James Gist envies Tom Hanks and wants to follow in Vassilis Spanoulis' footsteps

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-08-03 06:30
Credit: Vangelis Stolis
Credit Vangelis Stolis

"There's one thing about me - I'm always an open book. I'll give you the best answers I can."

James Gist came to this quite lengthy yet comprehensive talk with BasketNews, ready to address any issue. The interview took part roughly ten days after the American big man's last team to date, LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne, won the French League title and only a couple of days before he flew back to the United States.

One of the EuroLeague's most experienced players, Gist has amassed 13 seasons with 7 teams in the continent's top league, resulting in a total of 297 regular season and playoff games, in which he averaged 8.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 0.6 blocks per contest.

James Gist

James  Gist
Position: PF, C
Age: 35
Height: 206 cm
Weight: 107 kg
Birth place: United States of America

The 2021-22 campaign was full of ups and downs but ultimately led to a happy ending and Gist's first domestic championship title in a country other than Greece since 2011, when he had lifted both the Adriatic and the Serbian league trophy with Partizan.

The conversation with the 35-year-old EuroLeague veteran lasted no less than 100 minutes. Not just because Gist didn't want to leave any question unanswered, but mainly because one thought led to another, resulting in a discussion that covered almost the entirety of his career.

It also expanded to areas and incidents where he was the main character of the story and had to react in one way or another to what was happening. 

In the first part of his discussion with BasketNews, the No. 57 pick in the 2008 Draft talks about his season with ASVEL, Victor Wembayama's potential, and the chances of EuroLeague legend Vassilis Spanoulis becoming a successful coach.

Gist, who had done battle with the 40-year-old former Greek guard numerous times (mostly during his seven-year-long presence at Panathinaikos OPAP Athens), reveals that he'd like to become a head coach himself once he's done as a player. 

He also explains why he didn't receive the Greek passport, which would have entitled him to play with the Greek national team. 

What did it take to win another domestic championship title, this time around with ASVEL, in a season with many ups and downs for you, your team, and Monaco? 
It was a difficult season. Monaco had many ups and downs during the year, but towards the end, they started to peak and be in their best form. They went to Game 5 against Olympiacos, which was winnable. They showed that they deserve a Final Four berth, but unfortunately, Olympiacos got the win.

We had a lot of different plagues in our season with injuries, COVID, and other unfortunate events that tanked our EuroLeague season. We stayed tough as a team through the whole thing and knew we would be effective once we had a full roster. When it comes to winning the championship, it's a matter of who wants it more. 

The last game went down to the wire, it was decided by minor details. We were able to make some plays offensively and get some stops defensively. 

How different is the LNB compared to the other leagues you've played in?
It's really athletic. The guards are small compared to Calathes, Spanoulis, or Diamantidis, but they can steal the ball. Overall, the league is tough. Defensively, guys are flying around, and you get a lot of dunks. 

How was it being the oldest guy in the locker room but not the oldest guy on the team anymore, as had been the case at Panathinaikos after Diamantidis retired in 2016 and until 2019?
It's different. Even last year, when I was at Bayern Munich, many players looked up to me and called me OG. It means original gangster, but it's also a sign of endearment and respect because they acknowledge that you've been through a lot.

You know, it's weird because I had been in that situation when I was young, and I needed older guys to look up to and listen to. But I didn't; I did what I wanted to do. Being older, you understand that you have a lot to give back to the game. 

Have you realized the distance you've gone over the last decade?
I don't. I'm living in the moment to see how far I can actually go. I feel like I still have gas in the tank and the ability to contribute to my team winning. I realize all the things I've done, the experiences I've had, and the places I've traveled to, but I'm still living in the moment. 

Victor Wembanyama, widely regarded as Europe's No.1 NBA prospect, decided to leave ASVEL and the EuroLeague in order to join Metropolitans 92. You shared the locker room with him for an entire season, so I think you're qualified enough to explain what his reasoning might have been. 
I'm not sure. It's surprising to me because the NBA Draft is next year for him, and he's been pretty successful at ASVEL. He played in the junior squad for four years, and now, it comes as a surprise that he wants to leave.

He's gone to a team that's in Paris, and he's from Paris. So, maybe it's because he wants to be closer to home and has more freedom to do things.

I'm not 100% sure, and I can't speak on his reasoning. He never explained it to me, but I think he's well-equipped for wherever he chooses to play. He'll be fine either way. 

Do you think that all the hype surrounding his name is justifiable?
Definitely. The crazy thing is that while most people watch his highlights if you actually see him in person, you can see how he can impact the game. You can understand why he's so valuable and what makes him so special.

