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Thursday, August 15, 2002

Sports

A Greek Bearing Gifts for the Philadelphia 76ers?


As the practice ended, the media were ushered downstairs and assembled on the side of the court. What followed illustrates the extraordinarily professional and well-organized interaction between the media and the 76ers. The press corps waited dutifully beyond the sideline for the coaches and trainers to supervise the players’ winding-down, stretching exercises. Nearby, the team’s communications staff set up a table and chairs for coach Larry Brown and general manager Billy King’s much-anticipated comments on Iverson. The 50 or so media members bided their time, TV cameras hoisted on shoulders, microphones at the ready – no questions were shouted out, no one dreamed of crossing over the sideline that divided team and media.

Finally, the coach and general manger exchanged a few words at center court and then strode purposefully toward the table beyond the sideline. Stung into action, the media swarmed around them, flashlights popping and video cameras whirring. Everyone knew the comments on Iverson would be guarded and pro forma, but with the fourth largest media market in the country clamoring for news, the terse remarks about the franchise standing by its star player were disproportionately appreciated.

Rentzias, meanwhile, eyed the media swirl warily, seated on the other side of the court. For the moment, he had an easier job. He was providing answers to questions put to him by fans via the team’s Website to a 76ers staff member. One fan wanted to know why he had turned to basketball in a country where soccer was predominant. “I am a member of the generation of 1987,” he answered, a reference to the year the Greek national team won the European Championship by defeating the Soviet Union in the final. Back in 1987, Efthimios Rentzias was 11 years old and growing up in Trikala, a town of just under 140,000 inhabitants in central Greece. One of Trikala’s most famous sons is Christos Papanikolaou, who held the world record in pole-vaulting from October 1970 to April 1972.

It was basketball that captured young Efthimis’s imagination, however, and, in the wake of Greece’s miracle on the court, he switched to the sport from soccer. In 1993, he made it to the big leagues when he moved from his local team Danaos to PAOK Thessaloniki. Two years later, he was named most valuable player in the Junior World Championship of 1995, playing for the Greek junior national team that beat the United States on the way to winning the tournament. In 1997, he moved from PAOK to FC Barcelona.

The 76ers coach and general manager concluded their laconic utterances on the Iverson case, and the media throng quickly crossed the court and surrounded the team’s Greek player. How did an accomplished 26-year-old player who had tasted success in Europe feel playing in a practice for young rookie players?, a reporter asked. Rentzias’s answer was true to the culture of most – not all – top Greek and European athletes; it conveyed a sense of self-effacing modesty less common among American athletes. “I am rookie,” Rentzias responded, “I have come here to learn.” Coach Larry Brown, he added, could teach him a great deal. Pressed about what he thought about the other players at the practice, the Greek player described them as “good,” a term that implies more praise in Greece than it does in the United States, where superlatives dominate the sports vocabulary.

Another NBA characteristic that Rentzias will have to get used to is a near obsession with individual statistics. In contrast, biographical information about a player in Europe will mention the achievements of the team first, with a player’s individual statistics following. These disparate yardsticks reflect differences in the way the game is played on the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean. As taught by its pioneers in the Old World, the Soviets and Yugoslavs, basketball European-style relies more on athleticism and team play, rather than on individualistic displays that can take on an in-your-face quality. Antonis Fotsis, the Greek player who spent the 2001-2002 season with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, told greekworks.com last December that the style of play is more individualized in the US compared to Europe. There was, he said, greater stress in the United States on opponents confronting each other “one on one” based on their own skills, with less reliance on teammates.

One of the questions fired at Rentzias focused on his individual statistics. A Philadelphia Daily News reporter asked him whether the coach at Barcelona kept him on the bench a little longer than a normal rest-time would warrant in order to keep “his numbers down” and therefore diminish his marketability at a time when his contract at Barcelona was up for renewal. Playing in the Spanish league and the European league for Barcelona last season, Rentzias averaged 9.2 points (61.6 percent from the field, 71.4 percent from the foul line) and 3.5 rebounds in 17.3 minutes per contest in 51 games. Taken aback by the logic as much as the phrasing of the question, Rentzias turned to a Greek bystander with an inquisitive expression on his face. Upon hearing the translation, he looked surprised and answered with a monosyllabic “No!”

While his shooting abilities are beyond doubt, the Greek player’s 3.5 rebounds in 17.3 minutes for Barcelona are not overwhelming by NBA standards. Offensive rebounding in Europe is less frequent than in the NBA, in which shorter-range shots can be claimed more easily by offensive players closing in on the basket. Nonetheless, Rentzias can step up his rebounding when needed, as he demonstrated last year in four game-winning performances for the Greek national team in the preliminaries of the Euro 2003 tournament. The Barcelona player averaged 18.5 points and 9.75 rebounds in 28.5 minutes per contest, one of which was a razor-thin, one-point victory against Israel in Tel Aviv. Rentzias was the top rebounder on the court in that game, as well as in a closely fought clash between Greece and Spain. He came away with 16 out of Greece’s total 34 rebounds and was the team’s second highest scorer against Spain and Israel.

There are even greater concerns about Rentzias’s ability to become acclimatized to the NBA style of basketball. The NBA game is faster-paced and more physical than in Europe, and Rentzias, who is no weakling at 6’11” and 254 pounds, will have to play a new brand of basketball. The same has applied to the many other recent European imports to the NBA. European basketball, while never an elitist sport, was more closely associated with a sporting culture that traced its origins to genteel gymnastic-style drills and instruction. For a long time, raw talent was legitimately showcased only in street soccer, not the gymnasium-bound game of basketball, which has never been a part of the hard-scrabble, inner-city culture in Europe that it has been for so long in the United States.

Following the team practices, Rentzias played for the 76ers in a week-long rookie tournament, Shaw’s Pro Summer League, in mid July at the University of Massachusetts. The big man from Trikala found the pace quicker and the game more physical than what he was used to, and he only got going in the last two games. The Greek player was the 76ers’ top scorer in a losing effort against the Boston Celtics, while, in the sixth and final game, he helped his team beat the New Jersey Nets by scoring 8 fourth-quarter points.

To be sure, European players have excelled in the NBA, a prime example being Pedrag “Peja” Stojakovic, who played alongside Rentzias at PAOK Thessaloniki on his way from Belgrade to the Sacramento Kings, where he has starred after a quiet first year of initiation into the world of the NBA. As far as the Greeks are concerned, Iakovos “Jake” Tsakalidis made a successful move from AEK Athens to the Phoenix Suns, but Antonis Fotsis is going back to Panathinaikos after spending most of last year sitting on the Memphis Grizzlies’ bench. Local basketball writers are unsure whether Rentzias will make it in Philadelphia, even if only as a back-up player. Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News called him “somewhat of a mystery guest” and Marc Narducci of The Philadelphia Inquirer described him as a “big question” following the rookie league. Only time will tell whether Rentzias can successfully repackage his game-winning skills to suit the NBA.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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