Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Fenerbahce this evening at 19:45 Israel time on Gameday 24 of the Euroleague. The Yellow & Blue sport a 15-8 record and will look to record their second Euroleague Double Week sweep in Turkey. Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad defeated Khimki Moscow 80-77 on Wednesday night at Yad Eliyahu thanks to Elijah Bryant and Deni Avdija’s tremendous play in the absence of star guard Scottie Wilbekin.
Fenerbahce had a rough start to the season but have now won six of their last seven games to pull within one win of .500 as their record stands at 11-12 good enough for seventh place. One of the key players in the club’s turnaround is a star guard of their own, Kostas Sloukas who is averaging 11.5 points, 6.7 assists and 3 rebounds in a whopping 30+ minutes a game.
The Sports Rabbi has the privilege to interview one of the all-time greats of the European game having won back to back Euroleague titles with Olympiacos and a third with Fenerbahce in 2016/17. A Euroleague All-Decade nominee, Sloukas has a trophy cabinet full of team and individual awards that he has accumulated over the years in Greece and Turkey, but he tells me that he’s still missing something from that array.
With Fenerbahce now back in playoff contention, Sloukas explains why the team had such a poor start to the season, “First of all we had a hard preparation with a lot of new players as we were missing Jan (Vesely) who is very important for us. As the season continued we practiced better and Jan came back and we know each other better and because of this we are playing better.”
This will be the second time Maccabi will be facing Fenerbahce and Sloukas hasn’t forgotten about the first encounter between the clubs which ended with an easy 67-55 win for the Yellow & Blue, “Maccabi has played excellent up until now with very good results. They are in fifth place and are fighting for the fourth position. For us, there is extra motivation as they beat us in Israel and they have more wins than us. It’s an important game for us and we will fight for the full 40 minutes.”
Sloukas began his career with Olympiacos in 2008 and after two seasons where he was used sparingly, the guard was loaned to Aria for the 2010/11 campaign where he was able to gain more experience before returning to Piraeus the following season. Little did he know that on his return he would win back to back Euroleague titles. However, after 2014/15 the 30-year old decided to pack his bags and head to Turkey and ply his trade under Europe’s greatest coach Zeljko Obradovic, “There are many things that you can say about Coach Obradovic but he understands what you have in your head and he understands exactly what the game needs to take the win. He’s a genius of basketball.”
However, Sloukas has a bumpy arrival after landing in Turkey, “The first season with Fenerbahce was not very easy as I had been with Olympiacos for many years, but I wanted to make a step forward. I’m always like this trying to get better and better and I was sure that with Coach Obradovic and this team I would have the opportunity to be one of the best in Europe with the team and by myself.”
With time and patience, the 6”3 floor general was able to get into a groove as he helped his team win the Euroleague title in his second year with the club after falling to CSKA in the championship game the year before. Sloukas lifted the trophy for a third time ironically against his former club Olympiacos who at the time was coached by current Maccabi coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos.
The key to his success was simple, practice and as they say, practice makes perfect, “I think practice. I like to practice everyday as much as I can to get better and better and this gives me confidence. Five years with the same coach and I understand the basketball better than I had in previous years.”
When Sloukas joined Fenerbahce he wasn’t the only star that came aboard the club at the same time as Luigi Datome, Jan Vesely, Nikola Kalinic and Ali Mohammed (Bobby Dixon) all joined the squad the same year. With players from key players from Greece, Italy, Czech Republic and the United States, Coach Obradovic was able to mold a team from all over the world into a fine well oiled unit, “All of them are really good guys and enjoy life outside of the court. Inside we communicate good, they are hard workers also and they play for the best of the team as do I. This is very important. We’re also on the same page the last five years and because of this we have achieved what we have achieved until now.”
In terms of achievements with Fenerbahce, Sloukas is most proud of the postseason appearances with the club, “Winning the Euroleague and all of the Final Fours we have achieved are the highlights for me.”
However, one area that still nags at Sloukas is the Greece National Team and the lack of success with the senior squad after winning numerous medals with the youth teams. This summer, the Thessaloniki native will have yet another chance to reach that goal as the team will play in an Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Canada for the right to go to Japan, “The only thing I am missing from my career is one medal with the National Team and I am very disappointed until now that I haven’t achieved this. There are reasons, but that’s not my job. This year we will go to Canada and I hope that everybody will be healthy and we will go to fight to go to Japan. I am positive about of this. With Coach Rick Pitino we will have extra motivation.”