A joyful noise on the part of young patients and Euroleague Basketball stars filled the largest children's hospital in Greece on Thursday morning during the first official act of the 2007 Final Four. The visit to Agia Sophia Hospital in Athens by two stars from each Final Four team not only tipped off one of the biggest weekends in world sports, but also marked the start of Euroleague Basketball's cooperation with UNICEF's international "Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS" campaign. The arrival of some of the tallest men they had ever seen proved good cause for lots of smiles among dozens of children who are patients at the hospital. Many came down from their hospital rooms to be showered with gifts at a reception in the hospital lobby. Others who were unable to leave their hospital beds were then visited in their rooms by Dimos Dikoudis and Robertas Javtokas of Panathinaikos, Matjaz Smodis and David Andersen of CSKA Moscow, Luis Scola and Pablo Prigioni of Tau Ceramica, and Marcus Brown and Berni Rodriguez of Unicaja. The players were joined by Euroleague Basketball CEO Jordi Bertomeu and UNICEF Greece president Lambros Kanellopoulos throughout the visit. From the most famous player to the busiest executive, the visit proved fun and inspirational, although 7-year-old pneumonia patient Stavroula Papageorgeiou spoke for everyone when she said: "It made me feel very special."
Bertomeu addressed those on hand by expressing his gratitude that Euroleague Basketball was able to make the visit to Agia Sophia Hospital a starting point for the Final Four festivities and a launching pad for the new partnersip with UNICEF. "To be able to open the Final Four with this event is very special for us," Bertomeu said. "We are happy to have the opportunity to be close to these special kids and to have a chance to give back, together with the players and the teams, some of the hospitality we are receiving during our stay in the city. We are proud to be here today, even for a short time, and I want to thank both UNICEF and Agia Sophia Hospital for this opportunity."
"These athletes express and service the same high values that UNICEF does," Mr. Kanellopoulos said.
If anyone was happier with the visit than the kids at Agia Sophia Hospital, it had to be the players.
"When I first heard about the visit, I was happy and wanted to go," Dikoudis said during the visit. "It's great to have a chance to put a smile on these kids faces and to give them some gifts."
The hour spent at the hospital proved beneficial to all. While the children were the main benefactors, the kindness and warmth displayed by the players touched the hearts of the children's parents as well, while many of the nurses also took the opportunity to greet and take photos with the Euroleague stars.
"It's always good to come see kids and give back any way you can," Unicaja's Brown said. "We're like their dream team. We're real to them. A lot of these kids are basketball or soccer fans, so to get a chance to see us up close, we give them hope to get better."
Even though Brown, an American, was unable to speak to the Greek children, they were able to communicate just fine.
"Joy is universal," he said. "Their smiles are universal."