Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Throughout the inordinate level of turbulence experienced by Evan Battey in a basketball career that already feels weathered beyond its years, his positive energy and an unflappable demeanor have been as impenetrable as the hulking shoulders sitting atop his sturdy 6-foot-8 frame.
When family drama and the immaturity typical of a young teenager conspired to convince his mother he needed a change of scenery when forced to repeat ninth grade, Battey gamely accepted the challenge and developed, on and off the floor, into one of the top prep post players in southern California.
When that repeating of ninth grade eventually cost him his eligibility as a senior in high school and again as a freshman at the University of Colorado, Battey shook off the respective setbacks, winning a prestigious character award for his off-court role as a senior in high school and dedicating himself to improving his conditioning for the Buffs when the NCAA sat him down for the 2017-18 season.
Making the best of a bad situation always has been a focal point of Battey’s world view. So in late December, when a groggy Battey turned to his half-paralyzed face to his mother and tearfully lamented, “Why is this happening to me?” Rosalind Lewis knew her son was in trouble.
“I think I’ve heard him say that one other time in his life, and that was when he was first denied to play his senior year,” said Lewis. “There is really no good answer for anything bad that happens to us. My comment to him was there will never be a satisfactory answer for why anything happens to us. The only thing you can say at that point is, ‘What now? What do I do now?'”
Evan Battey, in the best shape of his life, had just suffered a stroke. In response, Battey did what he always has done. He dedicated himself to traversing the long road to once again get back on the floor.
“I felt like I could do anything. I felt like I could fly,” Battey said. “I didn’t understand. I felt like I was in the best shape of my life when this happened to me.”
On Dec. 4 last year, Battey posted a before-and-after picture on his Twitter account, with the photo on the left from five months previous depicting a young man still carrying a fair amount of baby fat beside a current shot of a sculpted forward ready to trade elbows with any post player in the Pac-12 Conference.
On Dec. 24, Battey posted a video that drew raves across Buffs Nation, with Battey lobbing a one-bounce alley-oop to himself before flying through the lane for a one-handed catch-and-jam.
Just two days later Battey was playing a pickup game in is southern California hometown of View Park when his legs abruptly began to falter. A wave of heavy fatigue gave way to a draining sensation that flooded the entirety of his right side. He tried crying out to his friends, but all of the sudden speech was a major challenge. Battey staggered to the side of the court and tried texting his mother. When she ordered him to call, a friend had to take over Battey’s phone.
“I don’t think I thought it was as serious as it was when they first called me. I knew something was wrong,” Lewis said. “I think it was the comment about talking weird that triggered me. I don’t think I knew the whole face (issue) at that time. That didn’t sound right. But I really didn’t think it was a serious as it was.”
That changed after Lewis picked up her son and took him to the hospital. Almost immediately Battey was transferred to a stroke center at a different hospital, and along the way he suffered a seizure in the ambulance. His father, Earl Battey, met him at the second hospital and couldn’t believe the state of a son who had just been showing off his newfound physical prowess.
“It really scared the heck out of me. Just two days before he was showing me this video of him dunking this basketball where he’s throws the ball up in the air, he bounces out of the air and grabs it one-handed and slams it. How can it be?” Earl Battey said. “Here is a kid who’s actually in the best shape of his life. This kid came home with his shirt off flexing on me and everything showing me his new defined body. Now here I am standing there in the emergency room at his side.”
It would be a long road back toward a basketball career that, at the time, remained in serious doubt. Yet if there is one college basketball player whose unique life experiences might actually have prepared him for this sort of challenge, it was Battey.
Finding his way
It’s no secret how Battey came to wield such light feet on a 6-foot-8 frame.
Battey’s grandfather, Earl Battey Sr., was a five-time Major League baseball All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner who played for the pennant-winning Chicago White Sox of 1959 before a stellar run with the Minnesota Twins. Battey’s father, a longtime officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, played baseball at UCLA. And an uncle, Ed Sanders, won a gold medal in boxing at the 1952 Olympics.
While Battey’s size and athleticism were evident early, he struggled in the classroom during adolescence. Lewis, a technical manager in the aerospace industry, and Earl Battey divorced around that time, and Lewis considered making her son repeat the eighth grade. She didn’t, but ultimately reversed that decision after Battey’s ninth grade year. She also made Battey change schools.
It was a decision made by a mother concerned strictly about her son’s current health, and not at all about what future eligibility ramifications might ensue. However in hindsight, given how the extra year of ninth grade cost Battey his senior year of high school and his first year at CU, Lewis wishes she would have listened to her first instinct and kept her son in eighth grade another year.
