Hapoel Jerusalem begins Basketball Champions League playoff action next week with a Round of 16 clash against Peristeri BC from Athens, Greece. Oded Katash’s squad will have home court advantage in the best of three series which will see the Reds host games one and if necessary game three at the PAIS Arena in the capital city.
Jerusalem has had quite the season thus far, capturing the Israel State Cup earlier in February along with the League Cup which they won in the preseason while finishing atop their Champions League group with a record of 11-3. With a chance to go all the way in continental play and the opportunity to host the competition’s Final Four should the club advance to the semifinals, the Reds will make every effort to not repeat last season’s result when they were halted in their tracks by Tenerife in the quarterfinals.
This year Nikos Papanikolopoulos, Peristeri’s head coach will look to stop Katash’s crew from European glory. The man behind the team’s successful season to date had been an assistant with the club since the 2018/19 season when he worked under Argyris Pedoulakis and Ilias Zouros whom he replaced earlier this campaign.
Last week, The Sports Rabbi had the privilege to visit Papanikolopoulos and tour the team’s facilities in the quaint Athens suburb where the defensive mastermind will look to upset the Reds and continue on their own dream season.
Peristeri is considered to be the biggest surprise in the Champions League with an 8-6 record, of which four losses were by under 10 points and one win was against the competitions top team in Nymburk, “Our target was to have a good season and to qualify for the Top 16. If you take out the loss to Tenerife which was a very bad loss we were competitive in most of the games and finally we qualified. I think it was tough playing two games per week and we have some losses in the Greek league because of this. But finally the qualification was very big in the Top 16.”
European basketball isn’t new for Peristeri having competed in the Euroleague at the start of the century, but this is the first season since the 2003/04 campaign that the club is back in continental play a number of years in the lower leagues, “The last five years have happened very fast at Peristeri. From the third division, to the second division and then with a great record we qualified for the first division. After one year in the first division we went to Europe and it’s difficult to adjust year to year. It has been tough for the organization to balance between the two leagues and we have to gain experience doing so with a limited roster. We need to be an excellent team to be a Final Four club.”
The club is at the heart of the community Papanikolopoulos explained and it is a gathering place for all of the locals where they can support athletes in a number of sports, “Peristeri is the fourth biggest municipality in Greece and at the club is a big amateur organization with many departments such as basketball, water polo and swimming. Many local people are involved in all facets of the club whether its children or adults and it is one that provides a sense of pride for the neighborhood and the city of Peristeri. We have great support from our fans both home and away whether it was at the Greek Cup semifinal against Promitheas Patras or away at Nymburk in the Champions League. They provide us with unconditional support every which way.”
Nikos Papanikolopoulos played 17 seasons and as a player won both the Greek Cup and the Saporta Cup with AEK Athens in 2000 when he played under legendary Serbian Coach Dusan Ivkovic. He also collaborated with Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos at Kolossos Rodou as well, “Once you master my former coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s name then you can move onto mine,” he quipped.
“It was an easy decision for me to become a basketball player as I loved being on the court and to play pick up games and all of the time. It was meant to be,” Papanikolopoulos said.
“I watched the Greek legends like Panagiotis Giannakis and Nikos Galis as I tried to take different things from all of the greats at that time. I watched the Lakers and Celtics but I really loved European basketball. Drazen Petrovic was very big for us and he was a big guard. I tried to copy some things, but not so successful. He was so motivated to win when Croatia played against the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics.”
In 2014, Papanikolopoulos hung up his basketball shoes and began his coaching career at Koroivos Amaliadas where he learnt the tricks of the trade for four seasons before joining Peristeri. “Ivkovic was important even more so after I had played for him. The way he prepared the team is something that stays with you for the rest of your life. But there are many philosophies that have stayed with me from all of the coaches I had been associated with. Argyris Pedoulakis who I worked with last season influenced both my basketball life and my life as a whole.”
With the recent success and the chance to make some noise in the playoffs, Papanikolopoulos doesn’t have too much time to think about his long term future goals, “Things are happening so fast this year you can only think about the next practice and not even the next game. My thoughts are on the practice, what I need to improve and what information I need to give to my players. Then it’s on to the next practice and then onto preparing for the next game. You have to go step by step.”
Papanikolopoulos and his staff built a team that could contend with the Champions League’s best but knew that Peristeri would need to be an excellent defensive team in order to reach their goals, “From the beginning of the season we said that our defense has to be our weapon because with the budget that we have we couldn’t build such an offensively talented team.”
“Panagiotis Vasilopoulos was here last season and he knows the club. He was very important for us in the first year of the team being back in the top division. He played for the national team and he was crucial for us both on and off of the court. We needed to have players with experience in order to play two games per week. Our point guard Vassilis Xanthopoulos will be back soon after being injured for two months. They are both players who can set the tone.”
Other pieces came together for the team during the summer and also at certain points in the season as well for Peristeri, “Kingsley Moses was one of our first targets this past summer. Yanick Moreira was without a team and we had an injury to Mike Morrison for two months and he had to be replaced. We signed Moreira to one month contract and he played very well, fit with the team and wanted to stay and we wanted him as well so he’s with us for the balance of the season. Sometimes signing players is hard work in the summer and others signings are dictated by the situation that produces chances which sometimes you have to take.”
In order to help with the team’s defensive prowess right before heading into the playoffs, Peristeri hit pay dirt when they were able to sign one of Europe’s best lockdown defenders in DeAndre Kane who played the last two seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv, “We were looking for an experienced player for the last step of the season and management put Kane’s name on the table. He is definitely a player that we couldn’t sign in the summer. The market gave us this opportunity and we had to take it. He is an excellent professional and a player with a winning mentality which is something that we need. As long as he will adjust and he is in good shape he will help us.”
All in all Papanikolopoulos knows that although Jerusalem will be the marked favorites, his squad will have a chance to surprise the Israeli cup holders, “If we play a 90 point game it will probably be an advantage for Jerusalem. It’s not easy to stop such a talented team so for sure we can’t play an up tempo game with them. But our players will be highly motivated to play a very tough series of games against a high level team.”