March MVP interview: Milt Palacio, Partizan

Mar 25, 2008 by Frank Lawlor, Print
Milt Palacio - Partizan Igokea After turning 30 last month, Partizan Igokea point guard Milt Palacio is living through the most exciting chapter of his career just when, perhaps, he expected it least. By the end of this month, Palacio had converted his Euroleague debut into breakthrough celebration by leading Partizan into its first-ever Euroleague playoff series with a three-game-long performance that earned him the competition’s March MVP honor. After spending his first seven pro seasons between six NBA teams, Palacio landed as Partizan's only import player on a team dominated by young, homegrown talent that craved his experience and leadership. Palacio found the way to deliver when they needed him most, but makes it clear in this interview that his young teammates had earned his admiration long before. "I have been very fortunate to come to a team like this, with young guys who care about the game," Palacio said. "It all came together at the right time this month, but I never doubted because we put so much work into it. Coach Vujosevic makes it that way. On the road or at home, we're always doing things together. Like I tell them, what's good off-court is always great on it."

Partizan's Milt Palacio named Euroleague Basketball's MVP for March

Hi Milt. Congratulations both for making the playoffs and winning the March MVP award. How exciting has this month been for you?

"It has been very exciting. In my professional career, I've never been in a position to play such a big role as this. A little bit at Utah when I was in the NBA, but I didn't have so big a role as now, and that's the exciting part. All I can say is that all the hard work pays off."

Partizan is a unique team that relies mostly on homegrown, young national players. How much did you know about Partizan's uniqueness and your role before you came to the club?

"I really didn't know exactly how unique they were. My agent informed me about them first. He just told me that the biggest thing he liked is how hard the coach works the guys, how disciplined they are, and how it's a team, not one player or someone trying to be the hero. And it's true, our coach is all for the team and he works these guys hard. For me coming off an injury and trying to get back to normal, it has been a great situation and a perfect fit. I didn't know my role coming in, but as the weeks and months have gone by, I've learned."

Were you prepared for anything like what you have found in terms of the fan support?

Milt Palacio - Partizan Igokea "I have never been around fans like this before in my life, and I don't know if I ever will again. They even say that I'm a Serb now, and have given me a Serbian name: Milutine. Whenever fans act like that, giving you a nickname, you know they appreciate what you're trying to do."

Every game in March was do-or-die, but it started with the home win over previously undefeated Montepaschi. What do you remember from that game and was it the key one psychologically?

"Yes, I think that psychologically that game was the biggest for us. I remember everything, too. We were down 68-60 with about four minutes left and we got three stops in row. I said to the guys, 'If we get some stops we are going to score.' I felt we were on a roll, scoring-wise, because inside they couldn't match up with Pekovic. So I wanted to play inside-outside, and was telling the guys to get ready to shoot and make plays. But the key was the defense, and when we locked that down, it made the baskets come easier. The other big thing was that we never looked at the games as do-or-die. We never saw them as pressure games, because no one expected anything from us. So we approached every game that way, as a chance to prove ourselves to everybody. And our coach didn't put pressure on us, either. He just said that if we want to make a stand, and make history, we should go out there and play hard, which we did."

What affect did the team's second win in March, at Efes Pilsen, have on the playoff run?

"That one was about keeping the momentum going. We had played and beaten Efes two weeks before at home with all the Americans not coming and things of that nature which could have been distracting. Our coach deserves a lot of credit in all this. He does a great scouting job. He knows teams inside and out, what they do and what they don't do. For us to go up big in the third quarter, by 25 points or something in Turkey, was a big lift in itself, even though the game got closer. But we didn't go there saying we had to win. We just think that if no one expects it, why not just win? When we go like that, things turn out better as compared to earlier in year, when we thought we had to win and played terrible. Now, it's like: why not win?"

Then came defending Euroleague champ Panathinaikos at home in a head-to-head duel for a spot in the quarterfinals. What was it like to be on the floor at Pionir Arena even before that game started?

