Kostas Sloukas: 'This is the most important Final Four in my career'

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-05-14 07:00

Kostas Sloukas returned to Olympiacos Piraeus in the summer of 2020 with one thing in mind - how to restore the team to its former glory. 

The guard from Thessaloniki had been an important piece in the puzzle for the late coaching legend Dusan Ivkovic and his successors, Giorgos Bartzokas and Giannis Sfairopoulos. But no matter how crucial Sloukas' contribution was back then, the Reds' leading figure was no other than Vassilis Spanoulis.

Luckily for both Olympiacos and the 32-year-old Greek international, in the first season following Spanoulis' retirement, Olympiacos made their first EuroLeague Final Four in five years. That's what Sloukas had signed up for in the first place. 

2-pointers this season

Points made: 19,5
Accuracy: 58,1%
Place in standings: 10
Record max: 26
Record min: 11
Most made 2FGs: Moustapha Fall

In the summer of 2015, when Olympiacos lost the EuroLeague title to Real in Madrid, Sloukas decided to take Fenerbahce Istanbul's offer and leave the team in which he had taken his first professional steps.

Five years and two continental finals later (having won the first of the two, against his former team, in 2017), one of Europe's top combo guards took the opposite route. 

Despite not making the playoffs in 2021, success was just around the corner. With Sasha Vezenkov as the MVP, a testament to his consistency, and Sloukas as the man.

The three-time (2012, 2013, 2017) EuroLeague champion will enter Belgrade's Stark Arena as the most decorated player among all four contending squads. Now in his ninth Final Four, Sloukas wants to help Olympiacos write another bright chapter in an already successful campaign. 

According to the Greek guard, the playoff series against Monaco was the best, or the most difficult Olympiacos could have played.

"It was way harder than facing AX Armani Exchange Milan or Real Madrid, in my opinion. The fact that we were proven capable of eliminating such a capable opponent shows that we have solid chances to reach the final," he told gazzetta.gr a few days ago.

Sloukas was barely a factor in Game 5 during the opening three quarters, scoring just 2 points with 6 seconds to play in the third period.

But when Olympiacos needed him the most, the veteran guard stepped up to pour 13 points in the final stretch, finishing the duel with 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. He was the main reason why Olympiacos booked a trip to Final Four after a five-year break.

A fitting end to a season that saw the Reds end up second in the standings and Sloukas conclude the playoffs with 14.8 points, 3.8 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game averages.

What's even more impressive? Maybe the fact that Sloukas scored 48 out of his team's 102 fourth-quarter points across all five contests against the Monegasques.

But time is ticking out until Olympiacos take on reigning champs Anadolu Efes Instanbul and Sloukas faces his godson and former teammate, Bryant Dunston.

"I think that the Turkish baklava that Sloukas ate in Turkey gave him the chance to beat the Turkish teams at the buzzer," smiling Ergin Ataman said at the post-game presser of the Olympiacos-Efes clash in Piraeus that saw the Reds snatch victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to a last-second three-point shot by the former Fenerbahce player.

It remains to be seen whether Sloukas has had enough baklava to take down a Turkish team for the third time this season after hitting the game-winner against both his former team and Efes. 

Kostas Sloukas, who was named to the All-EuroLeague second team, sat with BasketNews to discuss his thoughts on the upcoming Final Four, Ergin Ataman's bold statements, and the meaning and impact of having the fans' support before and during the event. 

Recently, your former teammate, Tremmell Darden, described you as a model of consistency and stressed that you are not getting the recognition you deserve. Still, you made the All-EuroLeague second team. As much as the individual accolades pale compared to team achievements, how would you describe this season in a nutshell?
It's a pretty good year for me. I am sure I could have played better, as I had done with Fenerbahce. This season is special because while at Fener, I was playing for 30 minutes. Here I play roughly 24. I think everything went well, we had no injuries, and now I am proud of our team and of us qualifying for the Final Four.

We've placed ourselves among the four best teams in Europe. It is a great success for Olympiacos, who return to a Final Four after five years. We have the chance to claim the title on equal terms with everyone. I give 50-50 chances to each team to win their respective semi-finals.

