On 8 May, on his 36th birthday, Greek legend Theo Papaloukas will be packing his suitcase for a flight to London. When two days later he steps on the court at O2 Arena for CSKA Moscow’s semi-final game in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague, the British capital will become the ninth city he visits in his career to participate at a Final Four in this competition. Barcelona was the first, exactly ten years ago; then Tel Aviv in 2004, Moscow in 2005, Prague in 2006, Athens in 2007 and Madrid in 2008, all of them with CSKA. Papaloukas then returned home and to his former club, Olympiacos, and participated in two more Euroleague Final Four tournaments in his three years at the Greek powerhouse, in Berlin in 2009 and Paris in 2010.
Up until CSKA’s 94-85 win over Caja Laboral in the Euroleague play-offs on Friday night, which secured the Moscow side their passage to the London Final Four, he had been tied at eight appearances with his former team-mate and former Russia international J.R. Holden. Fittingly, the record-breaking ninth appearance comes after he returned mid-season to the club with which he had made the major breakthrough in his career, in his mid-twenties.
Papaloukas would have probably never become the emblematic player he is today in European basketball, had Dusan Ivkovic not taken over at CSKA and demanded in 2002 to add the 2.00m tall guard to the roster.
Under the great Serbian tactician Papaloukas started exploring his full potential and played in his first three Euroleague Final Four tournaments.
It was however Ettore Messina’s arrival in Moscow that will be forever linked with the Greek guard’s most stellar moments at club level. With the Italian coach at the helm, Papaloukas led CSKA to their first Euroleague title after a 35-year-long wait in 2006 with a team-high 18 points and game-high seven assists in the final against Maccabi Tel Aviv and earned MVP honours. Papaloukas and CSKA repeated the feat in 2008 in Madrid, with a 91-77 victory in the final, again over Maccabi.
In addition to his two Euroleague titles, the Greek playmaker has also conquered six Russian league titles and has been included to the Euroleague All Decade Team (for the first ten years of the century, along with Holden, Dejan Bodiroga, Dimitris Diamantidis, Šarūnas Jasikevičius, Trajan Langdon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Anthony Parker, Ramūnas Šiškauskas and Nikola Vujčic).
Papaloukas however reached the pinnacle of his career with the national team. In tandem with the other modern Greek legend, Diamantidis, he led the Hellenic team to the gold medal at EuroBasket 2005 in Belgrade, with a 22-point, six-assist performance in the final against Dirk Nowitzki’s Germany.
One year later, at the World Championship in Japan, he dished out 12 assists in the famous 101-95 victory in the semi-final over a USA side that included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, which resulted to a silver medal for the Greeks. He capped that highly successful season by earning the FIBA Europe Player of the Year award.