“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Theodoros Papaloukas – MVP off the bench
On his ID you can see that Theo Papaloukas was born on May 8, 1977, in the Neo Psychiko neighborhood of Athens. However, his basketball birthday was a little more than a decade later, on June 14, 1987. That day, Papaloukas was, as all of Greece, glued to the television screen watching the EuroBasket 1987 final played at Peace and Friendship Stadium in Piraeus. Greece beat the USSR 103-101 in overtime with 40 points by Nikos Galis. After that historic win, the streets of Athens turned into a huge party. A young Papaloukas, 10 years old, was amongst the hundreds of thousands of euphoric fans, together with his younger brother Costas. The direct consequence of that day was Theo Papaloukas saying: “I am going to play basketball.”
The fact that his parents’ home was only 20 meters away from the Ethnikos Ellinoroson court made things easier. That’s where the career of this future Greek and European superstar started. Witnesses from those days say that even then Papaloukas had more fun making assists than scoring points. That generosity would become his trademark during a brilliant career. His progress was immense, and he kept rising through categories despite his one physical flaw: he was too skinny. The next step was signing for Ampelokipoi, where in the 1995-96 season he played nine games and scored the same amount of points, his first ever in the Greek League. In his second season, now in the Greek second division, he played many minutes as a small forward, which completed his technical formation. In fact, when he was 20 years old and signed for Dafni, he was already a complete player capable of playing point guard, shooting guard and small forward.
Assists were always Papaloukas’s best quality, but he had many more: his speed and lightning-fast hands allowed him to make many steals, while he could also run fastbreaks, penetrate, shoot and even rebound, due to his 2.0-meter height. After two seasons in Dafni, Papaloukas signed for Panionios where he played for two seasons. In the second one, 2000-01, his coach was Slobodan Subotic, who put a lot of trust in him and gave him a lot of playing time. Papaloukas ended the season with 14.5 points, 5.5 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Olympiacos noticed his qualities and signed him for the 2001-02 season. It was his rookie season in the EuroLeague and he finished it with 8.4 points, 4 assists and 2.9 steals per game, but due to a shock overtime home loss to previously winless Union Olimpija in the fifth game of the Top 16, it was eternal archrival Panathinaikos who made that year’s Final Four from their group instead of Olympiacos – and won it!
Papaloukas didn’t stay in Piraeus, however. Dusan Ivkovic was starting a big project in CSKA Moscow, and as a true expert on Greek basketball, he asked his new club to sign Papaloukas, a key player in his plan.
Eight consecutive Final Fours
If he failed to make his first shot at a Final Four a reality, Papaloukas became a familiar face at the event after that, with eight straight appearances, a record he shares with his long-time back-court mate, J.R. Holden! In their first three seasons with CSKA Moscow, they reached the Final Four all three times. But in each of them, they were defeated in the semis: against Barcelona in 2003 and Maccabi in 2004 – both host teams who went on to win those titles – but also against Tau Ceramica in 2005, which hurt the most as that Final Four was played in Moscow.
Finally, in his fifth attempt, Papaloukas went all the way. In the 2005-06 season, with Ettore Messina now on the bench, CSKA Moscow won its first EuroLeague title in 35 years by defeating Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final 73-69 at the Sazka Arena in Prague. Papaloukas shined in the game with his 18 points and 7 assists. He was also chosen as Final Four MVP with a scoring average for the weekend of 18.5 points, way above his season average. In an interview published shortly after on Euroleague.net, Papaloukas told Frank Lawlor:
“I like these kinds of games, the big games. I enjoy playing them, I play hard and I am mentally ready. I also follow a training system that prepares my body to be ready, and not tired, at this time of the season. All these years and all the experience helped me to achieve this now.”
In the same interview, Papaloukas showed another one of his sides: modesty.
“I was never considered a first-class player when I was young. I was a good player, but there were always players better than me on my teams. That situation always gave me motivation to work hard to try to make it to the top. But I also think I have been lucky in life. I feel blessed, really. Sometimes you need someone to help you, and I have had people helping me. Once you achieve your goals, you realize how hard they really were to achieve. To dream them is one thing, it’s OK and it’s fun. But when you succeed is when you realize how tough it really was.”
Crowned MVP in his hometown
A year later, in Papaloukas’ native city, CSKA lost the EuroLeague title game against Panathinaikos, 93-91, in one of the greatest finals ever played, an electric night of back-and-forth brilliance between the dominant teams of the moment. The night before that loss, however, something unique in basketball history happened as Papaloukas was voted the MVP for the EuroLeague season. He had started only three EuroLeague games that season and just four of his 134 EuroLeague games in a CSKA uniform until that night. He would be a starter in just three more EuroLeague games in six more seasons after that.
As such, Papaloukas was the first nearly full-time substitute to be voted MVP of an elite competition like the EuroLeague. Some might have wondered why, when his averages that season were a more-than-solid but not spectacular 9.8 points, 5.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals. They were not wondering 24 hours later, however, as Papaloukas had a brilliant game on the biggest stage of all: 23 points and 8 assists while missing just 2 shots – a two-pointer and free throw – as a visiting player on one of the hottest courts in history, with 18,500 Panathinaikos fans making more noise than you could imagine. His performance index rating in that game, the same 28 he had while being named MVP the year before, is the second-best by a losing player in a title game, behind only Manu Ginobili of Kinder Bologna (34) in 2002.
One year later, however, CSKA and Papaloukas got their title back. As the EuroLeague celebrated the 50 Years of European club competitions in Madrid, they climbed to the top of the podium again with a 91-77 win in the title game, again over Maccabi, with 12 points and 4 assists by Papaloukas. Together, Papaloukas and CSKA had come one three-point shot short of three EuroLeague titles in a row.
