Olympiacos icon molds young Greek players

With his EuroHoops Academy in full swing, Papaloukas reflects on career and season with Mac TA.

THEO PAPALOUKAS still spends plenty of time on the basketball court, most of it helping to teach the next generation of Greek stars (photo credit: JOSHUA HALICKMAN/COURTESY)
THEO PAPALOUKAS still spends plenty of time on the basketball court, most of it helping to teach the next generation of Greek stars
Theodoros Papaloukas is hands-down one of the greatest ever European basketball players to have ever graced the courts across the continent.
In fact, the Greek star dominated the game between 2001-2010 the way Giannis Antetokounmpo has done in the NBA by winning back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards.
However, Papaloukas never made his way across the pond to play in the world’s greatest league, but stayed put to win a pair of Euroleague titles with CSKA Moscow and help Olympiacos go to the Final Four of the competition on a number of occasions.
“Theo,” as he is called, even played a season with Maccabi Tel Aviv near the end of his illustrious career, and he was feted as a celebrity day-in and day-out as he walked the streets of Israel.
Today, the now-43-year-old legendary point guard teaches youngsters the fundamentals of the game together with another former star, Panathinaikos sharpshooter Dimitris Diamantidis, as the rivals have put aside their on-court battles to team up and open the EuroHoops Academy in Athens.
Just ahead of the classic Euroleague battle on Tuesday night between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Olympiacos at Yad Eliyahu, The Jerusalem Post sat down with Papaloukas at the EuroHoops Dome to discuss the academy, the NBA, the time Greece shocked the United States at the World Championships, along with his special season with Maccabi.
“For us, Dimitris Diamantidis and myself, it’s very important to give the children an experience of a great faculty and high-level coaching at the EuroHoops Academy. Most importantly for us is to teach them the fundamentals of basketball from a very early age, but also to have fun,” Papaloukas said.
“This is the third year of the academy and we have close to 400 participants, with each group comprising 16 children and two coaches. We pass along the values of basketball and how to cooperate with other players, the value of hard work and commitment to what they do. But again, most importantly to us is to do it by having fun.”
One of the goals of the EuroHoops Academy is to help the children understand what real life is through sports.
“We want them to understand that it’s important to work with other people and to work very hard, but that life isn’t always fair. We want them to study through basketball and even go to the United States to college and do that. If we can develop a professional player then that is great, but that isn’t our goal with the academy,” Papaloukas explained.
Growing up in the 1980s and 90s was a lot different than today as there weren’t the multitude of activities that there are now which can occupy a child’s time.
“When I was young, I practiced in an open court and I prayed that there would be no rain. Cold was normal for us and I spent a lot of hours on the court which was most important. Nowadays children have more to do during their day, not like when I was young.”
Papaloukas let us in on the tricks of the trade of what it takes to really become a top player.
“It’s the secret of 10,000 hours. If you want to be really good at something then that is what amount of time you have to spend. If you spend 1,000 hours every year you will need 10 years, if you spend 2,000 hours, then you need five years. It’s up to you, but the main thing is that we help the children create a culture to have a positive work ethic, to support their teammates, respect the referees and opponents.”
Despite having had many Greek stars playing in Europe, very few played in the NBA as their dream was to stay local and play in the continent. Milwaukee Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo is Greece’s biggest star to have ever had huge success in the NBA.
That, Papaloukas explained, is the country’s biggest basketball asset.
“The academy has organized excursions to Milwaukee to see the games live and have fun. Giannis is the biggest asset for Greek basketball and he is giving a lot back to us, which we are very happy about. He promotes the country and helps children stay close to Greek basketball.”
One of the reasons Greek hoopsters weren’t able to make their way to the NBA is due to the US league looking for great athletes rather than sound sports minds, said Papaloukas.
“When we were playing, NBA teams were looking more for athleticism than understanding the game of basketball. It’s a different kind of basketball. We fit more into the European style and we probably weren’t able to persuade people that we were ready to go to the NBA. But that’s part of life.”
At the 2006 World Championships, the Greeks captured the silver medal after falling to Spain in the final, but it was their sensational victory over the United States in the semifinals that shocked the basketball world.
“That victory helped us internally. Success always helps you understand your level and when you experience success you want to live that again. If you think the right way, it gives you extra motivation to keep on working very hard.”
Despite having success at the beginning of the century, Greek basketball has suffered lately, but Papaloukas feels that it’s just a matter of time until things get back on track for the national team, which hasn’t won a medal at an international competition for over a decade.
“As a country and national team, we may not have had success over the past number of years, but how we work is important and it’s a matter of time until we get back to the top. For now, we want to give motivation to the children to get involved in basketball.”
“We have talent and I think it’s a matter of time. Greece is a small country with 10 or 11 million people. It’s not easy to have the level of players all the time and talent isn’t enough. Chemistry is very important and we have to have players who understand that the most important aspect is the success of the team and the success of the club and the national team.”
Papaloukas was part of a Maccabi Tel Aviv team in the 2011/12 season in which the club won the Israeli League championship, the State Cup and the Adriatic League.
That campaign will always remain close to his heart.
“It was great to have the Maccabi fans yell my name. I am very happy and honored that I played for the club and I still have plenty of friends there as well. Maccabi is a very organized club and it deserves to be at the highest level. Not just on the court, but off of it as to how it understands the importance of staying close to society. I am very happy for the year I spent with Maccabi and I am very thankful.”