Maccabi Tel Aviv welcomes Olympiacos on Thursday at Yad Eliyahu on Gameday 26 of Euroleague action. Ahead of the contest, The Sports Rabbi sat down with Greek star Kostas Papanikolaou at the Peace and Friendship Arena to look at the forward’s career to date, the NBA and the turbulent season so far with the Piraeus based club.
“It’s a very strange season for us with a lot of ups and downs as well as changes, both coaches and players which is something that we aren’t used to. But that’s basketball and professionalism. You have to be able to adapt to everything that you find in your way. But now we have a chance to fight for the Top 8. This is a club that has done some crazy things and have found a way to achieve our goals. We want to look one game at a time and fight with our chances to be in the Top 8.”
With Olympiacos’s victory over ASVEL last Thursday Georgios Bartzokas’s club has moved into 9th place with an 11-14 record which is identical to Khimki’s who occupy the final playoff spot. In essence, the new format allows teams who had a poor start to the season a chance to still advance to the postseason, so all is not lost as the loyalists may still see their team in the playoffs, “It’s more intriguing for the fans that watch the games where everyone is playing everyone which is completely fair. I believe that the fans get to see great matchups every Gameday and it’s very important for the marketing of the competition. It’s great. The double weeks also add more interest and it’s more competitive. At the end of the day, even if you are a great team and you don’t start well you still have a chance to come back and get what his deserve at the end of the season.”
The 29-year old who is averaging 8.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game this season, grew up loving the game of basketball but didn’t want to reveal his favorite players and those he looked up to, “I had many role models for various different reasons but I don’t want to name anyone as I don’t want to accidentally leave someone out. I admired and looked up to many players from Greece and I took certain things from each and every one of them.”
The Trikala native began his career with Aris and then moved to Olympiacos in 2009 where he stayed for four seasons which included winning back to back Euroleague titles. The first championship in in 2012 was arguably one of the greatest finals ever to be played when Olympiacos came back from a huge deficit to upend CSKA in dramatic fashion. Papanikolaou was the high scorer in the contest with 18 points and also grabbed the critical rebound that led the break to Georgios Printezis’s winning basket, “To be part of these moments not only as a spectator but as a member of a 12-man team and being on the court as one of the main guys, it’s a blessing. To this day I still can’t describe the feeling and there are no words to describe those feelings as to the way we achieved the win to make people understand how I felt. All I can say when Printezis hit that shot, everything blacked out. I don’t remember the feelings and I saw myself in videos as to how I reacted and it’s funny but it was amazing, it was crazy.”
Papanikolaou was selected in the second round of the 2012 NBA draft by the New York Knicks with the 48th pick and eventually played his first game in the 2014/15 season with the Houston Rockets. All of a sudden the stars that he had been watching on television and video games were now on the same court, face to face, “Playing against Kobe Bryant and LeBron James is something. It’s really amazing. I remember watching them on TV as a kid and I had an argument with my brother as I preferred LeBron and he was a Kobe guy. But to step on the court and play against those guys its every basketball kid’s dream coming true and for me it became a reality. I was blessed that I was able to experience that and live those moments.”
The opportunity to play in the NBA for a season in a half was something that he will never forget, “It was a dream came true, man. I’ll tell you what, even though I know now that I’m still not there, if I had to go back in time and make a decision, it would be the same decision. The things that I experienced there the while different world as they say it’s something amazing, it’s something I wouldn’t want to change for any reason. I really feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to live my dream and live it to its full. I was able to reach the Western Conference final with Houston so I had a great experience including playing in the Rising Stars Challenge at the All-Star Game it was great for me and it was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t change for anything.”
Papanikolaou returned to Greece in the middle of the 2015/16 season and rejoined Olympiacos where he has remained until today. He had the opportunity to play under current Maccabi Tel Aviv Head Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos where he was able to win two Greek League titles and also advanced to the 2016/17 Euroleague Final where they fell to Fenerbahce. He spoke glowingly about his former coach, “First of all he’s an amazing person and an amazing coach. He helped our team and group of guys achieve some great things including two Greek Championship and two trips to the Euroleague finals which was some great stuff. I think that he’s a great addition to Maccabi and he will help them achieve their goals. He’s a coach with a lot of discipline and he gives a lot of attention to defense without taken away your freedom on offense which is what Greek teams need and that’s also great for Maccabi as they are used to having great skilled players offensively. With rules on defense it makes them work even better as a group and everybody looks like they are on the same page working together. Maccabi is having a great season and I believe that a big part of that is coach Sfairopoulos.”