Dreams, wishes and regrets: James Gist's oral history of his Panathinaikos days

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-08-05 07:00
Credit: Vangelis Stolis
Credit Vangelis Stolis

The summer of 2012 found Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in uncharted territory. The loss of the domestic championship title to Olympiacos Piraeus, but most importantly, the end of the Pavlos and Thanasis Giannakopoulos era brought the need for drastic changes.

After Zeljko Obradovic's departure, the team's new coach, Argyris Pedoulakis, was asked to build a brand new squad, which should bear the weight and continue the legacy that the Greens had built. 

The Greek coach took over a team that had learned to fight for all the titles available. Hence, he chose an American forward with experience in Andy Panko. Aged 35 at the time, Panko was coming off an MVP season in the Spanish ACB League, averaging 18.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. However, the transition to the EuroLeague level took a toll on his performance. 

James Gist

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

Thus, almost three months into the season, Panathinaikos and Pedoulakis saw the chance for a change that could level up the Greek side, which had already qualified for the EuroLeague TOP 16.

James Gist, then 23, came to the forefront. His presence with Unicaja Malaga in the EuroLeague amounted to 8.6 points and 4.8 rebounds. However, his relationship with the coach of the team, Jasmin Repesa, was far from excellent. That's why the Andalusian club was looking for some way to get rid of the player at the least possible cost.

Gist was exactly what Pedoulakis wanted - a big man possessing an athletic ability rare for European standards and someone who could support many defensive schemes. Since Panko still had a good reputation in Spain and Malaga needed an experienced scorer, the foundation for the first trade in modern European basketball history had been laid.

On December 21, 2012, Panathinaikos announced the acquisition of James Gist in exchange for Andy Panko, who moved to Andalusia. The move turned out to be a big hit. The American forward-center was one of the main reasons why the team managed to win titles on the domestic front, even if Olympiacos ended up winning the EuroLeague that very season (2012-13).

Credit Vangelis Stolis

What's more, over the course of 6.5 years, Gist became the longest-serving non-Greek athlete in the club's history after Mike Batiste, as he truly bonded with Panathinaikos and their rowdy fans. He won 11 titles (5 championships and 6 Greek Cups) and left some unforgettable moments, especially with his hustle plays and ferocious dunks.

Gist's relationship with Panathinaikos went through many turbulations during those years. The player had to deal with a serious injury (in 2016), a six-month ban for the use of illegal substances (in 2015), and numerous incidents that threatened to compromise his stint in Greece.

Among many, a night out in Thessaloniki after a lost playoff game in 2016, a child support case a year earlier, and the notorious 'bus-gate' saga a year later, when the team's owner, Dimitris Giannakopoulos, ordered players and staff to take the bus from Istanbul to Athens following PAO's playoff elimination by Fenerbahce. 

In the second part of his interview with BasketNews, James Gist sheds some light on those episodes whilst highlighting his position. Not only when things were actually happening but also in hindsight. He looks back at how and why the six-time EuroLeague champs never made it to the Final Four while he was there.

He also talks about his bitter finale with the team in 2019, his relationship with Giannakopoulos, the best squads that PAO had in the past decade, and the elements that the recent versions of the Greens seem to lack. 

You can read the first part of James Gist's interview here.

The Trade

Honestly, I had no idea that that move was going to happen. I didn't know until it was actually official. We had just finished our last game in the first round of EuroLeague - I think it was against Chalon - and after the game, a journalist asked me if that was my last game with Malaga. It was the first time I heard anything about me leaving Malaga.

The funny thing is that before that season (2012-13), I had the chance to sign with Panathinaikos. I talked to Diamantidis and Sotiris Manolopoulos, assistant coach at the time. They were trying to convince me to come, and I was like, "Nah, I don't know. Spain is a better look for me."

Somewhere, somehow, I ended up at Panathinaikos that year, but I was very unaware of the move and that I would be traded for Andy Panko. So, it was pretty set, and it happened in a few days. 

Credit AFP-Scanpix

The only thing that I know is that my coach at the time, Jasmin Repesa, was unhappy with me. He didn't feel like the team could win anything major with me. I wasn't his first choice. I knew we had the same agent, but he had 2-3 other players he wanted to bring in. So, when he got me, he wasn't very happy.

