Zach Auguste, Panathinaikos: 'The Greek culture embraced me, open arms'

Nov 16, 2020 by Frank Lawlor, Print
Zach Auguste, Panathinaikos: 'The Greek culture embraced me, open arms'

For seven years starting at age five, Zach Elias Auguste would come home from school each day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his mother was still working, and spend afternoons and evenings with his great-grandmother, Vasiliki. She was already in her 70s and barely spoke English, so young Zach was treated to his first lessons in her native language, Greek.

"To me, she was speaking in Greek the whole time," he recalls. "It would just be repetitiveness. She'd just give me commands like, 'Do you want some water? Do you want to go do this or go shower? Go wash your hands or anything.' So, I just start picking up on it and the more and more I was around her, the more I picked it up."

Flash forward about two decades and Auguste, a live-wire big man now starting his second Turkish Airlines EuroLeague stint with Panathinaikos OPAP Athens, is rediscovering a big part of his heritage in the land of his great-grandmother. After four years at the University of Notre Dame, his pro career started with one season in Turkey before Panathinaikos signed him in 2017. It marked his first steps ever in Greece.

"When I finally got here, I'm like, wow, I'm so far from home but it's crazy because it felt like home because it just reminded me of my childhood," Auguste says.

During that childhood, Auguste not only learned to understand Greek from his family, but he also ate Greek food as a habit and attended a Greek church. All of that came flooding back to him in Athens.

"Hearing people speak Greek, seeing Greek food, being able to eat Greek food, having the experience and the culture here, it was just like it was... It was like a second home for me," he says. "So, it was such an easy transition. I didn't even miss home. Not at all. I just felt at home."

And unlike the vast majority of Americans, Auguste had been well aware from a young age of the great rivalry between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos Piraeus.

"That's something that surrounded our family, you know Greek basketball, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos," he said. "They go back such a long time and that rivalry is such thing that, when you talk about basketball, those are the two teams that people really talked about. Actually, my high school coach played in Greece for a while. Of course, he's Greek and he went to high school with my mom. So me coming here, it kind of closed the circle."

With a Haitian father and a Greek mother, Auguste stood out in Massachusetts more than for his height, which eventually reached 2.08 meters.

"I was really stuck in between both cultures, including my American culture. I was just getting a mix of all three," he says. "At first, it was a little bit confusing because, you know, I was different. Most Greeks are Caucasian, obviously. And for me, with an African American dad, it was different. But the Greek culture embraced me, open arms. The church was like a second family for me growing up, so it was a great experience."

Once arrived in Athens four years ago, Auguste would stick out even more, as an African-American who hit the ground speaking some Greek already.

"When I would be in the street or I'd just be talking to somebody, and then, you know, I might just say something Greek to them. And they'd be like, 'Hold on. You're Greek?' And I'd say, 'Yeah.' It changed the dynamic," he says.

After playing sparingly for 14 games of the 2016-17 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague with Panathinaikos, Auguste went back to Turkey for two seasons with Galatasaray before returning to the Greens this summer. One of his missions now is to find time to perfect his Greek.

"I can speak about, I'd say, 50 percent Greek. But at the same time, it's a little bit different because my great-grandmother came from a village," he says. "She spoke the dialect of Attica, which is like a village type of Greek, versus the city type. So, when I first came here in 2017, I'd try to speak a little bit and I'd be nervous because my Greek wouldn't be that of the cities.

"I'm getting a lot better, I'm getting better consistency. Hopefully, this year I can try to get fluent, as long as I can start studying and stuff. That's a goal of mine."

Now 27, and a recent first-time father, another goal of Auguste's is to bring his young family to Greece and continue playing there as long as he can.

"It has everything you need, honestly: the weather is nice, it has the islands, the beaches, everything. The food is unbelievable. I wouldn't have any problem being here as long as my career lasts," says. "I even tell my family that I wouldn't even mind retiring here."

One of the many tattoos that Auguste sports is a direct connection to his Greek heritage.

"It's my great-grandmother's name, Vasiliki," he explains. "She passed away about six, seven years ago now. She had a major impact. She pretty much was like a second mother to me. She helped raise me and had a great impact on my childhood, my raising, my morals, my everything. That's why I honored her by getting a tattoo."

When Auguste is running the floor or skying for dunks, that particular tattoo can't be seen because of where it's placed – under his jersey, right beneath his heart.