The NBA’s Best Young Stars Loved the Same Player. He Hated the NBA.

“I also watched Spanoulis,” said Doncic. “I don’t know if you guys know him.”

“Spanoulis,” said Charles Barkley. “That’s the guy from ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High?’”

The strange truth about Vassilis Spanoulis is that he wasn’t in the NBA for much longer than Jeff Spicoli. He lasted one year. It was so regrettable that he would return to Greece and never come back. One of the best players in Europe had one of the worst experiences in America.

Doncic was one of the many kids who revered him anyway. The reason that he sounds almost sheepish talking about Spanoulis is that the EuroLeague’s all-time leader in points and assists is a basketball demigod for anyone of his generation. And this balding Greek man who hated the NBA endures in the league through Doncic: He wears the unusual number 77 because his childhood idol wears the number 7.

Spanoulis played such a formative role in the basketball development of the league’s next big thing that a giddy Doncic once bothered his hero during the fourth quarter of a game with a peculiar request: He wanted to make sure he could get his uniform afterward.

Giannis Antetokounmpo can relate to that starstruck feeling. He grew up in Greece. So he grew up with Spanoulis. The player who signed the richest deal in basketball history recently beamed as Spanoulis signed a jersey for him.

“He’s like the Kobe or Jordan of Europe,” Antetokounmpo said.


Giannis Antetokounmpo, left, met with Vassilis Spanoulis in November 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Olympiacos

The first time that Doncic and Antetokounmpo faced each other this season, a matchup of the NBA’s reigning two-time most valuable player and someone who seems destined to win a few MVPs of his own, a cultish figure was following along from across the ocean. Spanoulis, who at 38 is older than anyone who has appeared in an NBA game this season, doesn’t have the luxury of sleeping late when he stays awake to watch them. He has a day job. He’s still playing basketball.

“I’m a big fan of both of them and I will always watch them play,” Spanoulis said. “I wish I was a good inspiration for them. I will be very, very, very, very, very lucky and very thankful if I helped them a little bit or inspired them to take some moves or advice from me to be who they are.”

Spanoulis came to America immediately after one of the greatest basketball triumphs of his life. He was the star of a fierce Greek national team that went to the 2006 world championships without an NBA player on the roster and beat the U.S. in the sort of upset that can invigorate an entire country. Team USA’s coaches were scared of Spanoulis before the game and scarred for a long time afterward. He moved to Houston less than a month later.

The only thing memorable about his stint with the Rockets was how unmemorable it was. His spirit was lost in translation. He clashed with coaches as he barely played and scored most of his meager 2.7 points per game in garbage time. And he fled back to Europe as quickly as he could. That one year left such a sour aftertaste that Spanoulis is known among NBA executives for telling other players not to come over.

“Wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “But it’s OK. Sometimes things don’t work. Maybe it’s better that I went back and made this career.”

But the end of his NBA career was the beginning of his legend.

If you happened to be a kid who lived in Europe and loved basketball, it was almost inevitable: Spanoulis was your guy. He won his first EuroLeague title with Panathinaikos in 2009, when Doncic was a 10-year-old boy in Slovenia before he moved to Spain, and he won back-to-back EuroLeague championships with Olympiacos in 2012 and 2013. Doncic played him for the first time with Real Madrid in 2016. He was better in 2017 and the best player in Europe by 2018. That was also the year he left for the NBA.


Vassilis Spanoulis, right, dribbles past Luka Doncic during a game in 2017. Photo: Nikos Paraschos/Euroleague Basketball/Getty Images

It’s easy to watch Mavericks games and see the shades of Spanoulis in Doncic. The creativity. The audacity. The stepbacks and the sidesteps that allow him to maneuver through defenses at different speeds in slightly mysterious ways. He even demands the ball in big moments like a player nicknamed “Kill Bill.” Doncic’s buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer in the playoffs was pure Spanoulis.

But there is also something ineffable about Spanoulis that infected Doncic—a certain magic that basketball fans in Europe can appreciate.

“Under pressure, there is no one like him,” said Dan Peterson, a legendary American coach in Italy. “Giannis and Luka understand that.”

Rick Pitino understands it, too. From the day in 2018 that he moved to Greece, he kept hearing about one player. The wonders of his new home included the Acropolis, the hummus and Spanoulis.

The more he learned about Spanoulis, the better Pitino understood him.

“He did sort of what I did,” Pitino said. “I went from Kentucky to Louisville. He went from Panathinaikos to Olympiacos.”

The rivalry between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos is so bitter that Greece’s best two basketball teams couldn’t even play in their domestic league last season: Olympiacos had been relegated as punishment for refusing to take the floor with Panathinaikos without foreign referees to officiate. But when they faced each other the season before, one part of the scouting report was simple enough to memorize. If the game was close, the ball was going to Spanoulis. “So revered,” Pitino said. “So feared.”


Vassilis Spanoulis holds the Euroleague Final Four trophy in 2013. Photo: Richard Isaac/London News Pictures/Zuma Press

Pitino is back in college basketball now, but his top recruit is not a high-schooler, and he’s not trying to lure him to Iona College. As the coach of the Greek national team, Pitino has another target: He’s attempting to coax Spanoulis out of international retirement. “I think he might bite,” Pitino said.

He would not be the first person in basketball to change his mind about retiring.

“I grew up with Michael Jordan,” Spanoulis said. “So this was my favorite player.”

Now he sees basketball from a different perspective. He admires Doncic as one of a kind. “I wish him to be one of the best that ever played,” Spanoulis said. He envies Antetokounmpo’s drive. “I wish him very soon to win a championship,” Spanoulis said.

And it turns out he’s not their only fan in the Spanoulis household.

“Also my kids,” he said.

The oldest of his six children is a boy who follows the NBA. Doncic and Antetokounmpo are two of his favorite players. “Daddy,” he likes to say, “show me some highlights of them.”

It was exactly what his son’s idols used to say about him. This is basketball’s circle of life—from Jordan to Spanoulis to Doncic and Antetokounmpo to another Spanoulis.

“They inspire so many kids now,” he said. “More than me.”

Write to Ben Cohen at