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Saturday, December 15, 2001

Sports

A Greek Grizzly: An Interview with Antonis Fotsis


It took just over 50 years, but it finally happened: On November 9, 2001, the first Greek-born player came on to the court to play in basketball’s premier professional league, the National Basketball Association (NBA). Twenty-year old Antonis Fotsis smiled as he recalled the moment three weeks later. “It was a little like being in a dream, it was a very good feeling” he said, “especially playing against the Los Angeles Lakers…but I knew such a thing could happen when I joined the Grizzlies this summer.”

Fotsis is matter-of-fact and modest. Several talented Greek soccer players have found the strictures of performing at a higher level abroad, let alone missing Greece’s nightlife, intolerable, and they’ve left their European clubs as a result. This young basketball player, however, is as determined as so many other Greek immigrants to do “what it takes” to succeed. He spoke of his move from Greece to the NBA not as a momentous event that has earned him a place in history, but simply as another step in a career dedicated to playing top-level basketball.

Fotsis had just finished the pre-game warm-up in Philadelphia, where his team, the Memphis Grizzlies, were going up against the mighty 76ers, the team the Lakers had to beat to win this year’s NBA finals. Being on the injured list, he has time to talk. The Grizzlies locker-room is not the best place to conduct an interview, however. A group of young players on a young team means there is a lot of good-natured banter, whereas other teams would have more tense, self-absorbed superstars. Teammate Grant Long hears Greek being spoken, so he leans his 6’9” frame over and asks teasingly, “What’s he sayin’ about me, what’s he sayin’?” Fotsis’s answer comes quickly: “I am telling him how I can dunk over you, man.” Long is not put off, but turns to me and asks, “Did Tony tell you about the shot I hit off him?”

As Long makes his way to the conditioning room, Fotsis remarks on how good an atmosphere he has found with the Grizzlies. There are no stars or sulking prima donnas; they are all “kala paidia.” Guard Brevin Knight, who would play a great game that day, looks up from tying his laces and picks up the ragging routine from across the room. But Shane Battier, the Duke University All-American and another Grizzlies rookie, interrupts him. Looking over at Fotsis, Battier remarks that the young Greek “has not spoken as much since he came here.” Fotsis confirms that this is his first locker-room interview conducted in Greek since he entered the NBA.

Fotsis has not been overwhelmed by media attention because he is the youngest and least experienced of several first-year rookies drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies this summer. He has not played very much. In his debut in Los Angeles he was on the court for twelve minutes, scoring four points and grabbing two rebounds. Since then he has been on the injured list. Journalists who cover his team regularly say that the young Greek is considered a “project,” which is basketball talk meaning that he is being groomed for more action next season. Standing tall at 6’10”, weighing about 220 pounds, and possessing first-rate dribbling and shooting abilities, the NBA’s first Greek-born player is “for real.”

The man who made the decision to draft Fotsis into the Grizzlies is the team’s coach, Sidney Lowe. If anyone thinks that NBA coaches are aloof and always pressed for time, they should talk to this former NBA player, who is currently in his second year at the Grizzlies’ helm. He was just as relaxed as his players before the game in Philadelphia, and found time to reflect thoughtfully on his young Greek protégé. “He is a great kid, he is fun to work with, he has a very good shot” said Lowe. “He is developing…and I am very happy with him,” he added.

Lowe took the extraordinary step this summer of signing not one but two European players, the other one being Spaniard Pau Gasol, who played for Barcelona and is a year older and more advanced in his career than his Greek teammate. European players are no longer a novelty in the NBA, as there are now almost 40 on the rosters of NBA teams. Headed by the legendary Lithuanian, Arvydas Sabonis, who just retired, many Europeans have made an impact across the Atlantic.

Sabonis came over to play for the Portland Trailblazers in his prime, but now NBA coaches like Lowe feel confident enough to draft young players. The Memphis coach believes that they bring first-rate shooting skills, instinctive playing qualities, and a serious work ethic. There are, of course, problems of adjusting to different playing styles and learning about the particular characteristics of players that they will come up against for the first time. US-based players know each other’s styles from having played against each other at the college or high-school level. “The game here is more fast-paced,” the Memphis coach explains, “there is more athleticism in the NBA.” Yet Lowe is confident that these obstacles can be overcome with hard work. Within a couple of hours, Gasol’s game-winning performance against Philadelphia would prove his coach’s point.

