Theodoros Papaloukas, Euroleague icon

Mar 10, 2014 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Theo PapaloukasOn his ID you can see that he was born on May 8, 1977 in the New Psychiko neighborhood of Athens, however his basketball birthday was June 14, 1987. That day, Theo Papaloukas was, as all of Greece, stuck to the television screen watching the EuroBasket final played at Peace and Friendship Stadium in Piraeus. Greece beat the USSR by 103-101 after overtime with 40 points by Nikos Galis. After that historic win, the streets of Athens turned into a huge party. A young Papaloukas, 10 years old, was among the hundreds of thousands of eurphoric fans, together with his younger brother Costas. The direct consequence of that was: "I am going to play basketball."

The fact that his parents' home was only 20 meters away from the Ethnikkos Ellinorosson court made things easier. That's where the career of a future Greek and European superstar started. Witnesses from those days say that even then, Papaloukas had more fun making assists than scoring points. That generosity would become his trademark during a brilliant career. His progress was immense and he kept going through categories despite his one physical flaw: he was too skinny. The next step was signing for Abelokipi, where in the 1995-96 season he played 9 games and scored his first 9 points in the Greek League. In his second season, now in the Greek second division, he played many minutes as small forward, which completed his technical formation. In fact, when he was 20 years old and signed for Dafni, he was already a complete player capable of playing point guard, shooting guard and small forward.

Assists were always his best quality, but he had many more: speed, lightning-fast hands which allowed him to make many steals, fastbreaks, penetrations and even shooting and rebounds. After a year in Dafni, Papaloukas signed for Panionios where he played for two seasons. In the second one, 2000-01, his coach was Slobodan Subotic, who put a lot of trust in him and gave him a lot of playing time. Papaloukas ended the season with 14.5 points, 5.5 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Olympiacos noticed his qualities and signed him for the 2001-02 season. It was his rookie season in the Euroleague and he finished it with 8.4 points, 4 assists and 2.9 steals per game, but due to a shock overtime home loss to previously winless Union Olimpija in the fifth game of the Top 16, it was eternal archrival Panathinaikos who made and won that year's Final Four. Papaloukas didn't stay in Piraeus however; Dusan Ivkovic was starting a bug project in CSKA Moscow and since he was a true expert on Greek basketball, he asked his new club to sign Papaloukas, a key player in his plan.

Eight Final Fours in a row

If he failed to make his first shot at a Final Four a reality, Papaloukas became a familiar face at the event after that, with eight straight appearances, tying a record with his long-time back-court mate, J.R. Holden! In their first three seasons with CSKA Moscow, they made the Final Four all three times, but in each of them got stuck in the semis: against Barcelona in 2003, against Maccabi in 2004 and against Tau Ceramica in 2005, which hurt the most as that Final Four was played in Moscow.

Finally, in his fifth attempt, Papaloukas went the whole way. In the 2005-06 season, with Ettore Messina on the bench, CSKA Moscow won the Euroleague title again after 35 years by defeating Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final by 73-69 at the Sazka Arena in Prague. Papaloukas shined in the game with his 18 points and 7 assists. He was also chosen as Final Four MVP as his average in the tourney was 18.5 points, way above his season average. However, in an interview published on the day of his birthday, May 8 of 2006, Papaloukas told Frank Lawlor:

"I like these kinds of games, the big games. I enjoy playing them, I play hard and I am mentally ready. I also follow a training system that prepares my body to be ready, and not tired, at this time of the season. All these years and all the experience helped me to achieve this now."

In the same interview, Papaloukas showed another one of his sides: modesty.

"I was never considered a first-class player when I was young. I was a good player, but there were always players better than me on my teams. That situation always gave me motivation to work hard to try to make it to the top. But I also think I have been lucky in life. I feel blessed, really. Sometimes you need someone to help you, and I have had people helping me. Once you achieve your goals, you realize how hard they really were to achieve. To dream them is one thing, it's OK and it's fun. But when you succeed is when you realize how tough it really was."

MVP off the bench

On May 5, 2 The following year, in his native city, CSKA lost the title game against Panathinaikos, 91-93, in one of the greatest finals ever played, an electric night of back-and-forth brilliance between the dominant teams of the moment. The night before that loss, however, something unique in basketball history happened as Papaloukas was voted MVP for the Euroleague season. He had started only three Euroleague games that season and just four of 134 in a CSKA uniform until that night. He would only start three more Euroleague games in six more seasons after that.

As such, Papaloukas remains the only career substitute to be voted MVP of an elite competition like the Euroleague. Some might have wondered why, when his averages that season were a more than solid but not spectacular 9.8 points, 5.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals. They were not wondering 24 hours later, however, as Papaloukas had a brilliant game on the biggest stage of all: 23 points and 8 assists while missing just 2 shots - a two-pointer and free throw - as a visiting player on one of the hottest courts in history, with 18,500 Panathinaikos fans making more noise than you could imagine. His performance index rating in that game, the same 28 he had while being named MVP the year before, is the second-best by a losing player in a title game, behind only Manu Ginobili of Kinder Bologna in 2002.

One year later, however, CSKA and Papaloukas got their title back. As the Euroleague celebrated the 50 Years of European competitions in Madrid, the climbed to the top of the podium again with a 91-77 win in the title game over Maccabi, with 12 points and 4 assists by Theo. Together, they had come one three-point shot short of three Euroleague titles in a row.

