If your Top 16 team needed a last-second basket to stay alive for the Final Four, to whom would you give the ball? Meet the perfect candidate: Mikalis Kakiouzis of AEK in Athens. His last-second heroics at this stage a year ago sent AEK soaring. This season he has done it all game, averaging 15.7 points and 8.7 rebounds, fourth best in the Euroleage regular season, for AEK, his lifelong club. His 7 double-doubles in scoring and rebound were second best in the Euroleague regular season, behind only MVP Mirsad Turkcan. However, as he told us Monday in a Euroleauge.net interview, there is nothing Kakiouzis wants more than the ball in his hands with the game on the line and a chance to send AEK to the Final Four. "I like to take the responsibility at the end of the game and kill the opponent with a shot," Kakiouzis said. "I did it four times in the last four years and I'll keep on doing it. If the ball comes to me, I feel really sorry for the other team."
Who inspired you want to become a basketball player?
"To be honest, nobody did so. My father just took me by the hand one day and walked me to see a team in our neighbour. It was Ionikos N.F., the team that now is member of the Greek League. My father showed me the game, took his time with me, but he didn't really force me to play. It's something I just weaned myself into, picked up on the excitement and the competition. Basketball was a desire at the beginning, and now it's a dream that came true."
When you were growing up, did you idolize any basketball player?
"There wasn't one particular player. I liked the Chicago Bulls growing up. The whole team, though, not just one player. Even though Michael Jordan was something more than special, something that maybe will never happen again in basketball, I admire Toni Kukoc the most. He does so many things on the court that sometimes I think he is really a 'Spiderman'. I hope someday I'll be recognized in the NBA as a player who can do the things that Toni did there. I know it seems so far away, but I think I can make it. At least I'll try."
What do you think about Dragan Sakota as a motivator and a coach?
"I always speak very highly of my coaches. I respect their work, even if some of them didn't believe in me. So that's what I'm gonna do once again with Mr. Sakota. I think he's a great motivator. He is a motivator, a coach and a scientist all in one - you know, in the science of basketball. As a coach, he's entirely different from any coach I've been under. This is my seventh coach in AEK (after Vlado Djurovic, Slobodan Subotic, Giannis Ioannidis, Giorgos Kalafatakis, Kostas Politis and Dusan Ivkovic). All of them look at basketball from a different viewpoint."
Can you define a clutch shooter? What makes you a clutch shooter?
"Well, I think a clutch shooter is just someone who makes big plays down the stretch in the clutch. And the second part is, am I a clutch shooter? Is that what you're saying? Do you define yourself as being a clutch shooter? Well, I think a big part of being a clutch shooter is being someone who wants the ball in the clutch. There's a lot of people who consider themselves a crunch-time player but they don't want the ball in crunch time, which I do. Yes, I'm a born clutch shooter."
What does it take for you to explode in the fourth quarter?
"Actually, my team is running a lot of plays for me. I don't necessarily have to shoot the ball every time, but as long as I'm getting touches to put the pressure on the defense, I'll be able to make plays. Don't forget that we have great players such as J.R. Holden, Demos Dikoudis, Chris Carr, Andrew Betts, Nikos Hatzis - I hope I don't forget anyone. All the guys have a role on our team and they know what to do and when they have to do it."
It seems like your team's chemistry has been important to you guys this season. Would you say that AEK has been playing better than its parts?
"You know, we don't really have any stars, so everybody has to step up their game. I think it's better, it makes everybody work harder. Our chemistry right now is there, but we are still figuring out each other as players."
You said there are no stars in your team. You don't consider yourself a star?
"No. I have a long way to go before being considered a star. (Laughs) A long way. A long way? I mean, so far, so good, right? You have to be close? I'm pretty pleased. I guess if we keep winning, recognition and exposure will come to me, and other guys on the team. But not yet. Maybe I'm a star, maybe I'm not. Who can say that? Maybe I'm not ready for that yet. (Laughs) Ask the fans."
How do you cope with all the media attention, all the different distractions off the court, and keep a level head?
"I think it's all about your background. You know how the media is. Some days they love you, when you're doing well. Sometimes the media doesn't care about what you do: They just care about what the stars that beat you the previous night do. I just be myself. I'm a guy that never tries to be somebody else, never imitates another guy. I just keep everything in perspective. In your mind, you know what's right and wrong. You know if you get into a bad situation, so just try to stay away from bad situations as much as possible."
What do you think about your chances to win both the Euroleague and Greek League titles this year? And how'd you treat the pressure with your teammates?
"This year we can rank first for the regular season in Greece, so we don't feel so much pressure because we are playing well. When you put pressure on yourself, you tell yourself to perform better, you tell yourself to do this or that, which kind of hinders your game a lot. You're always thinking about it. Basketball is a sport where if you don't think, a lot of good things happen. Just go out there and just do it. You've been doing it for so long, it's just innate. You just go out there and play hard. I think we have the team to make it and we'll try hard to make it happen."
Which title do you prefer?
I'm really too young to choose. I prefer both!
Last question: Are you as big a fan of AEK as it seems?
I'm much more of a fan than it seems. Above all, AEK is an an idea for me. It always was and always will be my favorite team!