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December 8, 2010(Editor's note: This article appears in the latest issue of our magazine. To learn how to subscribe, read on.)
By Nate Bauer
Blue White Illustrated
Talor Battle lost his game last spring.
For a few weeks in May, nothing was right for the Nittany Lions' senior point guard. Not his burst off the dribble, his yo-yo handle, his off-balance 3-pointer or his acrobatics in the lane. All of them were all wrong.
He had his reasons.
It was little more than a month since he had announced that he was submitting his name to be eligible for the NBA Draft, only a week or two since he had worked out for NBA scouts at the Portland Trailblazers' facilities in early May and only days since he had removed his name from draft consideration.
For Battle, the whole experience had been nerve-wracking. Few expected him to actually forego his final year in Happy Valley to take his talents to the NBA, but he had to give it a shot, see what was out there.
As it turned out, what was out there was not exactly what he'd had in mind.
Following his Friday workout for the NBA scouts - an experience that actually went about as well as Battle could have hoped - a Trailblazers rep advised him that he would probably be taken in the late second round, if at all.
A good-natured kid who has carried the burden of his family, his teammates, his coaches and the Penn State program for the past few years, Battle wasn't prepared for the rep's appraisal.
"It was like a little reality check," he said. "It almost shook me up a little bit, so I went home and took some time off."
It wasn't as if he didn't know whether he would come back for his senior year. Everyone knew.
Battle's younger brother and best friend, Taran Buie, was set to enroll at Penn State in the summer. He had been looking forward to playing alongside his brother ever since Buie, an ESPNU top-100 prospect and the 24th-ranked shooting guard in the country, gave his verbal commitment to head coach Ed DeChellis in April 2009, just hours after the Nittany Lions had topped Baylor in the championship game of the National Invitation Tournament.
With the Lions suffering through an excruciating 11-20 season last year, Battle's anticipation for this season was only heightened by the prospect of Buie's arrival.
Still, after growing up in a single-parent, low-income household, Battle's ultimate goal has always been, and will continue to be, to put himself in position to provide for his family. If there had been an opportunity for Battle to supply his family with the financial comforts that professional basketball can provide, he very well might have taken it, even if it meant missing out on the chance to play with Buie.
So when Battle went home to think about his NBA workout experience, it wasn't to Boalsburg, the small town just a few miles south of State College where his mother, Denise Murphy, had brought his six younger siblings to live in the summer of 2009.
No, Battle went home home, back to Albany, N.Y., the rough city he grew up in, the place he learned the game and where he became a prep star at Bishop Maginn, the place where many of his closest friends still lived.
He couldn't get into the gym much, he said, and even when he could, he didn't feel right.
When he came back to Penn State, he said he was feeling the same way and couldn't find a fix.
"I came back here and I was like, 'Man, my game, I'm just not liking it.' I don't know if I was just over-thinking.
"I think I just had a lot on my mind, so I wasn't really concentrating fully on basketball. But I knew it was time for me to get out of my comfort zone and go do something."
Family, teammates, coaches, program. With all of his burdens in sharp focus following the workout, basketball went blurry.
When Battle couldn't find his game, he sought out an unlikely friend, one of the guys Penn State basketball fans have loved to hate.
"I talked to my buddy Evan [Turner] and went out to Columbus for about three and a half weeks and we trained," Battle said. "We trained with him each and every day, twice a day, two workouts on the court and running."
Battle wasn't the only underclassman from the Big Ten to submit his name and come back. Mike Davis, JaJuan Johnson, Demetri McCamey and E'Twaun Moore all tested the waters but chose not to hire agents so they could return for their senior seasons.
Only Turner, Ohio State's Naismith Award winner as college basketball's best player, and Michigan's Manny Harris, kept their names in the draft pool.
Turner was the second overall pick. Harris went undrafted.
As Turner was preparing for his NBA future, Battle was taking notes, coming to grips with exactly what it would take to do the same.
"My body wasn't ready for it," he said. "Then by two or three weeks, I was at the top of my game. I came back to school ready."
In late June, Battle took part in the Deron Williams Skills Academy camp in Chicago and found his missing mojo. He said that of all the prestigious awards, camps and teams he'd been chosen for while in college, even the 2009 U.S. World University Games Team, none gave him as much confidence he could play at the game's highest level than did this past summer's camps.
Playing in what was essentially a college basketball pick-up all-star game, Battle competed with the best, and shined. In the Deron Williams camp, he played against guards from some of the top schools in the country. "They made it to the Final Four, they won the national championship, and I go there and I perform really well," Battle said. "I think going in there, people were uncertain how good I really was because I'm not on a Duke team."
People got certain about Battle at the Williams camp. Quickly.
He played so well that he was invited to participate as one of only about 20 elite college players at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio, just a couple of weeks later. One of the most prestigious summer camps in the country, the Akron event is a favorite haunt of NBA scouts. Battle knew it, and by all accounts, he didn't disappoint.
"I played even better at LeBron, so I leave that and one of the Nike rep guys, he actually stopped me and said, 'How come you guys can't win more games? The way you're playing, it looks like you should have won more.'
