BOULDER — In the waning minutes of Colorado’s in-state rivalry victory a week ago, Evan Battey drove hard to the bucket to put home a tough “and-one” layup that gave the Buffs the lead for good.
Then, the freshman forward let loose his emotions.
“He does this one thing where one of his eyes closes and he (gets an angry face) and starts Hulk-slamming around, beating his arms against his chest,” explained sophomore D’Shawn Schwartz. “We started calling him Ralph, like the buffalo … And he did that after the and-one against Colorado State.”
The opportunity to make an impact for Colorado is undeniably sweet for the big man. Battey, 6-foot-8, 264 pounds, finally made his collegiate debut this season after eligibility and health issues kept him out of competitive basketball for over two years.
At 13 years old — and dealing with an array of personal and family problems — Battey was forced to repeat ninth grade, eventually costing him eligibility for his senior year of high school and, eventually, his 2017-18 season with the Buffs. Then, while sidelined by the NCAA’s eligibility rules, the 20-year-old suffered a stroke during a pickup game in his native View Park, Calif.
“When I think about how I was punished for two seasons (of ineligibility) for the struggles I had at 13, and then everything that happened with the stroke — the negative thoughts I had immediately afterwards — there was a lot to overcome,” Battey said. “I’ve been working back for this season, and this opportunity, so there’s no shortage of emotion or energy from me, ever. I have a new appreciation for even being out there.”
Battey has emerged as one of CU’s three key forwards along with sophomore Tyler Bey and junior Lucas Siewert. Battey is averaging 9.1 points and 4.1 rebounds, and in addition to the game-changing dunk against the Rams, he also put up 14 points in Tuesday’s blowout of South Dakota, which tied for a game high.
It’s the type of quick assimilation into Division I that Battey appeared on track toward prior to the stroke last Dec. 26. A renewed commitment to strength and conditioning led him to lose about 20 pounds.
Finding his fire again
During that fateful pickup game at a 24 Hour Fitness in Los Angeles, the right side of Battey’s body fell asleep from head to toe. He couldn’t stand up, couldn’t move his arm. Speaking was an issue, as was trying to text his mom. Then, a seizure in the ambulance on the way to the hospital complicated the already scary tableau of a guy who, just two days before, made waves on Twitter with a video of eye-popping one-handed dunks.
“After that, I was basically learning how to be a toddler again… chewing, talking, pronouncing syllables,” he said.
Battey’s rehabilitation continued for about five months, a grind of physical and speech therapy. During that time, he admits he doubted if he’d ever get back to full health.
“I lost myself for a little bit because I couldn’t talk,” he said. “The hardest thing — and it continues to be hard — is definitely my speech. I still struggle with it sometimes, and I have to take my time speaking, which is hard because I was such a great public speaker before the stroke.”
But the lure of a return to hoops — and the support of his Colorado basketball family — willed Battey back onto the court. Despite the fact that an array of medical tests couldn’t determine exactly what caused his stroke, the forward set course to re-chisel his frame and re-stoke his fire for the game.
CU coach Tad Boyle told Battey he had a scholarship whether he decided to play or not.
“He gave me time for that (decision), but I wanted to play,” Battey said. “I’m grateful to play. And my teammates have been behind me the whole way.”
And though the stroke first made Battey’s smile slightly askew, his high-wattage grin has since returned to form, as have his basketball skills. With each game, he’s knocking off more rust.
“I know how good he is because he’s consistently shown it to me over the last two years,” Buffs point guard McKinley Wright said. “He’s a forward who can guard positions one through five. He’s a very good big, and the whole nation will see it soon.”
“Scratching the surface”
Asked whether he believes he’s only “scratching the surface” Battey hesitated to answer while Schwartz responded confidently.
“Yes,” Schwartz asserted.
To which Battey laughed, and then offered his own take on whether his ceiling for this season is much higher than fans are already seeing. “I don’t know how to answer that without being too full of myself, but I think so,” he said.
With that in mind, Battey also knows there’s also plenty of learning to do, as a freshman just getting used to Division I basketball.
“He’s not necessarily always going to be able to physically overpower guys in college, but when they double him, it’s a dangerous deal because he can find the open man pretty well,” Boyle said.
“Most importantly, what I want to see is continual improvement with him, game to game, practice to practice. Obviously we knew there was going to be rust on his game, and we saw that in the first couple games. But every time he steps on the floor, he seems to be more confident.”
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