Promitheas Patras - European basketball's rebel with a youth plan
PATRAS (Greece) - Liolios only recently became a fan of the Greek titan Promitheus and his acts of trickery against the gods in becoming a champion of mankind. Liolios’s eyes light up when he talks about the mythical figure’s stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity, and in doing so providing them with knowledge to make culture and in essence freeing them.
“He was the first rebel of the universe,” Liolios says of Promitheus.
And it seems fitting that Liolios is the owner of Promitheas Patras, since the basketball club is rising from the banks of Patras' Gulf in western Greece and getting ready to mix it up against the current Greek basketball gods Panathinaikos and Olympiacos and is even already leaving its mark on Europe.
In fact if you look up the definition of rebel - “a person who does not like rules or authority and shows this by behaving differently from most people in society” - then you could consider Promitheas Patras a rebel in European basketball.
Liolios shakes his head and uses the phrase “it’s impossible” multiple times when he talks about what would be the likelihood that the Patras club would rise from the third local league when he purchased the team in 2005 to play in the Basketball Champions League in 2018 - including back-to-back-to-back jumps from the national fourth league C Basket League to top flight A1 from 2014 to 2017. Promitheas then finished third last year in the regular season - which can be compared to winning the title considering the power of Olympiacos Piraeus and Panathinaikos Athens.
“If somebody would tell me that some day you would be in the first basketball league in Greece I would say you’re mad, it’s impossible,” said Liolios, who played for the club back in 1989 for fun as an amateur.
And it is that feeling of fun and family that Liolios has worked so hard to keep within the club.
“I LOVE PROMITHEAS. IT'S LIKE ONE OF MY KIDS. IF YOU LOVE SOMETHING YOU WANT TO GIVE ALL YOU HAVE TO IT.”
“The most important thing was not how many divisions we jumped each year but that from the third local division until now we are the same people and we have the same emotions that we had as basketball players in 1989. That’s beautiful.”
Real family feeling
Liolios gives a hearty laugh as he talks about almost having a split personality between his tasks as a pediatrician and owner of the coffee company Coffee Island and Promitheas Patras. “Half of my mind I am a doctor. The other half of my mind I am a business man. I am a divided man - like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
But the one common theme with both Coffee Island, which has 430 franchises around Greece and also franchises in Cyprus, London and Toronto, and the basketball club is the people.
“I am not the owner, they are the owner. I just spend some money. But I am not the owner,” says the father of four children.
Having grown up with the club and being a passionate fan of basketball, Liolios actually considers Promitheas Patras his fifth child.
“I love Promitheas. It’s like one of my kids. If you love something, you want to give all you have to it,” he says, expressing mainly that family feeling is crucial.
“The most important thing for us is that everybody playing with the professional team feels like they are Greek - even the American players. We have to transfer to them what Greek family means. It’s very important for us to take care of everything that they need for their lives, not only the money. Everybody can say they are a beautiful family but if you have a family, you have kids and you have to take care of them. Not only something to eat but how they feel. Do they feel safe? Do they have problems? About their future? About their wife and kids? Do they feel secure here? They come to a new country and don’t know anybody. Do they feel like they are not just playing basketball for the money but for something else? Because it’s their life. That’s our approach,” Liolios said.
So far, the club has been successful in passing that feeling to their players - even the Americans.
“Ever since the first day I was here, even when it comes to family problems, problems off the court, they always want us to come directly to them. You don’t have to contact your agent or anybody else. Call or text them. They are right around the corner and can meet you anywhere you want to talk. It’s been great to have an organization and club that is so in-tune with their guys. They want to just see us happy, first and foremost. They know that if we’re happy and stress-free that translates to the basketball court. They are so family orientated,” said Rion Brown, Promitheas’ 27-year-old leading scorer, who is playing with his fifth club in his five years as a professional and has two young sons.
Build from within
Within the club, everybody sees Liolios as a visionary and is amazed with his ability to realize those visions.
“Our owner has a vision, he is a visionary. When I talk to him, he tells me things that will happen in five years. And when he says something will happen in five years, then it will happen in two years. He sees things in the future,” said Christos Milas, the CEO and president of the club, who used to coach the club as well. “He’s the leader - not only because he puts in the money. He works harder than anybody else here for the club.”
While Liolios may be considered a visionary, he is also a realist and understands certain things are necessary in order to build something bigger. And in basketball, that means having a strong base in the youth ranks to then produce players for the men’s team.
