Other basketball players may wear throwback jerseys, but you won't run into many who fit the uniform of an earlier era as easily as center Lazaros Papadopoulos of Dynamo Moscow, Euroleague Basketball's MVP for January. Papadopoulos himself recognizes that his back-to-the-basket, post-up style based on an array of hook shots is straight out of the past. He studies old centers to improve on his game. And considering how successful he has become with it - as one of only two players to win both Euroleague and ULEB Cup titles, not to mention a reigning European national champion and World Championships silver medallist - he's quite happy practicing a lost art. "The style of basketball we play under Dusan Ivkovic is a classical style," Papadopoulos told Euroleague.net in an exclusive interview. "The modern style is to split and skip and there is not so much of a low-post game. Most teams play with a pick-and-roll and a skip pass. It's not the classic game of ten years ago or more, with strong post-up players. Dynamo and just one or two more teams maybe play such a game style as this. Most play totally different from us. I imagine that on another team, I might not enjoy it so much. Maybe we would win, but I would not enjoy it. Here, we win and I like it. Everything is perfect."
First, congratulations on being chosen January MVP. Dynamo won five Euroleague games in January, something few teams do ever. But Dynamo is a new team and is now going into the Top 16 among the highest-ranked teams. Are you proud of what your team has accomplished?
"Of course, I am proud, because you cannot forget that Dynamo never played in such a big competition as the Euroleague. So this is a big surprise for all the people at Dynamo and for us also, because our target before the season was just to go to the Top 16. We made that happen during these games, and that has made us very happy. I hope we have the power to continue like we have been playing lately."
You are very accustomed to winning recently: in the past couple years alone, a ULEB Cup title with Dynamo, and a Eurobasket gold medal and World Championships silver with Greece. How do you feel about being named the Euroleague's January MVP?
"What is most important is the team winning and going to the Top 16. My belief is that basketball is not about one player. It's not just because of me, but especially because of my team that this happens. I have teammates like Antonis Fotsis and Travis Hansen who help me all the time by giving me space to play. If they weren't there playing with me, I would not be MVP. For me, this is a team award because my teammates help me a lot. I count it for all of them."
Everyone knows you were a Euroleague champion with Panathinaikos, but some might not know that when you signed with Dynamo, you were going "back" to Russia, where you grew up. Can you tell us about this connection you had with Russia?
"I had a big connection, yes. My mother is Russian and my father is Greek. I was born in Russia, but left when I was very, very young, nine years old, to go to live in Greece. So I always spoke more Greek than Russian. When I signed with Dynamo, from then until now, in my opinion the Russian championship is the strongest in Europe. You can see that in the results of Russian teams winning so many European competitions: us winning the ULEB Cup, CSKA winning the Euroleague. Of the six championships in Europe last year, men's and women's, four were won by Russian teams. Also good players come here because all players want to play in a strong championship, and we have the strongest here in Russia now."
You played a major role the night that Panathinaikos won the 2002 Euroleague title. Now you are back in the competition after three years. What do you think about the growth or evolution of the Euroleague?
"I think that the Euroleague now is much stronger, the teams. It's not only the Euroleague, but basketball in general is much stronger and more physical. I have noticed many fouls that would be called before but that referees let go now because the game is more physical. You have to be stronger to play modern basketball. Euroleague basketball has changed in the sense that it is getting definitely stronger and stronger every year."
The Top 16 is about to start, but Dynamo got bad news as Travis Hansen was injured for what looks like a good amount of time. What affect can losing a big contributor like Travis have?
"This is a very, very big problem for us because Travis was one of the best players on Dynamo. He helped our team a lot. It was because of him maybe that we went so easily to the Top 16. I don't know what we can do. We will miss him a lot. We looked for him in crucial moments because of his confidence and his character. I liked very much to play with him, because we communicated well and knew how to get the ball to each other. He is a great passer to the low post. I hope he'll be back to help us. We'll miss him."
Looking at your new Top 16 group, you've got traditional teams like Benetton or Unicaja, plus a team you know well - Aris - from your years at Iraklis and after beating them in the ULEB Cup final last season. What's your analysis of this group?
"Yes, a year ago we played a big game against Aris. And when I was at Iraklis, there were many big games. So I have a lot of experience against them and Dynamo as a team has experience against Aris last year. For me, our game against Aris in Thessaloniki will be the toughest game of the Top 16. I know the fans and how they back their team when it plays on their court. I am sure 100 percent about this being the toughest game. But, of course, it will also be the most beautiful game and big for basketball. I am happy that we are going to play such a big game."
Dynamo is the third ULEB Cup champion to reach the Top 16. Has winning the ULEB Cup become like a first step to being a solid Euroleague team?
"Yes, for sure. I cannot even say that the ULEB Cup is a second category and Euroleague first, because some ULEB Cup teams each year are stronger than some in the Euroleague. I think a team that wins the ULEB Cup might have trouble to beat the top teams, but that the sixth- and seventh-placed teams in the Euroleague would have to work hard to keep their place. I must also say that I think that it's not fair sometimes that teams have a contract for the Euroleague and because of that the strongest teams don't always go. Even if we win a lot this year, it might happen to us, because CSKA has a contract. The same happened when I was with Iraklis because AEK had a contract. This is not good for sports. Maybe for marketing it's good, but it's not very good for athletes. The places must go to the strongest teams."
You have reached the prime of your career playing for coach Dusan Ivkovic and alongside Antonis Fotsis, your good friend and national teammate with Greece. Does being around them make you a more comfortable and better player?
"First of all, it's very good that Ivkovic speaks my language, Greek. We also have an assistant coach, Evangelos Angelou, who we can speak Greek with. Antonis and I have been playing together for something like 16 years: junior teams, cup teams, national teams, at Panathinaikos. We know each other so well that we understand and communicate without even looking on the court. It also helps me the style of basketball Dynamo plays under Dusan Ivkovic, a classical style. The modern style is to split and skip and there is not so much of a low-post game. Most teams play with a pick-and-roll and a skip pass. It's not the classic game of ten years ago or more, with strong post-up players. So of course I like that Dusan Ivkovic plays this style, and that I am on his team and can play this way. Just being a center who runs up and down the court is not good for me. Win or lose, I enjoy playing in this team. I enjoy every minute of every practice because of this style. It's different. Dynamo and just one or two more teams maybe play such a game style as this. Most play totally different from us. I imagine that on another team, I might not enjoy it so much. Maybe we would win, but I would not enjoy it. Here, we win and I like it. Everything is perfect."
You are an old-school center, a pure post player with great moves and hook shots. You don't get to see many players taking hook shots these days. What was your inspiration to develop that shot?
"The hook first of all is the most important shot in anyone's post game. I also believe that the hook shot gives a team a big advantage. Many people don't understand this. They think the post game is not so beautiful, that it's old. But really, if you look at the big, big teams in the history of basketball - the NBA, Europe or wherever - always in the difficult moments at the end of the game, they go to the post. The Lakers had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but even Michael Jordan with Chicago played a low-post position with his back to the basket at key times. I watched Patrick Ewing a lot when I was young, but the difference for me has been working very much every summer with Dimitris Nikolaidis, the Aris assistant coach. He gives me very good drills and exercises for post-up moves that I work on every summer with him. I use them even now here in Moscow and go back to work with him in the summer. The key points are the hook shot and the low-post play. And it's not only one hook shot, it's many different hook shots: a baby hook, one leg only, a sky hook, lots of them. There are plenty of things to work on."