Please wait while content is loading.
5th appearance after a single tournament absence
The Golden Generation
Returning to a FIBA World Championship after an eight-year absence, the Greek National Team is no longer just "a good team". But now they are one of the favourites. The 2005 EuroBasket title from last September in Belgrade brings back Greek basketball to the top level in the world. Greece have an excellent mix of young and talented players together with experienced ones, headed by the legendary Panagiotis Yannakis on the bench. But the Greeks have to prove in Japan that last September's title wasn't a fluke - but that Greek basketball is here to stay.
In Japan, Greece will be looking to stay on top while finishing the job which went uncompleted at the 1998 World Championships. At the 1998 tournament in Athens, the National Team failed to capture a medal after losing against Yugoslavia in the semi-finals and then against the United States in the Bronze Medal Game.
Twenty years following Greece's first appearance at a World Championships - in Spain in 1986 - most of the players who a year later went on to capture the 1987 European title in Athens are far away from the sport. One exception is Panagiotis Yannakis. He was the captain of the 1987 team. And now he is still leading the group as a coach, getting respect such as he did during his playing years. All basketball analysts agreed last September that the European champion team was a "Yannakis creation". The "Dragon" (his nickname in Greece) managed to shut down all his players' egos for the best of the team. "All for one and one for all", as the Three used to say. That was the 12-man Greek team, without a super star but playing with heart and mind. They managed to win a thrilling semi-final against France, although they trailed by 8 points with 47 seconds to play. In the final, they managed to stop the great Dirk Nowitzki and his German team to easily win the gold medal.
So, which are the strongest parts of Greece's team? Besides the presence of Yannakis, almost all the players have talent in many different areas. For example, if the team needs a good defender, there is two-time Euroleague Best Defender Dimitris Diamantidis, a player who can easily manage a triple-double in scoring, rebounding and assists …or even blocked shots. If the team wants to run the fast break, there is the "new-born" star - at 29 years old - Theo Papaloukas, the hero of last summer's EuroBasket final and of the Euroleague Final Four for CSKA Moscow. Papaloukas is perhaps Europe's most mature playmaker and one of the best in the world. If the Greek team needs players for special assignments, there are plenty of them. Nikos Zisis, who stars with Benetton Treviso and earned the FIBA trophy for the Best Young Player last year, is the one to make big shots, to play defence and to dish out many assists. Under the basket, there is no longer the need of Jake Tsakalidis. The Memphis centre, who last played for the National Team at EuroBasket 2003, is no longer a first option for Yannakis after Lazaros Papadopoulos blossomed during the 2004 Olympics (top scorer and rebounder of the team) and has turned himself in one of Europe's top centres.
In Japan, Papadopoulos will not be alone under the basket. Beside him will be the so-called "miracle of nature" that is Sofoklis Schortsianitis. "Baby Shaq" has lost more than 50 pounds, worked very hard since the beginning of the season with Olympiakos and finished third in the voting for the best rookie in the Euroleague despite coming off the bench. Sofoklis now seems ready to reign over the world. Perhaps the most powerful Greek centre in their history, Sofoklis is nearly unstoppable under the basket due to his strength. And he will undoubtedly be a man to watch in Japan.
But there are also many other players coming off the bench who can change a game. Antonis Fotsis has great leaping ability which enables him to rebound and block shots. Centre Kostas Tsartsaris can score from the middle and long ranges.
There is also team captain, Michalis Kakiouzis, from whom everybody is waiting to hear what Greece can accomplish in Japan. Last summer, he proved correct when two months before the EuroBasket he said Greece will win the Gold.
Added to that group will be the talented Panagiotis Vasilopoulos, the experienced Dimos Dikoudis at the power forward spot plus two other players who had explosive seasons. The first is Vassilis Spanoulis, who made huge improvements in his game going from Maroussi to Panathinaikos. Spanoulis was one of Panathinaikos' two top scorers in the Euroleague, proving to his coach, Zeljko Obradovic, that he is not just a youngster. The other in form player is Loukas Mavrokefalidis. Just 21 years old, Lukas is perhaps was the most improved player in all of Europe. After just 2.2 points and 1.6 rebounds last season, he exploded for 16.7 points and 8.7 rebounds this year with PAOK.
So, are Greece capable of bringing back a medal from Japan? For sure, the answer is yes. But the team will be taking one game at a time - just like last September in Serbia. First, the Greeks must get through the first round. And that's hard enough after being grouped with Lithuania, Australia, Turkey, Brazil and Qatar. All of the teams can win the group or finish a non-qualifying fifth place. Now Greece have to earn the respect that comes with being European champions.