Nicolas Batum: Home Away From Home

By Sam Perley

For Nicolas Batum, staying in touch with his ancestral roots is a huge part of his life. Despite spending the last eight years playing in the NBA, the Hornets guard maintains a deep connection towards the continent of Africa, which continues to hold extremely special meaning to the 27-year-old Frenchman.

The son of Cameroonian father, Richard, and French mother, Sylvie, Batum was born and raised in the town of Lisieux, which is a little over two hours northwest of Paris. Like Nicolas, Richard also played professional basketball for 10 years in France. Tragically in 1991, Richard collapsed during a game in Autun, France after suffering an aneurysm and later passed away, leaving behind Sylvie, a two-year-old Nicolas and two-month-old daughter, Pauline.

With the closest direct relative to his Cameroonian heritage suddenly gone, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Nicolas had completely lost connection to his African roots. Instead, Batum’s ties to Cameroon only seemed to strengthen as he got older, even after moving to Portland in 2008, where he spent the first seven years of his NBA career. No matter how much time had passed, Batum said there was never any growing distance between he and his Cameroonian relatives, even after his father’s death.

“Yes, of course [we’re still connected],” said Batum. “I try and stay in touch with them and talk to them. I’ve got family from Cameroon and in France too. We’re very close.

During the NBA offseason and when he’s not suiting up for the French National team, Batum does his best to make his way back to Africa any chance he gets.

“I try and go back [to Cameroon] as much as I can and visit my family, my hometown and those people back there. Like I said, I’m from France too, but I’ve got roots and family [in Cameroon]. To go and see my family in Cameroon, that’s a different culture and I love it,” he said.

In his final season with the Trail Blazers last year, Batum flew a large contingent of his Cameroonian relatives to Portland for Christmas. During their two-week stay in the Pacific northwest, many of them got to see Batum play in an NBA game for the first time ever.

Batum also manages to stay involved in Cameroon from a humanitarian standpoint despite spending most of his time in the United States. A handful of years back, Nicolas, Sylvie and Pauline started the Batum Foundation, an organization that provides young pregnant women across West Africa with essentials like shelter, nutrition, education, development and autonomy. Many of these women have either been abandoned by their families or impregnated under involuntary circumstances.

One of Batum’s proudest moments as a person of African descent was his participation in the sold-out NBA Africa Game this past summer in Johannesburg, South Africa. In what he hopes will become an annual event, NBA players of direct or first-generation African heritage scrimmaged a team of “world players” in the first league-sanctioned game ever played on the continent.

“It was amazing. Great experience to be one of the first people to play an NBA game in Africa. That’s history. To be a part of that was huge and to be an African, I was really proud about it. People in Cameroon watched the game. All the guys on the African team knew it was something special. We knew we did something special for the continent so we’re really proud about it,” said Batum.

Along with Batum, other members of Team Africa included former Charlotte basketball players Bismack Biyombo of the Toronto Raptors and Boris Diaw of the San Antonio Spurs. Miami’s Luol Deng, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka and Minnesota’s Gorgui Dieng were also teammates with Batum for this exhibition game. Even NBA Hall of Famers, Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon, managed to find some minutes on the Africa squad.

“We knew before the game in the locker room, ‘Guys we’re doing something special.’ It’s pretty cool when you do something unique and it’s the first time you’re doing that,” Batum added.

Although there was no Black History Month growing up in France, Batum still became very knowledgeable of the pioneers who paved the way for equality during the Civil Rights era in the United States.

“I studied at school in France about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and all those people,” he said. “It’s good to have a month sometimes to acknowledge or recognize those people trying to fight for black people’s rights. We see trouble all around the world and not only [in the U.S.]. By doing something like [a Black History Month], we’re trying to get better every day. I hope one day there will be no violence and no war.”

As for growing up biracial, Batum never seemed to encounter any problems in terms of identity, which are sometimes present amongst children of mixed-race couples.

“[Being biracial] was not a big deal because myself and a lot of [French] people have roots from Africa. So we don’t do Black History Month but we have a lot of black culture in France [and] a lot of African culture as well. U.S. and France are great countries because they have so many different people,” said Batum.

“I mean, when you come [to the U.S.] you’ve got the black culture, you’ve got [Hispanic] culture, you’ve got the Asian culture, so lots of different stuff. Same thing in France. It wasn’t challenging to be raised there,” he added. 

Though he didn’t grow up in Cameroon, Batum’s connection to his African heritage remains fortified and strong, even in the aftermath of his father’s passing. Although he’s often catering year-round to the rigors surrounding a professional basketball career, the Hornets guard still manages to utilize an admirable amount of his time not only helping those in his father’s native Cameroon but many others across the continent of Africa.