Photo source: Peristeri BC Facebook page

Peristeri Winmasters stands unbeaten after four Greek League games, in addition to winning their first European face-off after fifteen years. Coach Elias Zouros and his players proved to be real road warriors last week, since they beat Gaziantep in Turkey for the Basketball Champions League before downing AEK Athens at OAKA by 91-90 in OT. Not too bad a start for a club that had been playing in the country’s lower divisions for five consecutive seasons (2013-2018).

That particular game in Athens will rank high on any list of the all-time Greek League showdowns in the last couple of years. Rightfully so, since it had drama, passion, big shots, a potion of the usual referee controversy, not to mention great individual performances.

Steven Gray was the man that stood out from the crowd, pouring in 26 points in 32 minutes, on 9/10 field-goals, 4 rebounds and one assist en route to garnering the MVP award of the fourth game day in the 2019-2020 campaign. The 30-year-old shooting guard made a crucial three-pointer that forced overtime and despite receiving a bad blow on his nose by his teammate Mike Morrison, he was able to witness the game-winning lay-up by Scoochie Smith. That play was accompanied by Gray’s almost immaculate offensive performance which culminated in an unprecedented personal 13-point streak in the third period, when the former Gonzaga star produced a total of 16 points.

Gray has always been a prolific scorer: he was the French League scoring champion in 2015 and amassed no less than 19.8 points per game in his stint with Zadar in Croatia. Hence, it comes as no surprise that in his fourth season in Greece, he seems more self-assured than ever before. In a team populated by seasoned veterans like Vassilopoulos, Xanthopoulos and Hatcher, Gray can also lead by example. His down-to-earth attitude and unshelfish work ethic provides Peristeri Winmasters with an invaluable presence both on and off the court.

Despite not getting chosen by an NBA team in the 2011 draft, Gray had four stints in the NBA Summer League while playing overseas, the last in 2015 with the Brooklyn Nets. traced him soon after the game with the 2018 BCL winners had ended and here is what followed.

Q: Was it the most heated game you’ve played in Greece?

A: I don’t know … I feel that all games have some quality in Greece. But definitely for this season, it was a big game and I think both teams understood that. I’m just happy that we were able to get the win. Both teams played well and put on a game that many people expected to see. AEK fans are unique. They are very passionate and support their team to the fullest. With their sheer passion, they were trying to give an extra push to their players, especially since it was a game between two Champions League teams. So, it’s always fun to come in here and just experience it, be a part of it. It was a good atmosphere and I’m glad that we could weather that. I think going to Turkey (for the BCL game vs Gaziantep) helped us to adjust and prepare for this game. Being on the road, having a hostile crowd that puts pressure on you and the officials and being able to weather the storms of the game and the ups and dows that come with it, we gave ourselves a chance in the end.

Q: How did you pull it off?

A: A couple of bounces and shots went our way. They went in, but that’s the way things usually go. I guess it was our day.

Q: While playing, were you aware of the fact that you missed your first field-goal attempt on the 41st minute of the game?

A: No, that’s what guys told me after the game. It was about being in a rhythm and reading different situations. That’s something that we have improved on since last season, with coach Pedoulakis. We went reading the game on a possession by possession basis. I was trying to look for the best opportunity for me and for our team.

Q: How does it feel coming back to Peristeri for another season?

A: I’m happy to be back. It was big for me and my family to have a second year in Greece. Having the chance to play in the European competition is major. I want to make the most of the opportunity that I have on this team in order for it to succeed and play well.

Q: What comparisons can we draw between coaches Pedoulakis and Zouros?

A: I think there are lots of similarities, in the sense that last year the team didn’t have the highest of expectations. We had a really good coach in Pedoulakis because he was able to get us to play basketball the right way and raise our ceiling on what we could accomplish. I think that we’re starting to be the same thing now with Zouros. We are a team that’s playing in the Champions League and maybe people don’t know what to expect from us. We’re starting to figure out who we are as a team and how to play the way he wants us to.

Q: Do you know what to expect from yourselves?

A: We’re learning each day, going through defensive philosophies and offensive strategies. We got a lot better since training camp and every day we have more things to go over and improve on. But we’re getting there day by day.

Q: As far as the BCL goes, the main objective is to get past the first round?

A: Yeah, for sure. We definitely want to be successful and the BCL is going to help us play well in the Greek League and vice versa. Having two games a week will get us into a certain rhythm. It’s nice to represent the club and also Greece in the Champions League. We will have the chance to show off both the country and the Greek League.

Q: Right now, Peristeri Winmasters are first in the standings. Given Olympiacos’s absence from the league, do you think that the path to finishing second is wide open?

A: Yeah, you look at how those things shaped up last year. I guess in the Greek League anything is possible. We just want to be in the mix, continue to play well and see where we’ll end up in the end of the season. I kept up on what was going on in the Greek League during the summer, but it was more about enjoying my time at home with the family. I had no control over it and I thought that I would see what had happened when I’d got back.

Q: How did you receive the news of coach Pedoulakis leaving Peristeri for Panathinaikos?

A: It was a surprise. Not totally shocked because I was more excited to see what he could do with our roster. I think that he’s trying to find a rhythm with some guys who haven’t played in Europe yet. Once they all jell and get used to European basketball, I think that Panathinaikos can be a successful team, having seen how successful Pedoulakis was with our club last year.

Q: Have you talked to Ben Bentil since he went to Panathinaikos OPAP?

A: Yes, I talked to him when we played in the pre-season, but not after that.

Q: Are you jealous of him making the big step to the EuroLeague?

A: No, I’m really happy for him. He’s a young guy that played extremely well last year. I’m rooting for him and wish him all the best in his career. I just have to stay focused on my path and my journey. Right now, things are going well for me.

Q: As a Gonzaga player, you used to face the likes of Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. How did all those match-ups help you become the player you are now?

A: I think it helped me handle all types of atmospheres and situations; try to scent who you are as a player and the team that you represent. When we had Gonzaga class of chess, it was a very big deal and it’s the same now. Peristeri has a really good history. So, I was trying to make them proud and represent the club in the right way. For the fans, it’s important to remember those times and at the same time have respect for all the great players that you get to see and play against now.