“I had actually prepared to move him in eighth grade from one school to the next to repeat eighth grade. But I didn’t do it,” Lewis said. “I didn’t think he was ready for high school and that proved to be true.”
Soon, however, Battey settled in at Villa Park High School, becoming as popular off the floor as he was dominant on it. When Battey was ruled ineligible as a senior, he stayed at his high school instead of moving to a prep school and helped his team as a student-coach. His selflessness earned Battey the Orange County Athletic Directors Association’s Athlete of Character Award.
The eligibility setback didn’t deter recruiters, and Battey arrived at CU eager to shake off the rust. Yet in the final workout last summer before the Buffs traveled to Italy for a series of exhibition games, Battey turned an ankle. He made the trip, but couldn’t compete. A few months later, the NCAA ruled Battey’s five years of high school would keep him on the sideline for his first year at CU.
Though the decision robbed the Buffs of a player coach Tad Boyle later said would have been a big part of his rotation, Battey took yet another frustrating setback in stride. He dedicated himself to his strength and conditioning challenges, trimming the fat from a frame Battey estimates hovered around 300 pounds when he visited CU a year earlier. Given the way the season was playing out, with the youthful Buffs likely to miss the NCAA Tournament, saving a year of eligibility during a rebuilding year hardly felt like the worst turn of events in the world for Battey.
The events of Dec. 26, 2017, however, certainly did.
“After all the stuff Evan has been through I was just like, ‘What else does he have to get over?'” Earl Battey said. “I was really praying first of all for his health and hopefully that he would be able to get back on the court. I just wanted him to be of sound mind and body.”
Battey got there, eventually. Yet the past six months have provided an entirely new level of adversity for a young man already accustomed to plenty.
Battey rejoined the Buffs when they traveled through Los Angeles to play their final two games before the end of the semester break. Over the next few months he suffered through every medical exam imaginable. And after what felt like gallons of drawn blood, countless MRIs, and measurements of every ilk, doctors in California and at CU ultimately discovered…nothing.
To date, no source has been uncovered or detected as to why Battey suffered the stroke. It turns out that’s not entirely unusual, particularly when strokes afflict someone so young. And in terms of resuming his basketball career, failing to discover a specific cause can be a little more encouraging. If it turned out Battey had some sort of genetic cardiovascular issue, his CU career would have been over before it truly began.
“I was initially scared at first. If they couldn’t find the cause, I wasn’t going to play,” Battey said. “But I’m past that. I just want to play.”
Battey still is battling through some speech issues, though that has improved significantly over the past six months. At first the gregarious, quick-witted young man who never was shy about speaking up in the classroom suddenly had to deal with a fair amount of self-consciousness about his slurred speech. As he recovered and progressed through speech therapy sessions, those misgivings faded.
Physically, Battey has been monitored extensively at every workout with heart rate monitors documenting every movement on the floor. His parents are squarely behind Battey’s comeback bid, even if the root cause of his stroke remains a mystery. Battey has improved steadily and expects to be the same sculpted, high-flying forward he was showing off to the world just days before he was stricken.
“Does it give me pause for him to continue playing basketball? No. I’m of the ilk you live your life,” said Lewis. “You set your course. You set your direction. Sometimes we have speed bumps along the way. Opportunity for reflection, opportunity for growth. But lacking anything that says, ‘You shouldn’t do this because…’ I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t. You don’t stop living. You don’t stop doing what you love. Now, if some of the tests had come back and said there was a big hole in your heart, or there was something with his vascular system, that’s a different story. But none of that has shown up.”
For his part, Boyle says his expectations of Battey in 2018-19 haven’t been tempered.
“He’s going through a process certainly of coming back and trusting his body after what he’s gone through,” Boyle said. “But no, my expectations are (the same). He’s a terrific kid and he’ll be a terrific player.”
In November, barring any unexpected setback, Battey will file out of the tunnel at the CU Events Center and, after two full seasons on the sideline, he finally will make his debut with the Buffs. Throughout the rocky course of his journey to Boulder, Battey rarely has relinquished his upbeat demeanor and engaging smile, even when the stroke at first made that smile somewhat crooked. His parents confessed it will be difficult to keep tears from filling their eyes when that moment finally arrives.
Battey himself is no different. And when that night comes, and he’s running the break with his teammates, battling his emotions will be a bigger challenge than battling the opposition.
“It will be an emotional moment for me. I haven’t played in two years and then the stroke and everything. It’s going to be an emotional time for me,” Battey said. “I love the game and have an appreciation for just being here. I take every day like a blessing. (The positive attitude) comes from Buff nation. It comes from the fans. It comes from my teammates. It comes from everybody in the community. It just comes from a whole collective effort from people for me to be my most positive self.”