In the most recent survey among Eurocup GMs, Promitheas Patras head coach Makis Giatras was ranked as the competition’s third best coach, next to Andrea Trinchieri and Sasha Djordjevic. The voting took place a few days after his boys had secured a TOP 16 spot, but it seems more than certain that the 48-year-old would top the list if only the process had taken place a little bit later.
Greek League’s coach of the year for 2019 is sitting on the team’s bench for the third straight season, which can hold something special for Promitheas, since they have made the Greek Cup final for the first time in club history and are the favourite to win their TOP 16 Eurocup group, if only they play their cards right in the last game vs Oldenburg in Germany. Winning their very first title next Sunday (February 16) will not be easy, as the opponent, AEK Athens, has more experience and a handful of quality players (Nikos Zisis, Jonas Maciulis, Marcus Slaughter, Mario Chalmers). Last year, Promitheas were Greek League finalists, eliminating AEK Athens in the semifinals, while the current season has confirmed their upward trajectory: big road wins against Morabanc Andorra, Virtus Bologna and Reyer Venezia only serve to prove what coach Giatras is capable of.
He may not speak a word in English, but his work in one of the largest cities in Greece speaks volumes. TalkBasket.net sat with the gregarious coach for a ten-minute interview in Heraclion, Crete, where Giatras and some of his players had a refreshing Greek All-Star Game break.
“We spent a nice weekend in Crete, but now the difficult part of the season lies ahead. First, it’s the Greek Cup final next Sunday and our focus is inevitably on that particular competition. However, in a season with a lot of tension, many and non-stop games, it’s also important for us to find some time to relax”, says the man that Rick Pitino has called the Greek equivalent of West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
This is the first season that the Patras club explicitly aims high. The goal is not just to be a contender, but to actually claim at least one title, be it in domestic or international competition. “I believe that every year we’re fortunate enough to surpass any goal that we set. This year, our first goal was to reach the Eurocup TOP 16 and we managed to do this quite early, sooner than any other team. We’d like to repeat last season in the Greek League, which was like a dream for Promitheas. As far as the Greek Cup goes, when we saw the draw that brought us up against Panathinaikos, we were disappointed. The fact that the game was in Patras, combined with our concentration and Panathinaikos’s bad day, gave us the chance to compete for the title. The mere fact that we beat Panathinaikos makes us believe that we can lift the trophy. Of course, it’s a difficult endeavor, not easily achievable every year. We will try to fight for it, without too much pressure or anxiety. We know ourselves very well and we’ll strive for the best result possible”.
Promitheas had been working on a three-year plan since the club was promoted from the second division in 2016. In the end of it, the Patras team were Greek League finalists and BCL participants. This seems to have been just the beginning for owner Evangelos Liolios and president Christos Milas, who have already elaborated and presented a new plan for the future.
“Our owner has put our goals in order, namely winning the Greek League and participating in the Euroleague”, Giatras confirms. “I’ve been working for the Promitheas organisation for many years. I have assumed different posts. It’s a team that I love and one that respects me. It’s always the management that sets the goals; and setting a goal may be perfectly permissible to anyone, but it does not mean that you’re going to achieve what you set out to do. In my first season with the team I said that dreams have no ceiling and it has become a catchphrase ever since. No one is entitled to prevent me from dreaming of playing in the Euroleague or winning the championship. After all, it’s my dream and I do whatever I want with it! Whether I will succeed or not, it’s something that only the future will show. It’s a blessing that -so far- we overachieve every year”.
Giatras is fully aware of the strides that his team has to take in order to get where everyone in the city wants: “There’s two ways to do that. Either you play the Eurocup finals or you receive a wild card, like Zenit Saint Petersburg and Villeurbanne did. If you ask me, I’d rather go to the Euroleague on purely sports merit, by reaching the Eurocup finals. On the other hand, I’m not sure how long it will take for that to happen. If you look at the Eurocup teams’ budgets, you’ll find out it’s crazy! Some of them are even bigger than Euroleague teams: Virtus Bologna, Umana Reyer Venezia, Monaco. Those are some of the teams that we have faced. They’re great organisations and Promitheas wants to be in the same boat”.
Making the Eurocup finals this year is in his view “something very difficult to achieve. If I were to say it in public, people would think I’m crazy and they might lock me in! We will make our effort and whoever underestimates us, will pay for it”.
