|The OQT in Venezuela marks the first time that the highly succesful at youth European Championships guard Evangelos Mantzaris plays for the senior Greece team in a major tournament|
By Jeff Taylor
It wasn't that long ago that Evangelos Mantzaris was playing in vital games for Greece's youth teams, claiming gold medals along the way.
He captured the title at the U18 European Championship in 2008, and was there for the U20 European Championship win the following year.
Anyone that watched Mantzaris, Kostas Sloukas and Kostas Papanikolaou celebrate those championships with Greece's youth teams knew they had bright futures.
Those were important confidence-boosting years for the trio.
And as the saying goes, success begets success.
Opportunities to play at the highest level in Greece and Europe with Olympiacos followed.
The Reds saw the three players as out-right winners and signed them, and the players rewarded the club this year with a Turkish Airlines Euroleague and Greek league double.
Now, 22-year-old Mantzaris faces a different kind of challenge.
He is one of 12 players charged with the responsibility of getting Greece to the London Games via the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT).
"When we were in the youth teams, we had a lot of medals," Mantzaris said to FIBAEurope.com.
"We had very good youth teams.
"But we have to grow up fast.
"We're men now, and not kids.
"And we'll try to do our best to do something good."
Mantzaris smiles and is lost in thought for a few seconds when asked about his memories of Greece's senior team accomplishments the past several years.
Greece captured the EuroBasket 2005 gold medal and won silver at the World Championship the following year.
"I remember watching (Vasileios) Spanoulis play for the national team when I was 15 years old and me hoping that one day, I could be like him," he said.
|Kostas Sloukas (left) and Mantzaris, two of Olympiacos' promising young guard, celebrating the Euroleague title with veteran Lazaros Papadopoulos |
"Now, he's my teammate at Olympiacos and with the Greek team and that's good for me."
PLENTY OF INSPIRATION
There have been a lot of enduring images of Greece's players over the years.
Who can forget the play of Dimitris Diamantidis and Theo Papaloukas in the come-from-behind win against France that put the side in the Final of EuroBasket 2005?
Greece then beat Germany in the Final.
Then there was sight of Papaloukas, having just led CSKA Moscow past Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague title game in 2006, running into the stands in Prague while raising the Greek flag over his head.
There was also the performance of Sofoklis Schortsanitis in the 101-95 upset of Team USA at the 2006 World Championship.
Mantzaris and his Greece teammates will raise the spirits back home if they can make it to the London Games.
There are three places on offer for the Olympics in Caracas at the OQT.
Russia, F.Y.R. of Macedonia and Lithuania are Europe's other representatives in Venezuela trying to reach London.
"In Greece, these are difficult times because of the crisis," Mantzaris said.
"It gave the country a lift, what we did with Olympiacos."
Olympiacos trailed by 19 points in the third quarter but fought back and stunned CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague title game.
"And now, I hope we're going to get to the Olympics and win a medal," Mantzaris said.
Left out of last year's EuroBasket team, Mantzaris received the nod by coach Ilias Zouros this time to play at the OQT.
A sprained ankle may not allow him to play in Monday's opener against Jordan or the following game against Puerto Rico.
"It's been getting better and better and hopefully, I'll be able to help the team in the crucial games," Mantzaris said.