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Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Sports

A Greek Time-Out for Tsakalidis?


Is Greek basketball turning its back on Iakovos “Jake” Tsakalidis of the Phoenix Suns? And can it afford to waste the talents of the first Greek citizen ever to play in the NBA? Without him in the lineup, Greece was eliminated early in the European Basketball Championships held in Istanbul in August 2001. Greek basketball boss Georgios Vasilakopoulos indicated that Tsakalidis would be playing again for Greece as he’s done in the past, but, speaking in Philadelphia six months later, Tsakalidis said he had not heard a word from the Greek national team.

Tsakalidis was happy to talk about Greek basketball as he prepared to go out on the court to face the Philadelphia 76ers in a meaningless end-of-season game. The Phoenix Suns would not be making the playoffs this year. The team had undergone many changes in the past few months, he said, and it needed time to jell. Tsakalidis was more than pleased with his progress, however, in what was his sophomore year in the NBA. When he came from AEK Athens to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2000, it seemed to be a risky move for the Suns. While more and more European players are joining the NBA and doing well, there is always a period of adjustment to the faster-paced and more physical game practiced in the United States.

The role that Tsakalidis plays on the team as the center, the big man in the middle, is one that is very difficult to assess in terms of a player’s potential in the NBA. The sheer size of young centers has often led to what sports reporters describe as “overhype” when the teams draft the young recruits every summer. There is a much longer list of young centers failing than there is of success stories, but the Colangelo family, which own the Suns, was smart enough to recognize Tsakalidis’s potential.

Tsakalidis, known as “Big Jake,” is certainly not lacking in size or bulk: he stands 7’2” tall and weighs 285 lbs. He may be tall, but he is certainly not thin or narrow-shouldered. Tsakalidis started weight training soon after he arrived in Greece from Russia as a teenager in 1995. Moreover, he keeps it up, and this summer he says he will be spending a lot of time in the weight room.

A center also needs speed and quick hands for rebounding and shot-blocking, and Tsakalidis had to prove to his coaches in Phoenix that he possessed those attributes. He did. By the middle of his rookie 2000-01 season, he was the starter for a Suns team that made it to the playoffs only to be eliminated by the eventual champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.

After that, one would have thought that Tsakalidis’s return to the Greek national team for Eurobasket 2001 would have been a no-brainer. The national side is badly in need of rediscovering its winning ways. Back in 1987, the team won the European championship and heralded a renaissance of a sport that lived long in the shadow of soccer, the people’s game in Greece. Alas, what followed was a string of disappointing results, however. Club teams have done very well; indeed, Panathinaikos recently won another European club championship. But club teams are stocked with foreign players, so their success does not yield the trickle-down results of a local neighborhood boy’s trajectory to fame and fortune.

Since the national team is the flagship of Greek basketball, its success can sustain the game’s popularity, overshadowing the frequent club-level shenanigans and outbursts of hooliganism. But the flagship has been letting in a lot of water lately, and attendance at basketball games has declined steadily over the past years. That should have been all the more reason, one would think, to ensure that the one Greek with NBA experience was in the lineup in Istanbul in August of 2001. In fact, former team coach Kostas Petropoulos met with Tsakalidis early that year, and they agreed on a training schedule and even on the player’s date of arrival in Athens to join the team. Yet there was one little detail that remained unresolved: Tsakalidis’s military service.

Even though Tsakalidis was born in the Georgian soviet republic, once he acquired Greek citizenship through his mother’s ancestry, he also acquired the obligation to serve in the Greek military. This is a must for all Greek males, although deferments can be obtained and those with the right connections serve only nominally. Greeks living abroad who are liable to be drafted upon their return can obtain permission to visit Greece for several weeks and then leave again without being stopped at the airport. The Phoenix Suns quite rightly did not want Big Jake traveling to Greece to train with only a flimsy 15-day permit protecting him from being kept to serve in his ancestral motherland’s military. Another concern was the hostile attitude of his former club, AEK Athens, which had gone to court unsuccessfully to block his move to the Suns.

