|Very few men reach the top of their sport as both players and coaches, but Olympiacos boss Panagiotis Giannakis is one of them. Having won hearts all across Greece as a player for two of the country's most successful teams - not to mention the first to win a European title - he is now trying to conquer a new continental trophy for a third signature club, Olympiacos. In his first full season on the Olympiacos bench last year, Giannakis and the Reds went to the team's first Final Four in 12 years and came within a whisper of the title game. This time around, Olympiacos has been among the most dominant teams in Europe, winning 10 games in a row at one point and taking first place in both its groups. The next step on the road to greatness that Giannakis has planned for his team comes in Paris, where coincidentally he won his only Euroleague title as a player. That experience tells Giannakis that desire is going to be a key ingredient at the Final Four next month. "When you play a Final Four, everyone wants to finish on top," Giannakis told Euroleague.net "And I mean everyone, even the team that is a surprise to be there. It's a great opportunity that doesn't come always. So I would like to see my team play hard and good basketball. If we do that, we can deserve our memories."
Hello, Coach. What differences are there between Olympiacos at this time last year, in the same situation, for you?
"We improved our game, we got more experience to play in hard situations, and we have better team speed now."
You’ve talked about building a team to reach the top and stay there for many years. What step will this Final Four be in that building process?
"I think that it's always a motivation to see how you are going to react under this kind of pressure. For me, how you are going to react in such a situations is a great test of your character and your skills. You have to collect these details for your future, also. I think this Final Four is the continuation of improvement of my team. I always look at it in this way: We have a big club with two great presidents and unbelievable spectators. We have an obligation to learn and do better from one day to the next."
What did your team learn from losing by one basket in the Final Four semis last season?
"I think that we learned we how to be stronger with our defense. I also think that we saw how wee need to have a little bit more patience, in order to see better the weakness of the opponent."
Among the newcomers this year, Linas Kleiza stepped in to become one of the most dominant players in the Euroleague. Could he be a difference-maker for Olympiacos in this Final Four?
"I think there are many things to say about our team, and yes, Linas is a big part of it. But everyone is giving something to that improvement, everyone. If you look carefully at my team, you can see differences in every position on the court. You have to improve all over to be successful, and the best thing on my team is that we have done that, and everyone has given something to that improvement."
Another player who stepped up this season is Milos Teodosic. How much does your experience as a playmaker help him?
"As I said, I think all players have shown improvement, and him, too. Sometimes it's a case of patience in your mind. That is most important, especially in the title games."
Everyone says that Josh Childress, in his second season, understands European basketball better. In what way is he more effective?
"He can read the game better. He can manage his speed. He doesn't go always with the same speed as before. He knows how to change speeds, so his ability he now uses with a lot better control. He's not just fast and high anymore. He moves with more control of himself within the space of the game."
You won your only Euroleague title as a player with Panathinaikos in Paris. How special will it be for you to go back there now, trying to win as a coach?
"You know, it was the first European championship in basketball for any Greek club, so it was a great finish for me to my playing career. When you play a Final Four, everyone wants to finish on top. And I mean everyone, even the team that is a surprise to be there. It's a great opportunity that doesn't come always. So I would like to see my team play hard and good basketball. If we do that, we can deserve our memories."
Olympiacos faces Partizan in the semifinals. Both teams already beat each other in the regular season. Does that help you prepare the semifinal better?
"It makes no difference to me to play against Partizan, but we will have to be better in different things because of it. If you face a team that you already played against, you have to play smarter and do better. That's part of success: They give you a problem and you have to solve it. Always in your life, as a team or as a person, a problem that comes to you is also an opportunity to improve and grow."
Underestimating Partizan is dangerous, as Panathinaikos and Maccabi know. How do you keep that risky thought out of the minds of your players?
"In all these years with Olympiacos and to all the players I have coached until now, I say the same things. Basketball players grow up incredibly quickly in Europe. If I were to play now, and you let me shoot, maybe you are going to lose, even if you're a great player. You must have respect for the opponent. You must stay close and not give him the opportunity for an easy shot. And you have to know he will do everything to hit you and stop your game. Even if he doesn't have quick legs, he will play with your mind. If you get mad, you may lose the opportunity to stay in the game. We try to make everyone understand these things. That's why we play up and down sometimes. We teach players that if you don't respect the opponent and their talent, you can lose."
You faced Partizan head coach Dusko Vujosevic way back in the 1988 Final Four. You were a player then, him a young coach. What do you remember about him then?
"Partizan in the old days was also a very good, strong team. I remember that for us it was a big, strong opponent. In those days, they had great talent, too, like they have now. I remember Dusko working with big players then and I respect him for that. That was a young team, just like he has now. But now he has a lot of experience to handle anything."
What would it mean to you to lift the Euroleague trophy as a coach with Olympiacos?
"It is always the goal of Olympiacos to play the best opponents and to try to be better than they are. I don't think we built a team that wants to win a trophy just because it happens. We want to arrive to the top because we are better than the others. Until now, we are trying a lot and improving, but we want to continue improving. I have a lot of respect for our opponents. I think the key to arrive to the top is to be humble, to have respect and to try hard."