One, he's a lot taller than most people suspect him to be. Two, he has natural instincts for the game defensively and offensively. He's got guard skills, but he's a big. You see so much potential and future in him. His biggest attribute is that he's humble. He has a personality that makes you want to come closer to him.

He's coming from a good background. His parents are involved, he's soft-spoken, very respectful... He's like a sponge, always willing to soak up every bit of knowledge he can. You have some young guys that are being told that they're the best, and they actually believe that. He's one of the guys that want to get better. He loves being in the gym. 

Have you seen any other players of Wembanyama's potential over the last years?
I've seen a lot of young guys that were prospects and talents. When I was in Greece, I got the chance to play against Giannis Antetokounmpo in an All-Star Game. He was playing in the second division, but they brought him in because he was a highly talented prospect. Seeing him now, you can tell the transformation.

Another player was Luka Doncic, who was young but took over a big club like Real Madrid. He became the main player and had the respect of his peers. It was a big statement, and now he's a dominant player in the NBA.

I also played against Nikola Mirotic and Mirza Teletovic, who were even better and could do more things than (Tornike) Shengelia. I played with Bogdan Bogdanovic in Partizan. He was on the junior team, while Vladimir Lucic and Jan Vesely were on the first team. I also played with Bojan Bogdanovic at Fenerbahce before he went to the NBA. I got to see a lot of young talent, and all of them are still very active. 

I think Victor falls into the same category of players that can be really impactful in the NBA. He has so many things you can't teach, and that comes naturally to him. Understanding how to play the game of basketball is one thing, but having a natural attribute to be able to play at the highest level is something different. Victor has all of that. 

To what extent is TJ Parker a coach imbued with the Spurs mentality? 
With Tony Parker being the owner of the team, he's trying to bring the same image to ASVEL. The colors are black and white, the organization is very family-oriented. You see a lot of that coming to ASVEL now.

TJ as a coach is trying to bring team spirit to the team so that it can perform as a whole. It's not about how good your best players can be individually but about how good the team can perform as a whole. TJ preaches team basketball, and that's what we did as the season progressed.

In the final series, Monaco had a great roster of individual players, whereas we had a roster that could play well as a team. If we wanted to play individual and isolation basketball, we wouldn't have been able to win the series because they had guys that can play the one-on-one game better than we did - Mike James, Dwayne Bacon, Donatas Motiejunas...

But when it came to sharing the ball and playing team basketball, we realized that we're a better team. TJ tried to get everyone involved. 

Do you know that Sarunas Jasikevicius is using a play called 'James Gist'? 
I had no idea (smiles). I'm curious to figure out what play that is exactly. There are certain plays that I have been able to execute on a high level. Part of it was having a good point guard like Calathes or Diamantidis, but another part was being able to finish the play.

So, it's surprising, but at the same time, it's not. I know that a lot of teams have a play called 'Spanoulis'. It's funny to know that I have a play that people consider useful. 

Now, Spanoulis is a coach, which means he can put all those plays to good use. You played against him for almost a decade, especially in the Greek derbies. To what extent can he be as successful a coach as he had been as a player?
A player like Spanoulis, who's one of the greatest of all time, is built different. He's like Jasikevicius, who started out as an assistant coach for half a season in Zalgiris and then took the team to the Final Four.

You have players that understand the game and are just gifted. Basketball is all they know, it's their passion. Spanoulis is one of those guys. Basketball is his passion, and I'm pretty sure he's going to be successful because he knows what it takes to win, and he's willing to sacrifice things to be a coach. He signed with a good club in Peristeri and he will do a good job. 

Do you see yourself following the same path?
Yes, hopefully, I can become a coach when I'm done playing. Being a head coach is definitely my main focus. It's going to take some time, but ultimately I want to win a big title.

I'm not closed off to any options right now. I would like to be in America. I've been overseas for so long, but I can stay here in Europe if the situation makes sense.

I'm married, I have three kids, so I need a situation that has stability. I don't want to coach people who're not willing to do anything to win a championship. I'm looking for the highest level.

How long will it take for you to reach that goal?
I'm still playing basketball, I still have gas in the tank, and that's my main focus. I've given retirement some thought, but not within the next year or two. I'm trying to build my resume and network, so it can be a smooth transition once I'm done playing.

I've been trying to talk with people that I know from the NBA and Europe, coaches and scouts, asking them what I need to do to be prepared.

Being a coach is something I've been considering, but I'm still a student of the game. I'm paying attention, and I enjoy it. I have my reservations about what I want to do when I get into coaching. 

