Many green-white boys were sad to see Leo Westermann leave Kaunas last summer. BC Žalgiris didn’t stay without a French touch for long though. Just before the start of the season, Axel Toupane, a 25-year-old with a couple years of NBA experience, joined the team. Versatility is what makes him stand out, as well as pristine personal style.
Photo by Dainius Ščiuka
Can you tell us more about your childhood? We know that your father is a basketball coach; does it mean you started playing the game before you could walk?
My father was a basketball player before he became a coach, but I had the freedom to choose which sports to practice. I always had a basketball in my hands since I was, like, four years old. My father never put pressure on me, I was really focused on school. He left me alone until 17 when basketball started getting really serious. Once he figured out that was what I wanted to do, he started giving me more advice and help.
Do you use his advice now too?
We always talk about basketball – not only about my game but about his team or the games that we’ve watched. He watches my games as much as he can. He's really paying attention.
Which city in France are you from?
I'm from the area of Strasbourg. I was born in Mulhouse but I lived in Strasbourg my last five years in France. Besides that, we were always moving because of my dad's work.
Is basketball important there?
Nah, in France it’s more about soccer. Basketball is getting better, thanks to the national team – they won the European championship and had good results in the World Cup, even the Olympics. Still, soccer is dominating.
What's your favourite soccer team?
Paris Saint-Germain, since, like, the year 2000.
Could you compare soccer fans and basketball fans?
I think, in France, they’re way different. Obviously, there are much more soccer fans. They have these little groups, they're way louder, way crazier and just more intense in terms of everything. I feel that in basketball countries like Serbia, Greece, sometimes even in Lithuania. But not in France. Basketball fans in France are calm and just come to watch a good show.
What else is your region interesting for? If you could invite people to come to Strasbourg, what would you recommend doing there?
They should come for the Christmas market. There's a huge one in Strasbourg itself and a lot of smaller nice ones in surrounding smaller towns. Besides that, well, I'm not an expert but I know the area has some good wine as well. Of course, check out the basketball team!
Photo by Dainius Ščiuka
You've had some NBA experience. What did those couple of years on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean teach you, both as a sportsman and as a person?
It's the highest level, that's the league where they have the best players; everything is faster, everybody’s stronger and they jump higher. It definitely pushes you to improve your standards and yourself as a basketball player, your body and mind too. You really need to step up if you want to make it. They also teach you, for example, how to take care of your money, because there's a lot of people coming at you. It's important to learn how to say “no”. These are the main things.
Isn't it hard to move from place to place so often? Are you planning to settle down permanently soon?
Not really. I'm always excited about the future and the next destination I'm going. When I was young, my dad didn't want me to leave too early, I stayed with my parents until I was 16-17. It was hard at the moment, but now I get it, maybe I would have been tired of basketball at a young age. If I can settle in a nice team in a nice city, it would be great, but I'm always happy to discover new countries and cultures.
What was your first impression of Kaunas?
Very good! In summer, we came here with the French national team. We had a friendly game, people were cool and welcoming. Then, when I first got there during the season, I spent a lot of time in the gym, working out and practising. But I really like the city. You have a bunch of small, nice restaurants, I really love that. Especially Sushi Masters – it's the best one by far. It's really calm, not too much noise when you wake up in the morning – I live on K. Donelaičio street. If I do have some free time, I go to the movies or a spa.
Do you hope to become a coach in the future?
No, of course not. I'm more interested in the business side than becoming a coach. My dad is well aware of that, it doesn't matter for him, really, it's not a big deal.
We've read that your father comes from Senegal. Have you been there?
Yes, we were going there a lot when I was younger. Then basketball started, so I haven't been there for almost ten years now. It's a beautiful country, people are really nice. There's the famous pink lake Retba where you can float. Nice beaches too. Dakar, the main city, is fantastic. There's great energy over there. A part of my family lives there – my grandma, my uncle and my aunt. The food is also great! My favourite dish is yassa – it's chicken with onion and special sauce.
What about the atmosphere in your team – do you spend more time with other foreign players, or is everyone together all the time?
Sometimes it's easier like that – I have spent some time in America, Aaron White and Kevin Pangos are also from there. But in general everybody is close and cool with each other. Lithuanian players help us all the time with things we don't know.
What about Šarūnas Jasikevičius – what do you think about him as a coach?
I had seen him before, I watched some games in the past. He’s just the same when he was playing –passionate, with much will to win. He can’t hide it. You have to know it's not personal – he's just doing that to make us better, encourage us and help us improve. You just have to take the message.
You've just won your first trophy with Žalgiris – the Karalius Mindaugas Cup. Congratulations! Is the fact that the team won more important for you than your personal results?
The team matters more, for sure. We have the trophy altogether When you come to Žalgiris, the main thing is to beat Rytas. We had no other choice than to win the cup, and everybody is really proud of it.
What do you think about the Ball brothers coming to Lithuania and playing basketball in Prienai?
I believe it's all good. They’re talented. Even if their dad is talking a lot and some people don't like that, at the end of the day, you talk about basketball. You talk about basketball in Lithuania. A lot of people are following them. If that can help LKL to get a little bit more visibility, it will be a great thing.
The original article by Kotryna Lingienė and Kęstutis Lingys was published in the March’2018 edition of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine.