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Greek-American Follows Basketball — and his Heart — to Mykonos

Greek American Papas basketball Mykonos
Greek American basketball player Tommy Papas is “living a dream” playing for Mykonos. Credit: Tommy Papas

At 26, Greek-American Tommy Papas is “living a dream,” playing professional basketball for the idyllic island of Mykonos.

Papas, a native of Plainfield, New Jersey, told Greek Reporter his Hellenic basketball odyssey began in 2018, when he signed on with the Patras-based team Apollon when he finished college.

Papas is 6’3″ and plays point guard and shooting guard, often called a “combo guard.”

He played for the University of William and Mary, graduating in 2018 from the school, which is based in Williamsburg, Virginia. Papas has been playing basketball passionately ever since preschool.

Papas has dual citizenship; his Greek-born father gave him the means to play for a Greek team — because of his own association with both the sport and Hellas.

Papas’ father, Stefanos Papathanasiou, immigrated to the US in the 1990s from the Athens suburb of Peristeri.

Papathanasiou, who now goes by the name of Papas, played professionally for Greece’s Olympiacos basketball team in 1993 before he immigrated to the US.

Papas told Greek Reporter that getting Greek citizenship was no easy task, however. “I am fully Greek and because my father was born in Greece I was able to re-patriate. After college I assembled all the documents — they even wanted my baptismal certificate! And it took months!”

Papas said, “Fortunately I knew what Greek bureaucracy meant — going from one office to the other to get the stamp or signature that pushed the process along.”

Once the basketball player was officially a Greek citizen, he headed to Patras and played for the city’s team for a year. “Patras is like a big village. You could walk everywhere, unlike Athens. I liked it, but the learning curve wasn’t as steep.”

In 2019 Papas was not on the court due to an injury. One of his teammates from Apollon was recruited to join the first season on the Mykonos squad for 2019. “The Summer of 2020, while the US was locked down, Greece was open. He told me ‘there is a place on the Mykonos team if you want it. There is nothing you can do in the States. Come play with us.'”

Papas’ eyes sparkle and his grin goes from ear to ear as he recalls for Greek Reporter how he reacted to the opportunity. “When you hear the word Mykonos, in conjunction with basketball, you ask, is this real?”

Mykonos basketball team
The Mykonos Basketball team with Greek-American point guard Tommy Papas. Image courtesy of Tommy Papas

The cosmopolitan tourist island of Mykonos was brand new to basketball at that time. The Mykonos Athletic Association, which dates back to the 1981, was formed to create a soccer team for the island. Basketball was something that had not been pursued as there were only outdoor courts for competition.

Thanks to the generosity of a Mykonian family, however, a few years back they donated land in the hamlet of Ano Mera for the purpose of creating an enclosed sports facility. Construction was finally completed on the building in the early Spring.

In the division in which the Mykonos basketball team plays, basketballers are required to be Greek citizens. Along with Papas, the Mykonos team has one other player with dual citizenship, a young man who was a refugee to Greece from the Congo.

Greek-American basketball player Papas: “I have so much pride for my country”

“It has been such a blessing to play in Mykonos, to play in Greece — to get in deeper touch with my roots. I have so much pride for my country,” the Greek-American basketball player enthuses.

“The club is very ambitious. Mykonos wants to become a first division team,” Papas tells Greek Reporter. “We have superb sponsorship because Mykonos has some of the wealthiest business owners in Greece. They own hotels, clubs, and restaurants and they are proud of the island.”

Papas said the island goes quiet in the winter so basketball does not compete for attention with other activities. “There isn’t much to do on the island in the winter because everything that was on in Summer is closed in Winter. The sponsors have the time to turn their attention to basketball. You can see that because the island has done so well, especially compared to the rest of Greece, because of the decade-long economic crisis. Mykonian sponsors are proud and generous.”

According to Papas, “there is definitely a sense of pride — they want to see Mykonos on that jersey. They want to see the island continue to thrive and us, as athletes, as a team, to represent them.”

Papas is nothing but positive. “We are really, really good. We are going to be champions in our category this year and next. Because our sponsors are generous, they make it easy for us to succeed. We have the equipment and the facilities at our disposal to be our best.”

In the 1986, the current format for Greek professional basketball, consisting of the A1 National Category and the A2 National Category, was formed. For men’s basketball, there are four divisions, each consisting of tiers: A1, A2, B and C. Each of these divisions has two or three tiers. Mykonos’ basketball team currently competes in the B division.

Papas believes that by “the third year, we should move into the second division in Greece because we are brand new.” Papas said that the athletic association “had the option of buying an existing team that was already in the second division. They could have rebranded and relocated to Mykonos.

“What they chose instead was to start fresh, at the very bottom of the local division. That was an important decision. They wanted to build a heritage, a tradition, a story unique for the team,” Papas says. “It would have been easy to purchase a team for the wealthy businesses sponsoring the athletic association. But they chose to build a culture, a foundation. I admire that. I think it was the right way.”

Papas recalls that he arrived in Mykonos last October to try out following his former teammates’ encouragement. “I played well and they offered me a spot on the team. My teammates are incredible.” He was new to the island and had not experienced what the island was like in full Summer mode.

