The jersey!
PANAGIOTIS VASSILOPOULOS

The jersey!

He was only 25 years old when he was privileged to be the captain of one of the most important basketball clubs in the world. But then, his knees forced him to sit... Again. And again. He underwent numerous surgeries, for years he was about to quit, but he didn't. He kept playing in much lower level teams and now, at the age of 33, he met again, the one and only Jersey he was dreaming to put on since he was a kid. 

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Η φανέλα…

Panagiotis is my name, but that's probably something most of you already know... And this is a story I would like to share.

My phone rang. I heard a familiar voice on the other end of the line, saying:

- ”I do not care about what Vassilopoulos has to say... I want Panagiotis to imprint himself”.

I didn’t know what to answer.

- “Hey man, give me some time to think about it” I responded.

I thought about it the same night. And then again the very next day. Suddenly I realized that...

- “What the hell! We are athletes because every single day is a new challenge rises for us... Maybe it’s an old one coming from yesterday, or a new one, an interesting, dangerous, inspirational one! ".

I searched the number that had called me a few days earlier ...

“Hiya, listen to me. I will do it, but the way I want to" I told him

"If you were to do it in my way, I would have never even asked you to do it, sir" the voice answered me!

So here I am, right in front of my pc, having a single turmoil in my head.

"Is the reader ready to accept, comprehend, the story Panagiotis has to tell?"

I will tell you the truth. My truth. As an afterthought, lying on my sofa, I turned off my pc, grabbed the TV’s remote control. I felt relieved for a moment.

"I will call him and tell him that I ain’t gonna do it” i said to myself.

And I kept zapping. As you can imagine, the battle was actually predetermined. The remote brought to my mind the picture of some people, who belong to another, completely different universe.

NBA!

I stayed there for a while, watching the TV and suddenly it hit me. Seeing these basketball superheroes running, dunking, playing their heart out on defense, diving on the floor for a possession while the arena was jam-packed with fans who have paid thousands of bucks, I thought ...

"If they are not afraid to freely express their opinions, why should I be afraid?"

Few moments after, my laptop was on again in front of me and a white page was ready to welcome Panagiotis through his own words on its screen.

Challenging if nothing else! Intriguing. Interesting.

I put the phone back in my hands ...

“It’s me again. Let me tell you, I hope you don't expect from me to write the story of my life"
"Panagiotis, if I wanted that, I would ask you to write a book"
"Ok, I think I got an idea"
"Write whatever you want. Just one thing: Please start writing dude!”

I had tried this before when I was running my own website. This is something different though! It's god damned different!

I started slowly getting into the subject. First, I remembered myself as a kid... This white page I have in front of me it looks like it’s forcing me to make a trip to my personal past.

I slowly started getting the hang of things. First, I remembered my childhood ... It seems TGATV blank page on my screen in front of me is forcing me to take a trip to my personal past.

Anyway... Don’t get me wrong. If I could do it better, I would be a pro writer.

I grew up in Pyrgos, my hometown. Samiko was the name of the village where I was born. Since I remember myself, I spent most time of the day in a playground playing football, basketball, volleyball. I just wanted to play. Which game I played was not important to me at the time. I just wanted to chase after a ball. Whatever ball it was, we played with it. The ball was our childhood treasure.  When there was no ball available, we would just run.

A few years later I decided to turn my back on football (which I loved as a child)  and focus on another sport.  All of a sudden I had a crush on this bigger, darker ball (if you think that the basketball balls we used in the open playgrounds were orange in color, you are probably crazy). For the first time in my life, I got an idea of what true love means. My new “Amore” was the game of basketball!

I started playing basketball on a team called Iphitus of Pyrgos. The conditions were not ideal, but as a member of an organized club, I started to get a feel of how a team operates and slowly started dreaming of my future with my new love.

I played at all levels… Starting from the cadets in making it to the men's team. I spent hours and hours practicing, along with my teammates, but I also hit the gym every single day to work out individually in order to improve my fitness and athleticism. Eventually, all the hard work paid off.  I got called up for the National Team! Soon I put myself in the process of prioritizing my goals and ambitions. Sky is the limit and I had to make sure that I was good enough to reach and overtake my goals!

Let me tell you something... It doesn’t matter whether I was good or not! Now, at 34, I know I was not the best player around, But I also know that If I  thought that I was not good, I would never be in a position of writing this letter today. Sports is a mixture of Psychological strength, self-confidence; and Most important training and working hard. Your training and worth ethic boosts your confidence, and when you feel self-confident that forces coaches to put an eye on you.

I can’t complain, God blessed me with talent. He gave me the raw material, the yeast. It was my duty to work hard and make use of these gifts and to eventually cultivate the land. The years have passed, this land made me who I am, but like everywhere, it is impossible to predict the bad moments, the unfortunate ones, those that whatever you do is unlikely to avoid if you are meant to. 

The years went by, I grew into who I am, but like every fairytale, there are always bad and unfortunate moments.  These bad moments that are just meant to be, and whatever you do you just happen to fall upon and can’t avoid them.

I fell… I got up again... But then again. I fell down! What's the point of getting up without falling over?

