| One of the emblematic players on Panathinaikos as it heads into the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four this week is big man Mike Batiste, an All-Euroleague nominee for the second time. Batiste has been a constant in the middle for Panathinaikos since 2003, perfecting the pick-and-roll that has been the engine of many triumphs for the Greens. After having won the Euroleague title twice, but failed to defend the trophy the following season, Batiste knows well how difficult it is to become champion again. Having learned from a personal low point earlier in the season, as his team's looks to capture its third title in five seasons this weekend, Batiste won't lack for motivation. "Playing at a high level of competition brings out the best in every single player," Batiste told Euroleague.net. "When you come to the biggest stage of all, the Final Four, that brings it out even more. Guys get more motivated. I am more motivated. Hopefully it will carry over into two more wins and I can hold another trophy and be part of something special."
Hello Mike. How do you compare this season’s Final Four run in terms of difficulty to your than your previous three trips to Final Fours?
"To get to the Final Four is always difficult each year. In fact, every year we won, we have not been successful in defending the title. That shows that nothing is guaranteed. No matter how good you are, every Euroleague team up and down the roster is very, very good, too. Even if you get in the position of winning your regular season group, the Top 16 can get really, really difficult. This year was that way. We struggled to finish first in our regular season group, with a tough battle against Union Olimpija. The second round, we had a more difficult group, with Caja Laboral, Lietuvos Rytas and Unicaja. Everyone knows that having Spanish teams in your group is always difficult because in that league, teams play the same way whether they are losing or winning by 30. They just keep coming at you. They are tough to play against, but even when we thought we were in the driver's seat, holding first position in the Top 16, we lost at home to Lietuvos Rytas by one point. That left us second in the group, and going up against the defending champs from Barcelona, but for good luck and some other reasons, we managed to eliminate them."
You mentioned Union Olimpija, and of course, the game in Ljubljana was a low point for you, when you stepped on their player Saso Ozbolt's head in frustration. What have you learned from that incident?
"The situation at the time it happened was really an embarrassment and a source of shame for me, for my family and for people who know me. I think that I'm a good person, and if you ask people who know me, they'll tell you the same thing. The people here in Greece know me and were just as surprised at my actions. I knew the repercussions when I did it, but at the same time, I didn't want to hide and run like nothing had happened. I wanted to meet the problem that I caused head on and tell everyone I was sorry, which I was. It's easier to protect yourself, run away and not tackle the issue. But part of learning in a situation like that is to go out, own up to your mistakes and be a man. I said I was sorry and apologized to Saso, and he's forgiven me. He deserves all the credit I can give him for accepting my apology and forgiving me. Because of that, I can move on. At the same time, I'm still learning from it. I had always been a player who was able to control my emotions and frustrations. For that split second, I got out of the discipline that I had always played with. Players go through certain things, frustrations and emotions, that can get out of control. I made a terrible mistake. But I've learned from it and know now that I have to control myself more, so that nothing like that happens again. I have learned from a stupid mistake."
Does knocking out defending champion Barcelona in the playoffs make Panathinaikos the favorites at the Final Four?
"People see us as the favorites, but personally I don't see that at all. These are all good teams going to Barcelona. Real Madrid is a good team with a great tradition, the most titles in Euroleague history. Adding another will be their focus. Maccabi has their big tradition, too, and great players. They will want to win another. And Siena is hungry for their first one. To me, Siena is the most dangerous team at the Final Four. They started the Top 16 with two losses, fought back to take second place, then managed to defeat a very good Olympiacos team in four games despite losing the first one by 48. That shows a lot of heart, will and desire from that team. No matter what type of situation they are in, they will fight to the end. Our game with Siena will be difficult, so we have to be well prepared."
What other impressions do you have of this Siena team?
"The fact that they have big-time heart, like I said, makes them a good matchup for us, because good teams bring out the best basketball in you. They have experience, to start. Shaun Stonerook has been there fighting a long time. Marko Jaric is a competitor. Bo McCalebb might be fully recovered from his injury. They've got one of the Lavrinovic brothers, and Rimantas Kaukenas. These guys are all proven winners in my mind. The way their season went. To see them come back in the Top 16 and against Olympiacos showed pride, heart and desire. This is a serious team we have to look out for. People can talk about us being favorites, but if it's true, right behind us is Siena. If we want do something special, we've got to get through a tough team that's going to push us to the limits. They play great defense, help one another out, have good team chemistry. At the same time, we have big-times players with experience, too. We're going to stand toe to toe with them, and it's going to be a dogfight."
