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Originally published Tuesday, February 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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College Basketball

Gonzaga's Batista in pursuit of his dreams

Since becoming a starter, Paul Batista is averaging 16 points and 8.7 rebounds for the Zags. Those are just the cold numbers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A couple of times a week, the massive young man walks across the Gonzaga campus and slips quietly into a pew at St. Aloysius Catholic church. Sometimes, the snow crunches underneath his feet, as if to remind him of the thousands of miles separating him from his family in Brazil.

Inside those rich red and green stained-glass windows of the place the locals call St. Al's, Joao Paul Batista sometimes thinks about where he has been and where he might be going. He thinks about a mom and dad and two brothers he hasn't seen in, what, going on three years.

But mostly, his thoughts are about now, and how blessed he is.

"My mom would say, 'Never give up on your dreams,' " says Batista, known as J.P. to teammates and TV announcers. " 'You can accomplish whatever you want. Don't let anybody tell you you cannot achieve your dreams. Most important, have faith in God and try to do the right things.' "

Some of the right things are obvious in Gonzaga's season statistics. Since he became a starter Jan. 13, Batista is averaging 16 points and 8.7 rebounds. He shoots 62 percent from the field and 73 percent from the foul line. In the Zags' best victory, over Oklahoma State, Batista went 8 for 9 for 18 points.

Those are the cold numbers. The greater revelation lies in his skills and his role. At 6 feet 9 and 270 pounds, he is the requisite second big man alongside Ronny Turiaf in Gonzaga's system. With Turiaf's season dogged by ankle problems and inconsistency, Batista has been, well, something straight out of St. Al's for the Zags.

Batista has soft hands and a hard body. He can't be rooted out of the low post. He has an astonishingly good repertoire of big-man attributes — drop step, up-and-under, face-the-basket skills. Seemingly the only thing missing is abundant athleticism.

"Strength is part of athleticism, too," reminds Mark Few, his coach. "He's got that natural-man strength. He's farm-strong."

Except he didn't grow up on a farm. He was reared in the city of Pernambuco, Brazil, on the eastern side of the country, the last of three sons of Joao Sr., a radio and TV sportscaster, and Irani, an interior designer.

Batista took up basketball at 10 at the behest of his older brother, Anderson. To get from that beginning to the polished post player of today, he almost makes it sound as if it happened by instructional video.

"There was something about basketball I really loved," he said. "I had a chance to watch a lot of TV. All of a sudden, I was trying all those moves. Every day, the same moves. When game time comes, it's so natural."

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Western Nebraska Community College had a pipeline to other Brazilians, so in the fall of 2002, Batista found himself in the nation's heartland. But the coach got fired that season, and Batista moved on to another junior college, Barton County in central Kansas. Under coach Dave Campbell, Batista averaged 20 points and nine rebounds last season.

Here's the question: How does an accomplished big man emerge from the middle of Big 12 Conference country, schools that recruit the junior colleges hard, and end up at Gonzaga?

"I don't think people really understood how good he was," Campbell said. "He understands the game."

On the other hand, GU coaches thought he was the best junior-college big man out there, but they also heard people say they had no chance.

"It's a good thing I didn't listen," said Zags assistant Leon Rice, "because that's what everybody told me."

Gonzaga coaches believe that it's Batista's inner strength that landed him in Spokane rather than elsewhere. Said Few, "He's not a kid that needs or wants all the attention most of these recruits crave."

Thus, last spring, Batista was thinking about two schools, Kansas and Gonzaga. He took a visit to Spokane and was strolling campus with Few at the end of the first day.

"So what do you think?" Few asked. "What are the chances of you coming?"

"One hundred percent," Batista replied. "I want to play for you. I want to be part of this family."

Kansas kept pitching, especially when big man David Padgett announced he was transferring to Louisville.

"We were told of the departure the day after Batista committed," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We absolutely liked him. He's got the hands to go with the body. Very few Juco guys come in and make the splash he's made early in his career, especially on good teams."

Batista stayed firm even as, according to Gonzaga coaches, Kansas stepped up the heat. Batista signed, and if the Zags had their way, they would have written a happily-ever-after ending right there.

Then in September came a knock on Gonzaga's door. It was the NCAA.

"I just think maybe someone didn't like my decision (to attend GU)," Batista said. "Someone thought I should go somewhere else, so they decided to turn me in.

"There are people out there ... sometimes you never think they could do something like this ... whatever. All of a sudden, it surprises you.

"Life is about surprises."

Batista said he had "a couple of really long interviews" with the NCAA. "They had a chance to basically have an overview of my life," he said.

When the NCAA was done, it suspended Batista for two Gonzaga exhibition games and two counting games. The Associated Press reported that Campbell, the Barton County coach, had spent $564 to send Batista to live with one of Campbell's former players in Atlanta for a month before his sophomore season.

"In Brazil, we have nothing even close to the NCAA," Batista said. "All these rules, all these regulations. You work hard all your life to do the right things, and all of a sudden, someone somewhere is trying to throw you down."

"That's over and done with," snapped Campbell over the phone. "I've taken my punishment (including a postseason ban), and they've taken theirs. Let's be done with it."

Batista yearns to see his family again, but you wouldn't know it from his emotions. On and off the court, Batista seems preternaturally placid.

"If the referee calls something I don't like, you cannot go back and change it," Batista said. "I really have a view of life that whatever happens is supposed to happen."

Big man, big dreams, having a big impact at Gonzaga.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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