Renaissance Man: Inside the Many Worlds of Nicolas Batum
By Sam Perley
Tucked away in the Normandy region of northwestern France is a commune known as Lisieux, located not too far from the English Channel. The birthplace to a handful of famous politicians, artists and even a former Miss France, Lisieux is also the hometown of Hornets guard Nicolas Batum, who resided in this particular farming community and surrounding region until he was 19 years of age before making his way to the United States. More than eight years later, the soft-spoken, yet quietly-confident Batum has quickly emerged at the forefront of two big-time teams eager for sustained success in the immediate future.
Born in 1988, the now-28-year-old Batum was introduced to the game of basketball at an early age by his Cameroonian father, Richard, who played on the area’s local professional team. Tragedy struck the Batum family in 1991 though, as Richard unexpectedly passed away from a ruptured aneurysm in the middle of a game with wife Sylvie and two-year-old Nic in attendance.
Growing up without a father was imaginably challenging for Nic at a young age. Although he had some early soccer ambitions, Batum quickly evolved into a promising young basketball player throughout his teenage years. He joined the distinguished Le Mans Sarthe Basket academy at age 13 and made his professional debut with the senior team just three years later.
Current Hornets teammate Marco Belinelli’s Italian National Team has squared off against Batum’s French squad numerous times since the two players were adolescents. “He was really talented. He was a really tall, skinny talent. He was for sure one of the best players in France,” Belinelli said. “When I met Nic my first year when I was 15 or 16 years old [and then saw him again two years] later, he was much better. His body was a little bit different - taller, long arms. Immediately, I was 100 percent sure he was a big talent.”
Batum spent three seasons with Le Mans before declaring for the 2008 NBA Draft. Ranked as one of the top international prospects at the time, Batum’s stock may have slipped a bit after he failed a stress test during a pre-draft workout with the Toronto Raptors, causing some teams to fear he could possibly meet the same fate as his late father. Although the concerns were somewhat understandable, additional tests showed everything was alright, and Batum was ultimately selected 25th overall by the Houston Rockets and subsequently traded to the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I didn’t know Nic before he came to Portland. He was one of the rising stars in Europe,” said former Trail Blazers teammate and current Philadelphia 76ers guard Sergio Rodriguez, who recently returned to the NBA following a six-year stint with Real Madrid Baloncesto in Spain. “At the end of the preseason, [Martell Webster] got hurt and it let [Nic] be the starter and he did excellent. He became our top defender. He knows how to play and after that he’s become a big star. I’m happy for how things are going for him because he’s been working hard over the years.”
Batum averaged 11.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists over seven seasons with the Trail Blazers, helping Portland make five playoff appearances. But after failing to advance to the second round of the playoffs in 2015, Portland parted ways with a number of the team’s core players in the ensuing offseason, including LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Batum, choosing to go in the direction of a youth movement instead. Charlotte acquired the Frenchman in exchange for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh shortly before the NBA Draft that summer.
“We’re really excited to acquire Nicolas Batum from Portland. He provides a lot of things to our team that we’re excited about,” said Hornets General Manager Rich Cho at the time of the trade. “He provides a three-point shooting threat. He’s a good defender and can guard multiple positions. He’s going to be a great addition to this team and I know the coaching staff is excited to have him.”
In his first season in Charlotte, Batum put up a career year with averages of 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists across 70 games, solidifying himself as one of the premier swingmen in the NBA. Current Indiana Pacers Head Coach Nate McMillan was in charge of the Trail Blazers when Batum arrived as a rookie in 2008 and is impressed with how far he’s come over the course of his NBA career.
“He’s just grown with his confidence. He’s always been a savvy player. He’s always been a real good defender. He handled the ball a little bit for us [in Portland] but he was at the [power forward position] at that time. Now he’s a big [shooting guard] and just has the ability and skill to do a lot of things,” said McMillan. “He seems to be the guy [Charlotte is] comfortable with in crucial situations handling the ball. He has an all-around game [that] I think has grown and so has his confidence.”
