George Papadakos: Welcome back to Canada
I thought the title would be the most appropriate, seeing as it was the first thing a Customs and Immigration official told me once I informed them that I was returning back to my birthplace after 25 years.
I must admit that I am both intrigued and challenged about the opportunity that NPH has given me; an opportunity to share a multitude of experiences and predominantly good times, all thanks to the great game of basketball.
So where do I begin? Probably the last thing anyone would want to read about is a former pro talking about the “good old times” from 10, 20, even 30 years ago. So since that is not me, I will spare everyone those details. But I do want to talk a little about my background, where Ive been and what Ive done, but at the same time giving the respect needed and earned to all the players and coaches past and present who play and coach this game.
I am 7 feet tall (actually 6’ 11” but who’s counting right?). Basketball has been an integral part of my life for more than 35 years. Growing up in Toronto (specifically Don Mills) in the early 70’s, I went to sleep every night probably like every other boy in Canada, dreaming I would someday be playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This dream was constant until my sixth grade, where one of my teachers at school introduced me to basketball. Being a full head taller than everyone else in my class….it might have seemed a no brainer at the time. But there was something special about this game with the bouncing ball, a rim and some high top canvas sneakers.
My father could not believe his eyes. He had just finished watching me play my first basketball game (an exhibition game featuring me and my grade 5 classmates defeat the older, confident grade 6 class) that was the highlight of a special parent’s night celebration at our grade school. I don’t know if it was the sudden realization that maybe I wasn’t going to be an NHL player after all, or that basketball just seemed to bring out the best of me. After discussing with him the logistics about playing two winter sports at the same time, I decided to hang up my skates and devote myself to my new sport.
I was really excited to hear that St Mike’s won OFSAA this year. As a graduate of this fine school, any success that is achieved takes me back to my time when I was wearing the double blue. I think those years were when I honestly can say I fell in love with basketball. Coach Dan Prendergast had such I way with words, and was always around supporting me along the way. I remember how much I enjoyed working out on weekends and in the summertime, spending hours practicing moves I had seen from other players.
I will always value my time at St Mikes for another reason. I was able to get a top notch education. I was mentored from a young age that at some point “a basketball will eventually run out of air”, and that I needed to be prepared for that day. So in aftermath, I can honestly say that getting a great education (that started in high school and continued into university) enabled me to begin a second professional career as a sales and marketing professional shortly after retiring.
After high school, I was fortunate enough to receive an athletic scholarship to play basketball at Syracuse University. I left for Syracuse with many dreams and a cool nickname (CN Tower). Although my 1.5 years at Syracuse were disappointing as I didn’t get the playing time I desired, it did teach me a valuable lesson about the merits of hard work and competition within a team framework.
My next stop took me to E Lansing, Michigan home of the Spartans and Michigan State University. Although MSU was never really a candidate my first time around in the recruiting process, I did warm up to the idea of playing for the legendary Jud Heathcote. An added bonus was that I was able to honor my father’s birthplace in Greece (Sparta) right on the front of my jersey.
My time at State featured both highs and lows, and there were times that basketball didn’t seem like so much fun. But I learned how to really work and excel, and to take on any challenges head on. I learned how important it is to go out and compete regardless of the opponent, game or circumstance. I am most proud that I was a tri-captain my senior year, averaged 10.1 points and 6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game and competed in the tough Big 10 conference. Those accomplishments earned me the Most Improved Player team award, and I was also a selected as a honorable mention Academic All-American. An invitation to the Portsmouth Invitation Tournament (PIT) gave me a solid sign that a pro basketball career was in the future. Finally a beat reporter covering MSU was inventive enough to rename me
“PAPADUNKOS” which surprisingly is still a nickname used by my old friends today (side note: I used to dunk a lot…nowadays the only thing Im dunking are donuts!!).
I have been extremely fortunate to represent both Canada and Greece internationally on the Senior Mens teams. Although I started up through the ranks with Canada (provincial, Junior Mens and finally Senior Mens teams), I decided before graduating from college that it was to my benefit to forego my eligibility as a member of Team Canada, and began the naturalization process of becoming a Greek citizen.
That decision was boosted by the interest I was getting from Greek pro teams my senior year at State. After weighing my options and consulting with Jud, I decided to sign my first pro contract in Greece right after the season finished. Although I did get invites to both the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Piston training camps, I knew physically I wasn’t ready, and it would be better for me to be a “big fish in a small pond” over in Europe.
I enjoyed a 12 year pro basketball career in Greece mostly with perennial Euroleague contender Olympiakos. I was a Greek League champion, Greek Cup champion and Greek All Star. I also earned my coaching license before retiring as a player in 2000. I coached professionally for 6 years both men’s and women’s teams, before deciding on a new career trip, but this time around, through the business world.
I have been fortunate to have made a great living doing something I honestly would have done for free. I have travelled the world, met many people, been the star of the team, and the guy who never got off the bench. There have been career threatening injuries, and tough contract negotiations. I have had mobs of cheering fans wait for me outside of my home, and I have had fans in opposing arenas chant and curse me (and most of my family members) out. The constant has always been basketball.
A lot has changed while I was away. I left as a wide eyed 22 year old, and return as a married 48 year old with three children. I have returned to a city that looks completely different, as does the whole basketball scene. There is now an NBA team, there is the NBL Canada, and there are close to a hundred student athletes who are either enrolled or heading down to the US on athletic scholarships. There are Canadian pros who dot the rosters of teams all over the world. I guess you could say its not just about hockey any more.
I look forward to giving everyone some insight, plenty of opinions, and whole bunch of cool stories in the near future. I also promise to be as current as possible, especially with all the great tools social media and the internet have brought us. I promise to give back to the game as best I can, especially here in Toronto. But most importantly I look forward to watching my young son Johnny as he begins his own path down the basketball highway, right here in Toronto.
Hang on for the ride.
Yours in Basketball,