“OUR OWNER HAS A VISION, HE IS A VISIONARY. WHEN I TALK TO HIM, HE TELLS ME THINGS THAT WILL HAPPEN IN FIVE YEARS. AND WHEN HE SAYS SOMETHING WILL HAPPEN IN FIVE YEARS, THEN IT WILL HAPPEN IN TWO YEARS. HE SEES THINGS IN THE FUTURE.”
“It’s very easy to have a very good professional team. It depends on how much money you spend. But most important and most difficult is how good of an academy you have. Because you cannot buy good under-16 and under-18 players. You have to spend not money, but time of your life in order to develop them. It’s a very, very difficult thing,” Liolios said.
The beloved Promitheas Patras owner once again smiles and adjusts his glasses as he begins a story about the humble beginnings of the academy idea back in 2006.
“When we began the academy, we had nine kids and five of them were brothers. If they couldn’t come to practice, then we didn’t have practice. Now it’s very, very different.”
That couldn’t be any more of an understatement.
It’s time for a brief lesson in Greek philosophy. Nous is a term for the faculty of intellectual apprehension and of intuitive thought - so, kind of understanding or perception within the mind. You could also describe it similarly as awareness or good sense. And there couldn’t be any more fitting name for Promitheas Patras’ youth project that is called the Nous program.
“IT'S VERY EASY TO HAVE A VERY GOOD PROFESSIONAL TEAM. IT DEPENDS ON HOW MUCH MONEY YOU SPEND. BUT MOST IMPORTANT AND MOST DIFFICULT IS HOW GOOD OF AN ACADEMY YOU HAVE. BECAUSE YOU CANNOT BUY GOOD UNDER-16 AND UNDER-18 PLAYERS. YOU HAVE TO SPEND NOT MONEY, BUT TIME OF YOUR LIFE IN ORDER TO DEVELOP THEM. IT'S A VERY, VERY DIFFICULT THING.”
The club is not just working on building better players, but the number one objective is to develop better, well-rounded and high-value people.
“We provide all the athletes with the best tools to succeed in life and achieve all their own goals as far as not being only athletes but also being useful in society,” said Athanasios Souflias, the Nous youth program manager.
There are 500 players between ages 6 and 18 in the academy with 20 full-time coaches, making for teams no larger than 15 kids. There is also a scholarship program for 28 players including currently 16 selected as the best athletes from around the country. The grounds also include a 10-year old dormitory that houses 43 athletes with renovations to come to fit another 10 more athletes.
“WE PROVIDE ALL THE ATHLETES WITH THE BEST TOOLS TO SUCCEED IN LIFE AND ACHIEVE ALL OF THEIR OWN GOALS AS FAR AS NOT BEING ONLY ATHLETES BUT ALSO BEING USEFUL IN SOCIETY.”
“We scout kids during the season for the next year and there are open tryouts in the summer for Promitheas. So athletes from all over Greece can come and try out for a scholarship. They study through a scholarship with a private high school. We provide accommodation in the dormitory, nutrition, doctors, physiotherapy, trainers, coaches, psychologists, nutritionists. We provide the whole package,” Souflias said.
Brand new training center
The new pride and joy of the club is the brand new training center for the youth academies - a 2,500 square meter facility that includes three courts as well as a basement full of state-of-the-art workout equipment, looking at sports science assessments and measurements and providing multi-sport cross training stations.
The entrance to the Promitheas Patras training center
“Our philosophy is to create great athletes. We create athleticism with a basketball element. Right now the game is so much faster and so athletic that you need to have good athletes to play good defense, to run the floor, be good defenders. And at the same time to combine all the basketball knowledge and fundamentals with athleticism. The game changes so much every year,” Souflias said.
Before any young player can step on the court to take a single shot, they must first go through a protocolled procedure of getting their bodies ready to perform at the highest level. The 30-minute workout is aimed at muscle and joint activation. The first area is stationary bikes followed by neuromuscular work, foot activation muscle tune-up and plyometric training. The third, fourth and fifth areas are aimed at strength and quickness. And the athletes have to go from one area to the next in a set order.
Promitheas Patras youngsters must go through a 30-minute protocolled warmup workout before they even shoot one ball
“We like to put into their mind that they should follow protocol and be able to follow rules. This is really important for us,” said Panos Stavropoulos, the performance coach and movement analyst.
If Liolios is a mix of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, then Stavropoulos might be considered the mad scientist as he is in charge of setting up the athletes’ workout plans and analyzing the collected data. Promitheas is looking at the players’ bio-mechanics and how they move and quality of their movement to see how prone they are to injury. They have metrics to determine fatigue levels, muscle strength quality and a myriad of other factors in a player’s health.