Batum’s thriving NBA career is just one element of his basketball identity. Nearly half a world away, the Hornets guard will soon be tasked with picking up the torch to carry on the legacy of the French National Team, a responsibility that will begin at next summer’s FIBA European Championships.
While many players in the league choose to rest and recuperate during the offseason, Batum has spent each of the last eight summers representing France in major international tournaments, including the Olympics, FIBA World Cup and FIBA European Championships. Year-round basketball can sometimes take a physical toll, as evidenced by the well-publicized, although understandable, withdrawals of numerous American players with regards to Olympic participation this past summer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
For proof of Batum’s loyalty to his country, look no further than the circumstances surrounding the timing of Batum’s recent contract negotiations with the Hornets last July. After spending the early part of the summer in France rehabilitating a foot injury he suffered during the playoffs, Batum jetted back to the United States to meet with Hornets management in Dallas at the start of free agency. Soon after agreeing to a deal, he was quickly on the move again, joining the French National Team for an Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the Philippines, a competition France probably would have won even without Batum’s presence.
As one of only two active Italian-born players in the NBA, Belinelli understands Batum’s commitment to representing France in major international tournaments whenever he has the opportunity to do so.
“It’s an honor to play [in the United States] and represent our fans from [our respective home countries],” Belinelli said. “We try to do our best for us of course but also for all [our] people back home. I really have a love [for Italy] like Nic loves France. We just try to represent our country in the best way.”
The French National Team has been a perennial contender in most recent international tournaments but that hasn’t been the case forever. After failing to medal at a single FIBA European Championships between 1961-2003, France has brought home medals in four of the last six editions of the competition, including its first-ever gold at any major international tournament in 2013. France also finished in the top three at the FIBA World Cup (previously known as the FIBA World Championships) for the first time ever during this stretch, earning a bronze medal in 2014 as Batum earned All-Tournament Team honors. Batum and France also collected a silver and bronze at the 2011 and 2015 European Championships, respectively.
Along with the likes of the San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker and the Utah Jazz’s Boris Diaw, Batum’s current status as one of his country’s top basketball players has certainly not gone unnoticed or unappreciated by many younger generations.
“Nic, Tony and Boris were really the first French guys to make their mark in the NBA,” said Utah Jazz center and fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert. “ Nic became a very important player for the team. The French players need inspiration so those guys are the guys that we look up to.”
Parker, considered by Batum as an “older brother,” has played a particularly big role in helping the Hornets guard develop as a NBA player.
“When [Batum] first arrived to the National Team, I took him under my wing. He was like my little brother and so that is like the relationship we have now. [It’s] like a big-brother, little-brother relationship. I just try to give him good advice and help him grow in his career,” said Parker. “I think he’ll try and do the same thing to try and keep the tradition of winning with the National Team and try and keep it going with the younger guys.”
At the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, there were 11 players on active rosters who have represented France in international play, including Batum. Overall, more than 20 French national players have seen action in the NBA, the third-highest total of any country behind only the United States and Canada.
Times will soon be changing for France though, as veterans like Parker and Ronny Turiaf have retired from international play and long-time members such as Diaw and Florent Pietrus are now in their mid-30’s. In all likelihood, Batum will be largely tasked with carrying on France’s proud basketball tradition, an honor Belinelli believes he is ready for.
“For sure, I think Nic is going to be the most important player for the [French] team next summer in the European Championships,” said Belinelli. “It’s going to be really important for him.”
Gobert added of the French National Team’s future, “We’re excited. It’s going to be a different era for sure. Tony is gone and Boris I think has a few more years. I want to say it’s going to be a different team, but really just different leadership.”
It seems only fitting that in much the same way Parker guided him early on in his career, Batum has continued on a similar practice for the next generation of French players as well. Rookie Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 24th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, has looked up to and emulated Batum for quite some time.
“We play the same position on the court. I like the way he competes. He does everything on the court. He is a defensive player and an offensive player, too. I watch a lot of what he did and I really respect what he’s done in the league,” said Luwawu-Cabarrot.