After seven great seasons in CSKA, Papaloukas returned to Greece and Olympiacos, but he didn’t drop the habit of being in the Final Four. In Berlin 2009, Panathinaikos was better in the semis than Olympiacos, while in Paris 2010, Barcelona was better in the title game. Papaloukas would miss his first date with a Final Four in nine years in 2011, when Panathinaikos won in Barcelona. Olympiacos had fallen in the playoffs to Montepaschi Siena 3-1 despite having won their first game 89-41! That’s basketball.
If at the beginning of his career he had to play in humble teams, at the peak of his career Papaloukas wore only the jerseys of the great teams. He played the 2011-12 season with Maccabi and won the Israeli League, Israeli Cup and the Adriatic League, but the team was eliminated in the EuroLeague Playoffs by Panathinaikos in a dramatic series that ended 3-2 for the Greens and 86-85 in the fifth game.
Semi-retired, Papaloukas didn’t start the 2012-13 season, but when in mid-December he got the call from “his” CSKA, he didn’t hesitate. He helped the team reach the London Final Four, but in the semifinals, they fell to his other club, Olympiacos, 69-52, on its way to the title.
The duel against FC Barcelona for third place, a 74-73 win, was the last important game in the long and brilliant career of Theo Papaloukas. After those last 40 minutes as an active player, Papaloukas said:
“I am fortunate because my career started in a team from the Athens regional league, Ethnikos Ellinoroson, and I have been able to live all the basketball experiences with the Greek national team, CSKA, Olympiacos and Maccabi. A career like that is a blessing and a privilege for any player. It is a very emotional moment for me. I try to control myself and it’s not easy. My family is here with me. It was a beautiful moment and I am happy it ended up with a win.”
Sasha Djordjevic, Serbia’s current coach and a rival of Papaloukas in the past, doesn’t hide his admiration:
“He was a great player in all senses of the word. What I liked the most about him was his disposition of starting the games on the bench. During the first 5 or 6 minutes, he was always observing how the game developed, memorized the weak spots of the opponent. And when he stepped on the court, he was ready for his showcase. His way of reading the games was unbelievable.”
Triumph in Belgrade
When Papaloukas took to the streets of Athens at 10 years old to celebrate Greece’s title, the last thing that could have crossed his mind was that he would repeat the feat at EuroBasket 2005 with a win in Belgrade. In the title game, Greece defeated Germany and its star, Dirk Nowitzki, by a score of 78-62
with a great team effort. But the key man was Papaloukas, with 22 points on almost perfect shooting (6 of 10 twos, 3 of 4 threes and 1 of 2 free throws), 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals. He committed only 1 turnover in 34 minutes, the same playing time as Nikos Zisis. The win was in the hands of the guards, especially Papaloukas. Some 18,900 fans in the stands gave a standing ovation to Nowitzki when, with a few minutes remaining, he left the court as the tournament’s best scorer (26.1 per game), but Papaloukas also deserved the glory. The great Greek team featured Papaloukas, Zisis, Vassilis Spanoulis, Ioannis Bourousis, Panagiotis Vasilopoulos, Antonis Fotsis, Nikos Hatzivrettas, Kostas Tsartsaris, Dimitris Diamantidis, Lazaros Papadopoulos and Michalis Kakiouzis, with the great Panagiotis Giannakis on the bench. The all-tournament team was formed by Papaloukas, Diamantidis, Nowitzki, Juan Carlos Navarro and Boris Diaw.
One year later, the golden generation of Greece also made it to the 2006 World Cup title game in Japan after knocking off the favorite, Team USA, in the semis by a 101-95 score. Spanoulis was the top scorer with 22 points, follows by Kakiouzis with 15, Sofoklis Schortsanitis with 14 and Diamantidis with 12. But Papaloukas, who scored 8, was pulling all the strings, dishing 12 of Greece’s 19 assists and pulling 5 rebounds – second-best on the team – in 33 minutes. Alas, in the final, Greece fell big to a great Spain with a painful loss, 70-47, but those silver medals were more than well earned. At the end of that year, FIBA Europe chose its Player of the Year: Theo Papaloukas. After him came Nowitzki, Navarro, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker – what a lineup!
Final Four records
I was fortunate enough to follow Papaloukas for many years. I saw him in all his Final Fours, in the EuroBaskets of 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007, the Olympic Games of 2004 and many EuroLeague games. I was always fascinated by his way of playing: everything he did looked easy, natural, logical. He was a very smart player and his ideas were as fast as his passes. His shooting was lethal for the rivals, and his penetrations with changes of direction were unstoppable.
Besides the record he shared for consecutive Final Fours, for a several years after he finished playing, Papaloukas held the EuroLeague’s all-time record for career assists with 977 and steals with 335. But time marches on and he’s now ranked fifth and second, respectively, in those categories. But where Papaloukas has had more staying power is in the records for total production at Final Fours, which he made his second home. He has the all-time record in Final Four assists with 59. He also played 18 Final Four games for a total performance index rating of 189, both second only to Victor Khryapa, his former CSKA teammate. To reach those numbers, not only the player but his team have to be successful, and Papaloukas was all about making his teams go far.
Of course, the EuroLeague All-Decade Team for 2001 to 2010 could not be imagined without Papaloukas. He is there alongside Dejan Bodiroga, Dimitris Diamantidis, J.R. Holden, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Trajan Langdon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Anthony Parker, Ramunas Siskauskas and Nikola Vujcic.
He would have gladly come off the bench for that team, too, but more likely than not – even in that superstar company – Theo Papaloukas would have been on the court at the end of any important game, as he was at all the big moments of his unique career.