|Le Mans big man Joao Paulo Batista can't get enough of Istanbul. A week ago, he helped Brazil nearly reach the World Championships quarterfinals there. Next week, he returns to lead Le Mans against Banvit BK in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Qualifying Rounds. On the first trip, Batista and Brazil had tough luck losing by a single basket to eventual champion USA in the group stage and to Argentina in an eighthfinals battle that many called the tournament's best. On this second trip, Batista is hoping for better luck, but perhaps Le Mans already has some. They plays the all-important second game at home in Le Mans, while Banvit has to travel, too - 230 kilometers from its home in Bandirma - to play the first game in Istanbul. "We have to be strong inside. I think we have the tools to do that. Now, we also have the tools to shoot the ball," Batista said. "The rest is toughness. We have to be tough and understand the sense of urgency we need to have in the first game of the season."
Hello, JP. Everyone is still abuzz about the World Championships in Turkey. How was that experience for you?
"The experience was unique. The World Championships is where all the best players and countries are, and for me it was a tremendous honor to be on our squad. My situation wasn't exactly how I would have wanted, substituting for an injured friend of mine, Nene, whom they called me up to replace. But anyhow the experience was awesome. It was a great time and I learned a lot from coach Ruben Magnano and from just being around the guys. Like I said, the experience was unique."
Your next goal is qualifying Le Mans to the Euroleague regular season. How do you and your teammates feel team feeling about that challenge?
"Our goal is always to win and make it to the Euroleague. We know that Banvit is a good team, but we're going to step on court and respect our opponent. At the same time, we have the ambition to win by giving everything we've got. We have to go on court from the very start with that attitude."
Last season, Le Mans played and lost to Alba Berlin in the first round of this same qualifying tournament. What did you guys learn from that experience?
"Alba was an extremely well-organized team that moved the ball fast and quick. Their coach did a great job. They had a great roster, a 12-man roster, which is one thing we might lack. But we definitely learned from that experience that right from the beginning of this round, you have to keep focused, go in ready and take advantage of this opportunity. If we lose to Banvit, it can't be by much, because we know it'll be difficult to go home for the second game and match it. Better to step in strong from the very beginning and not lose."
Does playing in the World Championships so recently mean that you are in shape, mentally and physically, to play such important games so soon?
"That's true. Mentally and physically, I feel good. And like you say, this qualifying round is like playing the most important games of the season right at the start. That's when most teams are still figuring out their chemistry. We're doing it, too, and with a few new players, that can be difficult. But we hope we'll be ready."
On that same chemistry question, you and Alain Koffi missed some of training camp while at the World Championships. How will that affect the team now?
"That's not a problem, because even though he played last year in Spain, Alain has been here forever, for 10 years before that. I have been here two years, so we both already know the system and are used to playing at this level. We just need to get the other guys to follow us, and that won't be a problem."
Three of the team's perimeter players - Antione Diot, Marc Antoine Pellin and Alex Acker - are returning from various injuries. Will they be 100% ready next week?
"Alex had a little pulled muscle and hamstring, but he should be fine. Antoine is doing great, showing every day how he's ready to lead the team. I am excited for him. Marc is doing what he has to do, too. He looks ready. But like I said, we don't have that 12-man depth that some teams do, so we have to stay healthy, yes."
You are the only Le Mans playing coming back who started a Eurocup game last season. Do you have a greater leadership role now?
"Yeah, I think I do. Being team captain for the second year in a row, especially as a foreigner, definitely adds that extra pressure, but that is nothing I am afraid of. I know the pressure. I've been doing this a long time. I understand and I know how to bring guys together. They know me and we have a great relationship, so there's no problem with the leadership role."
Banvit finished third in the Turkish League last season. What else do you know about them?
"I tried to do a little research, and I know it's a club that every year keeps getting better. It's the kind of team you have to watch out for and not underestimate. We haven't watched film yet, but I know it's a growing club and getting better."
Is playing the second leg at home an advantage for Le Mans?
"It can be if we get a win or don't lose by much in the first game. The second game can be decisive. Any series with two games is like that. If it were best of three, it would be different. But best of two can be tricky. We have to make sure in the first game, just go to Turkey and take care of business."
For Le Mans, what will be the keys winning the series?
"Definitely, we have to be strong inside. I think we have the tools to do that. Now, we also have the tools to shoot the ball. The rest is toughness. We have to be tough and understand the sense of urgency we need to have in the first game of the season. Some guys might not realize it, but it's so important. The first game is the most important one, and we have to come with that mentality. Hopefully, our new guys will pick up the system and be ready for that very first game, the most important one."
Le Mans is one of three French clubs competing in the Euroleague Qualifying Rounds. How important is it for at least one to succeed and give France a second team in the Euroleague?
"It's very important. We know that the more teams that we can have at the highest level in European basketball, the better it will be for the French League, the more exposure we'll get. Hopefully we'll get another team, but two more will be difficult because if we win and so does Asvel in the first round, one of us will eliminate the other in the second round. That leaves only Chorale Roanne on the other side of the bracket. But no matter what, getting another team in the Euroleague would be great for French basketball."