Greece went to Eurobasket 2001 without the Suns’ center, therefore, and paid dearly for it, ending up in ninth place overall. After victories against Bosnia and Italy, and a loss to Russia, the Greek team had to beat Germany to make it into the quarterfinals. Astonishingly, a spectacular 15-0 lead evaporated as Germany fought back and took the lead in the second half and eventually won. Dirk Nowitzki, who plays for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, led Germany – he is presumably unencumbered by military obligations.

Germany did not make it to the final, losing the third-place match to Spain, led by Pau Gasol, who had just moved from Barcelona to the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. The final was played between Yugoslavia and Turkey. The two finalists also featured NBA stars in their starting lineups, Peja Stojakovic and Hidayet Turkoglu. Funny, how all these national teams know how to use their NBA stars.

Tsakalidis is modest enough not to claim that his presence would have made the difference on that night in Istanbul. But when one studies that game, one sees that, aside from Nowitzki’s outside shooting, the Germans grabbed a disproportionate number of offensive rebounds. Now, the low post – the area under the basket – is Big Jake territory, and that in itself is proof enough that he could have made the difference. Indeed, the Greek center proved his world-class defensive skills last March, when he went up against none other than the oversized and formidable Shaquille O’Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers. The result was an emphatic Suns win. Tsakalidis had a “double-double” – double figures in both points, 19, and rebounds, 10 – and he did an excellent defensive job on the normally unstoppable O’Neal.

Asked about that game a few days later, Tsakalidis was characteristically understated, saying he liked playing against O’Neal because it meant he could go into the match-up strongly, “dynata,” without interruptions from the referees. Iakovos also thought that starting well against his famous opponent enabled him to get into a groove and keep O’Neal away from the basket. Tsakalidis’s teammates were more effusive: “Jake was definitely the MVP [Most Valuable Player] of the game,” Suns star Stephon Marbury told the Suns’ website. “He just dominated and he played extremely well against what I think is the best player in the NBA. You have to give him all the respect tonight.”

Is anyone listening in Greece? They had better hurry up and do something because a rift is growing between the player and the Greek basketball federation. Big Jake is demanding that a comprehensive solution be found to the issue of military service. “You know, a 15-day permit to stay in Greece is not enough,” Tsakalidis said a few days after his MVP performance against the Lakers. “All they are interested in is having me train and play for the team, but I would like to spend more time in Greece. It is my second country (‘patrida’). I would even like a few days to see friends and vacation there, but I cannot, because all [the federation] is interested in is for me to play basketball.”

There is something ironic listening to this blond-haired, Georgian-born gentle giant speaking fluently in Greek about how much he wants to spend time in Greece. Part of the reason the federation has not contacted him, one suspects, is that many in the Greek basketball world do not want him displacing their own players who play for Greek teams. To that we must add his status as foreign-born, always a disadvantage in a country that has an ambiguous relationship to its diaspora. The accomplishments, big and small, of the Europeans who play in the NBA receive great coverage in their home countries, but that is not the case with Tsakalidis. The same applies to long-time world tennis champion Pete Sampras, who has never really been celebrated as a Greek hero. (And to think that Sampras traces his ancestry to the Peloponnese, the core of Greece, rather than a place such as Georgia, situated in the distant Trans-Caucasus. That region was, and still is, home to thousands of Black Sea Greeks, but, in the minds of Greece’s basketball bosses, it is apparently as far away as Phoenix, Arizona.)

Coming off the court in Philadelphia where he matched up successfully against the 76ers Dikembe Mutombo, one of the most experienced centers in the NBA, Iakovos Tsakalidis adds a final thought to his non-relationship with the Greek national team. “I’ll still wait for a phone call because I would like to go and play with the team this summer. I know very well that everything gets done at the last minute in Greece….”

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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