|Although he arrived after the regular season had already started, James Gist of Partizan mt:s Belgrade has debuted as one the most effective and entertaining players in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague this season. Gist is the Euroleague's top rebounder so far with 7.3 boards per game while also leading Partizan in minutes, points, blocks and three-pointers made. Gist is also a leader in highlights generated, thanks to his varied skills in running, dunking, blocking and generally flying around the court. His style of play has won him the adoration of the famous "grobari" fans who fill Partizan's home games. On Thursday, Partizan hosts Montepaschi Siena at 22,000-seat Belgrade Arena in the Game of the Week, very much a showdown for Top 16 survival between two winless teams so far. Gist knows that whatever else he has seen in his career until now, Thursday he could witness a crowd become a true sixth man, just what Partizan needs right now. "Belgrade is on a whole different level. I can't describe it," Gist told Euroleague.net. "The fans here want to win it for you. With the energy coming from 22,000 people like that, they're practically on the court with us. They love the game more than we do; they just can't play."
First of all, what it's like for a newcomer like you being on the floor for Partizan during a Euroleague home game?
"Man, my first Euroleague game here, playing Maccabi at home, I was sure I had seen Partizan at its peak. Pionir was sold out, black-and-white paper was flying everywhere, there was non-stop noise - singing, chanting, cheering - from beginning to end. Then, last week against Efes was my first time in Belgrade Arena, with the same crowd, but now 22,000 instead of the 7,500 at Pionir. It's crazy. There's no other way to describe it. It's just chaos the whole game, and I love it."
You got to see some of the Euroleague while playing in Russia and Italy. What is it like for you now, on the inside, to play in this competition?
"It's just great for me to know that I am playing at the top level in Europe now. First I was in Italy, and then in Russia, and I played the top leagues in those countries, but nothing like on the Euroleague level. I got a taste of what Euroleague teams are about, playing Rome and Siena in Italy, playing against CSKA in Russia. So you get a taste of what their about, but now to actually be in the mix with them, it's just great to know you are playing with the best."
You had immediate impact from the time you arrived to Belgrade. How were you able to adjust so well?
"I think just from the years I have spent playing overseas, I have learned to adjust. It was difficult my first year, at Biella in Italy. I went through a rough patch then, figuring out how to play here in Europe. It's different from the States, the way the game is played and the rules and everything. That was difficult, but that was the adjustment period I needed. It's still basketball, still a high level of competition and the same concepts, but I learned then when to push and when to relax according to what my team needed. I learned a lot a lot these last couple of years in Europe, and that learning helped me make a quick adjustment to Partizan."
You are leading the team in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks and three-pointers. Did you expect so much responsibility despite signing late?
"Not at all, but I am enjoying it! I just love the game of basketball. I tell my coach and my teammates that all the time. I'm just playing to win. It's not about my minutes or my points. It's about what I can do to help the team, and I guess all those stats come into play, even though I didn't know about them until you just mentioned it."
Let's talk Top 16. How is the team's outlook after the two losses to open this round?
"It's tough. We dropped those first two games, and we know that we put ourselves in a tight situation, especially with last week's loss at home. As hard as it is to win on the road, you've got to win at home, so that defeat really plays against us. Everyone is a little tight because of that, but at the same time focused. We still have our chances in the Top 16, but we've got our work cut out for us. First, we play Siena here and then at their place, which we know will be one of the hardest games possible. But we have to take it one game at a time and get the first win here at home."
A win now not only gets you back in the group race but rewards the fans. Are you guys thinking of this game as do-or-die?
"That's pretty much what it is for us. I know Siena lost the first two, as well. So if we win on Thursday, it still gives us a chance to make some noise. If we lose, it might count us out of the running for the Playoffs. We had our first game at Belgrade Arena last week against Efes, with all the fans in the city hoping for us to win, and we disappointed them. There's a lot more at stake now because we lost that one, and we don't want to disappoint them again. So, yeah, it's do-or-die now."
You are a familiar with Siena and the guy you are likely to match up with, Shaun Stonerook, from playing in Biella a couple seasons ago. What do you expect from them?
"I still haven't played against every Euroleague team yet, but one thing I said over my three years in Europe was that Siena is probably the best team I have played against in that time. Stonerook, along with McIntyre and Sato, were big keys to their success in those years. Also, Lavrinovic is a center who goes out and spreads the floor with his three-point shooting. This year they had Bo McCalebb, although it seems he won't be coming to Belgrade. They also have Malik Hairston, who was my teammate with the San Antonio Spurs. It's a tough team, and I can say that from my familiarity with them when they beat my teams in Italy bad. It's a great team and we'll have to be ready."
You and Nathan Jawai have made quite a tandem, especially considering you are newcomers to the team and the competition. How do you bring out the best in each other?
"I think we play good with each other. Me and Nate are always talking, during practice, during games. When I'm passing the ball, I'll ask him where the best position is for him to receive. Or I'll tell him to play off me. If his man helps my defender, I'll look straight to Nate. If I am outside, I am looking for him inside. If he makes a move, I try to cut the opposite, and he'll look for me or kick out. It's the confidence we have in each other. We've been able to click since I got here. I know he definitely has my back on defense, coming over to block shots, just as I do the same when his man makes a move. Like I said, we managed to click, and it's something I've tried to do in all the placed I have played, click with the big man. It's important when you are working together at the four and five positions to have that communication going."
Getting back to the Partizan fans, your dunks, blocks and clutch plays are in the Euroleague Top 16 almost on weekly basis. Aside from winning games, how important is for you to offer showtime to all Partizan fans out there?
"One thing I have always considered myself to be is a high-energy player who gets the fans going. It's been that way since I was a kid. At the University of Maryland, we had the wildest fans in America, 18,000 every night. If I could get a block or a dunk to make them wilder, I tried to do that. But it’s not about the dunk: it's about using that to get the crowd involved so you can win, which is so much more important. I feel if you get the crowd alive - with a steal, a block, a fastbreak or whatever - and that gets your teammates going, it can only help the team. And I have Jan Vesely doing the same for me. He's the most athletic player I have seen in a while, and it's great to play with a guy like that. It helps to have someone like him. If for some reason I can't get the crowd going, he's right there behind me to do it."
How do the wildest fans in America compare to playing in Belgrade for Partizan?
"As much as I love the fans in Maryland, because they give their all every game, Belgrade has to be the craziest place ever to play in. I had Maryland before this, and even in Biella the fans were packed into a small gyms, 4,000 of them making noise the whole game. But Belgrade is on a whole different level. I can't describe it. The fans here want to win it for you. With the energy coming from 22,000 people like that, they're practically on the court with us. They love the game more than we do; they just can't play."