Two months ago, in the second week of Euroleague play this season, Maccabi Tel Aviv played at Olympiakos Athens in a duel whose result had been all but decided by pundits even before the opening toss.
The No. 2 team in Athens was in the midst of a deep crisis, while Maccabi was coming off back-to-back Euroleague championships and a big win over Sopot in its opening game.
Things were going according to plan as Maccabi broke out to an 18-12 lead after the first quarter. But events took a turn as 20-year-old center Sofoklis Schortsanitis got up off the bench and shook things up.
Maccabi's big men Nikola Vujcic and Maceo Baston looked at him in awe. They had never seen a 145-kilo, 2.04-meter player with such sharp movement in the low post. Schortsanitis finished the game with 13 points and 5 rebounds in 18 minutes, and Olympiakos stunned the champions 83-78.
Schortsanitis, the son of a Greek father and Cameroonian mother, grew up in the northern Greek town of Thessalonika.
He starred for the youth team of local club Iraklis, and at the age of 15 was already on its senior roster. Two years later, averaging 11 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in the Greek league, he became the first black player to appear for the national team.
In the 2003 NBA draft, "Baby Shaq," as he had become known, was one of the prominent Europeans and was picked in the second round at number 33 by the L.A. Clippers.
But that wasn't enough to secure him a contract, and Schortsanitis drifted back to Kanto of Italy, where he saw very little court time, but kept on getting bigger.
Depressed by his situation, Schortsanitis went on a binge and swelled to 170 kilos. "When an 18-year-old hears all the time that he is like Shaq, that can't do him any good," Greek sportswriter Dimitris Charistansis says. "So he just sunk into a depression."
Schortsanitis returned to Aris Thessalonika in the Greek league in the 2004/5 season, but his career, unlike his weight, was not taking off. As a result, Greek national team coach Panagiotis Yanakis overlooked him for the European championship that summer.
"Without the offer to join Olympiakos [last summer] he might have found himself without a team," Charistansis says.
However, Olympiakos was taking no chances with its new signing, and Schortsanitis was called in for training two weeks before his new teammates.
Olympiakos had him under virtual curfew, working with a coach and fitness trainer. "He wasn't allowed to go anywhere, and they watched everything he ate," Charistansis says. "But it worked, and he lost 25 kilos before the start of the season."
Schortsanitis also earned a lucky break when Lithuanian center Eurelijus Zukauskas was injured, and coach Jonas Kazlauskas was forced to throw him into the deep end.
"Kazlauskas likes to see the ball with Schortsanitis, who does everything he can to take advantage of his mass inside the paint," Charistansis says. "His advantages are, of course, his strength and technique, and his big shortcoming is his shooting."
Charistansis says that if Schortsanitis grew another six centimeters, he would be unstoppable, but even if he does stop growing, he is expected to make the jump to the NBA eventually.
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