The Distress of Dave Batton
The former Notre Dame star would rather be remembered for what happened on the court, not off it.
by Mark Hostutler
Corruption in college sports has been a fixture on the front page for much of the NCAA’s century-long existence.
A payroll for football players at SMU. The Minnesota basketball program’s academic scandal. Countless illegal enticements for members of Miami’s football team. A seemingly orchestrated cover-up at Penn State.
There are, of course, numerous other examples that predate these more modern ones, but the space here is too limited to sacrifice it on the history of such malfeasances.
The public knows what happens to the guilty parties: Wins are vacated, probation is enforced, the postseason is banned or perhaps a death penalty is levied or a Heisman Trophy returned.
The notion of amateurism among major college football and basketball is downright laughable to anyone with common sense. Even back in 1950, before the industry’s commercialization, when the hoopsters at City College of New York were shaving points, college sports were about as pure as the waters of the Hudson River.
Whereas much is reported on the consequences that the culprits in these cases must face, very little has been said about the blue-chip athlete who refuses his seat on the gravy train of $100 handshakes from boosters, free car rentals, and no-show summer jobs.
Meet Dave Batton, who exactly 40 years ago said thanks, but no thanks to Kentucky after it offered him an excess of $20,000 for “four summers’ work” on a horse farm in Lexington.
Although turning down the small fortune was, as Batton said, “the right thing to do,” it complicated his life in ways he never could have imagined. Combine that with a professional career that was a casualty of the early-1980s labor feud between the NBA and its players’ union, as well as current health issues, and you have a 57-year-old man who struggles to find peace.
Batton came of age athletically in a cramped suburb, in Springfield, PA, a stone’s throw from Philadelphia in blue-collar Delaware County. The 6-9 power forward possessed a soft touch from the perimeter, but gradually developed the toughness to match his considerable skill. Anything but the archetype of the plodding post player in his sport, he became as dangerous underneath the rim as he was 15 feet from it.
As a teenager in a densely populated township of almost 30,000 people, Batton inherited a basketball torch originally lit by Geoff Petrie, the 1971 NBA Rookie of the Year. It passed from Petrie to Tom Ingelsby, a second-round selection of the Atlanta Hawks, then Mike Arizin, the son of one of the NBA’s all-time greats, and finally to Batton. Petrie and Batton attended Springfield, the public high school, while Ingelsby and Arizin enrolled at Cardinal O’Hara, the local Catholic school.
“I played a lot of sports back in the day,” said Petrie, also a draft pick of baseball’s Washington Senators, who twice became NBA Executive of the Year as general manager of the Kings. “And the experiences I remember most were the neighborhood rivalries and representing your turf.”
“We played basketball nine hours a day every day,” said Ingelsby, who guided Villanova to the 1971 NCAA title game. “Gyms were open sparingly, so we were outdoors a lot.
“Heck, I just wanted to make my high school team. There were 2,000 boys competing for five starting spots.”
Clearly, nothing came easy for the four prodigies whose graduations were separated by only eight years (1966-74).
“You didn’t have to fly to [Las] Vegas when you were 10 just to find a good game,” said Arizin, an All-Southern Conference performer at William & Mary. “You were restricted to the courts that were within walking distance. Not only did that breed a familiarity with one another, but also a toughness.”
For Arizin, role models were never at a premium.
“It’s not that I didn’t idolize my father,” he said, referring to Paul Arizin, a legend of the Philadelphia Warriors enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame. “But I aspired to be like Tommy. He seemed more real to me. And I know Petrie used to bully him, and he returned the favor with me. So all I could do was torture Dave. To see how he evolved from a deer in the headlights to an offensive beast, well, I’m glad I got my shots in while I could.”
Batton eventually made his elders proud. Armed with a venomous jumper and an equally-as-lethal array of moves in the paint, he averaged 30.3 points per game as a junior at Springfield. His exploits that season set the table for a fierce recruiting battle between Kentucky and Notre Dame.
“Kentucky would send 20-plus alumni dressed in blue sport coats on a private jet to several of my games, both home and away,” said Batton, a third-team Parade All-American as a senior in ’73-74. He packaged 25.3 points and 16.0 rebounds per outing that year and led the Cougars to a Central League title. (He erupted for 39 points and 23 boards in his scholastic finale, a state-playoff loss.)
“I was so worn down my senior year because I was traveling and touring colleges,” he said. “The rules that dictated how many official visits you could take were a lot different back then. I flew to Washington State, Utah, and I’ll never forget my trip to N.C. State right after they won the national championship.
“I spent the weekend in Raleigh, partying with David Thompson, and never once stepped foot on their campus.”
The Fighting Irish and coach Digger Phelps got involved relatively late, just months before their historic upset of UCLA in January 1974 snapped the Bruins’ 88-game winning streak. (UCLA’s loss was a harbinger of sorts, as it fell to the aforementioned Wolfpack in the Final Four.)
