A legend on and off the court

Back in the summer of 1987 Panayiotis Yiannakis became a household name by leading Greece, as captain, to its first European basketball title. Considering his playing qualities, Yiannakis, who once scored 73 points in a game and was also renowned for his tenacious defensive play, was destined to repeat the success as a coach. He coached Greece to its second European title in 2005 and a silver medal at the Worlds last year. I’d like to go back to your first memories of the game. That takes us back to about 1968, when I was 9, playing around in [Piraeus’s] Nikaia playgrounds. We used to get together for soccer but I – a tall boy then – soon began tossing for the hoop. I was an athletic kid with the ability to learn quickly – and youngsters are drawn to any game in which they make quick progress. Even though I stood out as an athlete, I was shy and didn’t talk much. In 1971, a good man and great fan of basketball – Damianidis was his name – gave me 20 drachmas and I registered at Ionikos. That’s how a lovely journey began. Was there a critical point where you realized what you could achieve? I enjoyed what I did. Basketball was my life, I spent a lot of time at grounds… I also tried to be good at school and was naturally competent in mathematics, and thought about studying at the Polytechnic… But I began playing in junior-level national teams and my focus turned to the sports academy… I’ll remind you that I wasn’t a young prospect in 87, but a 28-year-old. I was already getting satisfaction out of the game before the big bang [in professional Greek basketball]. Could it be said that you have shaped a «Greek style» of basketball? I believe that the boys who make up today’s national team have a style that allows them to play effectively. I think that basketball experts from other parts of the world agree with me, because, in the Greeks, they see a type of game management that makes the players useful in any major team. These are still early days. What are Greek basketball’s main traits? Enthusiasm and positiveness, in equal amounts, both in attack and defense. Shooting and running is not enough. You’ve got to help set up your combined defense, set traps, block shots, get the offensive rebounds. We’re constantly trying to increase the pace of our game and read the weaknesses in opponents. Nick Gallis [star player in 87 and a teammate at Aris] has made his post-retirement decisions and is active as an entrepreneur. Isn’t it possible to find a role for him and utilize his greatness? Believe me, Greek basketball continues to benefit from Nick Gallis. His memory is so great that it feels like he’s still there playing. Do you ever think about getting into politics? In the runup to the [summer’s] national elections, it became known that [the socialist main opposition party] PASOK extended an invitation to you. Every move in life involves politics. But I really like what I do. I wouldn’t exchange it for anything. But I can’t rule out anything for the future. At some point I’d like to persuade others to choose sport as a way of life. Excerpts from an interview first published in Kathimerini’s color supplement K on October 28.