Like what?
Just the mentality. You got a lot of players from the new generation that are being catered to. So, for me, it's about going into the right situation with the right group of guys willing to learn.

Hopefully, I can guide the next generation to a championship, like I did this year. As a coach, I understand how difficult that may be because you have to put all the pieces together, and the only thing that matters is results.

Are there any particular coaches that you've set your eyes on?
I'm not looking at any coach in particular. There are coaches I played against and under, which I've taken a lot from - my college coach, Gary Williams, who was a Hall-of-Famer in the NCAA. When I was in San Antonio, I had the chance to be coached by Gregg Popovich. In Europe, I was coached by Rick Pitino, who's also a legend in the NCAA.

The coach that really changed me as a player was Argyris Pedoulakis in my first two years at Panathinaikos. He helped me elevate my game to another level. I wasn't a dominant force offensively, but he taught me to make people around me better. As a coach, you have to be able to understand what each player can bring to the team.

Xavi Pascual was a genius when it came to offensive plays. He had a play for every situation, and it's impossible to scout a coach like him or even Sarunas Jasikevicius. 

It's up to the players to execute the system, but when you put your team in a position to be prepared for any kind of move no matter what they see, I look at that as elite coaching.

I understood what worked and what didn't. Many of the coaches I mentioned have something in common - discipline and the fact that the team is the most important thing. 

Still, there's a thin line separating overcoaching from undercoaching.
You can overcoach, and that's something you learn along the way, but undercoaching is unacceptable. You need to teach players the values of the team and what goes on in the game. Every quarter and part of the game is different; you can't approach everything the same way.

When you undercoach, you give your players too much leeway and freedom. You still need to put the pieces in the right place. There still have to be guidelines and rules. 

Have you come across coaches in Europe that were undercoaching?
Some of them just weren't at the level they needed to be for their team to perform how it should. I don't know if that's undercoaching or simply bad coaching. It goes hand in hand.

I won't name any names, but I've been in a few situations where some coaches feel like we didn't need to watch the film or give directions on the floor because less information can lead to quicker reactions. While this is true in certain situations, all the information you can get is necessary when it comes to big games.

Details and fundamentals matter in basketball, although many people tend to forget about them. They look at players' highlights, but it's a little bit more specific than that. 

You can't overcoach in the early months of the season. You do that after March because your team knows what to do by then.

Some say that big games are won by players, not coaches. Do you agree?
Every game is won by the players, not the coach. Is it the coach's fault if you don't make the shots? They blame the coach, but at the end of the game, their responsibility is to prepare their team for moments like that.

You got to practice the fundamentals every day so that it becomes second nature in the playoffs. When you practice your craft, you become so confident that you know what will happen.

Look at Steph Curry. He can shoot and run back on defense while the ball is still in the air because he's so confident in his craft. So, as a coach, you have to make sure you put your players in situations where they feel comfortable. 

In 2017, you said in an interview that you were eager and willing to get a Greek passport in order to play with the Greek NT. How far did that case go? Who or what is there to blame for things going south?
I don't have the full details about how everything goes. Initially, I was supposed to marry a Greek girl to get a Greek passport. Obviously, my wife was not OK with that.

Another way would be to live in Greece for seven years, and I stayed for six years and nine months. And that comes from my trade from Malaga, which happened in December. Had I been in Greece from the beginning of the year, I would have been eligible for a Greek passport without having to do anything extra. 

It's crazy that Tom Hanks was able to get the passport. My son was born in Greece, and at least he should be able to get it. A dream of mine has always been to play at a EuroBasket. I would love to have played for Greece, but the federation didn't allow any naturalized players. You had to be 100% Greek.

I was born in Turkey and thought I would get a chance to play for them, but I needed to spend one more year there even to be considered for a passport. Now, you see that Anthony Randolph, who had previously played with the US national team, was able to get a Slovenian passport. 

Credit Vangelis Stolis

Have you made any plans ahead of next season?
No plans. Ι want to enjoy my vacation now, that's the plan. Lyon is not that bad. Actually, I like living in Europe as opposed to living in the States, especially with everything that's going on in America right now. This is hostile territory, especially for people of color like myself.

I have two boys and one daughter, and we'll have to consider where we're going to live. Living in America is not the best. Being in Europe is definitely a break; it's fun, although I got family and people to see back home.

I'm open to offers, and I would love to stay in EuroLeague. If not, I'll take the next best thing. As you can see, I can still help teams win championships, and I hope teams take that into consideration. 

If next season turns out to be your last one, how would you like to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a fighter and a winner, somebody who always gave his all on the court and was willing to sacrifice everything for the team. 



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