France won the World Cup for the first time in 1998, which made just about every kid in the country want to devote himself to soccer.
Including a tall basketball prodigy named Nicolas Batum.
“When France won the World Cup, I was 9 years old. I said to my mother, ‘I want to play soccer! I want to play soccer!’ She said, ‘No, you stick with basketball.’ I was mad at my mom. ...
“Sometimes it’s good to listen to your mom.”
Indeed, that course of action worked out well. At 15, having excelled in age-group tournaments, Batum started practicing with professionals in France. At 17, he signed his first pro contract. At 19, he was drafted into the NBA, and seven years later he’s been asked to play a key role in putting the Charlotte Hornets back on track.
Coach Steve Clifford wants to run much of the offense through Batum, similar to how the Orlando Magic once did with small forward Hedo Turkoglu. Batum will also play a major role defensively, since small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will likely miss the entire season following shoulder surgery.
The Hornets’ front-office staff believes Batum’s up to this responsibility because key decision-makers know him well. General manager Rich Cho had the same position in Portland before coming to Charlotte, and assistant general manager Chad Buchanan was with the Trail Blazersthroughout Batum’s seven seasons there.
What does Buchanan know about Batum?
“He comes across as a very quiet player, but he’s one of the most intense, competitive kids we had in our time in Portland,” Buchanan said.
“He internalizes that competitiveness. But he’s very driven to win, very team-first. He has a very high IQ, always knows what everyone on the court has to do and where they’re at. Such a student of the game.”
Asked to elaborate, Buchanan told a story about Batum arriving inPortland for a pre-draft interview. The Blazers asked Batum if he’d mind spending part of his rookie season in the NBA’s developmental league to get more experience.
Batum said he’d wouldn’t mind that, but the question was moot because he’d quickly be in the Trail Blazers’ rotation. Sounds cocky, right?
Except at 19, Batum started 73 of 82 games as a rookie for a Blazers team that won 54 games.
The Hornets traded for Batum, a 6-foot-8 wing player, in June, sending former lottery picks Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh to Portland to make the deal. Batum welcomed the change; he liked Portland but sensed a shakeup was coming. All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge chose not to re-sign, instead heading to the San Antonio Spurs. Then shooting guard Wesley Matthews agreed to sign with the Dallas Mavericks.
Entering the last season on his current contract, Batum was ready for a fresh start. The Hornets were offering an expanded role on a team that has struggled offensively. Batum saw opportunity.
“This is a rising team. We’re going to surprise people,” Batum said. “Coach says that every day in practice. People don’t expect anything from us. We’re going to prove we’re legit. We’re going to do something special.”
The regular season starts Wednesday night in Miami. The Hornets are coming off an injury-ravaged 33-49 season. Cho made over roughly half the roster in the offseason, acquiring seven new players. Most of those roster changes were about improving offensively.
“The defensive concept has always been nice. They’ve been top-10 the past two or three years,” Batum said. “Now they’re trying to fix the offense. Guys like Jeremy Lin, Spencer Hawes, Jeremy Lamb, myself, Frank (Kaminsky) – we can correct that.”
The Hornets brought him in at a salary of $11.68 million (third-highest behind center Al Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker) to be a decision-maker. Coach Steve Clifford tells a story from the preseason about Batum asking a question about a defensive wrinkle. Except this particular strategy hadn’t yet been covered in the installation phase of training camp.
So Clifford asked Batum how he knew the strategy. Batum replied that he spent the summer watching Hornets video from last season.
Coaches love that stuff.
A family legacy
Batum started playing basketball at 3 because “everyone in my family plays basketball.”
Particularly so his father, Richard, who was a pro in France before dying of a ruptured aneurysm. He died on the basketball court, with 2-year-old Nic and his mother watching the game.
“That’s a terrible memory,” Batum once told Sports Illustrated. “I just remember he got fouled and went back to the free-throw line to take his free throws, and then he was falling down…
“I can remember later, when I wake up, all the TV stations around and my mom crying and all the craziness going around.”
Despite that early tragedy, Batum grew up an easy-going and adaptive sort. At 15, he began daily scrimmages against pros nearly twice his age. That developed a toughness that has served him well.
Batum says he owes a lot to Kenny Gregory, a former Kansas player who was a pro in Europe at the time. Gregory taught Batum just how difficult this would be.
“He was athletic, very strong, could post up and shoot. He kicked my (butt) for two years in practice,” Batum recalled. “He taught me I could either get scared and give up or say, “No! I’m going to respond and give it back to you!’
“He never stopped pushing me. It was tough, but that’s where I got to the next step, when teammates started trusting me.”
Never before has an NBA team asked so much of Batum. He was fine with that in Portland, playing a support role next to Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard.
That doesn’t mean he’ll shy away from something new.
“I had a good run with the Blazers. It was a wonderful run in a wonderful city, but I knew that era was over. It’s best to move on for everybody,” said Batum, who will play shooting guard and small forward with the Hornets.
He doesn’t equate “first option” as necessarily taking the most shots. His skill set is as much facilitator as shot-maker. Cho and Buchanan have reminded him there may be nights when he’ll have to take 15 to 18 shots a night, and no one will see that as selfish.
But a play in the preseason seemed to define his approach. Batum and Jefferson were in a side pick-and-roll that sprung Batum for an open 16-foot baseline jump shot. He noticed Walker diagonally across the court, wide open. So Batum rotated the ball to Walker, who missed a 3-pointer.
Not to worry, Batum said of the play. The soccer aficionado was aspiring to play what he calls “the beautiful game”
“When I hear the coach say, ‘Nic is going to be the first or second option’ it’s not about taking 25 shots. The first option is to find the best shot,” Batum said.
Batum spent much of the summer with French national team teammates Tony Parker and Boris Diaw. He quizzed them on what makes the San Antonio Spurs such consistent winners.
“Tony told me the best strength of the Spurs is nobody cares which player wins the game. All they care about is, ‘We’re going to win that game in the end.’ ” Batum recalled.
“We have that mentality. Nobody is worried about numbers. It’s about, ‘Who’s going to win this game? Them or us?’ And that’s why I like this team.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell