Vassilis Spanoulis, Olympiacos Piraeus

May 23, 2012 by Frank Lawlor, Print
Vassilis Spanoulis, Olympiacos Piraeus
Six months ago, fans outside of Greece would have recognized few of the Olympiacos players who were not named Vassilis Spanoulis. Now that they are all Turkish Airlines Euroleague champions together, it might be said that no team in recent memory had such a clear and present leader as Olympiacos did this season in Spanoulis, who was named Final Four MVP. It's not just that he played 30% more than any of the other Reds, took almost twice as many shots and dished three times as many assists. By having the ball in his hands almost constantly, Spanoulis took all the responsibility and risks that allowed a young team to grow without pressure. While so many new and young faces were working hard in practice to come together and improve, Spanoulis had their backs in the games, putting the pressure on himself so they could learn. It was not easy, either. Olympiacos barely scraped through to the Top 16, but once there, the leadership that Spanoulis invested started to pay off handsomely. In the final, those players whose names few people knew months before led the comeback. And then they got the ball to Spanoulis for the last, decisive moments of what ended as a miracle season for Olympiacos. "I cannot say we were the best team from the start of the season," Spanoulis told "But for sure we were the team that improved the most, maybe more than any team in the history of the Euroleague, if you look from the beginning to the end of the season."

Many people still can't believe what happened in the final. What about you? Does it seem a little unbelievable?

"It's hard to believe that we won the Euroleague, yes. Sometimes, people stop me in the street now, they congratulate me for being Euroleague champions, but I don't think I believe it yet. We deserved it, for sure. But it's very difficult for such a new team with so many young guys to be on top of Europe. It's something unbelievable and a lot of credit belongs to everyone. We never quit in the season or in that game. We believed, we fought and we played great defense. I think that in the end, that's what gave us the title, our defense. That was most important, the defense we played the last three months."

Go back to last summer. You had a coaching change, so many new players. How did you understand all these changes? What were you thinking at that time?

"Our presidents and our coaches said that we would go step by step, and that's what we did. We didn't make any goals. We didn't choose any big targets. We just said that we want to go step by step. We tried to improve, to play nice basketball and to enjoy ourselves, and at the end of the day, see what we are able to do. This was a good approach because there was never any pressure put on this young, new team, perhaps the youngest in the Euroleague. Some moments were very difficult, for sure. Nothing was easy. But we succeeded in creating a very strong character and chemistry, because from the beginning of the season we were playing must-win finals to get to the Top 16 even, with wins against Bilbao, Caja Laboral, Cantu and Nancy. We got tough playing those games."

You believed in the team's possibilities long before most people. When did you start to think that the team could make the Final Four?

"When we won the fourth game of the Top 16 against Efes in Turkey, I started to believe, myself, that something good can happen this year. We never talked big during the whole season or tried to say something more about our chances. But inside each of us, we worked hard, knowing that if we did that, we could do something good and could change a lot for the team. We believed in ourselves through the difficult times and must-win situations early in the season. That created character and confidence that showed later, in more and more crucial games."

What happened behind the scenes as far as doing the work to become a solid team?

"Coach Ivkovic did a great job, first, in sharing the roles on the team. And then everyone of the players accepted his role and was happy. This is very important for any team. We also worked a lot of hours in the gym, as a team and individually. This is most important: that everyone understood his role and worked in a way to do it correctly. No more or less. That was key, and that our coach was very clear and honest with everybody."

After winning the semifinal against Barcelona, you used the word maturity. Did you before playing Barcelona that the team was mature enough?

"This team surprised everybody with the new things that happened every time we went on the court. Against Barcelona, we never expected to beat them in a game played in their style, with a low number of possessions, set offenses, low scoring. We knew it wasn't our best style, so in the end, we surprised even ourselves winning that way. But the truth is we gave something new and learned new things about ourselves every time we played. Beating that Barcelona team at their own game plan says a lot. So does doing it with a lot of new guys at their first Final Four. Usually, guys like that need to run, show energy and passion to win. Instead, we won playing Barcelona's slower style. It usually takes years for a team to learn to win big games with a set offense. This team matured in a matter of weeks. It deserves a lot of credit for that."

In the final, down 19 late in the third quarter, there was a timeout, right before the comeback. Do you remember what was said in that timeout?

"Well, first, Coach Ivkovic replaced me and Kostas Papanikolaou, I think, with Kostas Sloukas and Marko Keselj. And then just told everyone to keep fighting and keep our winning spirit, because there was a lot of game left to play. We were together with the idea of doing our best until we saw what the end result would be."

At that moment, only you, Pero Antic and Papanikolaou had scored any points. And none of you were on the floor. How could the team have had the confidence to come back?

"That's something I didn't realize that in that moment. With the game in progress, you don't realize who scored and who didn't. Afterwards, people talked about it, but what can I say? It happened. A game can have a lot of options or a few. You can't predict what might happen. What's important is that the team wasn't worried about that. Because after that, everyone started scoring. We knew that we didn't have anything to lose playing against a great CSKA team. It was the best team all year, with great players, a big budget. They were the big favorite. But when we started playing great defense and hitting shots, it turned the momentum and the psychology of the game to our side."

What were you thinking on the bench while watching the young guys make that 14-0 run?

"I felt proud about them because their improvement all during the year was unbelievable. To see them give everything on the floor and fight like that showed that we were a real team that never quits. It was everybody for the team, and that is the only way to win titles. You can't do it with three or four players, you need 12 players, 15 players, everybody. In big games, other teams work to stop some players, so everyone has to be prepared to step up, and we did that. We showed what big teams have: character."

Do you believe this was a team of destiny?

"I cannot say we were the best team from the start of the season. But for sure we were the team that improved the most, maybe more than any team in the history of the Euroleague, if you look from the beginning to the end of the season. In the beginning, not a lot of people believed in us, and that was extra motivation to work hard and prove that we could do big things."

Do you believe that in the final you played in one of the best basketball games in history?

"I think it was one of the most exciting finals ever. In the beginning, it was tight, but then after CSKA went up big, we came back, Siska missed the free throws and we made the right play at the end. For anyone who loves basketball, I am sure they were happy to see such an exciting game in the final."

Were you always looking for this opportunity to truly lead a team to the top, like you did with Olympiacos this year?

"In my career, I am always looking for motivation, for something that can make me a better player. This is why we play basketball: because we love it and want to succeed in it. The word motivation for me is very important in my basketball career and in life. For sure, it's nice to think of having achieved with all the team, the coaches and the fans together this big thing for Olympiacos. But with goals and targets, as soon as something is achieved, you look for the next one. Basketball never stops. What counts is the present. Now, after we are Euroleague champions, every team will be coming after us, trying to beat us. That gives me extra motivation, because like I said, after one target ends, I am always looking for a new one in my career."

And what is the next target in the Euroleague?

"If this team keeps its core, I can see this team making many Final Fours, because it's a team that is new, young and thirsty. Everybody here wants to stay on the highest level. We fit together good. The chemistry is right. And when you win something like the Euroleague, your confidence and psychology go much higher, to a level we didn't dream of before this."