"101 Greats of European Basketball," a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades' worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball's roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Mike Batiste: The star who found his second home
October 18, 2000. The first round of the newly-founded EuroLeague. Two days after the opening game between Real Madrid and Olympiacos Piraeus – Dino Radja scored the first basket in that game – host Spirou Charleroi defeated the St. Petersburg Lions by 80-68. Mike Batiste, totally unknown in Europe, scored 16 points and pulled 8 rebounds for the winners. It was the start of a brilliant European career for him.
Batiste finished that season with averages of 16.1 points and 9.2 rebounds, more than enough for some teams from stronger leagues to put their eyes on him. Biella was not a huge team in Italy by any means, but the Italian League was surely a step up in competitiveness from the Belgian one. In Italy, he put up 12.4 points and 7.2 rebounds on average. That's when Batiste was offered the chance that he didn't get after his college years at Long Beach and Arizona State – the NBA called through the Memphis Grizzlies. He didn't hesitate to accept the offer and played 75 games there with solid numbers: 6.4 points and 3.2 rebounds.
Rebirth in Athens
Up to that point, Michael James Batiste (born November 21, 1977, in Long Beach) was a good player with notable talent, but somehow he had not taken off. He had to travel back to Europe, this time to Panathinaikos Athens, to take that leap of quality in his career. The coach of the Greens, Zeljko Obradovic, had already won two European crowns with the team in 2000 and 2002. He was looking for a versatile big man who could score under the rim, shoot from mid-range and pull rebounds. He set his eyes on Batiste, who from a physical point of view was a 'copy' of Corny Thompson, the big man who Obradovic had coached in Joventut Badalona in the 1990s and the hero of that club's EuroLeague title team in 1994, thanks to one of his three-point shots.
Thompson stood at 2.03 meters, only one centimeter shorter than Batiste, and he had great touch and great rebounding abilities. Obradovic found a similar style of player in Batiste. The numbers he had during his first season were not that spectacular: 7.9 points and 3.2 rebounds, but Obradovic was happy. In 2004-05 Batiste raised the bar to 11.4 points and 4.8 rebounds and then he did the same thing the following campaign (13.3 points, making 65.7% on two-pointers and 36.4% on threes, plus 6.6 rebounds).
Titles in the Greek League and Greek Cup kept stacking up, but the fans wanted another EuroLeague title, and that arrived in the 2006-07 season, with a Final Four in Athens, to boot, and a championship game for the ages against CSKA Moscow that the Greens won 93-91. Batiste contributed 15 points and 12 rebounds in the semis against Tau Ceramica (67-53) and then 12 plus 5 against CSKA in one of the best EuroLeague championship games ever. Together with Dejan Tomasevic, Kostas Tsartsaris and Robertas Javtokas, Batiste was part of a wall that Obradovic had built on defense, but which also contributed many points on offense.
Batiste was not your typical center. His physical attributes would probably put him more at the power forward position, but thanks to his rebounding abilities, his timing and the sixth sense that told him where the ball would go, he was really useful under the rims. He was also pretty good at offensive rebounds, which always is a great asset to minimize your own team's mistakes. His lack of height was made up for by his basketball IQ, technique, high shot and speed. His build, at first sight, did not intimidate opponents much, but they all realized soon enough that they were facing one of the most dangerous and smart big men in Europe.
After an off year in 2008, when they missed the playoffs, Batiste and Panathinaikos won another EuroLeague title together in Berlin in 2009, with a great big-man duo that Batiste formed with Nikola Pekovic. The Greens defeated archrival Olympiacos Piraeus in the semis (84-82), where Pekovic had 20 points and 2 rebounds and Batiste 19 points and 6 boards. In the title game, again against CSKA Moscow (73-71), neither of them was as efficient (6 points apiece), but the greatness and the variety of resources available to Coach Obradovic proved that the team could adapt to any kind of game. During that game, the leaders were Vassilis Spanoulis (13 points), Antonis Fotsis (13), Sarunas Jasikevicius (10) and Drew Nicholas (7), all of whom contributed to great accuracy from the arc (13 of 27, 48.1%).