“I watched that game on TV, and it made a huge impression on me,” said Batton. “Even though I wasn’t Catholic, I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood where all the boys were glued to the TV on Saturdays, watching Notre Dame football and dreaming of going there. That influence was always in the back of my head.
“When I visited Notre Dame [the previous October], I went to the football game against USC, and the students stood cheering the entire time in the pouring rain. It felt like home.”
Prior to his trip to South Bend, however, Batton assumed he was headed to the Bluegrass State.
Said Batton: “[Wildcats coach] Joe B. Hall stood in my backyard at 29 West Avenue in Springfield—where my father, God bless his soul, built a hoop that was 12 feet high because he didn’t know the difference—and he offered me 20K. He said it would be for working during the summers on Claiborne Farm.
“I couldn’t do it, though. My parents raised me to know right from wrong. Plus, there were rumors that the NCAA was investigating Kentucky, so I didn’t want them to think I was on the take. And one other important thing: I’m allergic to horses.”
Staying close to home was a viable option, too, but one that Batton ultimately declined.
“I was interested in Villanova because I would’ve been at ease there,” he said. “Philly fans are the best in the world, it was 15 minutes from my house, and [Villanova coach] Rollie Massimino’s wife made the best meatballs I’ve ever had in my life. But I’m smart, and any smart guy knows you can’t pass on a degree from Notre Dame.”
Phelps believes Batton, deep down, was enamored with the burgeoning power he was building.
“When I left Fordham and got the Notre Dame job [in 1971],” Phelps said, “I wrote a letter to [Notre Dame football coach] Ara Parseghian saying how much I admired his program and wanted to replicate it with basketball. And that slowly became a reality. For a stretch, we were the Game of the Week on NBC for like 10 straight weeks. We were a machine, and that’s what I sold Dave on.”
“A lot of guys were being induced with a lot of different things back then, but that wasn’t Digger’s style,” said Kansas football coach Charlie Weis, a classmate and close friend of Batton’s and the skipper at his alma mater from 2005-09. “Digger was out there grinding to get the best players, and as Dave knows, he promised them nothing.”
Once Batton arrived in South Bend in the fall of 1974, Phelps brought in the NCAA to probe his claims about Kentucky.
“Digger had the NCAA there interviewing me from the first day of practice,” he said. “They made me swear on the Bible and threatened to take away my eligibility if I didn’t tell the truth. It made me uncomfortable, and that discomfort stayed with me all four years I was there.”
On the court, it didn’t take long for the college hoops world to see why Batton was so heavily wooed. He started in the frontcourt his first two seasons alongside Adrian Dantley, a budding two-time NBA scoring champion.
Batton’s statistics improved in every major category each year. As a junior in March 1977 and one week before the then-32-team NCAA Tournament commenced, Batton’s contributions lifted the unranked Irish past 29-0 San Francisco, which sat atop the polls for two months. The hosts punched their ticket to the dance that afternoon, as Batton’s length helped shut down Bill Cartwright, the Dons’ 7-foot All-American.
“I remember stuffing one of Cartwright’s shots right back into his face early in the game,” Batton said. “They thought they were going to come into our house and push us around, but that block sent the message that we would be the aggressors.
“I was one of five guys on my team to score in double figures [in the 93-82 victory], but our crowd was so loud and animated that NBC ended up giving the Player of the Game Award to our students.”
The climax of Batton’s collegiate career, though, occurred the next winter in his final campaign, when the Irish advanced to their only Final Four in program history. Batton’s norms of 14.0 points—on 57 percent shooting—and 6.8 boards led a talent-rich squad that featured Bill Laimbeer, Bill Hanzlik, Kelly Tripucka, and the late Orlando Woolridge, each of whom played at least a decade in the NBA.
“People forget how Dave was the key to that Final Four team,” said Weis. “He just had the sweetest stroke of any big man I’d ever seen in the ’70s.”
“Dave was one of the most coachable players I ever had,” said Phelps, an ESPN analyst for the last 20 years who is in remission from bladder cancer. “He and Laimbeer changed the image of big men because of their ability to hit the outside shot from the elbow against a 2-3 zone.
“When teams zoned us, I would send the point guard through [the lane] and out to the corner. Then, Dave or Bill would flash from the block to the high post and run the offense from there.”
Tripucka, who only shared the floor with Batton for a year, appreciated his teammate’s personality as much as his ability.
“Dave was a guy you were drawn to and loved to hang out with,” said Tripucka, a two-time All-Star with the Pistons. “We all looked up to him, and that’s what made him a great leader and someone you could rely on.
“He was a throwback player because he wasn’t fleet of foot or couldn’t jump real high, yet he was ahead of his time as a big man who could shoot and not shy away from contact.”
The Irish’s ’77-78 season ended when they succumbed to Duke in the national semifinals in St. Louis. The Blue Devils were coached by Bill Foster, who tried to lure Batton to Salt Lake City when he held the position at Utah.
Who captured the crown that season? Kentucky, naturally. Who says cheaters never win?
