by Jeff Taylor
The ultimate team player, and leader - that's Theo Papaloukas of Greece and CSKA Moscow, winner of the FIBA Europe Player of the Year award.
Really, only one thing matters with him as a basketball player and that’s winning.
He followed up his magnificent, gold-medal title performance with Greece at EuroBasket 2005 by leading CSKA two three trophies in 2006 - the Russian Cup, Superleague and Euroleague.
||I want to thank everyone who voted for me, the fans, the expert panel. It really means a lot.”
At the Euroleague Final Four in Prague, when it mattered most for CSKA Moscow, he had 18 points, seven assists and two steals as the Russians dethroned two-time champions Maccabi Tel Aviv, 73-89.
Papaloukas also won a silver medal with Greece at the FIBA World Championship in Japan.
In Saitama, he had an eye-popping 12 assists to go with his eight points and five rebounds in Greece’s 101-95 semi-final victory over the United States.
He spoke to Jeff Taylor on behalf of FIBA Europe.
FIBA Europe: Theo, well done on winning the FIBA Europe Player of the Year award. It must feel special considering the calibre of players you beat to get this honour, including Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Jorge Garbajosa and Juan Carlos Navarro?
Theo: “It's always great receiving awards, especially from someone like FIBA [Europe]. I want to thank everyone who voted for me, the fans, the expert panel. It really means a lot.”
FIBA Europe: There were so many highlights last season, but two stand out for us. You led CSKA to the Euroleague title with an MVP performance, and then had that incredible FIBA World Championship semi-final against Team USA. Where do those moments rank in your career?
Theo: “The whole last season was unbelievable. Someone asked me to find one photo that put the entire season into context but it was such a great season with so many photos, it's hard to pick one out. I know bigger players than me don't have these kinds of moments in their entire careers, so it was great. I think, even when I grow old, I will even talk about it more and more and keep annoying people (laughing).”
FIBA Europe: In Japan, you had that incredible high of beating the Team USA in the semi-finals but the tournament ended in dissappointment with the difficult loss to Spain in the gold medal game. Overall, as you look back, what are your thoughts on the FIBA World Championship?
Theo: This was the first World Championship for me. I had a great time, and I hope Greece will be here again and maybe win the gold medal next time. This team is young. And we're going to do a lot of things in the future. Sometimes, losses are more important than wins because you learn things. I keep all the good things. If we had won everything here, then we may not have the motivation for the future. Now we have the motivation to work even harder and win the next time."
FIBA Europe: Other than losing to Spain (70-47) in the gold medal game, everything appears to have fallen into place for you in your career. Are we seeing you at your peak or will you get even better?
Theo: “We have to look at this later. I think it m
ay be the best, but I fear I may damage my career if I think about this. Maybe it is, it's been great, but I think I have something more to do. Right now for CSKA, for example, it's more difficult for us because everyone wants to beat us and the same can be said about the Greece national team. So it gets even harder.”
|Papaloukas will look to guide Greece to another medal at EuroBasket 2007 in Spain.|
FIBA Europe: That does raise an interesting question. Is it be more difficult winning a title like the Euroleague for the first time, or is it more difficult defending the title?
Theo: “Both things are very difficult, but this season we know it's even harder because everyone wants to beat us. It's normal, the team that has the crown, like when Maccabi Tel Aviv had it, beating this team is important.”
FIBA Europe: You have been blessed with great coaches during your career, and that is true in recent times with Dusan Ivkovic (former CSKA coach), current CSKA coach Ettore Messina, and Greece national team coach Panagiotis Yannakis. What has it been like playing for these huge figures in the sport of basketball and what has it meant for your development as a person and player?
Theo: “A lot of good coaches, even when I was a junior, my first coach - all of them gave me opportunities. They have all helped me to go from becoming a good player to a top level player. Yes, I have been blessed. I've had great coaches at the right moments. It's like a dream.”
FIBA Europe: Because you have learned under true masters in the game, and specifically because you are known as a great team player, is coaching in your future? A game doesn't go by when you don't look like the coach on the floor, anyway.
Theo: "My life with CSKA is so hard, I don't have free much free time so, I like to be with my family, without schedules. At 10:30 there’s practice, at 12:00 weightlifting, then we have lunch, we have to be at the bus at five o'clock to catch a plane. So, I don't know what will happen in the future. You never know what will happen."
FIBA Europe: In other words, you may just take a moment to relax once your playing career is over before seeking a new challenge. But every year is big for you, and 2007 could be the most important of all. The Euroleague Final Four is in your native Athens, and Greece also go to Spain as one of the favourites to win the EuroBasket.
Theo: "It's going to be like the other years but emotionally, for me, it's more important because if I can go back home and win the Euroleague in Athens, it will be even better. I know it will be hard. I have to find ways to motivate myself as a player and this is a huge motivation."
FIBA Europe: How crucial was it for your career to leave Greece and play in Russia with CSKA Moscow?
Theo: "When I left Greece, I was disappointed and sad, but you never know what will happen when you do go. It turned out to be the wisest moves of my career. I went to an organised team, someone that respected me and I was lucky to make my name and money here to support my family. So, my career is like a dream. If you play at this level, everyone will tell you basketball is your life. If you don't love it, you can't go far. There are a lot of good moments, but bad ones too so if you don't love it, you won't go far in basketball."
FIBA Europe: People have said before they would like to see you compete in the NBA, but if that were to happen, Europe would lose one of its most important players. Is this something you bear in mind when considering whether or not to play in America? Is your situation at CSKA so good that it would be ridiculous to leave?
Theo: "When you leave something, you have to find something better. Right now, I had something from the NBA but they didn't show me they wanted me. They know how much money you make, they give you almost something the same, I didn't feel like this. I didn't feel it was a clever thing to do. I am so lucky because I have lived so many things here, so it's okay. I'm happy."
FIBA Europe: Finally, Theo, if CSKA get to Athens for the Euroleague Final Four and win, and then Greece capture gold at the EuroBasket, how will you celebrate?
Theo: “Let me just say that if we win the Euroleague with CSKA in Athens, and I know it's going to be very hard because there are some very good teams, I promised all my friends in Russia and at CSKA to go the Buzukia nightclub.”
FIBA Europe: Okay, are we invited?
Theo: “(laughing) Of course.”