Big Sofo joins The Crossover
Greek center Sofoklis Schortsanitis enjoyed a storied Turkish Airlines EuroLeague career, during which he played for four clubs over 10 seasons. In this episode of The Crossover, Joe Arlauckas talks with Big Sofo about all of it, starting with his birth in Cameroon to life after retirement.
The big man did not dream of a basketball career as a boy. Schortsanitis's younger brother Alexandros was the first in the family to take up basketball and even that didn't motivate Sofoklis to pick up a ball until later.
05:30 – "When I started, it was literally a fluke," Schortsanitis said. "Over the years, you just develop a love for the game. I love how exciting it is and how the work you put in outside the court translates into success."
He began playing in the youth team in Kavala, Greece, and by the time he was 13, Schortsanitis was sent to play with the men's team. He soon joined the Greek junior national team and made his pro debut in the Greek league with Iraklis Thessaloniki when he was just 15 and a half years old.
8:40 "Two days before the game, they actually told me I was going to be in the squad and I was like, 'Okay, I’ll just stay in the corner and clap whenever we make a basket," Schortsanitis recalled. "And game day, the coach is like, 'It's you, you, Hatzivrettas, Diamantidis and Sofo.' I was like, 'What?!?!'"
What's more, in just his second game Schortsanitis had to guard the great Dino Radja and it did not go well, though it was also a learning opportunity about how much faith his coach and teammates had in him. From there, his career took off. Schortsanitis went abroad to play in Italy at the tender age of 18, but after one season decided to return home and signed with Olympiacos Piraeus, where he bumped heads with head coach Jonas Kazlauskas.
23:50 "One day I was late for practice and he made me run the stairs up and down. He's like: 'This is good for you. It's good for your legs and you can lose weight,'" Schortsanitis recalled. "When they started practicing, he told me, 'Yeah come down. We don't have enough players.' So I started dunking and having a great practice. And this is where my nightmare started. After that, he's like, 'Man, those stairs are good for you. You'll do it every day!'"
With his growing reputation and great size, Schortsanitis was dubbed "Baby Shaq" – after Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal – and the moniker stuck. Schortsanitis did not mind the nickname until the day he had to face the original Shaq.
30:45 "Josh Childress was messing with me," Schortsanitis said. "The minute I got the ball in the post, he's like: 'Yeah Sofo. Show him who's the baby now!' I'm like, 'Don't say that!' I was so nervous. And then I heard Shaq behind saying, 'Yeah. Show me.'"
It all ended well though as Shaq tracked Schortsanitis down in the parking lot and they chatted for half an hour or so with O'Neal sharing some important career advice.
Schortsanitis helped Olympiacos reach back-to-back EuroLeague Final Fours. Then he decided to try playing outside of Greece again and signed for Maccabi Tel Aviv. The end of that first season is still a tough pill for Schortsanitis to swallow as the team reached the EuroLeague championship game only to lose to Panathinaikos Athens.
45:20 "I was sure, 100%, we were going to get it," he said. "We had a great squad. We were strong at every position… Sometimes after you lose a game like that, especially after you win a game like that against Madrid [in the semifinals], you think man, what was the season all about? But you have to bounce back fast because you have to go back to Tel Aviv and win the [Israeli] championship."
The only remedy for losing a title is to win one, and three years later, Schortsanitis finally won the EuroLeague with Maccabi in Milan. And even then, it took a while to sink in.
1:02:35 "It really sunk in that we actually won when we got ready to leave and we had to take pictures with the trophy in our hands," Schortsanitis remembered. "And I was like, well, this is it. We were fighting for years for this."
Schortsanitis was back playing in Greece in the 2016-17 season when he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon. Though he had surgery and came back, he never regained his previous form and in December 2020 announced his retirement from playing. However, even though he was done playing basketball, some things never change.
1:14:30 "My first 15 years, my mother was telling me what to do, how to do it, when to do it, where to go," Schortsanitis laughed retelling the conversation he had earlier that day with his wife. "For 20 years playing ball, my coaches were telling me what to do, where to go. And now that I've retired, I realized that for the rest of my life, you are going to tell where to go, what to do… And she's like, 'You just realized that now?!?!'"
With a one-hour format of exclusive one-on-one interviews, The Crossover with Joe Arlauckas goes well beyond the playing court with each podcast to delve into the life experiences that have made his guests protagonists and legends of the EuroLeague. The Crossover debuted in 2018 and has featured such current stars as Toko Shengelia, Shane Larkin and Kyle Hines, coaching greats such as Ettore Messina, Pablo Laso and Zeljko Obradovic, and legends like Theo Papaloukas, Nikola Vujcic and Mike Batiste, among others. The first guests in Season 3 were FC Bayern Munich Coach Andrea Trinchieri, Zalgiris Kaunas star Marius Grigonis, Kostas Papanikolaou of Olympiacos Piraeus and CSKA Moscow assistant coach Darryl Middleton, Kevin Pangos of Zenit St Petersburg and Norris Cole of LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne.