by Howie Stalwick
Gonzaga basketball star J.P. Batista is an uncommonly gentle, soft-spoken young man. He only looks like a hired assassin.
"The morals he possesses, the values he possesses, the type of character instilled in him -- he's amazing," Gonzaga coach Mark Few says. "He's probably as good a person as you'll meet."
Try telling that to the long list of bruised and battered opponents whom Batista has left in his wake in his first season at Gonzaga. The Brazilian native, who stands 6 feet, 9 inches, and weighs 269 well-chiseled pounds, has no problem shedding his nice-guy persona once he hits the basketball floor.
"When he gets going, he's so big, he takes up so much space, it helps everyone else," Gonzaga forward Ronny Turiaf says.
"You get him the ball down low, and he's either going to get fouled or get a bucket," GU point guard Derek Raivio says.
Batista, one of the premier junior college recruits in the nation last year, averages 12.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Since bumping Sean Mallon out of the starting lineup at midseason, Batista has been averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Batista's .634 field-goal shooting percentage leads the West Coast Conference and ranks sixth in the nation. WCC coaches voted him Newcomer of the Year; he was an honorable mention pick on the All-WCC team; and he made the All-WCC Tournament team.
"You can't ask for more from J.P.," Turiaf says. "He's got a great presence inside."
"He's got all the Zag qualities," says assistant coach Leon Rice, who did much of Gonzaga's recruiting work on Batista. "He works hard, he's a great team guy, he always puts the team first."
A year ago, Batista was recruited by top college programs all over the country out of Kansas JC powerhouse Barton County. Many of the top programs that pursued Batista (including Illinois and Kansas) offer more exposure and prestige than Gonzaga, but Batista says he quickly bonded with the close-knit Bulldogs during his recruiting visit last April.
"You could tell he really liked it here," GU forward Adam Morrison says. "You talk to some recruits and they're real high on themselves. He was real down to earth."
"He was laughing and joking around with the guys," Raivio recalls. "He picked up on the 'family atmosphere.' I think that's what he wanted: just a solid family. People he could trust and just be close to."
That's particularly important to Batista, since he has not seen his family in nearly three years. That's the price Batista has willingly paid to pursue his dream of an NBA career.
"It's a journey. I've got to complete my journey. I've got to follow my dreams," says Batista, who hopes to fly home to Brazil this summer. "It's hard not to have seen your family for three years, but it has to be this way.
"I'm strong enough. I have a strong heart."
Batista's resolve came in handy when the NCAA suspended him for two games at the start of the season because Barton County coach Dave Campbell paid some of Batista's summer expenses last year. Batista, who left Western Nebraska Community College after the coach was fired at the end of his freshman season, led both his JC teams to nationals and was a second-team JC All-American last year.
Now the sports management major is headed to his third national tournament in as many years, though Batista admits, "I don't know much about" the NCAA Tournament. In Brazil, the NBA is followed much more closely than U.S. college basketball.
Batista, a devoutly religious Catholic who says he prays before every home game at Gonzaga's St. Aloysius Church, says an NBA career remains "my big, big dream ... but it's not the end of the world. If I do make it, I'll thank God. If I don't make it, I'll thank God again.
"Life continues. It's kind of like when you ride a bike: You never stop. If you stop, you fall down."
The Bulldogs are certainly grateful that Batista parked his bike at Gonzaga.
"This place is a special place," he says with a smile. "It seems like the right place."
Publication date: 03/17/05