|Kostas Papanikolaou enjoyed a breakthrough year for Greece in 2009, helping the U19 side capture silver at the World Championship and leading the U20 team to European gold|
By Dimitris Kontos
It was Christmas a few years ago, although it now seems a lifetime away, when a teenage player who had just joined the youth team of storied Greek club Aris Thessaloniki received a gift, in the form of a revelation.
For the first time in his life, Kostas Papanikolaou was watching a video of himself playing basketball.
And it was a shockingly devastating experience.
The future Greek international was so disappointed at the player he saw during that screening, that he decided to not stop working hard until the day finally came when he would be satisfied to watch himself play.
Papanikolaou made the first step in that direction in 2007, as a member on the Greek national team that won silver at the U18 European Championship and the following year he was a starter on the Greece side which captured gold in the same tournament.
Then came the summer of 2009, a landmark in the career of the then 19-year-old small forward.
Papanikolaou first propelled the national team to a silver medal success at the U19 World Championship in New Zealand and a few days later to the top of the podium at the U20 European Championship, where he walked away with tournament MVP honours.
Powerhouse Olympiacos Piraeus took notice and signed him in September that year, a move that would eventually convert him into an instrumental player on the side that captured back-to-back Turkish Airlines Euroleague titles, in 2012 and 2013.
THE BARCELONA OPPORTUNITY
Last summer, most onlookers expected the 2.06m forward to either make the jump to the NBA (with the Houston Rockets) or stay at the familiar port of Piraeus for the attempt to three-peat.
But Papanikolaou picked a third option and moved instead to another Mediterranean port, as he signed with Spanish giants FC Barcelona.
Having collected so much silverware before the age of 23, what could have been his motivation for joining the ranks of another Euroleague side?
"Look, many players could omit mentioning this aspect but I'll be honest, the financial part of it for sure played a role," Papanikolaou told fibaeurope.com
"And the way Barcelona approached both Olympiacos and myself, the way they showed how much they wanted me on their team, was a big thing for me.
"It made me think that it would be a mistake on my part not to give myself this opportunity to play at such a big club as Barcelona.
"I am not saying this in comparison to Olympiacos, whom I respect enormously.
"What I mean is that, as we all know, Barcelona's number of followers worldwide is much bigger than the scale that we are used to in Greece."
And now, late in the first season after the switch?
"I feel very good here, have felt nice since the first days," Papanikolaou said.
"The club, the coach and the guys all helped me a lot to adapt, we did things all together so they didn't even let me think that I had left my home and was in a new place.
"I am very fortunate to find myself at such a big club and such a beautiful city under all these helpful circumstances."
|Papanikolaou was crowned back-to-back Euroleague champion with Olympiacos before joining Spanish giants Barcelona|
KEEP UP WITH THE PACE
Papanikolaou is not filling up the stat sheet with huge figures in his first season at Barcelona but then, this was never his mission; the Greek forward excels in the role of a multi-tool player who complements the very big scorers, on very big teams.
Xavi Pascual, the Catalan side's head coach, certainly seems pleased as he has started Papanikolaou in almost every single game in the Spanish Liga Endesa and the Euroleague, and keeps him on the court for an average of 24 minutes.
Barcelona got off to a sluggish start to the season but their winning streak in the Euroleague Top 16 only snapped this week, after they had already secured a spot in the quarter-final play-offs ahead of anyone else.
The Euroleague is a competition in which Papanikolaou has more experience than several veterans, but coming from the Greek A1 league, he had to adapt to a different style of play in the Spanish Liga Endesa.
"I think that the main difference is that the game is much faster here [in Spain] and, in a way, a bit more disorderly at times," Papanikolaou explained.
"Of course there is the same amount of tactics and systems, a lot of work both in practice and in games.
"But here, when the game opens up you have more of a freedom as a player to follow up this fast pace.
"Coaches do not tend to hold their teams back so that the players focus more on the defensive end, which is what we normally do in Greece, in a more tactics-oriented approach.
"[In Spain] when the team picks up a good pace they will normally let the players go with their instinct a bit more and allow players more freedom in transition."
It sounds like a style of play that suits the tall but very mobile small forward like a glove.
"Yes, I guess generally the fast pace suits me better than a static kind of game, but everything ultimately is a question of balance," Papanikolaou offers.
"Basketball keeps evolving all the time so you have to be able to adapt to all circumstances if you are going to play at this level."
|"All we want from this coming summer is to try to make the Greeks proud again. That is really what the national team is all about."|
THE PATH TO REDEMPTION
The success of two-time Euroleague champions Olympiacos did not rub off on the Greek national team last summer, who arrived in Slovenia with high hopes but saw their EuroBasket 2013 campaign terminate even before the quarter-final stage.
Papanikolaou was playing in the second EuroBasket tournament of his career, but he was aware that this had only occurred once before in the last 20 years of EuroBasket history.
"We had the manpower and the potential as a team to achieve something good last summer," Papanikolaou said.
"But it all comes down to specific moments and specific games and, quite simply, we were not good enough at those moments.
"So all we want from this coming summer is to try to make the Greeks proud again.
"That is really what the national team is all about."
Greece will get their chance at redemption in September, at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.
"The World Cup is a big challenge in itself and on top of that all guys on the team are deeply disappointed at the image we showed during the EuroBasket and the fact we didn't manage to make anything out of it," Papanikolaou said.
"All guys on the team are fully conscious of the honour and respect the national team represents.
"Personally, I have felt very honoured that I had the chance to play together with the guys that climbed so high in 2005 [gold at the EuroBasket] and in 2006 [silver at the World Championship] and made every Greek fan to have high expectations from this team."
NO PREDICTIONS, JUST REMEMBER 2012
Greece's campaign will commence in Group B against the likes of Argentina, Croatia, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Senegal.
"We are talking about a World Cup, so there is no such thing as an easy or tough draw," Papanikolaou offered.
"I think all groups are more or less equally balanced, with the possible exception of the group of Spain, Serbia and France (Group A, which also includes Brazil, Egypt and Iran) which you can say is even more difficult than the rest.
"But from then on every team is capable of winning; there are no easy games in this kind of championships.
"We know that better than anyone, after what happened in the pre-Olympic tournament in Venezuela (in summer 2012) when Nigeria knocked us out."
In this context, what are Papanikolaou's objectives?
"It's easy to set a target in words and proclaim that you are chasing triumph," he replied.
"But the only thing that matters is what happens on the court.
"So my only wish is to stay healthy, both myself and my team-mates on Barcelona and the national team.
"That way we will be able to work hard every day and be in a position to get the results that make us happy."
It almost sounds like the Christmas wish of that humbled teenager, and it worked out just fine for him.