Utah basketball player Riley Battin describes his childhood in suburban Los Angeles as a pleasant existence in “a little bubble.”
Even his life in the Tuff Shed was comfortable.
The storage facility, placed in the family’s backyard and renovated with insulation, drywall, a closet and a portable heater and air conditioner, became Riley’s Room throughout high school. His makeshift housing facilitated the move from Ohio of his grandmother, now 98, into the three-bedroom home with Battin’s parents and younger sister in Westlake Village, Calif.
Friends kidded him about preparing for college, moving 15 feet from the backdoor, while having to come inside to eat and use the bathroom (“We knew we'd see him,” said his father, Lee).
The move out of the house illustrated Battin's flexibility and his way of accommodating others. “Whatever it is,” said longtime teammate Wes Slajchert, “he'll adapt and find a way.”
Unselfishness may be Battin’s biggest problem on the court, as his freshman season continues with Saturday’s game at UCLA, 30 miles from his home. In the Oak Park High School community, he’s remembered as Ventura County’s all-time leading scorer and for having bonded with a 10-year-old boy who loved being around the Eagles, while dealing with sickle cell anemia.
Luc Bodden died in September 2016, at the start of Battin’s junior year. Riley “holds that kid dear to his heart, to this day,” Lee Battin said, remembering how his son arranged to have a framed photo of Luc propped next to the team bench during pregame introductions.
The boy still inspires him. “I never heard him complain once,” Battin said in late September, when the Utes started practicing. “No matter how bad things get, you’ve just got to be positive.”
That attitude is being tested at times, as Battin blends in with the Utes. He became a starting forward in late December, as Donnie Tillman moved to the bench. Battin has stayed in the lineup, even though Tillman is more productive.
The 6-foot-9 Battin made basketball look easy at Oak Park, scoring 2,971 points in four years. That was an illusion, and he hopes the traits that made him successful in high school will help him thrive at Utah. “I’ve had to work really hard for everything that I’ve gotten in my life and I’m going to continue to do that,” he said recently, interrupting his post-practice shooting session.
Oak Park coach Aaron Shaw recalls how the day after the Eagles lost a playoff game to end Battin’s freshman season, he was in the gym at 6 a..m. Battin’s father remembers trying to get him to take time off from basketball, “mostly unsuccessfully.”
Battin compiled a list of questions for college recruiters. No. 1 was whether he would have 24-hour access to the gym.
Battin’s style of play at Oak Park was “completely unselfish,” Shaw said, yet the Eagles needed him to score. At Utah, for all of his extra shooting practice, he tends to pass up too many shots in game. Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak this week spoke of “a little uncertainty” shown by Battin, who’s averaging 21.5 minutes and 6.7 points (4.7 in Pac-12 play), and said he needed to play harder. Battin was more assertive in Wednesday’s 77-70 win at USC, posting nine points and seven rebounds.
In September, Krystkowiak said, “He’s going to be a hell of a player. Super driven, smart kid.”
Getting comfortable in the program took some time, though. “Really, just the size and speed, at first,” Battin said of his introduction to college basketball. “I think I'm pretty adjusted to that now. Learning the defensive concepts and how we play each team, that's just like a whole new experience.”
Slajchert, now a Dartmouth freshman, understands. When the Oak Park teammates reunited at Christmas, they talked about how everything had changed for them academically, athletically and socially. Speaking from his Ivy league campus in New Hampshire, Slajchert said, “I told him, ‘You’re just as important to that program as anyone else,’ and how big of an opportunity it is.”
Battin is valuable to the Utes now and equally vital to the perception of Utah’s future. He’s part of the geographically diverse, position-balanced freshman class of 2018. Those five players will be charged with lifting a program that’s almost certain to miss the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year.
Timmy Allen already is a proven player. Both Gach, while inconsistent, is extremely athletic. Naseem Gaskin and Lahat Thioune, who broke his foot in October, are redshirting. That makes Battin the biggest variable, at the moment. The related question is whether all five will stick together, in a program beset by transfers.
The signs are encouraging. Thioune, who's from Senegal, spent the team's Christmas break with Battin's family. ”The freshmen, especially, we all have that bond,” Battin said. “We're all in the same [recruiting] class, most of us room together, spend every second together. We're all really good friends. … It's really cool to see how we come together.”
His grandmother, Marian Battin, is likely to see Riley complete his college career (“She'll easily live past 100,” Lee Battin said). The forecast for the Utes hinges partly on how they finish in 2018-19, with their 12-10 record (6-4 Pac-12) making a winning season possible.
Utah will seek a weekend sweep at UCLA, where Battin's young friend spent considerable time in the Mattel Children's Hospital. Luc Bodden once served as the “Kid Captain” for a Bruins football game during his treatment.
Battin will be thinking of him Saturday, returning to the campus where he often visited him. The Boddens and former Oak Park athletes who knew Luc compose “a whole, big, extended family,” Slajchert said, and they’ll all be cheering for the Utes in Battin’s homecoming game Saturday.
ABOUT RILEY BATTIN
Personal • Freshman forward, 20 years old, 6-9, 220
Hometown • Westlake Village, Calif.
High school • Oak Park; averaged 24.7 points and 12.3 rebounds as a junior and 25.7 points and 12.4 rebounds as a senior.
College finalists • Utah, Davidson, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, Colorado and Clemson; canceled trips to Vanderbilt and OSU after visiting Utah
Of note • Born in August 1998, he’s more than two years older than Dre’Una Edwards, a starting forward for the Utah women’s basketball team. A good student, he repeated a grade for “family reasons” not related to sports, his father said.
UTAH AT UCLA
At Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles
Tipoff • Saturday, 3 p.m. MST
TV • Ch. 13.
Radio • ESPN 700.
Records • Utah 12-10 (6-4 Pac-12); UCLA 12-11 (5-5 Pac-12).
Series history • UCLA leads, 10-8.
Last meeting • Utah 84, UCLA 78 (2018)
About the Utes • After some upsets this week, Utah is in a four-way tie for second place in the Pac-12 – yet is only two games ahead of 10th-place Colorado. … Utah is 4-1 on the road in league play after Wednesday’s 77-70 win at USC and is going for a road sweep of the conference’s four California schools. … The Utes lost by 19 points in Los Angeles last season before winning by six at the Huntsman Center. … Junior center Jayce Johnson posted 13 points and 13 rebounds at USC.
About the Bruins • UCLA has dropped four home games this season, including an 84-73 loss to Colorado on Wednesday with season-low announced attendance of 6,983. … Colorado’s Shane Gatling scored 28 points against the Bruins, hitting 7 of 9 shots from 3-point range. … Freshman center Moses Brown posted 17 points and 10 rebounds for UCLA. … Murry Bartow became UCLA’s interim coach in early January after Steve Alford was fired.