I'm not the type of player that's going to bring animosity to a team. I'm more like the glue guy who keeps the team together. They told me that Panathinaikos had a player they were unhappy with, which was Andy Panko, and we had similar contracts. So, the trade was made easier.

At first, I was highly upset! Prior to me going to Athens, I was in Malaga at the southern tip of Spain. It's warm, beautiful, near the water, the sun doesn't go down until 11 o'clock, and my house was perfect. Malaga was tied for first place with Maccabi Tel Aviv that year.

We weren't doing good in the Spanish league, maybe because we didn't take it as seriously.

When I learned I was going to get traded to Athens, I didn't know anything about the city. I was like, "Damn! I'm leaving all of this. I'm leaving paradise to get to Athens."

Me and my wife were staying in a small apartment in Kifissia (in the northern suburbs), and we didn't see any water. We thought we had made a huge turnaround. It really looked like a downgrade.

Once I got to experience Athens and understand how close we actually were to the water, what the fanbase was like, how amazing the food was, and that the team was always competing for championships, I really started to adjust and enjoy the moment. I never thought that it would translate in seven years at Panathinaikos.

I didn't know what to expect coming to Greece. I didn't know if that was my last chance to prove myself or if I was going to retire the following year (2013). It just happened to be something great. 

I didn't even have the chance to meet Pedoulakis prior to that. My first time meeting him was the first practice before we played Zalgiris for the first round in the TOP 16. I can't say if he had any impact on the trade, but once I got there, he did have a huge impact. 

A Night Out

Athens reminded me of both Belgrade and Malaga. Before I went to Partizan (2010), I had been with the Spurs the previous year, and I felt like I could contribute and help them win. But Gregg Popovich felt different.

It wasn't that I couldn't help or play. It was that I had Hall-of-Famers I had behind. I wasn't going to play over Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson, Theo Radcliffe, Antonio McDyess, or Matt Bonner. I understand that but give me the chance to play for somebody else.

I still wanted to stay in the NBA, and I didn't want to come to Europe at all. But I realized they wouldn't release my rights unless I went to training camp.

Then, Partizan came and said they had a place for me. When I signed there, I was like, "Get me out of here, I don't want to be in Belgrade! The city is no good."

In my second game, we played Maccabi in a sold-out Pioneer. The fans put on a show, and we lost by 20 points. When we went to the locker room, coaches were screaming at us about how we lost the game, but fans were still chanting for us to come back out.

They never left the gym. I hadn't experienced anything like that before. So, I come out and see the fans supporting us. I thought to myself, "Damn! This is different." 

After that, I ended up going out that night all by myself. When I got the chance to see the city, I realized that it wakes up at night. When the sun goes down, Belgrade is completely different.

I called my agent immediately and told him, "Don't worry about me, I'm cool. I'm staying here. The basketball and the nightlife are good. I'll figure it out and make it work." It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. 

There are things you have to deal with when you're playing overseas. Teams have these forbidden things that you're not allowed to do. You have to respect the culture and act accordingly, but you're still a person, and you have the right to express yourself in any way you see fit.

The important thing is the results. If you win, nobody says anything. When you lose, everyone has a reason as to why you lost. As long as you're acting accordingly, you're presentable, and you're producing good basketball, you're not giving the team any reason to say they're losing because of you. Nothing else should matter. 

In 2016, we lost Game 3 to Aris for the Greek playoffs. Me and some of the guys went out in Thessaloniki. The crazy thing is that we didn't go out to party. We went to a bar and just had a few drinks.

One of the guys I was with was very popular out there, and it ended up making it to the media. They took pictures of them, but I was never in any of the photos.

My intention in going out was to not stay in the hotel and keep thinking about the game. But waking up the next morning and understanding what had happened, I realized it was made into something big.

Credit Vangelis Stolis

Pedoulakis was the coach at the time after (Sasa) Djordjevic had been fired. I remember him coming to my room and asking me, "James, did you go out last night?" I told him I did. I had no idea what he was talking about until I saw all the blogs and the sites. I was like, "Do you really think this is the reason why we lost?"

Aris didn't have a bad team at the time. I get that Panathinaikos and Olympiacos are the main rivals in Greece, but you still got other teams like PAOK and Aris. You can lose a game there.