Just moments after mentioning during this particular interview prior to the Nov. 2 Hornets-76ers contest that he had never been introduced to Batum in person, Luwawu-Cabarrot was summoned from the 76ers locker room to meet the Hornets guard on the court while players for both teams warmed up.
Gobert, who will also be a critical part of the French National Team moving forward, remembers his first encounter with Batum and noted how he has grown to know and understand the Hornets guard more and more as the years go by.
“I was 18 years old. It was before I got drafted so summertime [of 2013]. We have the same agent (Bouna Ndiaye) so we went to Paris and I just had dinner with him and our agent,” recalled Gobert. “He likes to feel that people believe in him. People have high expectations for him. That’s when he plays his best basketball. He is still a very unselfish player but I think when you push him, that’s when he’s at his best. He is a competitor and if you put him in the right situation, he’s going to do everything to help your team win.”
As the son of an interracial marriage, Batum says he never struggled with any identity issues with so much of the French population also having family ties to Africa. He continues to remain close with his Cameroonian roots and does his best to visit his late father’s homeland when his schedule allows it in the offseason. A popular and highly-regarded figure in the West African nation, Batum regularly stays in touch with extended family still living in Cameroon. He even flew more than a dozen relatives to the United States for Christmas several years ago so they could see him play in the NBA for the first time.
One of the proudest moments of Batum’s basketball career took place in the summer of 2015 when he participated in the first-ever NBA Africa Game at Ellis Park Arena in Johannesburg, South Africa. This inaugural showcase pitted a collection of “Team World” NBA players against a “Team Africa” squad that was comprised solely of players either born in African countries or who had parents originally from the continent. This historic contest was the first time an NBA-sanctioned game had ever been played in Africa and is an event Batum considers one of the most memorable and special of his career.
With what seemingly limited free time Batum might have during the offseason, he does philanthropy work with the Batum Foundation, a charity he started in 2010 with his mother, Sylvie, and his sister, Pauline, that provides food, healthcare and education for pregnant women and mothers in different areas of Africa. The Batum Foundation came to be after Sylvie took a trip to Senegal and witnessed several newborn babies being given up for adoption because their mothers could not provide for them.
Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, who was born in Cameroon, said, “It’s always great to have guys like that come and give back to the country. He’s not necessarily from there or grew up there but still recognizes that [his family] is from there and it’s important when you do stuff like that to help your country. We need help back in Africa and guys recognize they’re from there and go help. It’s always great.”
Over the past few years, Batum has also paid for groups of children selected through his basketball camps in France to travel to the United States and take part in an experience they otherwise might not be able to partake in. Not only do these children get the chance to watch a handful of NBA games, but Batum also accompanies them on tours and other outings throughout the local area, helping expose them to an entirely different culture.
A long-time admirer of wheelchair basketball, Batum has helped stage numerous clinics and charity events for the sport all the way from France to Portland and now Charlotte. This past December, Batum surprised the Charlotte Jr. Rollin’ Hornets wheelchair basketball team on a Sunday afternoon the day after returning from a five-game road trip. Batum grabbed a wheelchair of his own to take part in a scrimmage and purchased new equipment and Christmas gifts for the team as well.
Since 2013, Batum has also been a part owner of a French professional team called Caen Basket Calvados, which currently plays in the country’s third-tier national basketball league. He and his wife also gave birth to his first child, a boy named Ayden Richard, during Charlotte’s first-round playoff series with the Miami Heat last April.
Parker, who knows full well about expectations after winning four NBA championships in 15 full seasons with the Spurs, noted that Batum has thrived throughout his career in situations where he feels desired and expectations are the highest, environments that are consistent with both the Charlotte Hornets and French National Team moving forward.
“I think for him it’s important to feel like he’s wanted and [the Hornets] definitely need him to play at his best level. That’s the next step. When you grow in your NBA career as you get better and better, you want more and more responsibilities. [In Charlotte], he’s got a lot of responsibilities,” Parker said.
He might not be the most-talked about or vocal player on this Charlotte Hornets roster, but make no mistake that Nicolas Batum is as invaluable as anyone on the roster, as he is fully prepared and capable of being at the forefront of this organization’s success for many years to come.