"I always have a few jitters before stepping out on the floor. It's normal really, because I think there's something wrong if you're not a little nervous. But this time, I mean to tell you, I had goosebumps when we ran out of the tunnel and onto the floor. Goosebumps. I was like: wow! The whole gym was packed and cheering for our layup line. I walked over to Mike Batiste from Panathinaikos. He said, 'Have you ever seen anything like this? We're going to have fun tonight!' I tell you, I was sweating in the layup line just because of the atmosphere. I just kept telling myself to get an easy basket first and then calm down and relax. Then, my first shot was a three-pointer, which I never like to shoot first. I like an easier basket to get started. But the night before, Predrag Danilovic had told me to be ready. He said that Panathinaikos was going to double off, that I would be making the decisions and I had to let myself shoot the ball if I was open, even if I missed a couple. He said, 'Be ready and don't worry. Just keep shooting. They'll fall'."

Have you ever played in an atmosphere like that before?

"Never. I'll tell you how loud it was: I lost my voice screaming plays and defenses. The next day I was hoarse, and that never happened before in my life. I was telling my brother later that it was impossible to describe. You can't compare it to Duke or the NBA playoffs or anything else in America. They just don't compare with this. And the amazing thing was our guys were so relaxed. You figure a young team would be nervous, but not them. Playing three other times against Panathinaikos helped, because we knew them like the back of our hand. And we were ready. I knew it was our game to win."

Milt Palacio - Partizan Igokea You tripled your performance rating from the regular season in these three games in March. How did you know it was your time to break out?

"All year long, I was playing up and down; good game here, not well there. I think now that I was thinking too much during that time, thinking 'I've got to hit this shot, stop that player'. Then, in the game at Siena, I had six turnovers, and I told myself I played terrible. I was putting the weight on my own shoulders, saying point guards can't do that. I think that after that, I just knew it was time for me to step up and lead. I thought that if I can make plays and show the way, they would follow my lead. And that was key. I remember when I got here and these young guys would point to players on other teams, saying how much money they made, I told them a funny thing: 'I never saw a dollar bill put the ball in the basket.' Now they know what I mean: the money doesn't play. There are lot of NBA guys making big money who can't make it to the playoffs or a championship. You need a team for that. Budget doesn't mean anything. It's the players who have to make shots, not the money. That wasn't our attitude at the beginning of the year, but it is our attitude now. No matter who the other guy is, he's still got to lace 'em up and play."

After a tough month, have you left a little something extra for this upcoming series against Tau Ceramica?

"The truth is that I haven't seen them play enough and we're concentrating on our domestic league right now, but the one thing I know is that Coach Vujosevic will have them scouted to a T. That's one thing I have a lot of confidence about. He'll break their team down into its tendencies and weaknesses, and we will be prepared. After that, it will come down to how hard we are going to fight and play."

Tau's got a South American following with Argentine and Brazilian players, but you have your own connections with Belize in Central America, where your parents are from. Do you know if they are following you from Belize now that you moved to Europe?

"I know for sure, because my mom was telling me on the phone that she got the news of me being MVP of the month from Belize. Someone there sent her and e-mail before I did! So I know they are keeping track for sure."

Milt Palacio - Partizan Igokea What are your thoughts on these young Partizan players with whom you are sharing your Euroleague experience?

"These guys work so hard! I don't know if all of Europe and everybody in the Euroleague does the same, but they do work hard. I know most European teams practice twice a day, but in the NBA, you might come in for an hour-and-a-half at most. These guys not only practice hard, but are in tune with basketball. They love basketball. They talk about it, keep up with everything. They ask me about NBA guys I've played against and with. I have been very fortunate to come to a team like this, with young guys who care about the game. I've seen plenty of young guys before who don't care, who get their money and just relax. These guys come to optional practices to shoot and make 1,000 shots. It all came together at the right time this month, but I never doubted because we put so much work into it. Coach Vujosevic makes it that way. On the road or at home, we're always doing things together. Like I tell them, what's good off-court is always great on it. When there's chemistry off the court, I can scream 'Let's go!' at a guy during the game and he understands. If I didn't know the same guy well off the court, I don't know how he will respond. My friend Chauncey Billups told me the same thing about when he won the NBA title with Detroit, that they were so close off the court, that made everything easier on the court. It's the same here at Partizan. Everyone is on the same page. Because of that, I can get in the huddle and look them in the eyes and say what has to be said. That's the fun part about this."