Two years later, in Barcelona, Mike Batiste lifted his third EuroLeague crown. He nailed 16 points and pulled 6 rebounds in just 22 minutes against Montepaschi Siena in the semis. He didn't miss a shot, going 5 for 5, and was one of the key players. In the title game against Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, Batiste shined again to lead his team to the title with a 78-70 win. In 24 minutes, he scored 18 points on 7 of 10 two-pointers plus 6 rebounds. In the last minute, with a 69-64 scoreboard, he received the pass from Dimitris Diamantidis to score the bucket that would break the game open for the Greens.
Away and back
Batiste was a much-loved player by the fans, teammates and the media. His popularity was huge in Athens, to the point that there was a book published in Greek about his life and professional career. And the feeling, from his own perspective, was mutual. "Just growing up as a little boy, seeing the neighborhood I grew up in, all the different distractions – gangs, drugs, all types of violence – I'd never thought in a million years I'd be in this position, let alone make it out of the circumstances I grew up in. So, it has brought me a lot of joy," Batiste said in a EuroLeague.TV interview after winning his three EuroLeague titles. "And I'm very happy with the decisions I've made to keep coming back here to play every year for an organization like Panathinaikos, but also to live in a country like Greece. It's very enjoyable here. My players and the people of Panathinaikos treat me as family. Also the people in society. I've embraced it. I've adjusted. And I can really call Greece a second home."
Nowadays, when it's not rare to see players switching teams season to season, Batiste's case is rather extraordinary, deserving of respect. He stayed eight seasons in Panathinaikos. He became a symbol of the club much like Juan Carlos Navarro for FC Barcelona, Felipe Reyes for Real Madrid, Derrick Sharp for Maccabi or even Diamantidis himself for Panathinaikos.
"Growing up, I never thought I'd be around guys from Greece, guys from Lithuania or other parts of the world," Batiste said. "And it's really a special feeling to look at the next man like, that's my brother right there, man. We would do anything that is necessary to win for one another. Even off the court, if there's a personal issue, there's always an ear to listen to you. You can call one of the guys here, go to dinner. We're always there for one another, man. That's the thing about this family here. It starts from the coach all the way down to the last player, and I think that's the main reason we have so much success here, because we do whatever it takes for one another, to make sure you come in here, work hard and can be successful."
At the end of the 2011-12 season – after eight seasons winning eight Greek Leagues titles, five Greek Cups and three EuroLeagues – the then 35-year-old Batiste decided to sign for Fenerbahce Ulker, which came as a surprise to many. I am guessing it was a monetary issue, because when he went back to OAKA to play against his former team and former fans, Batiste didn't feel well. He admitted that it was strange "running on the other side of the court". Despite wearing the Fenerbahce jersey, he was received with honors and a standing ovation. Maybe that was the day when he decided to "get back home."
During the 2013-14 season, Batiste wore the Panathinaikos jersey once again. This time he wasn't one of the team's main contributors (3.5 points, 1.5 rebounds). His last EuroLeague game was Game 5 of a playoff series against CSKA Moscow, but it was no game to remember as Panathinaikos lost in Moscow by 74-44. Mike just played 2 minutes and didn't score any points, but one game cannot erase the preceding 236 that left his lasting imprint on the EuroLeague.
In Greece, Batiste won another domestic league and cup, which, together with a Turkish Cup, raised his number of national trophies to 17, to go with those three EuroLeague crowns. At an individual level, apart from being weekly and monthly MVP several times, he was also chosen for the All-EuroLeague First Team in 2010-11 and for the second team the following season. His EuroLeague career highs were a 35 performance index rating against Unicaja Malaga in 2009, 31 points against Cibona Zagreb with Charleroi in 2000, 15 rebounds against Benetton Treviso in 2006 and 6 assists against Maccabi in 2012.
For Batiste, a new stage in his career has started in his native United States. He was the assistant coach of Spanish boss Jordi Fernandez at Canton Charge of the D-League, a team affiliated with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And he has since worked as a player development assistant with the Brooklyn Nets. This much is sure: the big men on any team where Batiste is around will surely enjoy a top-notch teacher.