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Former Terp James Gist feels at home playing in Greece

Former Maryland standout basketball player James Gist, who plays professionally in Greece, talks about playing in local tournaments to keep in shape. (Baltimore Sun video)

Ever since he was drafted in 2008 in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs and subsequently cut twice, James Gist has hoped to find his way to the NBA. The older he gets, the less likely it seems.

Now, at age 29 and having seen his professional career in Europe threatened by two failed drug tests, the 6-foot-9 forward appears more realistic — and more at peace — about his future.

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"I want to play at the highest level," Gist said this week. "Right now I'm at the highest level in Europe. My goal is to get to the highest level and play in the NBA, but regardless of whether that happens or not, I want to win a championship."

Gist, who has played the last four years of an eight-year European pro career in Greece, could get a chance to play for the championship of The Basketball Tournament as a member of City of Gods.

Ex-Maryland basketball players Richaud Pack and Evan Smotrycz are enjoying their life in Nicosia, the capital and the largest city in Cyprus, and their roles on rival clubs in the country's eight-team pro league.

The team, coached by Baltimorean Joe Connelly, meets defending champion Overseas Elite on Saturday at Fordham's Rose Hill Gymnasium in New York. The championship game in the $2 million winner-take-all tournament will be played Monday.

"It's just like during the season, the winner gets the championship trophy," Gist said, sitting Tuesday night on a bleacher in an auxiliary gym at Xfinity Center in College Park. "[The pressure] gets more the closer you get. If we lost in the first game or the second game of the tournament, it wouldn't be as bad as losing on Saturday."

The semifinals will be a chance for redemption since City of Gods lost to Overseas Elite, 84-71, a year ago in what was then a $1 million tournament.

Asked what he remembers from that game, Gist said, "Just not being ready. They jumped on us early. We thought our big game was against Team Syracuse [Boeheim's Army]. We won that in style and I think we relaxed after that."

City of Gods, a team coached by Baltimore's Joe Connelly, defeated The Untouchables, 86-79, on Saturday in Philadelphia to reach the semifinals of The Basketball Tournament, a $2 million winner-take-all event, for the second straight year.

Gist's game has evolved since his years at Maryland, when he was known mostly as a streaky shooter and awesome dunker on offense and a shot blocker who was named to the ACC's second-team defense as a senior. He ranks fourth in blocked shots (231), 10th in rebounding (783) and 19th in scoring (1,414) at Maryland.

"I'm a lot different now. Before I was just an athletic player doing a lot of athletic stuff on the court; now I understand the game of basketball a lot better," Gist said. "I read the game better, make my teammates better. I understand how to win."

City of Gods teammate David Hawkins, who played against Gist's Good Counsel teams in high school while at Archbishop Carroll in Washington, said he has seen Gist mature as a person and a player the past few years.

The two spent a lot of time together when both played in Turkey a few years ago.

"He was more of an athlete, low-post guy, defender; now he's stretched his game out to the perimeter," Hawkins said Friday. "He's putting the ball on the floor a little better and he's improved his jump shot a lot."

With the U-18 FIBA Americas championship ending Saturday and recruiting slowing Monday, Maryland men’s coach Mark Turgeon is back at Terps practice.

Gist, who was born in Turkey while his father was stationed in the Air Force and spent his early years in Germany before moving to Maryland in grade school, said the job security he has found in Europe has kept him from playing in the NBA Developmental League.

"Every situation was better, every contract was better, so I was kind of like climbing the ladder," said Gist, who has also played in Italy (Angelico Biella in 2008-09), Russia (Lokomotiv Kuban in 2009-10), Serbia (Partizan Belgrade in 2010-11), Turkey (Fenerbahce Ulker in 2011-12) and Spain (Unicaja Malaga for part of 2012-13).

Since being the first European player traded between leagues — going from Unicaja Malaga in Spain to Panathinaikos — Gist has found a home in Athens.

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"I love Greece, Greece is amazing," Gist said. "Beautiful country, nice weather, people are nice, the food is good. We have a chance to play for a championship every season. I can't ask for more in one place. ... When I got traded, I didn't know what to expect. It turned out to be a blessing.

"To have a country take me in as one of their own. I'm American and they take me in like I'm Greek. They expect me to be the captain of the team next season and all this. It's a big club. It's an honor to be respected like that in another country."

Gist certainly is grateful that he is still playing for Panathinaikos.

In 2015, Gist reportedly tested positive for marijuana. Since it was his second offense, he faced a two-year ban from FIBA, the governing body of the Euroleague. Gist later received a six-month suspension, with a large chunk of it served during the offseason.

"There was a lot more behind it than what actually was put out there," Gist said Tuesday night before City of Gods practiced. "That's why my sentence wasn't as hard as it might have been."

Gist said the failed drug test came during a time when he was in the midst of a protracted custody battle with his ex-wife. Gist was trying to get primary custody of their daughter, Maliyah, who turned 7 on Sunday. Gist won his case in Montgomery County earlier this year.

"I thought I was going to lose my daughter because I didn't really have a job at that point," Gist said. "That was a breaker for me in all the stress that I was dealing with throughout the years. Now that I have her, I don't have any stress. I don't have problems eating or sleeping."

Gist, who also tested positive for marijuana after he was released by the Spurs in 2010, said that being able to play helped him mature.

"Basketball is my first love, it's like my safe haven," Gist said. "With all the stresses that I deal with in my personal life, I can come on a basketball court for two hours and forget about everything. For me not having basketball [during the suspension] and not helping my team win, that impacted me a lot as a player and a person."

Said Hawkins, "James has always been a good dude. Everybody has their mishaps, their little bumps and bruises along the way. He didn't let it get him down that much. He bounced back."

Gist is still in touch with several of his former teammates, most of whom are playing in Europe. Gist's team in Greece lost in the country's championship to Olympiacos, which at the time included former Terp D.J. Strawberry.

Of those Gist played with in College Park, only Greivis Vasquez is still in the NBA.

"My thing is that if the NBA wants you, they're going to come get you. You hear stories every year about guys getting called up, NBA teams buying the contract from a team in Europe," Gist said. "It happens. ... Right now I'm playing in the top level of my game and playing in Europe."

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