On a cold Friday evening in Leicester, many basketball fans were heard saying “who’s he”, when Greece stepped onto the floor to warm-up against Great Britain.
On Monday, when Greece returned home to face Israel, the hometown fans didn’t have that much of a problem, but there were two EuroLeague stars that joined the fun.
Panathinaikos’ stars Nick Calathes and Thanasis Antetokounmpo returned from their club duties to suit up for Greece on Monday with fans battling for position to get pictures and autographs with them. Antetokounmpo, unlike the mass amount of EuroLeague players that decided not to suit up for their nations during this awkward period where international windows now clashes with club games, compared Monday’s game over Israel to having mini Eurobasket tournaments in each country.
“These World Cup qualifiers bring the national team closer to the people,” Antetokounmpo told FIBA. “It’s really beautiful for the fans around the country. People don’t have the opportunity to travel around, not even to the big cities to see the national team play. Not even the FIBA Eurobasket.”
The 25-year-old, the older brother of Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, said the national team breaks have a feeling of something bigger than just a game. “It’s like having Eurobaskets in each country. It’s great.”
Despite his responsibilities with Panathinaikos, Antetokounmpo still states that he is a fan of the new FIBA international window, and even though many players, coaches and even media outlets have dismissed the windows and blasted FIBA for destroying basketball’s pride and heritage, having teams like Crvena Zvezda, Panathinaikos and even EuroLeague champions Fenerbahce allowing some players to compete makes the system work to a degree.
Communication and trust from those aforementioned teams allowed for an unforgettable first week of FIBA World Cup qualifying. And maybe when the second window opens on Febrary 23, more EuroLeague teams will follow.
“Instead of playing only in the summer time, you have the chance to engage throughout the whole season with the fans,” Antetokounmpo said. “Now, the national team is not a summer team. Now, people are waiting for the team to play and will look forward to the next game, because from now on, the national team is a part our winter lives.”