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Mike James: his story in his words

09/08/2018
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Portland is the largest city in the state of Oregon but it is certainly not a huge city (“There are a lot of stuff to do even if it’s not Los Angeles,” says Mike James). It is located in the Northwest of the United States, an hour’s flight from Seattle, it’s cool, a little rainy, with a river, the Willamette cutting it in half, and the mountains all around the town. Here he was born and grew up, Mike James, a sort of self-taught basketball player. Eternally underrated. As they say in America he plays with a “chip on my shoulder”, an expression almost impossible to translate. It means that he essentially plays as if every time he has to prove something to someone. “Yes, it can be – he admits – but this is a what have you done lately business, a good year is just a good year because you can always go back and start again, so I try to play every game with this mentality.”

The new Olimpia point-guard attended the Ulysses Grant High School in Portland, a school with 1,500 students and a very good athletic tradition. Among his students are football and baseball players and former NBA point guard Terrell Brandon. In 2008 James led the basketball team to the Oregon state title but was not recruited by big-time colleges anyway. “It was not a surprise, I grew up late and was some kind of a late-bloomer”, he admits. He had to go to a junior college in Arizona to keep playing and then to Lamar, Texas, or rather to the Gulf of Mexico. He also scored 52 points in a game, led his team to the NCAA Tournament and yet … “Yet becoming a professional was far from my thoughts, I was just happy to play basketball and attending college. My coach in the latest part of my senior season mentioned it for the first time”, he says. The coach was Pat Knight, the son of the great Bobby Knight (Olympic gold in Los Angeles 1984, three NCAA titles in Indiana), as well as Mario Fioretti’s mentor.

James was not selected in the NBA draft, he did not even go near being selected, but Knight was right. He would have been a professional, first in Croatia then in Israel and then in Omegna. “I liked Italy right away, the culture, the food, especially the food. Omegna was a fun experience, a lot of fun, one more reason why I’m glad to be back in Italy”.

The breakthrough in Mike James’s career? When Vitoria bought him out from the Kolossus Rhodes in Greece, and immediately took him to the EuroLeague. “It was not that surprising because I had already found interest, received some offers, but to leave my team I wanted the best situation and a big enough team. Obviously the Baskonia was all this – the best situation for me. What surprised me a little bit was how easy I fit,” he says. In Baskonia, Mike James reached the EuroLeague Final Four, a goal that he went close to achieve again, the following two years with Panathinaikos. “We didn’t know how good we were at the start of the season, we aimed to the playoffs and then see what we could do, but then we won a few road games, we beat some good teams and in the quarter-finals we immediately won the first game. That was when we said ok we could do somthing and so we went to the Final Four,” says James.

The last two years James established himself as one of the best point-man in Europe. At Panathinaikos he won two Greek titles and reached the playoffs twice, always beaten by the team that eventally won the EuroLeague. “Panathinaikos has been a blessing to me, and living in Athens was amazing, just for the history that surrounds you. Everyone wants to win, I did it twice in Athens, and we did what we could in EuroLeague, we had a couple of nice runs.”

But between the first and second year, James had the chance to finally play 32 NBA games with the Phoenix Suns scoring over ten points per game. “It was something I had to do, I felt I had to try. In my opinion I played well, I’m satisfied even if the way it ended was a little disappointing”. And that’s how he left Phoenix, with a brief spell in New Orleans, and returned to Athens to complete his Panathinaikos experience with another victory.

“Milan did not have to do much to convince me to come here,” says Mike James, the new Olimpia point-guard. Basically, he chose Olimpia at least as much as Olimpia chose him. “I wanted a team that would give me the opportunity to continue playing in the EuroLeague after two years at Panathinaikos when I established myself as one of the best players in Europe, playing for a very good team, with very high expectations. I wanted a team where I’d be more upfront, being more a central focus, being more of a leader, even vocally, and see how far can I bring a team where I’m more of a leader … At Panathinaikos obviously I had to share that role with Nick, Chris, Gist.” He calls them like this: Nick is Calathes, Chris is Singleton (but he went to Barcelona) and Gist is James Gist.

During the last season Olimpia won the Italian title while James won the Greek championship. Repeating on a national level is a goal, but both the team and Mike obviously would like to do better in the EuroLeague. James played a Final Four in Vitoria and twice reached the quarterfinals at Panathinaikos. “Winning sometimes is a matter of mentality. It’s not that Milan didn’t have good teams or talented players for the EuroLeague in the last few years but chemistry sometimes comes into play. Mentality means there are games where you simply cannot lose. At Panathinaikos, sometimes the difference between us and the others was that we felt we couldn’t lose. It did not matter what would happen because we would have won anyway. This was our approach that changed many things in our favor, “he explains.

Mike James is a scorer, he has always been one. At Lamar he scored 52 points in one game, in Phoenix with limited playing time but in the NBA he averaged over 10 points per game and in the EuroLeague last year he was over 16 points per game in a team with a very high number of talented players. In addition, he plays with contagious energy. “I don’t know, I think I’m a basketball player, scoring is what people choose to focuv on, scoring gets you in the papers, but I’m pretty versatile in many aspects and I want to show more of that this year,” says MJ. On his favourite position on the court, he has no doubts. Mike is a point-man: “It’s my natural role – he explains – Last year I came at Panathinaikos late in the season and they made sure that I could easily fit in, next to Calathes. Other than that I’ve always played as a point-guard every year, including my first year at Panathinaikos with Calathes. It’s my natural position, the one I feel the most comfortable”.

ABOUT SOCCER… – Those who follow Mike James on social media will have noticed a boundless passion for soccer. “It was born on videogames – he admits – especially in the summer it happened to me after a long practice to stay at home the rest of the day and play videogames. But those about the NBA and American football were boring, so I started looking at alternatives and I experimented with FIFA. Playing the videogame has generated my interest, hence the passion for soccer in general “.