­ing to my mom ev­ery day” in a panic.

N’di­aye sent Ba­tum to an elite hos­pi­tal — the Cleve­land Clinic — for an ex­pe­dited workup. A heart spe­cial­ist found noth­ing of con­cern, but be­fore mak­ing a fi­nal ap­praisal, he needed the records of Richard Ba­tum’s death. Ex­cept there were none. No au­topsy had been per­formed. His of­fi­cial cause of death was un­known. The pre­sump­tion was ei­ther a heart at­tack or a rup­tured aneurysm, but the Cleve­land doc­tor needed more clar­ity. They even­tu­ally tracked down the doc­tor who pro­nounced Richard Ba­tum’s death; he’d re­tired and moved to Africa.

Ba­tum and N’di­aye joined a con­fer­ence call with the two doc­tors con­fer­ring on what might have caused Richard Ba­tum’s death.

“Just bizarre. There was no way to make this easy,” N’di­aye said of that call. “Nic’s mom had never re­ally talked about ex­actly what hap­pened, and he was just a baby at the time. This was his first time with doc­tors” spec­u­lat­ing as to what oc­curred.

There seemed a real pos­si­bil­ity Ba­tum would go un­drafted.

“It re­ally did feel like, ‘Ei­ther you’ll (be cleared to) play bas­ket­ball, or go home and do some­thing else en­tirely.’ ” Ba­tum said. “That was the tough­est mo­ment of my life.”

The doc­tor in Cleve­land signed off on Ba­tum’s health, but that wasn’t suf­fi­cient to stop his po­ten­tial drift in the draft. N’di­aye started call­ing teams with later first-round picks. Ba­tum’s draft ceil­ing was torn away, through no fault of his own; it was time to find his floor.

“Two days be­fore the draft, I was no longer sure he’d be picked by a team in the first round,” N’daiye re­called. “I al­ways knew the Spurs were in­ter­ested, par­tic­u­larly with Tony Parker’s suc­cess, so I called R.C. (Bu­ford, the Spurs gen­eral man­ager).

He said, ‘We love him as a bas­ket­ball player. We just need to know’ he’s healthy long-term.

Bu­ford got Ba­tum to a sec­ond spe­cial­ist in Texas, who also signed off on his health. He was drafted 25th over­all — six spots be­fore the end of the first round, and one spot be­fore the Spurs’ pick — by the Hous­ton Rock­ets, but headed to the Port­land Trail Blaz­ers in a pre­ar­ranged trade.

Ba­tum started as a rookie and through most of his seven sea­sons in Port­land. He had a ca­reer-best sea­son with the Hor­nets fol­low­ing a 2015 trade. That re­sulted in N’di­aye ne­go­ti­at­ing a five-year, $120 mil­lion con­tract, still the largest in Char­lotte sports his­tory.

Through all that — a decade as an NBA starter, get­ting mar­ried and hav­ing a son — Ba­tum never quite shook the fear that his DNA des­tined him for an early death.


Grow­ing up, Ba­tum grew used to peo­ple know­ing him as the kid whose dad died on the bas­ket­ball court. When he came to the United States, he was of­ten re­minded of Hank Gath­ers, who col­lapsed and died in 1990 while play­ing for Loy­ola Mary­mount.

This wasn’t just strangers adding to Ba­tum’s la­tent fears, it was those close to him: “So many mem­bers of my fam­ily were scared for me (grow­ing up, say­ing), ‘What if this hap­pens to Nico?’ ”

His fear came to a head in late sum­mer 2016, with Ba­tum play­ing for France in the Olympics in Brazil. For the first time, his wife, Aure­lie, and his son, Ay­den (whose mid­dle name is Richard) were both in the stands to watch him play — eerily sim­i­lar to his rec­ol­lec­tion of his father’s last day.

“I thought, ‘Whoa!’ That was tough,’ ” Ba­tum said. “My Dad died at 30 years old. He’d never had health is­sues, ever. And he goes like that!

“... My fam­ily said, ‘Nic, stop think­ing about that: That won’t hap­pen to you!’ But it both­ered me some­times on the court. It’s just ‘Why?’ ”

In De­cem­ber, Ba­tum’s 31st birth­day pro­vided a clo­sure of sorts:

“I’m 31 — I’m older than him. Now I could say, ‘You made it. You’re free.’

“It’s over.”

JEFF SINER [email protected]­lot­teob­

Char­lotte Hor­nets for­ward Ni­co­las Ba­tum, cen­ter, was 21⁄2 years old when he watched his father col­lapse on a bas­ket­ball court in France. Ba­tum had feared he might suf­fer the same fate.

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