Circus catch

Bataille performing well for NU

Acrobatic shots are not out of the realm of possibility in the high-wire act known as Baptiste Bataille’s game. Acrobatic shots are not out of the realm of possibility in the high-wire act known as Baptiste Bataille’s game. (Aram Boghosian/For The Globe)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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Bill Coen likes to call Baptiste Bataille the Renaissance Man of the Northeastern men’s basketball team. But the fourth-year coach knows that doesn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to defining his 5-foot-10-inch senior guard from Ferin, France.

“He’s very adventuresome and very accomplished,’’ says Coen. “There is a lot of depth there.’’

That is evident from his bio in NU’s media guide. Bataille, it says, enjoys playing piano, water sports, scuba diving, and table tennis. He speaks three languages. But there, at the bottom of his profile, is this nugget: “was in the circus as a child.’’

To those who have watched Bataille play for the Huskies the last three seasons, that explains a lot.

“You think so?’’ says Bataille. “You mean, the way I play?’’

It is not unlike watching a trapeze artist work without a net. It can be an experience replete with thrills, chills, and spills.

“That’s exactly right - he’s fearless,’’ Coen says. “For a guy his size, he’s not afraid to give up his body, whether it’s taking a charge or getting on the floor for a loose ball. Those are all energy plays that our team feeds off.’’

“Renaissance Man’’? Perhaps Bataille, who is averaging 9.4 points in 26.1 minutes a game this season, would be better suited as NU’s ringmaster.

“I try to use what I have,’’ he says. “I’m a small guy and I try to outquick people and try to outsmart them. Some of those guys are so much more athletic than I am, so I have to compensate and try and use a little more of my brain and stay low to the ground.

“As Coach Coen always says, ‘Low man wins.’ If you’re a big guy and I’m attacking you, if I’m lower than you - my center of gravity is lower than you - then I have a chance to beat you.’’

And when Bataille attacks the basket, challenging bigger opponents, it can be akin to sticking his head in a lion’s mouth.

“I’ve never done that in the circus,’’ he says, “but I like the metaphor.’’

Flipping over acrobats
The allure of the big top first struck Bataille when he was a teenager, participating in a summer discovery program sponsored by Cirque du Soleil, which ran satellite programs across the country, including the Isle of Oleron, where Bataille and his family vacationed every summer.

“I think I was about 13-14 years old, and so I started this camp and we would put together shows,’’ Bataille recalls. “I was with the acrobats. Me and this other guy would carry and throw around these little girls who would do all sorts of flips.

“Acrobatics were my specialty. I got to try out almost everything, but acrobatics was something I was pretty good at, so I kept doing it.’’

Bataille was drawn to acrobatics in part because of the physical strength and dexterity of the performers.

“They’re strong, athletic, and flexible,’’ he marvels. “They impressed me. Whenever you can get your body to do that kind of stuff, it’s impressive.’’

Can he still perform some of the power moves?

“Oh yeah,’’ he says. “I can do handstands. I can do a push-up off a handstand, things like that. I show the guys all the time in the locker room. They love it.

“When I was younger I could do front flips and backflips, but I haven’t done it in a while. But, yeah, I can still do a handstand. If you want, I can show you.’’

And with that, Bataille springs from his chair, clears some room on the floor, and drops to all fours. Then, balancing his torso on his hands, he inverts himself while slowly lifting his legs and folding them behind at the knee. Then, after locking his arms, he does a press. Then another. And one more, just for good measure, as the muscles in his shoulders and forearms ripple.

“I generally can go on,’’ he says, righting himself. “When someone who does something at such a high level, you know, of expertise, then some respect is deserved. It’s kind of the way I look at music as well. Musicians are amazing to me.’’

Growing up, Bataille gained a sense of music appreciation from his mother, Catherine, who taught him to play the piano when he was 11. Although he couldn’t read sheet music that well, Bataille could play by ear, a talent that helped him pick up the acoustic guitar as well this year.

His musical tastes range from classical to French rap (“Yeah, it actually exists’’), and he has an affinity for French underground artists.