Maturing as a player I got to know both the pros and cons of being an athlete. The bright and dark side of the moon. I played for PAOK and Olympiakos. I participated in a European Final Four. I was honored with being the captain of one of the top teams in the world. I was on top of the moon and all of a sudden ….. Crash. My knee had just crashed, as had my dreams and ambitions.  

Just as other youngsters of my generation, were reaching their peak and knocking down their goals, I was battling with the decision of giving up and possibly to stop playing. That’s a tough decision dude!  Believe me. It’s very hard for a parent to let his baby out of his hands.  Having held a basketball since a was a child that was the feeling I was getting. The basketball was my newborn baby and I was about to give it up.  

I’m not writing these things for anyone to sympathize with or feel sorry for me. No pity is needed for me! You know why? Because at my age today  (sitting in front of my laptop and sharing my thoughts with you) I do not regret my journey one single bit! I am a happy man and the reason for my happiness is because I am honored to be wearing THE JERSEY!!! 

THE JERSEY I wore in Germany back in 2002 with my 18-year-old teammates. The same JERSEY I wore in 2003 and 2005 in Argentina and because of my stupid foul on Seibutis the glow of the medal on our chests was a silver one instead of gold! That same JERSEY that I was honored of wearing in 2005 in Belgrade and a year later in Japan. 

The JERSEY that made me who I am today and I will always be proud off for my entire life.

The JERSEY that when on my chest I became  A gold medalist and European champion in the 2005 Eurobasket and a Silver medalist (which has the same value as a gold medal) in the 2006 world championships in Japan!

It’s the Blue and White Jersey! The Jersey of my country! The  Greek National team Jersey My friend!!!!

PHOTO COURTESY: INTIME AGENCY

I was still in Samiko, young kid when I was thinking... "Oh my God, please bless me to wear this jersey just once in my life"... It was the time when our National Team didn’t do so well.

God blessed me! I put this jersey for more than once. But, these four last ones, during the Qualifiers for the World Cup, don’t get me wrong, there are like no other, except for the first time.

In November in Leicester, my life’s throwback lasted for 40 seconds... The sound of the National Anthem was giving me the chills. My eyes were looking up, seeing my hard scenes and shadows from the past...

"I shall always recognize you by the dreadful sword you hold…”

As I was listening and my body was getting goosebumps all over (yes, who said the athletes are unconscious), staring at the flag, streams of tears and sad shadows appeared were formed in front of me. Panagiotis fell on the court. A damaged knee. Snitches, medical aprons, lights of surgery, this fucking light interrogating me asking me for an answer I did not want to give:

“Just say it! You give up! You will stop playing basketball” an unknown voice was shouting. But I refused as much as I could. I resisted!

In those 40 seconds that the National Hymn sounded in my ears, a wet and weird shadow theatre play was taking place in my mind... The finishing line which was so closed a few years earlier, the crack I heard at my leg. My doctor who said... "Panagiotis I'm sorry. You must be strong". My tears! The tears of my closest friends and family. The small playground of Perama, where I played at the age of 30! It was then when I was so close to deciding that this is the end.

"Hail, Liberty! Hail!" The film of my darkest years was finished. My eyes were barely dry.

I had won! I was "free". I was free to chase my own fate, not let myself laying on fate’s hands as it has been since 2011.

I was back there again. Tell me the truth, my friend. You did not expect it, right? You did not expect to see me dressed in blue and white.

To tell you the truth? Neither I expected it! But, what does it cost to try? Just to try. I owed it to so many beloved ones... To my father, who passed away. To my newborn child, who wanted me to cross the finishing line standing, and not from the VIP tribune of a stadium wearing jeans and shirts. To my wife! And especially to myself.

Photo Courtesy: Intime Agency

Now, I know... This jersey, the blue-white one, the most beloved of me, the most adorable and the most important one, made me who I am. I was dreaming about it since my childhood. I smiled when I first wore it, I felt like a modern Atlanta, carrying the dreams of the whole country. I eclipsed when I lost her. I cried a lot. None could see me do it. I did not want to.

All these years, however, I came to understand that this jersey belongs to nobody. The national team jersey is neither for rent nor for sale. From nobody! It belongs to everyone who deserves it for a short time though. And for this reason, I didn’t feel bad or sad in November, February or June when I was recruited to serve the National Team under special circumstances.

The last few months I see that everyone wants to say or write something about the National Team... Some want to criticise you, others want to shake your hand and congratulate you. Τhere will certainly be some who will envy the success and will be happy when NT fails. I only want to say one thing, and I definitely do not want to dramatize the issue. Certainly, I would never highlight my national spirit to compare it with others. Surely there have been boys who served the National Team's jersey much better than me, even meeting tougher conditions than us. I would say though that there are two things that this group needs: Love; from anyone; the players and the fans. And last but not least: Soldiers! Soldiers ready and eager to go to the battlefield happy and not feeling under pressure.

That’s why we have achieved as a country. Whatever we did for our country we did it by fighting for our ideals, with a free spirit that never fell down. I'm sure there are many out there who want exactly the same but they are free and under siege at the same time!!! Please do not judge them and, above all, do not be critical of them. All we have to do is respect for all that they have offered, those who, at times, have worn this jersey. Each one of them, and above all, those who preceded us made “Jersey".

A child from Samiko, who shudders every time he listens to the National Hymn!