Panos Stavropoulos, the performance coach and movement analyst for Promitheas Patras
“We want to follow the latest research and are always trying to develop programs of our own in terms of protocols or algorithms that will better reveal the players’ fatigue,” Stavropoulos said. “We are constantly trying to be ahead of things to come. We are never satisfied. We are always hungry for more, for more technology or assessments.”
Stavropoulos said the club hates standing still.
“We really hate the phrase ‘It has always been done like that.’ We do not accept it and it doesn't fit into our philosophy,” he said. “It’s all about breaking ground. It may sound weird, but we really talk a lot with our young players. We really dedicate a lot of time and effort to build the brain.”
Green Room and cross-training station
In addition to the first area through which the players must go before heading back upstairs to start basketball training, Promitheas has built up two other workout rooms in the facility.
“WE ARE CONSTANTLY TRYING TO BE AHEAD OF THINGS TO COME. WE ARE NEVER SATISFIED. WE ARE ALWAYS HUNGRY FOR MORE, FOR MORE TECHNOLOGY OR ASSESSMENTS.”
The so-called “Green Room” is where Stavropoulos tests his latest ideas in sports science. There are cameras with high analysis looking at players’ knees and how they land and how they cut. Their acceleration times and cutting metrics are measured and their nervous system. There is a virtual balance activity and Stavropoulos even can put sensors on the players’ shoes for real-time feedback on percentage of sprint, intensity, duration, force and power while comparing it to heart rate.
The other main room already completed in the basement includes heavy weightlifting to develop players’ slow strength. But there are also areas in the room for training boxing, wrestling and dancing.
The boxing and wrestling areas of Promitheas Patras' training center
“These other sports help the players in basketball. We have teachers come in and teach them how to box and wrestle and dance because they use their actions in basketball as well,” Souflias said.
“The training is there for them to get to know their body, how to fall for example. One player broke an elbow. If he knew how to fall maybe we could have avoided that. Boxing gives the players a feeling of getting beaten up a bit. And the movement in dancing helps ankle joints, to be mobile and stable. They imitate animals - crocodiles, tigers etc and how they move and transition from one movement to another.”
“THE TEACHERS CAN GIVE ANOTHER POINT OF VIEW TO THE KIDS, WHICH IS REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT. THE TOUGHEST MUSCLE IS THE MIND. THAT'S WHY WE ARE TRYING TO DEVELOP IT THE MOST.”
All this is about building the players’ main muscle: the brain.
“The teachers can give another point of view to the kids, which is really, really important. The toughest muscle is the mind. That’s why we are trying to develop it the most,” Souflias added.
The players also come together every couple of weeks in the meeting room of the adjoining dormitory for an educational session from high level athletes from various sports, an important personality who played professionally or coached and did very well.
“They talk to the athletes about their lives, what they did in their lives wrong, what they did right. What worked in the past to help them succeed,” Souflias said. “The young athletes have time to ask questions and the personality can answer with the challenges he or she faced when they were young.”
Players can work out on their own
Promitheas Patras know they have laid the foundation for their young players to become better - both on the court in basketball and off the court in life. But now it is up to them to see it through. And the players have 24-hour access to the training facility. A youngster who wants to work on his jumper can do so - of course, only after having gone through the protocolled half-hour warmup workout in the basement. But there are two basketball shooting machines available to the players to use whenever they want.
Working out at any time night or day has helped 15-year-old Lefteris Mantzoukas earn playing time for Promitheas' pro team
“Any time I want to come to court, at any hour, I can come to the court and work on my own - without a coach. we have the shooting machines so I can be on the court at any time, said Promitheas’ prized talent Lefteris Mantzoukas, who has already pulled at least one solo shooting session in the facility from 11:30 pm to 1:00 am. “Everyone on this team will change because of all of this. It has helped me very much.”
And the 15-year-old Mantzoukas, who played in Promitheas' first and last games of the Basketball Champions League Regular Season - including picking up 7 points and 1 rebound against Segafredo Virtus Bologna - appreciates the commitment from the club.
“I think that for a club that is in the top league for only three years it’s very big to build a new court or something. We are very happy to have these courts and the dorms that are 50 meters away. It’s something very big for us,” said Mantzoukas ahead of Promitheas’ BCL game against SIG Strasbourg, during which he takes the lead in guiding the cheers from the section of the stands where the youth team sits.
Starting to produce talents
While the training center has only been open since September 2018 - after construction started in November 2017, Promitheas have already been successful in their work in producing young talent. So far, three Promitheas players have played for Greece’s youth national teams - Dimitrios Karaiskos, Aristotelis Sotiriou and Chrysostomos Sandramanis. Karaiskos and Sotiriou - the latter who moved this off-season to Panathinaikos - helped Greece win the title at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2017 Division B while Sandramanis played at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018.