Fotsis is one of several players who played basketball in Greece before moving to the NBA. Yugoslav Pedrag Stojakovic is one of the stars of the Sacramento Kings. Prior to moving to California, “Peja” plied his trade in Thessaloniki. While playing with PAOK, he was named Most Valuable Player of the Greek basketball league during the 1997-98 season. His compatriot, Zeljko Rebraca, moved this year to the Detroit Pistons after two impressive seasons with Greek basketball powerhouse Panathinaikos. Iakovos “Big Jake” Tsakalidis, the 7’2” Georgian-born naturalized Greek who played for AEK Athens joined the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2000. Tsakalidis had an extremely good first year in the NBA, and this year he has outplayed NBA giants such as Shaquille O’Neill and Karl Malone.

Antonis Fotsis retains the distinction of being the first Greek-born player in the NBA, however. He began his career with Ilisiakos, an Athens club, and then moved across town to star-studded Panathinaikos. That was a big change, he says, but nothing compared to entering the 2001 NBA draft.

The young Panathinaikos star did not travel to New York’s Madison Square Garden for the draft last June; instead, he and his family gathered at a neighbor’s shop in the Ilisia quarter of Athens that was equipped with satellite TV. They had a long wait; because of the difference in time, it was after six o’clock in the morning when they finally saw Fotsis chosen as the forty-eighth overall pick, selected by the Vancouver Grizzlies, who were then about to move south and become the Memphis Grizzlies.

Greek sportswriters believe that Fotsis should have been picked much earlier than forty-eighth, but all that matters to the player is the opportunity to make a career in the NBA. He has worked hard for this moment, having participated in several pre-draft “camps” and tournaments in the US at which prospective professionals showcase their skills under the critical gaze of experienced scouts. Grizzlies general manager Billy Knight was quoted as saying last summer that the team had had Fotsis on their radar screen since they saw him play in the Nike Hoop Summit tournament in 1998. Three years later, they were calling on him to show them what he could do – and, within days, the young Greek had flown across the Atlantic and joined the Grizzlies’ pre-season training program.

Being drafted by a team is only the beginning. The summer was tough, Fotsis recalls, with hard training and travel to mini-tournaments. The purpose of all that was for Coach Lowe to decide on the players he would include in his final roster. There were several rounds of cuts, but Fotsis survived and signed a contract. Although he took a pay cut in moving from Panathinaikos to the Grizzlies, Fotsis also took an important step toward fulfilling his dream of playing in the world’s supreme basketball league.

As he talks about his five months in the NBA, Fotsis echoes many of his coach’s points about the differences between the American and European games. He also adds that, overall, the style of play is more individualized in the US compared to Europe. There is great stress on opponents confronting each other “one on one” based on their own skills, rather than on turning to their teammates. This is yet another aspect of his game that the former Panathinaikos star will have to develop.

Another Old World habit that does not exist in the US is for teams to get together beyond game and practice times for meals or other kinds of gatherings. This could be a problem for foreign newcomers. There is no time for Fotsis to feel lonely, however, as his parents and girlfriend have moved to Memphis to help see him through this first year in a foreign country.

Fotsis misses Greece, but he is too focused on learning NBA-style basketball to think too much about the homeland. “I’ll go back for a summer vacation,” he says, “but until then I have to work hard.“ He is determined to succeed in adapting and doing well in his new environment. His may be a rarified atmosphere compared to what most other Greeks abroad experience but the demands are similar. And to be sure, the first Greek-born player in the NBA is determined to pursue his hoop dreams with the type of strong work ethic that typifies all first-generation immigrants.

2001-2 Season Statistics
  Rebounds Per Game  
G GS MPG FGM-A FG% 3PM-A 3P% FTM-A FT% OFF DEF TOT APG SPG BPG TO PF PPG
2 0 9.5 4-11 .364 0-3 .000 0-0 .000 1.50 .50 2.00 .0 .50 .00 .00 .00 4.0

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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