“Mykonos is an island of extremes. It is feast or famine. Once the Summer passes and the island is quiet, you have nothing but your teammates and the game. The team is housed in a villa so that adds to our camaraderie. We got really, really close,” Papas tells Greek Reporter. 

Papas says plainly “This is my dream job. Even if I won the lottery, I would be playing basketball on Mykonos. This Summer, I have had the most fun I have ever had — and that included the grueling practices and workouts. On Mykonos it is really easy to fall in love. I fell in love.”

The Greek-American basketball player adds “Every single day when I wake up on the island I ask myself is this real life? Do I really live here and play professional basketball on one of the most famous islands in the world? I am so blessed and so thankful for the opportunity.”

Covid-19 played its role in skewing the the lives of the new team, however. The 2020-2021 athletic season allowed for three games and then Greece shut down from November 2020 to May of 2021. According to Papas, being on the team means everyone is vaccinated. Nonetheless, one of the team members was infected during the summer and had to isolate, to keep the rest of the players Covid-19 free.

Covid-19 Lockdown Stops Regularly Scheduled Games

With the November 2020 lockdown, team members bonded, locked in together at home, with daily reprieves coming when they would head to outdoor basketball courts for regular  workouts. The limbo of not knowing what would happen brought the team to Christmas.

Papas returned to his family in New Jersey and didn’t come back to Mykonos until July. “It was devastating. I had been so excited to get to Mykonos to play professionally. We had been favored to win our division and now we couldn’t play. Covid-19 derailed our season. At 25 I wasn’t sure whether I would be playing again. There is a sense of guilt because it seems too good to be true.”

In April, the captain of the team, Angelos Tsamis, called him to tell him he wanted Papas back in Mykonos to play for the 2021-2022 season. “Angelos is a huge mentor to me. He played in the first division in Greece for more than a decade. He is an incredible player. For him to tell me ‘I want you back’ was validation by a great player,” says Papas.

Training in the heat of Mykonos summer — both in terms of the physical temperature and the frantic pace of the island’s party atmosphere, is challenging, according to Papas. “I struggled with balancing the extremes. Everybody loves you when you are winning and as an athlete you are under constant pressure to perform well. As a single 25-year-old guy it was a challenge to maintain a balance between the demanding physical workouts and a magnetic nightlife.”

Papas found it interesting that the many people he met while on the island, seemed to be very happy — the happiest they had been in their entire life. “Mykonos got me. It definitely got me.” He felt fortunate in meeting many people but also having friends from home visit as well. “I have become an ambassador for Mykonos.  I tell everyone who asks about Mykonos that if they come with their friends they will have the best time of their life.”

Games are scheduled every weekend, one on the home court and one away game.  The competitors in the division are mostly teams around Athens. Twice a month the team travels by ferryboat and then by motorcoach to their away game. This requires hotel overnights as well as developing “sea legs” when the wind blows strong and the sea is turbulent.

Papas says that the travel is challenging and yet it creates a home court advantage for Mykonos as competing teams are not used to the ferry travel and that tends to throw them off. “It’s a competitive advantage because taking a five-hour ferry ride across the Aegean is different than a bus ride across Athens for the teams on the mainland that come to us to play. There is an element of fatigue that is induced for them.”

Papas said that the “boat rides also help as bonding experiences for the team. We have a great parea and we are always finding something to laugh about.”

Raised in a Greek household in the US, the Greek-American basketball player is learning formal Greek now. “Although Mykonos has been easy because everyone speaks English during the summer, in the Winter not being fluent in Greek has been challenging.”

Papas said that as directives are called out in Greek during a game, a lack of fluency is particularly frustrating. “In the heat of the moment, when there is pressure to perform, translating meaning sometimes fails. ‘Den katalava’ — I didn’t understand — is the go to. My goal is to become completely fluent in Greek.”

“There are several social circuits on the island. Tourists, locals, seasonal workers — it is nice to be able to to dabble in both circuits and meet such a variety of people. You are seen differently when you say you live on the island. Sometimes I feel like I am in a cross of a dream job and a dream vacation.

“I worked really hard at basketball. I have been playing from the time I could walk. My Dad is a basketball junkie and my little brother is as well — who, by the way, is the best Greek-American college basketball player in the US right now.” AEK has made the younger Papas an offer. His older brother says “We might play together next year. Mykonos wants to sign him!”

Papas and his Mykonos teammates practice on the same court that the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets players practiced on while traveling to Mykonos this past summer. Kevin Durant and James Harden went to great lengths for a practice session while vacationing on Mykonos.

The Brooklyn Nets superstars were on vacation on the island, which is famous for attracting celebrities among its many tourists every summer. This year’s visit was not the first for either Durant or Harden. The pair had the privilege to practice in the newly built sports arena for the Mykonos team.

The Mykonos Sports Arena is a modern, enclosed athletic facility designed to host basketball, volleyball, handball and coaching-training events. The arena can seat up to 300 spectators and also house a media booth for sports reporters covering an event.

Perhaps the presence of Durant and Harden will bring Papas and his Mykonos teammates NBA luck as they work hard to champion their category. Papas has certainly bonded with his co-players and knows the team’s success is dependent on how well they work as one. The Greek-American basketball player told Greek Reporter “These guys are my best friends in the world. The friendships will last forever.”

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