But the reaction to leave me and a couple of other players out in Game 4 was overdone. We weren't going to lose two games in a row. The reason we lost Game 4 was because Pedoulakis sat us out. 

Then, we had to win Game 5 in Athens, which we did. I didn't agree with that at all. Some things were done wrong within the team, but c'mon, we're all people. If we were playing badly and we were going out every night, I would have understood it. But we had only lost three games all season in the Greek league.

There are many other things you can blame instead of pointing at guys wanting to go out. It's different when you're a foreign player in a country that's not your home, and you're expected to be there for ten months. They expect you to practice, play and go home. They don't expect you to enjoy the culture.

When you're playing badly, and your numbers are down, maybe there's something to look at. But when a player does it one time or after a loss? It's basketball, you're not going to win every game. That's something that goes on in Europe, and people have to understand it. 

After we lost 0-3 to Baskonia (in the EuroLeague playoffs in 2016), you had guys that went out and partied. They were like, "Yeah, EuroLeague is over!" I wasn't among them.

I mean, we didn't do anything special, and our coach (Sasa Djordjevic) got fired. I get that it's a long season with all the stress and pressure that come behind, but if you didn't win anything, what is there to celebrate?

You can go out, have a drink and relax. But be low-key, not in the eye of the public. Being there and making all noise makes it look like a celebration.

I've never been a big fan of partying after losses because I think, "Who would want to party with a loser? You think people are there to see you? No, they're there to see the guys that played well."

For me, going out was a way to release some stress, not to get people something to talk about. That's the difference between going out and being belligerent, crazy, and annoying. Guys often get those things mixed up. 

At the end of the day, we're people too. I think people hold us to a higher standard than most other professionals. That's unfair. 

Family affairs

Dimitris Giannakopoulos and I don't talk every day, but there's mutual respect whenever we do talk. One thing that many people may not know is that me and Giannakopoulos have a really good relationship that became defined after my third year.

In the summer of 2014, I was going through a custody battle with my daughter in America and was late for training camp. Dusko Ivanovic was our coach at the time, and he wanted everyone there by a specific date. I had to make a decision, and my family comes first.

Dusko said I might be released if I didn't show up by a certain date. Giannakopoulos said, "Any player can be released but James at this point. He's not doing it on purpose because he has to take care of his family." 

Giannakopoulos is one of those guys that really care about their family. That's one level that I and him really see eye to eye. He knows how I feel about my daughter and my kids, and I know how he feels about his family. That's why we were able to relate to a situation like that. 

Credit Vangelis Stolis

Later on in the year (2014-15), when I failed my doping test, Giannakopoulos was very upset. I had just signed a new two-year contract, and I remember the argument that we had. The main point was, "Why would you do this to the team? You hurt the club."

My first reaction was, "I don't care about the team, I'm going to lose my daughter." If I didn't have a job to show that I can support my daughter, I'd lose. I had to get her out of the situation.

So, Giannakopoulos saw me as a person, he didn't see me as a player. In that moment, we were able to have a conversation and see each other for who we are. From that point on, our relationship grew to another level. Our first interaction with each other was very energetic and spontaneous. We both are a ball of fire.

When we played Olympiacos in the finals, and we screamed at each other, I didn't even know that he was the president. 

Credit Vangelis Stolis

At the end of the season, we had a team dinner at his house. Me and my wife were eating and having a good time. We wanted to say hi to the president and thank him for inviting us. Meanwhile, he was there the whole time, talking to us. We had no idea he was the president. The moment was genuine. He saw who I am as a person.

So, I understand him 100% when he has his moments, and he goes over the top. I have nothing but high respect for him. He's someone I consider a friend, and we have a relationship that not many people know about. 

The Bus Ride

In 2017, we got swept by Fenerbahce, although we had a home-court advantage. They went on to win the EuroLeague that year. I would say that Obradovic coached his team well. He did an amazing job with that team. Fenerbahce had Ekpe Udoh, Jan Vesely, Bogdan Bogdanovic... They had a really good team.

In Game 1, we were up by 16 (47-31) and lost by 13 (58-71). Think about it. (Nikola) Kalinic shot 16% from the 3-point line all year long. But in this playoff series, all of a sudden, he's making threes. He shot like 60% in the playoffs.

