Kenny Battle, retired NBA star, reflects on time as an Illini


Photo Courtesy of Kenny Battle

Kenny Battle at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

By Kayla Raflores, Staff writer

In 1986, Kenny Battle transferred from Northern Illinois University to the University of Illinois, where he officially became a “Fighting Illini” — a title he continues to identify with today.

From a young age, Battle had an affinity for sports. He was involved in baseball, football and even track. Basketball had actually been his fourth choice.

Battle took pride in and enjoyed playing team sports.

He valued “being able to be around people and friends that had the same passions and desires as I did, seeing everyone’s faces when there was a loss or win … being able to compete and have fun.”

Battle began playing basketball at age 7. He excelled at the high school level, and he continued to build his basketball career in college at NIU, and later, at the University.

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“When I was at Northern, we averaged around 7,500 or 8,000 fans, and once I got to Champaign, it went from 8,000 all the way up to 21,000,” Battle said. “It was a bigger audience, bigger campus, more people to cheer us on.”

Battle’s motivation and dedication to the game, however, remained the same.

At the University, Battle worked toward a degree in political science. He frequented a now-closed sandwich shop on Green Street and enjoyed cooking fried catfish in his apartment.

Although unofficial, he was part of a “fraternity” of sorts — a fraternity of teammates.

Battle frequented actual Greek life along with his “brothers,” some of whom were actually in fraternities, and was active in student life on campus.

In addition to sports, Battle volunteered as a counselor at the Cunningham Children’s Home, which works to support youth around the community.

Battle was a well-rounded student. While he engaged in the party lifestyle he saw prominent at Illinois, he dedicated many more hours to studying.

Like most colleges, the University considers its athletes to be students first and athletes second.

Battle’s commitment to academics finally paid off when he received a call from one of his professors at the end of his junior year. The professor told Battle he had met all the graduation requirements.

Battle described this call as one of his most memorable moments, and it was then he learned he would graduate early from the University.

Another one of Battle’s most memorable moments was when an award was named in his honor: the Kenny Battle Inspirational Award.

The award is given out every year to an Illinois player who demonstrates hard work and powerful hustle during the season.

Battle captained the Illinois men’s basketball team during the 1988-1989 season. The team was nicknamed the “Flyin’ Illini,” and the players were regarded as some of the best in Illinois history.

Battle’s “Flyin’ Illini” made it to the Final Four.

He was drafted in 1989 by the Phoenix Suns, and later played for the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors.

“There could be 50,000 people cheering (at a professional game), and I could block all of them out and not hear one thing they say … once I enter the arena, regardless if it’s home or away,” Battle said. “I always have my headphones on and my music, so I’m always tuned in, preparing.”

Battle said his mother is his top influence, along with his coaches, professors and fans.

His mother, first and foremost, Battle said, inspired him “to always work hard and never take anything for granted.”

Part of what made Battle’s first NBA game so memorable was that his mother attended.

Many University alumni living in Arizona came out to Battle’s first game, too, and showed support for the budding young athlete beginning his professional career.

At a young age, Battle desired to become a professional athlete. His ambitions and dreams matched those of many other children who loved sports. While at the University, Battle challenged himself both on the court and in the classroom.

Battle was an avid goal setter, with short-term, long-term and mid-range goals to keep himself in check.

He encourages student-athletes and all University students to do the same and to make each goal a small step toward an ultimate one.

While Battle is retired today, becoming part of the NBA was one of his ultimate goals he had set and eventually achieved. Battle said the NBA is a “fraternity for life” and will forever be a part of him. He continues to attend All-Star games and annual meetings, showing his unwavering support for the game and his “brothers.”

Battle still devotes his time to the Illini. He frequents different types of Illinois games, from basketball and football to volleyball and baseball.

Battle also boasts a wide collection of University merchandise.

“I could wear Illinois gear seven days a week, and it won’t be the same gear,” Battle said. “I have sweat suits, sweatshirts, T-shirts, shorts, socks, you name it. Anything orange and blue, I have it.”

After the pros, Battle was given the opportunity to play abroad. He played in countries like Spain, Argentina and the Philippines. Battle was surprised to meet the same success as playing in the U.S., and he regards traveling abroad as a great experience.

Battle also went on to coach various high school and college teams, such as the Illinois Institute of Technology‘s Scarlet Hawks and the Joliet Catholic girls basketball team. He brought with him the knowledge and experience of an NBA player and he pushed his teams to play above and beyond.

“Everyone has helped along the way,” Battle said. “Always be willing to listen, learn and make all the needed adjustments to reach your ultimate goals.”

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