Fast-forward seven years to 1985, when Hall retired after 13 seasons at the Kentucky helm. The country finally learned the details of what Batton already knew and what many had suspected: The Wildcats had been committing major NCAA violations during Hall’s tenure.
Two young and enterprising reporters from the Lexington Herald-Leader drew the ire of the Big Blue faithful and revealed to the nation the Wildcats’ myriad misdeeds. (In fact, Jeffrey Marx and Michael York garnered a Pulitzer Prize for their work.) In general, they exposed the improper benefits Kentucky basketball players had been receiving.
Sports Illustrated then reached out to Batton, seeking confirmation of the cash he was tempted with, as the magazine described more of the program’s wrongdoings.
“I got a call from an SI reporter telling me he had a copy of the NCAA investigation and asking me if, from my end, it was true,” Batton said. “All I said was ‘yes,’ and that was the end of our conversation. In his story, I thought I was unfairly portrayed as a rat.
“That’s why I’ve had a general distrust of the media ever since.”
The author of that article, Alexander Wolff, along with colleague Armen Keteyian, soon co-wrote Raw Recruits, a groundbreaking book that shed light on the sordid underbelly of college hoops and remains relevant today. Batton’s ordeal was recounted in the book.
“I hadn’t heard what went on with Dave and Kentucky, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Tripucka said, laughing. “You heard whispers about what they were doing. I went to the Olympic trials [in 1980] that were held on their campus, and I got to compare how we lived with how they lived. My dorm was a closet at Notre Dame, but they had athletic dorms at Kentucky with pool tables and kitchens.”
After the ABA’s merger with the NBA, the Nets—with two years as members of the latter under their belt—drafted Batton in the third round in 1978. But he opted to play in Italy while the league was mired in contract issues that stemmed from its influx of ABA talent.
“My agent [Larry Fleisher] was the founder of the Players’ Association, and he was always fighting for our rights,” Batton said. “He asked me if I would be a test case for free agency. That concept didn’t exist then. As players, we just wanted to have more of a say in our futures.
“Our suit went all the way to the Supreme Court before we lost.”
At last, Batton made his NBA debut in ’82-83 with the Bullets and appeared in 54 games, tallying 3.3 points and 2.2 boards in roughly 10 minutes of action a night. That offseason, Washington traded him to San Antonio, where, after a conversation with its owner, he quickly hopped on a plane and returned to Europe.
“When I became a Spur, the minimum salary in the League was around $45,000, and some guys had to pay for their own hotel rooms,” Batton said. “[Owner] Angelo Drossos wanted to make a deal with me. He said he’d pay me $60,000, but if we didn’t win 50 games, I’d have to pay the money back. Ridiculous, right?
“Those were the stunts they were pulling back then. I can’t prove it, but I know in my heart I was blackballed by the owners because of my lawsuit.”
Despite the toll it took on his professional reputation, Batton has no regrets about challenging the infrastructure of the league, at the late Fleisher’s behest, and assisting players in their quest for more freedom in the marketplace. He just wishes he could get more credit for the line he drew in the sand.
“I remember running into Dennis Rodman one night somewhere in the Midwest when my career was over,” Batton said, “and he blew me off. I thought to myself: You dumb mother——. I was one of the guys who paved the way for free agency.
“Oh, well. I made more money overseas and played fewer games. Had more fun, too.”
Tripucka has no doubt that Batton had the goods to stick around the NBA longer.
“With his size and range, Dave absolutely would’ve been serviceable as a backup,” he said. “Forget talent, though. You have to have someone in your corner and be lucky. Every franchise, every coach has a different philosophy. I ended up being traded, and it was the worst thing for me. I averaged as much as 26 a game in Detroit, but was dealt to Utah where I was scoring 10 and setting screens for everyone else. Meanwhile, Detroit won a pair of Championships right after I left.”
According to Phelps, it was wise to choose a foreign country over a seat at the end of an NBA bench.
“Many of my guys went over there because you could be the star,” he said. “The money was better in some places [in Europe], too. They did that for a while, and stuck their money in a Swiss bank tax-free, and now they’re rich.
“A lot of those opportunities could be attributed to Larry Fleisher. He wanted what was best financially for the players. He was the godfather of the modern NBA.”
A half-century later and a time zone away from where he first picked up a basketball, Batton admits he glances in the rear-view mirror more often than he should. But he does so with a perspective that only the repeated flip of a calendar can give.
With three grown children, Batton now lives outside Houston and works for Percheron, LLC as a landman, overseeing the instillation of pipelines for gas and oil. His company aims to increase America’s energy efficiency and, as he says, “decrease our dependency on Saudi Arabia.”
In 2004, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and placed on the transplant list. Fortunately, he was taken off the list in 2008, as his condition improved.
“My heart is always offbeat, and some days it’s hard to function,” he said. “But life is beautiful. Every day I have is precious.”
Mark Hostutler is a former award-winning journalist at the Delaware County (PA) Daily Times and the author of Heads of State: Pennsylvania’s Greatest High School Basketball Players of the Modern Era. To contact him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.