So, even when we were trying to do what we were supposed to do as a team, Fenerbahce were able to capitalize on those things. That year, we had only lost one game at home. We didn't expect to lose that game. It was tough to lose the series, and I don't have anything bad to say about that. 

The worst thing is that after Game 3, we woke up the next day and found out that our flight has been canceled and that we had to take the bus back to Athens. At that moment, everyone was like, "No, we're not taking the bus. We're going to buy our own flights."

Giannakopoulos comes and says, "Whoever flies and doesn't ride the bus, he's going to have his contract cut." It had started to get serious. 

That year, I tore my abductor muscle in Madrid, and I was out for four months.

Credit EuroLeague Basketball via Getty Images

It was a contract year for me. I was in the middle of negotiations for a new contract, and now this happens: "If you don't get on the bus, you're off the team." I wasn't in a position to say I could do what I want. I was coming off an injury, and I knew I couldn't make a big push for a new contract anywhere.

Guys like Mike James, Chris Singleton, and Antonis Fotsis had a different feeling. They weren't going to ride the bus no matter what. We still had the Greek league finals, and you don't want to get rid of two-three of your best players before you play against Olympiacos. 

This is where Xavi Pascual, as a coach, stood up for the team. He was like, "Whatever happens, we're going to do it together as a team."

If guys were going to ride the bus, ok. If not, he would find a way to protect them until the end of the season. We ended up winning the playoffs, and most of the players stayed. 

Fotsis left because he was just tired and didn't want to deal with it anymore. There's a lot of stress that comes with playing at Panathinaikos and with trying to win championships. I think Fotsis was over all that. He had won championships, EuroLeagues, and EuroCups, he had had many big contracts. He didn't have anything else to prove.

He wasn't going to ride the bus either. For him, it was like, "I'm done with this. I still love the game of basketball, but not under these circumstances." If anybody should be given respect, it's him. You don't put guys like Fotsis or Diamantidis on the bus. 

Do I agree with having to ride the bus back? Νο. It probably wasn't the best for me to do a 17-hour bus ride. But I did it because I didn't have a contract. Had I already had a contract, or had I not been injured, I would probably have been on the plane too. 

The cold shoulder

When PAO let me go in 2019, I definitely felt slighted. I thought Panathinaikos was the place where I was going to retire or spend my remaining years there. I felt like I was what they were looking for.

Many guys that Panathinaikos have had over the years don't understand what it means to wear that jersey. It has six stars on it, it's heavy. Many people respect this club, and you have to understand what it means to play for this team. I felt like I was one of the last guys to be that type of player for Panathinaikos.

So, I didn't see myself being out of the club. Everybody says, "Why did you leave?" and I was like, "It wasn't my choice." If it were up to me, I would have stayed. It wasn't my choice. On terms that I left, it was sour after everything we had gone through.

It should have been a little more comforting. I get that there's a business side to everything. But I thought we were going to sit down and have a conversation about what the club wants to do and where they want to go. I didn't get that. It could be minimal, but sometimes that's all it takes. 

My agent was the one who told me that I was off the team. I didn't have a conversation with anyone else. The message was, "You're not coming back to Panathinaikos. We're going to find other options."

After being there for seven seasons, my son was born there, I made many friends, and it was something that really hit me. I didn't want to leave. Greece was my second home. 

Broken dreams

Part of why I've missed out on the Final Four eight times with two teams (PAO and Bayern Munich) was luck or lack of concentration.

In my first year in Panathinaikos, we played Barcelona in a five-game series. In Game 1, I missed two free throws at the end, and the game went to overtime. We came back and won Game 2 and Game 3 and then had Game 4 at OAKA. It was a matter of details.

For that year, we weren't expected to do as well as we did because Obradovic and the championship [core] had left. Only Diamantidis and Tsartsaris were there. Everybody else was new.

You had me, (Stephane) Lasme, (Roko) Ukic, (Mike) Bramos, Sofoklis (Schortsanitis), (Jonas) Maciulis. It was their first go-round. But we did really well. Had we won that playoff series, I think we would have won the EuroLeague. Earlier, we had beaten Real Madrid and Olympiacos.