"I said, 'I tried. We tried. It just didn't get done.'
"So I think that exposure at LeBron really helped me with all of the scouts that were out there. I think people understand that it's a lot easier playing when you've got five all-stars on your team. Kick it to me in the corner. ... I won't miss many shots.
"When I was out there in the couple days we scrimmaged, I probably missed three threes total out of about 16 or something. It was just the simple fact that I got an open, easy shot. It was not very hard.
"I went out to those camps and performed really well. Really, really well, actually. And I think that's going to help me with all of those scouts there. That was a big turning point, going out there, working out with them, seeing what it really takes. I learned a lot from that process."
At the peak of his exposure with NBA scouts, Battle returned to the reality of his situation at Penn State.
His family, his teammates, his coaches and his program are all counting on him.
Buie, an admittedly mischievous kid, almost immediately needed Battle's support.
During the Arts Festival weekend in mid-July, Buie and a friend, Penn State football wide receiver Curtis Drake, were cited for disorderly conduct by State College police. The two were rough-housing at McDonald's on East College Avenue and were apprehended for creating what police called a "public inconvenience."
By nearly all accounts, the situation was a misunderstanding. The two paid their fines of more than $400, and the matter was resolved.
But not more than a month later, Buie was in trouble again, this time for underage drinking.
Both situations were rectified, but the damage to Buie's reputation was done.
Battle said he doesn't feel responsible for his brother, but he is conscious of the fact that people are paying attention and perhaps drawing their own conclusions.
"It's a reflection not just on me but on my mom and everybody else as well," he said. "Like I tell my mom, everyone is going to say things, but he's a man and he's responsible for all of his actions, so you can't harp on things that go wrong. You've just gotta support him.
"When he does something, I feel like I almost did it. When he got in trouble, it was like I did it, because it's not just Taran, it's, 'That's Talor's little brother.' You know, they put in the paper, 'Talor Battle's brother.' It wasn't, 'Taran Buie gets in trouble.'
"Then people were asking me questions, but, you know, I've dealt with a lot of problems and I just stand there and answer them. He's gotta get his act together. Simple answers, you know.
"I can help him, teach him, but it's what comes along with it. Just like when he plays well and we play well and they combo us together, it's just the same as with the bad. Everything we do is going to be with each other. That's just how it is and I understand that, so I don't mind."
Which, of course, leads to the obvious, and maybe ironic aspect of Battle's brilliant career:
For as much as his family, his teammates, his coaches and his program are counting on Battle this season, he is counting on them just as much.
After Penn State's first six games this season, he was 502 points shy of the team's career scoring record, and everyone in Happy Valley and across the Big Ten knows what he brings to the floor. His career totals - more than 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists - have ensured that.
Yet he desperately needs the Nittany Lions' season to extend beyond the 30 games for which it is slated. If his NBA dreams are to have even a slight chance of coming true, Battle needs the Lions to make the NCAA tournament for the first time under DeChellis.
He needs Buie, his other teammates, his coaches and his program to come through this season, and he knows it.
"It's not about what I'm going to do this year," Battle said. "It's about what the other guys are going to do that allows for my game to open up and ours as a team.
"It's pressure. One of my good friends just texted me the other day that he's got a lot on his mind and doesn't know what he's going to do next year. I said, 'Listen, God willing, God forbid any injuries, I'll still be playing basketball, but I still don't know where my job is going to be. It could be here, it could be across seas. I want it to be here, though. I mean, everybody has that pressure.' That's what I told him.
"I know I can play there. I've just gotta get my foot in, and that's the hardest part for a lot of people. That's what I'm looking for, and I just want to win. I know getting to that tournament is a big part of it, too. You do that, and they really see me on national television. Hopefully I'll slide my way in there."
Battle seems to understand that the odds are not in his favor. They never have been, though.
The mechanics on his shot aren't perfect. In fact, he's a career 39.8 percent shooter from the floor and just 33.1 percent from beyond the arc. His handle isn't flawless. His on-ball defense still needs work. His ability to make the players around him better has been called into question.
And, maybe most important, he's not going to grow beyond the 6-feet, at best, that he's currently listed at.
"He will have certain challenges, but he's always had challenges," assistant coach Dan Earl said. "There were people in high school telling him that his body type was kind of frail and they didn't know if he'll be able to play high Division I. He's obviously proven those critics wrong.
"So, a lot of it is the mental aspect of it, too, and he's going to go out and try to prove people wrong. Obviously, I think his best bet is to concentrate on the year, have an unbelievable season, work on his weaknesses, but do well and then take care of things after the year that he has to work on."
Battle's future is still undefined, and he is working on defining it.
"I'm going to attack it," he said. "It's OK to be nervous. Without it, there wouldn't be any purpose.
"I tell people I'm a little nervous to see what's going to happen at the end of this year, if I get drafted or how I'll feel if my name isn't called. But after all of the things I've been through in my life, I'll bounce back and figure something out.
"With the exception of trying to win for my team, it's like a year-long interview right here. That's all it is.
"I've got one more year."
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