His promising playing career was cut short by injuries, and then he waited beyond age 40 to become a first-time head coach. But Georgios Bartzokas of Khimki Moscow Region sure made up quickly for lost time. He was a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion in 2013 with Olympiacos Piraeus, one of only two teams this century to win both Final Four games by double digits. He brought Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar to the Final Four in 2016 in an upset. And he took Khimki Moscow to its first EuroLeague Playoffs series last season. Bartzokas is on short lists of coaches who won at their first Final Four and of coaches who have taken two different clubs to the event. He puts it all down to a passion for the game that he learned very young, as he recollects in his basketball memories for this edition of Coaches Corner.
"I started to play basketball as a kid in Maroussi, from the age of 9. I was taller than my classmates, so as always happens, one guy said, 'Why not try basketball?' So I tried and was good enough to keep going, and day by day basketball became my passion.
"I always played football until then because football was the number one sport at the time. I got too tall for football, but I was just the right size to play basketball. In an environment where you succeed and everyone is able to see that, you feel more important; you feel good. Day by day I saw that happening. For instance, they immediately put me in the starting five, because of my height and my athletic ability, even though I didn't know anything about basketball. And that made me feel comfortable.
"At a young age, I had a lot of coaches, including one who was a mentor for all of us at that time. He was with us all day and made us love basketball. He was a great influence. But also my friends in the neighborhood were a great influence because we were always playing basketball together. I was 16 when I was put on the first team in Maroussi, and there I had two idols: Nikos Darivas and Dimitris Fosses. They were legends in Maroussi whom I had followed as a kid. I got the opportunity to play with Darivas, but Fosses had left for Panionios one year before.
"My parents were not supportive of this. They were thinking that basketball was going to take time from my education. But I had the chance to go to maybe the best high school in Athens for education, so it was a good opportunity to be also as good in my studies as I was at basketball, and then go on to a big university. I think both helped me a lot now in my career in basketball, but coaching is not the only thing in my life.
"I was skilled for my height when I was young. I was athletic, and by the age of 13, I was dunking the ball. All the kids were impressed with this. The thing I liked most, though, was passing. Even now I like passing more than anything else. It's what I appreciate most: not a great dunk, but a smart, impressive pass. I try every year to build a team with this characteristic, players who can share the ball and share the game.
"As a player, I had a lot of injuries, surgeries on my knees starting from 21 years old. And by 28, I decided to stop playing after three or four serious surgeries. It was like my first funeral. It was devastating for me. I started being depressed because of this. But day by day I realized that I couldn't play on the level I wanted because of pain, surgeries, treatment and so on. Coaching came after, and it gave me the hope that I could continue being part of basketball in some other way.
"From the age of 20, I had been coaching children's teams, mini-basket as they called it, while I was still a player. So now, at age 28, I became a coach of small teams in Athens, and for many years, I kept going like this. I was always serious about it, even if the level of the basketball or the competition was not so high. I was always so serious because it was my passion. I love basketball. Even now, I can watch three or four games per day.
"All those kids who played with me then in Maroussi, we still get together when there's an opportunity to see each other. They are lifetime friends from the neighborhood, and we were not even classmates. I went to another school. But in the neighborhood we were friends, and basketball was always the main thing in our life."