Hapoel Jerusalem take on Athens' Peristeri BC as playoffs begin

Jerusalem has had quite the season thus far, capturing the Israel State Cup earlier in February along with the League Cup that it won in the preseason while finishing atop its Champions League group.

NIKOS PAPANIKOLOPOULOS has coached Peristeri to an unexpected Champions League Top 16 result in his first season at the helm (photo credit: INTIME SPORTS/COURTESY)
NIKOS PAPANIKOLOPOULOS has coached Peristeri to an unexpected Champions League Top 16 result in his first season at the helm
Hapoel Jerusalem begins Basketball Champions League playoff action next Wednesday with a round-of-16 clash against Peristeri BC from Athens, Greece.
Oded Katash’s squad will have home-court advantage in the best-of-three series, which will see the Reds host Game 1 and, if necessary, Game 3 at the Pais Arena in the Israeli capital.
Jerusalem has had quite the season thus far, capturing the Israel State Cup earlier in February along with the League Cup that it won in the preseason while finishing atop its Champions League group with a record of 11-3.
With a chance to go all the way in continental play and the opportunity to host the competition’s Final Four should the club advance to the semifinals, the Reds will make every effort to avoid a repeat of last season, when they were halted in their tracks by Tenerife in the quarterfinals.
This year, Peristeri head coach Nikos Papanikolopoulos will look to devise a plan to stop Katash’s crew from European glory. The man behind the Greek team’s successful season to date had been an assistant with the club since the 2018/19 season, working under Argyris Pedoulakis and Ilias Zouros, whom he replaced earlier this campaign.
Last week, The Jerusalem Post had the privilege to visit Papanikolopoulos and tour the team’s facilities in the quaint Athens suburb of Peristeri, where the defensive mastermind will look to upset the Reds and continue their own dream season.
Peristeri is considered to be the biggest surprise in the Champions League with an 8-6 record, of which four losses were by under 10 points and one win was against the competition’s top team in Nymburk.
“Our target was to have a good season and to qualify for the Top 16. If you take out the loss to Tenerife, which was a very bad loss, we were competitive in most of the games and finally we qualified. I think it was tough playing two games per week and we have some losses in the Greek league because of this. But finally the qualification in the Top 16 was very big.”
European basketball isn’t new for Peristeri, having competed in the Euroleague at the start of the century, but this is the first season since the 2003/04 campaign that the club is back in continental play after a number of years in the lower leagues.
“The last five years have happened very fast at Peristeri,” noted Papanikolopoulos. “From the third division, to the second division and then with a great record we qualified for the first division. After one year in the first division we went to Europe and it’s difficult to adjust year to year. It has been tough for the organization to balance between the two leagues and we have to gain experience doing so with a limited roster. We need to be an excellent team to be a Final Four club.”
The club is at the heart of the community, Papanikolopoulos explained, and it is a gathering place for all of the locals where they can support athletes in a number of sports.
“Peristeri is the fourth biggest municipality in Greece and at the club is a big amateur organization with many departments such as basketball, water polo and swimming. Many local people are involved in all facets of the club, whether its children or adults and it is one that provides a sense of pride for the neighborhood and the city of Peristeri.
“We have great support from our fans, both home and away, whether it was at the Greek Cup semifinal against Promitheas Patras or away at Nymburk in the Champions League. They provide us with unconditional support every which way.”
Papanikolopoulos played 17 seasons and as a player won both the Greek Cup and the Saporta Cup with AEK Athens in 2000, when he played under legendary Serbian coach Dusan Ivkovic. He also collaborated with Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos at Kolossos Rodou as well.
“Once you master my former coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s name then you can move onto mine,” he quipped.
In 2014, Papanikolopoulos hung up his basketball shoes and began his coaching career at Koroivos Amaliadas, where he learned the tricks of the trade for four seasons before joining Peristeri.
“Ivkovic was important even more so after I had played for him. The way he prepared the team is something that stays with you for the rest of your life. But there are many philosophies that have stayed with me from all of the coaches I had been associated with. Argyris Pedoulakis, who I worked with last season, influenced both my basketball life and my life as a whole.”
With the recent success and the chance to make some noise in the playoffs, Papanikolopoulos doesn’t have too much time to think about his long-term future goals.
“Things are happening so fast this year you can only think about the next practice and not even the next game. My thoughts are on the practice, what I need to improve and what information I need to give to my players. Then it’s on to the next practice and then onto preparing for the next game. You have to go step by step.”
Papanikolopoulos and his staff built a team that could contend with the Champions League’s best, but knew that Peristeri would need to be an excellent defensive team in order to reach their goals.
“From the beginning of the season we said that our defense has to be our best weapon because with the budget that we have we couldn’t build such an offensively talented team.”
In order to help with the team’s defensive prowess right before heading into the playoffs, Peristeri hit pay dirt when it was able to sign one of Europe’s best lockdown defenders in DeAndre Kane, who played the last two seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“We were looking for an experienced player for the last step of the season and management put Kane’s name on the table. He is definitely a player that we couldn’t sign in the summer. The market gave us this opportunity and we had to take it. He is an excellent professional and a player with a winning mentality, which is something that we need. As long as he adjusts and he is in good shape, he will help us.”
All in all, Papanikolopoulos knows that although Jerusalem will be the marked favorite, his squad will have a chance to surprise the Israeli cup holders.
“If we play a 90-point game it will probably be an advantage for Jerusalem. It’s not easy to stop such a talented team so for sure we can’t play an up-tempo game with them. But our players will be highly motivated to play a very tough series of games against a high-level team.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at sportsrabbi9@gmail.com.