Chrysostomos Sandramanis playing at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018
Souflias is certain that there will be more Promitheas players lining up for Hellas teams this summer, including Mantzoukas, who could one of as many as four Promitheas players on the U16 team this summer. Mantzoukas is also one of three Nous program players who practice with the men’s team, the others being Karaiskos and Rafail Lanaras.
The academy players have a chance of playing in the U16 and U18 Greek leagues, which are played Sunday and either Friday or Saturday respectively; as well as the first local men’s division in Patras, which is not a national league and has games on Mondays. Promitheas last year finished second in the Final 6 at the U18 category in Greece and third in the U16 level.
Next goal: young players growing into main roles
While three players practicing with the main team is a strong sign of progress, the club is far from its goal for the program.
“I WILL BE FULFILLED WHEN I SEE THREE YOUNG ATHLETES FROM THE NOUS PROGRAM WITH MAIN ROLES IN THE MEN'S TEAM IN THE NEXT TWO OR THREE YEARS. I WILL BE SATISFIED. MAYBE IT'S VERY OPTIMISTIC, BUT I WANT THIS.”
"I don't believe that participating in a couple of games is the main goal. The publicity that we get is very important. For young athletes to participate in practice with the first team is very important for them. It helps them very much," Milas said.
"I will be fulfilled when I see three young athletes from the Nous program with main roles in the men’s team in the next two or threes years. I will be satisfied. Maybe it’s very optimistic but I want this."
A big goal, but it's something that the club has been working on hard since calling in former Greece senior national team coach Kostas Missas five years ago to help organize things and give the club the knowledge needed and set up a group of guidelines to follow.
Shrine to Prometheus
No amount of rain in Greece can dampen the fire burning inside Liolios as the Promitheas Patras owner greets his visitor outside the training center to talk about the on-going construction and plans for the rest of the grounds. Ever the visionary, Liolios is clearly excited in describing what in essence is a planned shrine to the titan Prometheus - again the one who helped humanity to be free and give it the knowledge to make everything we have, the knowledge from ancient Greece until now.
The whole area on which the training center stands is 12,000 square meters - 2,500 of which are used for the center. Liolios is planning a couple of outdoor courts, but most importantly, he is building a park to teach the world about Prometheus.
“When we built this facility (the training center) there were many, many olive trees here. But we didn’t cut down any of them. We transplanted them to another place because the environment is very important for us because we respect it. If you respect the environment, if you respect the trees, you respect the others. That is the beginning for every athlete in our academy. You can lose, but you have to respect your teammates, your coach, your opponents,” Liolios said.
Workers are currently building a 1,200 meter track around the training center which will be lined by almost 100 olive trees. And each of the trees will be named after very important people from ancient Greece through the Roman Empire to the current day who has talked about Prometheus and about the values of Prometheus.
The first tree will be dedicated to the tragedian Aeschylus, the second to Aristotle. Others will be dedicated to the likes of Plato, Beethoven, Goethe and Elytis.
“It’s not just a running track, it’s a road through the history of humanity - from ancient Greece to today,” said Liolios, who envisions the young players gathering around the trees and being taught about the values he so treasures about Prometheus.
“IT'S VERY IMPORTANT TO HAVE VALUES IN YOUR LIFE. IT'S VERY IMPORTANT TO BE A HUMAN BEING WITH HIGH VALUES IN YOUR LIFE. THAT'S WHY IT'S SO IMPORTANT TO HAVE THIS. IT'S NOT A SPORTS CENTER HERE, IT'S A CULTURAL AREA. IT'S A PARK FOR PROMETHEUS - THE ONLY PARK IN THE WORLD FOR PROMETHEUS.”
There is also a field of 32 olive trees at the entrance of the whole grounds and each of those trees will be dedicated individually to one value of athleticism. The first 10 trees will be dedicated this summer, by which time Liolios wants the outside of the project to be completed. And then every following summer, one of the remaining 22 olive trees will be dedicated - each with a prominent personality coming to do the honors.
“It’s very important to have values in your life. It’s very important to be a human being with high values in your life. That’s why it’s so important to have this. It’s not a sports center here, it’s a cultural area. It’s a park for Prometheus - the only park in the world for Prometheus,” Liolios said.
The club owner passionately emphasizes that he cares even more about what the players learn outside the training center than they do inside.
“More important is what happens outside than inside. Inside you have to take care of your body, but outside you have to take care of your mind. That is our philosophy.”
That is the philosophy of Promitheas Patras - a club that can truly be considered a rebel in European basketball.