Homeward bound

After seven great seasons in CSKA, Papaloukas returned to Greece and Olympiacos, but he didn't drop the habit of being in the Final Four. In Berlin 2009, Panathinaikos was better in the semis, while in Paris 2010, Barça was better in the title game. Eventually, Papaloukas missed his date with the Final Four in Barcelona in 2011 because Olympiacos fell in the playoffs to Montepaschi Siena by 1-3 after having won the first game by 89-41. That's basketball...

If at the beginning of his career he had to play in humble teams, at the peak of his career he only wore the jersey of the great teams. To start the 2011-12 season he played with Maccabi Tel Aviv and won the Israeli League, Cup and the Adriatic League, but Maccabi was eliminated in the playoffs by Panathinaikos in a dramatic series that ended 3-2 for the Greens and 86-85 in the fifth game.

Semi-retired, Papaloukas didn't start the 2012-13 season, but when in mid-December he got the call from "his" CSKA Moscow, he didn't hesitate. He helped the team reach the London Final Four, but in the semifinals, they fell to his other club, Olympiacos, and he played, probably, his worst game in the Euroleague. CSKA Moscow lost 52-69 while Papaloukas went scoreless in 11 minutes and probably got a negative index rating, -4, for the only time in his career.

The duel against Real Madrid for third place, 74-73, was the last important game in the long and brilliant career of Theo Papaloukas. After those last 40 minutes as an active player, Papaloukas said:

"I am fortunate because my career started in a team from the Athens regional league, Ethnikos Ellinoroson, and I have been able to live all the basketball experiences with the Greek national team, CSKA, Olympiacos and Maccabi. A career like that is a blessing and a privilege for any player. It is a very emotional moment for me. I try to control myself and it's not easy. My family is here with me. It was a beautiful moment and I am happy it ended up with a win."

Sasha Djordjevic, Serbia's current coach and a rival of Papaloukas in the past, doesn't hide his admiration:

"He was a great player in all senses of the word. What I liked the most from him was his disposition of starting the games on the bench. During the first 5 or 6 minutes he was always observing how the game developed, memorized the weak spots of the opponent and when he stepped on court he was ready for his showcase. His way of reading the games was unbelievable."

Unforgettable triumph in Belgrade

When he took the streets of Athens at 10 years old to celebrate Greece's title, the last thing that could have crossed his mind was that he would repeat the feat in EuroBasket 2005 with a win in Belgrade. In the title game, Greece defeated the Germany of Dirk Nowitzki by 78-62, with a great team effort, but the key man was Papaloukas: 22 points with almost perfect shooting (6 of 10 twos, 3 of 4 threes and 1 of 2 free throws), 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals but only 1 turnover. He played 34 minutes, like Nikos Zisis, and 11 more than the next two players, Nikos Hatzivrettas and Michalis Kakiouzis. The win was in the hands of the guards, especially Papaloukas. Some 18,900 fans in the stands gave a standing ovation to Nowitzki when, with a few minutes remaining, he left the court as best scorer (26.1 per game), but Papaloukas also deserved the glory and the great Greek team with Spanoulis, Zisis, Bourousis, Vassilopoulos, Fotsis, Hatzivrettas, Tsartsaris, Diamatidis, Papadopoulos and Kakiouzis with Panagiotis Giannakis at the helm. The all-tournament team was formed by Diamantidis, Papaloukas, Juan Carlos Navarro, Boris Diaw and Nowitzki.

One year later, the golden generation of Greece also made it to the World Championship title game but fell big to a great Spain with a painful loss, 47-70. At the end of the year, FIBA Europe chose its Player of the Year: Theo Papaloukas. After him, Pau Gasol, Nowitzki, Juan Carlos Navarro, Tony Parker... What a lineup!

Euroleague records

I was fortunate enough to follow Papaloukas for many years. I saw him in all his Final Fours, in the EuroBaskets of 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007, the Olympic Games of 2004 and many Euroleague games. I was always fascinated by his way of playing: everything he did looked easy, natural, logical. He was a very smart player and his ideas were as fast as his passes. His shooting was lethal for the rivals, his penetrations with change of directions, unstoppable.

Last week Juan Carlos Navarro matched Papaloukas with most games played in the Euroleague this century, with 252. Starting this week, Navarro will be the sole leader, but Papaloukas still holds several records in the competition. He is still first in assists with 977, ahead of Dimitris Diamantidis (938) while in steals they have already switched places: Diamantidis leads with 377 and Papaloukas is second with 335. He is eighth in accumulated index rating, seventh in minutes played. His personal highs are a performance index rating of 29 against Montepaschi in 2005, 23 points against Panathinaikos in 2007, 14 assists against Montepaschi in 2005... but above it all something remains that cannot be measured: the image of a truly great player.

Of course, the All-Decade Team chosen by the Euroleague could not be imagined without Theo Papaloukas. He is there alongside Dejan Bodiroga, Dimitris Diamantidis, J.R. Holden, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Trajan Langdon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Anthony Parker, Ramunas Siskauskas and Nikola Vujcic. All of them featured, in the past or in the future, in this series about great players of the past.