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Friday, January 03, 2003

Sports

No Headache for Jake


A Greek basketball summit meeting of sorts took place in Philadelphia when the Phoenix Suns arrived to play the 76ers last month. These are the two NBA teams with Greek players on their rosters. Alas, the two Greeks did not play against each other and there was no courtside photo-op since Efthimios Rentzias was on the injured list because of lower back strain. Philadelphia’s Greek player did have a meaningful exchange with Phoenix’s Iakovos “Jake” Tsakalidis, however, in a long conversation on the evening before the game.

As he prepared for the game on the following night, Tsakalidis was typically matter-of-fact about his meeting with Rentzias. “I told him he should be patient and he should keep on working hard,” he said. The Sixers have some good, big players, and it is difficult to break into the starting line-up, Tsakalidis added, nodding toward a board in the visiting team’s locker room on which the coaches had diagrammed the plays the Suns would try on the Sixers during the game.

Now in his third year in the NBA, Tsakalidis has found that patience and hard work have applied in his case. He became a starter half-way through his rookie season; by the end of his second season, he was logging about 20 to 30 minutes each game, a respectable statistic for a big center. This season, Jake is still a starter but, in at least some games, is spending considerably less time on the court. When Tsakalidis has gotten the minutes this season, he has looked good. In a game against the Indiana Pacers, who are leading the Eastern Conference, he scored 13 points and grabbed 4 rebounds, while, against the Sacramento Kings, he scored 8 of his team’s first 10 points.

But he is not always getting the playing time that enabled him to play in 76 games and start 47 times last season. One reason is that a bulging disk in his spine is creating what the team’s medical shorthand describes as back problems. Another reason is that Frank Johnson, the Suns’s new coach is trying a new motion offense that involves a flexible attack that utilizes player movement, quick passing and cutting, and setting screens, with players often rotating in and out of different positions as the offense unfolds.

Azcentral.com’s basketball expert, John Gambadoro, is leading the chorus of voices criticizing Johnson. He wrote recently that it is the Suns’s star, Stephon Marbury, who wins games, not the motion offense, which actually cramps Marbury’s freedom on the court. “The motion offense is all about ball movement and finding the open man for a shot….Marbury is all about breaking down defenses, getting to the lane and either scoring or creating,” opined Gambadoro.

But, of course, it is Johnson, not Gambadoro, who coaches the team, and as long as Johnson favors the up-tempo game, Tsakalidis will be marginalized. The Georgian-born Greek has many strengths as a basketball player. His half-court game has improved considerably, he is defending better, and his scoring, rebounding, and assists are up from last season. Speed, however, is not one of his strong points. Indeed, virtually none of the big men who play the center position on NBA teams are known for their quickness up and down the court. Quite naturally, they are more suited to what is called the half-court game, which relies on a slower, more deliberate build-up that culminates in carefully executed set-plays.

Tsakalidis started in the game against Philadelphia, but was back on the bench by the middle of the first period. He came on a little before half-time and then sat for the entire second half. Coach Johnson did not put Tsakalidis back in even when the Greek player’s counterpart, Sixers’ center Todd McCulloch, went on a small scoring spree. Obviously, the coach believes that the best defense is a motion offense. The Suns did go on to win the game, 99-91.

Tsakalidis is philosophical about the uneven playing time he is receiving this season. He is not complaining, and says he will continue to work hard. “Den tha ktupiso to kefali mou ston toicho” (I will not hit my head against the wall), he adds, making his interlocutor pause for a moment, imagining the 285-pound, 7’ 2”, player going up against the walls of Philadelphia’s First Union Center arena.

Big Jake has always had a stoic, even-keeled approach to his career in the NBA. He has a first-generation-immigrant’s work ethic and does not express, publicly at least, any great expectations of being an instant success. He is eminently qualified to reflect this immigrant mentality as he has emigrated three times in his life: from Soviet Georgia to Russia as a youngster, then to Greece as a teenager, where he acquired Greek citizenship, and then at 21 to the United States after he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns.

Another reason for Tsakalidis’s calm is that in October, the Phoenix Suns exercised their option on his contract, which, in plain English, means that they extended his contract through at least the 2003-04 season. After that, the Suns have the right to match any offer Tsakalidis might receive as a restricted free agent. “Jake” has therefore gone beyond his initial three-year rookie contract and graduated to sophomore status. By the summer of 2004, he will be an attractive prospect for many teams. Typically, he’ll be the last person to tell you that he’s made it in the NBA. But the big center who started playing professionally for AEK Athens as a teenager is certainly getting there.

Do not expect to see Jake in the blue-and-white colors of Greece very soon, however. Ever since he left Greece in the summer of 2000, his return to the Greek national team has been stymied. After Greece crashed out of the European championship finals in Istanbul in 2001 without him in the lineup, the Greek sports media began asking why a player of his caliber was not called to the colors. The Greek basketball federation claims that he does not want to return to Greece. Nonetheless, in an interview given to the sports daily Protathlitis and carried on the major Greek sports Website, www.sport.gr, Tsakalidis asserted that he was eager to play for Greece again, and he detailed the contacts he had had with the federation. Problems such as covering insurance costs for injury, which was a concern of the Suns, and ensuring that Tsakalidis would not be drafted into the Greek military to do his national service, were all ironed out. But the call never came.

The problem with both the Greek national soccer and basketball teams is that the best players are not always selected. Star players who have the coach’s ear influence the process, and the most influential clubs also manage to have a say in who is chosen. Tsakalidis is an ocean away from these patronage networks and so is conveniently ignored. It remains to be seen whether he is part of the team in the next European championship in Sweden in 2003; yet this is another problem that will not give Jake a headache. He told greekworks.com that he has not heard from the Greek national team since the end of last season. Tsakalidis is content to sit and wait. He agreed that the team is doing well in the preliminary rounds, but he also pointed out that some opponents – such as Belgium, Denmark, and Romania – were hardly competitive.

Out on the court during the game, Jake calmly sits out the second half on the sidelines. The Suns call a time out, and he and the others on the bench stand while the players in the game sit and the coach dishes out instructions. The team is ahead, but they want to make sure they don’t let the Sixers back into the game. Something said in the huddle makes Tsakalidis turn to fellow player Tom Gugliotta, who is in street clothes because of an injured right foot, and grin broadly. The game ends, and the victorious Suns celebrate only briefly before rushing back to the locker room. As soon as they shower, they hop on their bus and get to the airport. In 24 hours, they’re playing in Atlanta against the Hawks.

The tight schedule prevented Tsakalidis from meeting with Rentzias after the game. As the Suns bus pulled away from the stadium, the Greek 76er was four floors up in the First Union Center’s VIP room, the guest of honor on Greek Community Appreciation night, an event organized by the Sixers. About 200 Greek Americans participated and met Rentzias, who signed autographs at the postgame gathering.

In between signing the 76ers hats given to those present, Rentzias spoke about his own prospects this season. For the Greek Americans in the room, he is already a star. But unlike Big Jake, Efthimios has yet to gain any significant playing time. Speaking amid the glowing faces of his proud compatriots, Rentzias said he was encouraged by Tsakalidis’s view of making it in the NBA by working through adversity with patience and hard work.

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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