Something's the matter with Sofo. Maccabi's big man, Sofoklis Schortsanitis, looks dispirited according to Maccabi Tel Aviv officials. They say he does not talk about it but they gather it is a combination of the center's persistent knee pains and the fact that he cannot be with his wife, who is due to give birth soon.

His recent poor play is hardly helping matters.

Last week the usually dominant center was held to four points by Barcelona's collection of giants. On Monday he scored the same against lowly Maccabi Ashdod. This time it was Josh Duncan and Alex Tyus.

The story of Schortsanitis's hardships is not new. He opened the season with better numbers than the remarkable ones he amassed last season. In a span of eight days he racked up a collective 40 points, 13 rebounds and 45 minutes in two games against Efes Anadolu. Since then he has been off the mark.

About a month ago Schortsanitis began complaining of tremendous knee pain. "It is something that perhaps limits him a little, but tests show it's nothing especially serious," says Gur Shelef, the team's manager. "Sofo won't be operated on before season's end, and even then surgery is not a sure thing." Shelef said that to help him out the team gave Schortsanitis a few games and a few practices off.

Schortsanitis has played in only four of 15 Super League games this season, while his minutes in the Adriatic League have been cut back.

Overall, his numbers are only slightly down from last season. The difference is that then Maccabi had aces in the hole like Jeremy Pargo, Doron Perkins and Chuck Eidson, and earlier this year it had NBA player Jordan Farmar. The center's slump coincides with an overall drop in performance among the team's other leading players.

"There's no replacing Sofo, so he'll play until he no longer can, especially when Shawn James is injured and Richard Hendrix isn't exactly the picture of health," coach David Blatt said Tuesday. Blatt said Schortsanitis had a very good practice Tuesday. He referred to his center as a gladiator and added that now is the time to prove it, even if he isn't 100 percent.

Change of the guarding

The challenge for Schortsanitis tonight in Maccabi's Euroleague contest in Cantu is complex. Cantu's centers, Giorgi Shermadini and Denis Marconato, are 2.16 meters and 2.14 meters tall, respectively. But on paper Schortsanitis is better than both of them. Marconato is 36.

Recently, opposing coaches have been able to contain Schortsanitis using the guarding strategies Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic employed against him when he was with Olympiacos.

Clearly, no team in Europe has the defensive tools to match Barcelona, but even the less talented teams are succeeding in limiting Schorsanitis. "Sofo has not been in top condition lately, but anyone who claims the players around him are less good is simply wrong," says Shelef. "We found the best replacements for Pargo, Perkins, Eidson and Farmar, too."

It's doubtful that his supporting cast matches the crew that ran around Nokia Arena last season and at the beginning of this one, but everyone at Maccabi agrees that the problem with the Greek center is different. "Ever since his pregnant wife left several weeks ago, it's been very hard for him," says a member of team management.

A Greek sports journalist who covers Schortsanitis says he understands. He explained that one needs to understand that we're talking about a very sensitive man whose family is his whole world.

He passed up on appearing in the Eurobasket this summer with the Greek national team because his wife had a medical problem and he was afraid she would lose the fetus, the journalist adds.

Schortsanitis said he could not be with his wife and also play basketball, according to the journalist. "So everyone in Greece is sure that it's very hard for him now with his wife about to give birth and Sofo not being with her," the journalist explained.

"I think it is no less connected to his recent poor play than any defensive strategy or knee pains."