Pedoulakis was smart, and when he got fired the first time in 2014, I didn't agree with those who said we weren't playing exciting basketball and that we had to score more. I get that, but at the same time, we were winning.

Pedoulakis knew what his team was capable of doing. We couldn't run fast break. If you gave us ten fast breaks, we might score three. That's being honest. A team like Madrid would probably score ten times.

They could even beat some NBA teams at the time. What we could do really well was play half-court basketball. When we got teams to play our game - tough, physical, understanding every read- I'll take that every day instead of playing run'n'gun. 

Credit Vangelis Stolis

When I was in Munich, our playoff series went to Game 5 in Milan. We lost it at the buzzer, with Zach LeDay scoring after an inbound pass and a miscommunication between players on the switch. We lose Game 2 in Milan, win Games 3 and 4 in Munich, and go back for Game 5. We lost by the last possession. Kyle Hines got a big block on Wade Baldwin.

I think that Milan's celebration after Game 1 was because they knew they had won the game that would help them get to the Final Four. That comes from experience, the coach, and the players.

I was very upset after that game. When we went back to the hotel, Marko (Pesic), the GM in Munich, asked me, "What's wrong?" and I was like, "In playoffs when you're supposed to win, you win. We lost this game, and this is going to hurt in the end."

I knew that that game was going to cost us. 

Credit Philippe Ruiz via www.imago-images.de

Those two EuroLeague playoffs were probably the most memorable for me.

But there's another one - in my second year with Panathinaikos when Pedoulakis got fired and Fragiskos Alvertis took over, we played CSKA Moscow. We lost the first two games in Moscow, won the next two in Athens, and came back to Russia for Game 5.

We lost by 30 points, it wasn't even close. If we had won Game 1, we could have made the Final Four. That game shouldn't have gone to overtime. 

Endless Rebuilding

When I look back at those Panathinaikos teams, I wish we would have kept that core together. 

I don't disagree with young players being brought to the team, but when you think of championships, you have to build a team. You can't reconstruct every year and expect the team to be great. In the NBA, you got Milwaukee, Golden State, Boston...

In Panathinaikos, we would have made the Final Four had we kept the core together. You got players that really care about the jersey and are willing to work together.

What probably hurt me the most at Panathinaikos was that we were getting rid of players that understood what it meant to play for the team. That's what Panathinaikos have been missing. 

Even if the club didn't want to pay extra money to keep the core together, they were spending the money anyway to bring other players with lower salaries instead of putting them on those who were going to give you what you needed. There's no way you get rid of Mike James, KC Rivers, Chris Singleton, me, and Calathes.

You keep them and build around them. At the end of the day, you know what you're going to get. You have a team that went to the playoffs every year. It's not like you had a bad team, it's not a bad investment. You're mad that you didn't win, but you can't be mad at what you have.

If you look at Real Madrid or Efes, they've kept their core together. People say those teams have 20 or 30 million budgets. That could be true. But you can't have a foundation if you keep revamping the team.

I was in Panathinaikos for seven seasons, and I went through eight coaches. We never had the same roster we started with at the beginning of the season. Where could we build something? Why take chances on new players and coaches? Why not keep something that's actually genuine and real?

I know that two teams that we had could have made the Final Four at least once. I don't think the team with Djordjevic or Dusko Ivanovic could have done that. But the team Pedoulakis put together in 2016 could guarantee one Final Four. We also got rid of our first team that Pedoulakis had put together in 2012.

Many teams in Europe hated playing against us. They won, but it was tough. We were a picture of what Panathinaikos was. 

Regardless of what team you have, you lose money every year. What's the point in putting so much pressure on the team to make the Final Four? Obradovic got lucky. In his first year in Panathinaikos, he won the EuroLeague. Not many coaches will step into a team and win EuroLeague the first year.

I always say I came to the team five years too late - because I would have been paid much more. I'm not going to say we didn't have the money available, but we just didn't know where to spend it on. 

Now, with Pedoulakis as the GM, he knows what players can and can't do. He's smart and cerebral. He's also Greek, which is important. You need someone who's up to speed with how Greek society works.

The players feel the energy of the fans. I haven't seen the gym full in two years. That's not like Panathinaikos."



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Goreme
james gist is born in incirlik turkey
2022-08-05
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