Giatras favours the motto that “teams are built in the summer” and thus prefers to keep his rosters intact most of the time. This season has surely been an exception to that rule and he explains why:
“This year I made more changes than all of my previous years combined. When you start a season, consciously counting on ten professional athletes and five junior players, when problems come along that have to do with team chemistry and personalities that don’t match, some changes are inevitable. I’m not talking about replacing Octavius Ellis. Robert Lowery was a good player who couldn’t help us. Then, it was another very good player, Gerald Robinson, who could not adjust either. Bogris could not stick with the team. We were very fortunate to bring in two players like Mavrokefalidis and Mantzaris who are experienced and easy to get along. They needed their time, but eventually they managed to grasp our philosophy. We got Marvin Jones as a replacement for Octavius Ellis. He had played in the Greek League before and he showed in the game against Brescia that he can help us. We also signed James Bell as Robinson’s replacement. Despite not having played for quite some time, I think he will get better since he’s a player of quality”.
Losing Octavius Ellis in the middle of the season was not easy. Apart from his multi-faceted contribution on both sides of the court, the 26-year-old center left Patras for Olympiacos Piraeus in a flash, giving his former team almost no time to work things out. In this regard, the “Reds” head coach, Giorgos Bartzokas, went so far as to apologize to Promitheas for “grabbing” their player, one of the cornerstones of Giatras’s team.
“I don’t know if Olympiacos were interested in him last summer. There were some rumours, but I think that Ellis is rightfully playing in the Euroleague. He has worked hard, he’s a good person and all I can say is that he both helped us and was helped by the team”, he acknowledges. “I knew there was a buy-out clause in his contract, but I had no idea that he had signed with Olympiacos on Friday morning, one day before our game in Rhodes. It was an important development also because we had to register two new players (Jones, Bell) for the Eurocup, if we believed that we stood a chance of going to the next round. We had lost to Venezia at home and many people believed that we could not beat them in Venice, but we did it and that’s what gave us solid chance of qualifying”.
Recently, Evangelos Liolios launched a platform which aims to be a forum for discussion on a range of issues regarding Greek basketball: modus operandi of the National Federation, financial transparency, digital interconnection between Federation, local Unions and clubs, as well as the co-existence with the Greek Association of Professional Basketball Clubs. It’s no secret that the owner of Promitheas is eyeing the chair of the Greek Federation, with a view to becoming the person that will succeed Giorgos Vassilakopoulos after almost four decades.
“For changes to take place, some people need to step up”, comments Giatras. “However, it takes more than one person to make change possible. I’d say that if we join forces, we can make it happen. Promitheas can be a pole for change. I’ve known Mr. Liolios for many years and I can testify that he’s interested in amateur sport. If his effort can lead to more young players breaking through, it will be a blessing. I’m not a nihilist and thus I can easily admit that the persons in charge of the Federation have done a great job in the past. Cooperation is essential in order to take one step further”.
Talking about young Greek players, Promitheas has the good fortune to have some of them on its roster. Their progress is one of the factors that will determine the club’s future, provided that they live up to the expectations. “Mantzoukas is a 16-year-old kid and he’s already getting Greek League experience, which is very important at his age. The other guys (Bazinas, Kafezas, Kouroupakis, Kolios) are talented, but I don’t know if they’ll see much playing time since the team is constantly growing. For sure, Promitheas is giving them the chance to play”.
One pertinent issue here for all parties involved is to keep those youngsters grounded, so that they can trust the process and not be carried away by lucrative contracts offered to them by wealthier clubs. Giatras says that such a development is inevitable, since we are talking about professional sport:
“It’s unrealistic to assume that such a thing could never happen. If a club can pay a large amount to get a player, they won’t even bother to ask or let you know. A player’s development has largely got to do with himself, with how he feels being on the team. Trust and confidence are important, as well as the notion that the club’s programme can take you to the next step. If all the above is true, there’s nothing more to be done. No buy-outs are needed. On the other hand, there are different levels. Personally, if a player walked up to me saying that he no longer wished to stay with the team and wanted to go to the next level, I would not keep him”.
That last phrase of Promitheas’s boss raises the question about Georgios Bogris and the way he left Patras in order to return to Iberostar Tenerife, the Spanish side which recently won the Intercontinental Cup. In his statements, the Greek center implied that it was his decision to leave due to the lack of motivation. Evangelos Liolios said in an interview that the player “upset the team and that’s why we let him go”. When asked about the case, Makis Giatras openly picks the second version of the story:
“Our relationship with him has been analyzed a lot. I haven’t said anything. It was clearly our decision. It didn’t have to do with him wanting to play at another level”.