PEORIA – To Valley sports fans, Patrick Battillo is Mr. ORNG, the guy often spotted in the crowd during Phoenix Suns and Mercury games covered head to toe in orange. To the Peoria boys basketball team, he’s “Coach.”
Battillo, head coach of the Panthers, fell in love with the Suns when he moved to Arizona at age 7. At the time, the NBA franchise was the only major professional sports team in the state and the team played its games at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which many called the Madhouse on McDowell.
While attending games there, Battillo noticed a lack of energy in the stands. He was often told to sit down and be quiet while fans around him read books, knitted or were otherwise occupied with tasks other than watching the game. Eventually, Battillo decided to take matters into his own hands and started wearing orange at the games.
Traveling to San Antonio in 2010, he sat courtside behind Suns owner Robert Sarver. He quickly gained national attention on ESPN as the camera panned to Sarver throughout the game and picked up Battillo, whose hair was painted bright orange to match his Suns shirt.
Mr. ORNG was born.
Battillo embellished his look in the offseason, making his entire attire orange and trademarking his nickname.
In that role, he has attended countless charity and volunteer events and team practices in which he has mingled with players and coaches. It’s hard to know sometimes where Battillo ends and his Mr. ORNG alter ego begins. The life experiences and basketball knowledge he has gained in both realms have helped shape him as a person and as a coach.
“Being a superfan and watching the coaches and having conversations with them and attending talks as a sixth-man member, I’m able to apply some of what they do and how they execute and how they plan for their games and practices and then translate that over to the high school level,” Battillo said. “I continue to try to be as fun as I’m absorbed, take feedback, make changes and then execute.”
As Mr. ORNG at Suns games, Battillo experienced a deeper love for the sport. He sought other opportunities in basketball, which led him to a varsity assistant coaching position at his alma mater, Peoria High School, in 2016.
The team found its footing in the 2017-18 season, finishing 18-10 and advancing to the postseason. The success carried over into the 2018-19 season, where Peoria improved to 18-8 and again made the playoffs. Both postseasons ended in first-round exits but provided extra motivation moving forward.
Early in the 2019-20 season, William Roberts, the coach, took a personal leave, opening an opportunity for Battillo to apply and eventually be granted the interim head coaching position for the remainder of the season.
Battillo led the Panthers to a 4A West Valley division-best 26-4 record, with significant contributions coming from their superstar senior backcourt of Isaac Monroe and Deandre Petty. The Panthers rolled through the regular season and playoffs, advancing to the 4A championship game against the 30-1 Salpointe Catholic Lancers.
The title game went back and forth, with Salpointe Catholic eventually winning in overtime, 54-48.
Disappointed by the loss in the championship game, the Panthers were determined to come back the next season and claim the trophy that had slipped through their fingertips. Unfortunately, the Panthers’ 2020-2021 was full of obstacles, including COVID-19-related disruptions and injuries to three starters. Battillo described the team’s 6-12 record as “below our expectations.”
Fast forward to this season. Peoria held the top spot in the 4A West Valley division and won crucial games down the stretch, including a 78-76 double-overtime win over the Deer Valley Skyhawks, then the leaders in the 4A West Valley division.
“The relationships I have made with current and former players, fans of the Suns and at the NBA level, transcending that and those experiences of my relationships with those people to the relationship I have with my athletes, all comes full circle,” he said.
He likened the team to a family that navigates life together, relying on one another and on him for comfort and guidance.
He and his players have an unbreakable bond that enable his players to trust him and perform better.
“Coach and I have a special relationship on and off the court,” junior guard Andrew Camacho said. “I understand his expectations of me, and I know the type of trust he has for me… having that trust from Coach definitely gives me a confidence boost when making decisions.”
Junior guard Calvin Windley added, “To have my coach’s trust, it makes me more confident on the court to make big plays.”
Aside from his one-of-a-kind experiences, Battillo’s extensive basketball knowledge plays a significant role in his team’s overall success.
Being around the sport of basketball in many different facets, from pre-COVID-19 camps and practices on the collegiate and pro levels, Battillo was able to create and maintain relationships with professional players and coaches and absorb information from them that he has passed on to his team.
The knowledge he has gained is most useful in close games like the one against Deer Valley. The Panthers were behind by double-digits midway through the third quarter in a physically demanding battle. Eventually, Peoria found its footing and cut the lead to two only to see the Skyhawks extend their lead again heading into the fourth quarter.
Battillo’s squad battled back and made a shot at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. The fight continued through the first overtime and most of the second until Andrew Camacho hit a floater in the closing seconds to seal Peoria’s victory.
“Always keep your head up and fight through adversity,” Windley said. “As students of the game, we trust his coaching abilities to the fullest and trust that he leads us in the right direction. He never fails to impress us with his coaching on and off the court.”
Battillo comes by his perseverance naturally. Last October, his father, Bob, was hit by a driver who ran a red light. The impact left his father unconscious and in the ICU on a breathing machine, receiving around-the-clock care.
His father pulled through and is making significant strides in his road to recovery. The family started a GoFundMe account, and with the help of over 225 donors, they have raised $17,000 for hospital and health center bills.
The experiences he has had with his father over the past few months have given Battillo a new outlook on life and his team.
“(It) put into perspective how fragile life really is and how important things are outside of what goes on in the court,” Battillo said. “Cherishing the moments you have with each other, those you love and care about are much bigger than anything outside of life itself, and being able to help my team and hopefully lead them through that.”.
Battillo said the impact that he is able to have on players at his alma mater gives him the same satisfaction as his appearances as Mr ORNG, which include hospital visits to sit with sick children. He described both as “super rewarding.”
“Life is bigger than basketball, and all of it comes full circle,” Battillo said. “How you treat others, how you develop each other specifically at the high school level, how you develop these young men into men during this crucial transition in their life.”
The Panthers’ 2022 season did not end the way they had hoped. They lost 85-96 to the Mesquite Wildcats in the quarterfinals of the 6A playoffs last month. But with Mr ORNG at their side, his players couldn’t stay blue.
“This team can go as far as the sky can take us if we keep our heads up and work together,” Windley said.