What place does this Final Four hold in your career?
It's very special to me. I think it's the most important Final Four in my career. In 2020, when I came back to the team, I had a discussion with the presidents (editor's note: Panagiotis and Giorgos Angelopoulos) and, together, we were making dreams about Olympiacos' future.

This is exactly what I had in mind: to be in the Final Four with an ambitious team, ready to fight and play against good teams at 100%. Olympiacos is the team that put me on the basketball map. I grew up here, I went through easy and tough times, and I had to make a difficult decision when I left (in 2015).

When I said 'farewell, we'll meet again, I meant it. Fans didn't understand it back then, but I think they understand it now. We are a Greek team, and people support us -and I'm not talking only about Olympiacos' fans. It's very exciting because I think the whole country will be by our side. 

Credit Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

In his interviews, Giorgos Bartzokas has pointed out that the current version of Olympiacos is more mature than last year, but he has also identified a shift in how fans approach the team, saying that the crowd used to add pressure rather than help. Do you agree with the two points he made?
I don't pay attention to people outside the team, what they say, and how much pressure they add. I don't know what the coach meant by that. What I know is that last year we didn't have any fans on our side.

He was referring to Game 2 vs. Monaco when the crowd applauded the squad, despite the heavy defeat.
That applause was really moving because it shows that fans acknowledge the effort that the team has been making all year long. They understood that it was a bad result- and also a coincidental one because we happened to be on a bad day. Fans believed that we could bring the series back to our home court, which is what happened.

Olympiacos made a restart in 2020. The first move was  Giorgos Bartzokas' return, then you followed, and in 2021, the club returned to the Greek League. Do you feel that the pieces have started to fall into place?
I don't feel like that. I think even the dumbest person understands that the very tough decisions made by the organization and the presidents make sense. The front office made their decisions for their own reasons, which we don't need to mention. Right now, the club has built a very strong and tough team, as the presidents dreamed it.

The team has returned to the Greek League, which is something important because Olympiacos live and survive by winning titles. So, the club must be able to pursue all of them. The high point is this Final Four.

There are a lot of myths and cliches about the Final Four, some of which are true. What's the best-kept secret regarding the event?
It's not a cliche that the big favorite rarely gets the title. So, it's 50-50, and luck is an important factor because if someone throws the ball and goes in, you're never going to win.

But what you have to give is 40 minutes of concentration. You should be able to control the pace and make good decisions, whether you score or not. Against Efes, we need tough defense on two of the best guards in Europe and to follow the plan we will set at the beginning.

They are a very unpredictable team that leads the game to a lot of possessions. If we let them play their game, things will turn out badly.

Ergin Ataman is a coach who believes very much in his team. Does he give you extra motivation when he says, "People will see my raised fists again in the Final Four"?
I don't care about other coaches' statements. That's not my role. Everyone is accountable for what they say and do. My team has to put up a fight against the EuroLeague champions and one of the competition's best teams in the last four years. That's the main thing. We must be ready and worthy of expectations.

Olympiacos fans are expected to get the lion's share in the Stark Arena. Can their presence impact the games in any way?
For us, I think it's important. I hope that we will be positively influenced. All year, our fans have shown their support. Efes are a very experienced team and know what to do, So it won't make any difference whether fans will heckle them. 

You've played 8 Final Fours already. Has anything changed in the way you prepare ahead of those games since your first participation in 2012? 
I think nothing has changed. I have the same impatience, the same uneasiness. I am anxious, although I try to be calm. I'm mainly thinking about the game and how it can pan out.

My training program is the same. I follow my routine, as I have been doing for so many years. I hope we have luck on our side.

How do you explain what happened at the end of Game 5 against Monaco (fans' invasion, celebrations on the court, smoke, firecrackers, etc.)?
I can't put into words how and what I felt when the game ended. It was really moving, as if I were a kid who dreams and sees his dreams come true very quickly.

I will not say that everything was easy because the last two years have been far from it. But, thanks to our presidents and the entire squad, we achieved something very important and memorable.

At the beginning of the season, very few thought that we could make the playoffs, not to mention the Final Four.

What was the hardest obstacle you had to overcome this year in order to avoid last season's mistakes?
Our bad performances in home games last year. The lack of fans also plays a role, but the additions that Olympiacos made last summer were crucial and more important compared to the season before (2020-21).

The team meshed together and got to play nice, productive, and effective basketball.

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