“I like to go with the underdog,’’ he says, “because that’s what I consider myself.’’

Accent on work ethic
Bataille’s interests - and life experiences - are as eclectic as his musical tastes.

He surfed last summer in Hawaii, on Oahu’s famed North Shore, which he hopes to visit again when the Huskies play in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu Dec. 22-25. It is an interest that flows from his studies in Earth and Environmental Sciences and his desire to become a marine biologist.

“I got a couple of coral souvenirs,’’ he says, pointing to a small scar on his left knee. “Those waves are huge, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, they can get you.’’

He speaks English, French, and Spanish, but not as fluently as he once did.

“Pero me olvide,’’ he struggles to say in Spanish (“But I forget’’). “It’s actually easier to learn Spanish coming from French.

“Now I have such a hard time going back to it, because I’m thinking in English. So right now I’m going from English to Spanish and it’s not as easy going from French to Spanish, because of the Latin roots. So I’m trying to make that bridge again, and it gets confusing there sometimes.’’

Bataille’s lament is flecked with an ever-so-slight Southern drawl, which he says was a parting gift from the family that hosted him when he moved from France to Stockbridge, Ga., to play basketball at the Community Christian School.

“It was a great experience in Georgia, and I had wonderful people who hosted me my first year here in America,’’ Bataille recalls. “They made my transition very easy and very smooth . . . and they gave me this accent.’’

Bataille still keeps in touch with Kevin and Holly Phillips, who made a French foreign exchange student feel like a member of their young family.

“They had four kids ranging in age from 4 to newborn, and I knew what it meant for them to take me home with those four kids,’’ Bataille says. “It was a big commitment by them. Now that I look back at it, they trusted me to be in their house, a stranger at the time, and we got to know each other better and I’m very thankful for what they did.’’

Kevin Phillips came to admire Bataille’s maturity and work ethic.

“He didn’t speak very good English when he came, so it’s pretty phenomenal everything he’s accomplished so far,’’ says Phillips. “I noticed right out of the gate that he was a worker. He’s a workhorse.’’

Drawn to Northeastern
After helping the Community Christian School go 40-3 and win its conference tournament in 2005-06, Bataille found his way to Boston, where former NU coach Ron Everhart had hopes of shaping him into a dynamic backcourt player in the mold of Jose Juan Barea. When Everhart departed for Duquesne, Coen came aboard and was immediately struck by Bataille’s passion.

“When I talked to Baptiste, he passionately articulated why he wanted to be at Northeastern,’’ Coen says. “Even though Coach Everhart had left, this was the place he wanted to be and I was taken by that.

“To give Baptiste credit, he’s earned everything he’s receiving at this point in time - whether it’s the respect of his teammates and coaches or the playing time. When you’re around a young man like that, it’s very inspiring.’’

Said Phillips, “I think it speaks volumes that his teammates made him one of the captains there, and he’s never started.’’

That’s because Bataille will do anything for his teammates - including an occasional handstand press.

Asked if he’s ever considered joining the circus after his playing days, Bataille says, “I joke around with my childhood friends sometimes and we talk about running away and being in the circus and traveling around. Then you wake up. But you never know.’’

Isn’t being on a college basketball team like being a part of a traveling circus troupe?

“That’s interesting. I’ve never thought of it like that, actually,’’ he says. “Yeah, the circus, the impression I had living that experience was definitely a sense of family and community. Everybody knows each other and everybody respects each other and those people have to work together.

“That’s what we try to do here as a team. We see each other every day, and if we have issues, they’re not just going to go away, so we have to deal with each other, and take a professional approach to what we want to do.’’

Bataille’s thoughtful response reveals an uncommon depth.

“When he has a moment to kind of steer and direct and mentor the freshmen on this team, I think they know within the first minute that Baptiste is a very serious young man and he has some wisdom beyond his years,’’ says Coen.

“He really and honestly and truly cares whether you had a good practice and whether you got better that day. He gets the most out of every experience, whether it’s sitting in the classroom or hanging in the locker room with his teammates or getting to a practice or being at a game. He absorbs everything.

“In life, he doesn’t get cheated.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at