You personally had some big games against Siena in the 2009 Playoffs on the way to a second Euroleague title. How much confidence does that give you now?
"It's a whole different year and different situation. We played to punch a ticket to the Final Four at that time. Now, we are talking about playing one game to keep playing for a title. So it's a different game and a different motivation than a playoff series. In one game, you either play to the best of your ability, or you make mistakes, lose and suffer he repercussions of playing for third place. In a playoff, if you lose one game, you can make adjustments, draw up a new plan and go back at it. A semifinal is just one game: you either come for that moment with everything ready or you don't. It doesn't matter what you did last time against them."
One player Montepaschi is missing from then is now on your side, Romain Sato. What has his addition meant to Panathinaikos this season?
"Ro is really helping us out this year. He's one reason we got past Barcelona. In the first game we lost by a point and he didn't score. He kind of took that to heart and got on himself because he played so bad. The next three games, though, he went out defense, rebounded, scored crucial threes and other critical baskets that really, really helped us. He gives us another threat as shooter, defender, post-up on the block. He gives us advantage size-wise and he's another proven winner on our team. The only thing he doesn't have is a Euroleague trophy, and he came to the right team to get over that hump and hold his first one. Everybody here will help him to get that job done."
Last season's All-Euroleague center Aleks Maric was expected to have a major impact on Panathinaikos, but injuries limited him so far. Can he play a big role in Barcelona?
"His role is going to be big. Even when he came back to help in limited minutes against Barcelona, anything he could give us was big. Some games he played 1 minute, some 3 minutes, the fourth one not at all. But every time was out there, he did something to help us win. Just his presence, another physical body playing at center and play our pick-and-roll game, helped. He helped when he was not at 100%. By the time we're in Barcelona, he should be almost 100%, so you might see him doing bigger things."
You have spent seven seasons playing alongside Dimitris Diamantidis. Is this season the best you have seen him play?
"Honestly, I haven't seen better. This is the first time he really had to lead us in every single game. In years past, we had Siskauskas, Jasikevicius, Becirovic, Spanoulis, you name it, a number of guys who could always take pressure off one another. This year, for almost the whole season, he took on pressure and the load of carrying us. He had to score, rebound and do everything in his power and will for us to be at this point. He's done it so far and he's not going stop now, because I know that May 6 is his birthday, and he wants that present, another European title. To play behind a guy like this and follow a leader like him makes me very happy. He's a great guy on the court, a better person off it, and to play with him is something special."
What makes your coach, Zeljko Obradovic, stand out so clearly among the best in basketball history?
"One, he's a player's coach. Believe me, Obradovic is a great and wonderful person off the court, but when you walk through that door to the gym, he's just as intense as any basketball player. For him, coaching is just like lacing up your shoes and going out to play on the court. If you have a coach like that who comes to work every day to push you to your limits as a basketball player, you are always going to have success. He'll go to the ends of the earth to motivate and push you. If he has to say things you don't like or don't want to hear, he will say them to get you to play 110%. A playing career in basketball doesn't last long, so when you get older and have a reunion with your teammates, you want great stories to tell. He motivates us to do that, and that's what makes him great. He did in Partizan, in Badalona and in Madrid, too. It's not just here. Everywhere he put his two feet on solid ground, he had success, and all the players who were under him will say the same things I am. He will do anything in his power to get his players playing at their highest level."
You, Diamamtidis, Kostas Tsartsaris, Antonis Fotsis, Stratos Perperoglou and Coach Obradovic have all been together a minimum of four seasons. How much of an advantage can that be at the Final Four?
"We might have an advantage in our experience, but that doesn't guarantee that we're going to win games. One reason we have a lot of success at Panathinaikos is we understand that to beat an opponent, you have to respect them, from the head coach to the last player on the bench, respect them all. Just because we have titles doesn't guarantee anything. We know that we have to play at very high levels of concentration and motivation, then let our god-given talent play the game on the basketball court."
What new motivations do you and your teammates have now to try to seize a third Euroleague title in five years?
"We all bring something to the table. Playing at a high level of competition brings out the best in every single player. When you come to the biggest stage of all, the Final Four, that brings it out even more. Guys get more motivated. I am more motivated. Hopefully it will carry over into two more wins and I can hold another trophy and be part of something special. I have heard that if we win, I might be the only American player with three Euroleague trophies. If that's true, that's motivation in itself to come out and get the job done. For me, to be in a class all by myself like that would make me feel good. I am happy that I'm in the class I am now, but to be on top and other players having to catch you would be something good."