|When the decade started, he was 23 years old and practically unknown - even in his native Greece. Six springs later as he turns 29, Theodoros Papaloukas of CSKA Moscow is the king of European basketball. Last week in Prague, as he sparked CSKA to its first Euroleague crown in 35 years, Papaloukas was chosen MVP of the title game just 24 hours after making the All-Euroleague First Team. Seven months earlier in Belgrade, he had led Greece to the European Championships title and reached the all-tournament team. What makes Papaloukas unique is that he almost never starts a game. Rather, his comes off the bench full of confidence, authority and solutions in a role that few, if any, elite basketball players in the world have mastered so well. A week after one of the best title games ever, Euroleague.net talked to Papaloukas about what he and CSKA accomplished in Prague. "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. Now, I feel great. I am healthy and I am on top."
Theo, happy birthday, first of all. You've had a week to think about what happened in Prague. Does your team's accomplishment seem even bigger now when you think about it all?
"It does, truly. We were trying very hard for three years before winning, so I think we really deserved it. We played the whole season very well, but the Final Four even better, although I still haven't realized fully how big an achievement this is. That will come with time. For now, everyone here is happy: the staff, the players, the fans, the coaches. After all our efforts and after 35 years without it, the cup is back."
Even though you celebrated like everyone else after winning a title, you also seemed very calm, not surprised at all to beat 'the lion', as Ettore Messina was calling Maccabi. Is that how you felt, like you expected to be there celebrating?
"As I said in the Euroleague press conference on Thursday, I had a lot of faith going into the tournament. I was feeling very good about our chances. I expected that if we played clever, like we did all weekend, we would be Euroleague champions - and we are. I was also calm because the most important thing is to live the moment, so that's what I tried to do."
And have you still lost all memory of the other three Final Fours that CSKA lost, as you said before picking up your MVP award last week?
"No one remembers our incredible record a year ago. They only remember that Maccabi won. The losses make you stronger, but victory, especially a big one like this, makes you happy. So for now I will keep remembering only the big one."
In that case, what does the MVP remember as a key play or two from the title game victory?
"What I remember as most important was the time that Maccabi couldn't get the ball in and took a five-second violation. That came at a key moment of the game and it was a great example of the defense that won it for us. The guy of the game was defense, and everyone had a part in it. Alexey Savrasenko was very good, as were our American players, and Matjaz Smodis, who made important shots. Even the guys who didn't get in the game helped with their attitude."
You averaged 18.5 points in the Final Four. Looking over your career, you have almost never scored so much. Why in Prague? What came over you?
"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 now. I also think we played smart. We knew that Maccabi was going to switch a lot, as our coach saw from scouting. For me, that opened up good chances to use mismatches against their big guys, who always ended up guarding me. I had to create advantages for my team by going to the basket, either beating the bigger player one-on-one or looking to pass. The thing was I had to drive in order to create."
What was the return to Moscow like?
"First we celebrated in Prague, and when we returned to Moscow a couple hours later than scheduled, everybody was surprised that 200 people were waiting for us at the airport. By Moscow standards, this was incredible. Now, we are trying to adapt after such a big victory, because we have another month to play and a chance at the Russian triple crown. We need to refuel our batteries and find the strength to keep going for that."
We know that you feel very close to the CSKA fans after four seasons there. We hear a lot about fans from other teams. Tell us more about those from CSKA.
"I respect and I like everybody's fans. We met some fans of Tau and Maccabi in the airport who congratulated us. The fans of CSKA were of course very supportive, and under difficult circumstances. Many of them had to wait two weeks just to get visas to go to Prague. I am happy for all of them, but the most important support you get from fans is not when you win it all. What is most important is their support in the bad moments: that's when you need their support most. I have a very good relationship with the CSKA fans. They respect me and I appreciate this. I was very happy to share this happiness with them."
Looking at your background, it's safe to say you were never considered a super prospect. You basically never played in Europe until five seasons ago. Now, just turning 29, at a time when European basketball has its best reputation ever, you are all-Euroleague first team, MVP of the Final and were almost MVP of the European Championships last fall. What lesson is there in the Theodoros Papaloukas story for young players coming up now?
"You're right. 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. Now, I feel great. I am healthy and I am on top. I worked hard for it and I will do so as long as I can, because it's a good feeling to be on top."