Rick Pitino’s international itinerary could include a stop at the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
The former University of Louisville basketball coach is weighing an offer to coach the Greek national team as it attempts to qualify for the 12-team Olympic tournament. He is scheduled to fly to Athens, Greece Wednesday for meetings with the Hellenic Basketball Federation.
“We’re going to talk sometime on Friday and then, if all goes well, Monday we’ll have an announcement,” Pitino said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s very exciting. It would be a hell of a thing to walk out in a (Opening Ceremonies) parade in Japan. That would be something really, really special if we could do it.”
Pitino led Panathinaikos to a Greek League championship last June after taking charge of the underperforming Athens-based team in mid-season. Citing family considerations – a pregnant daughter, an ailing grandson – he declined to return for a second season.
Yet a short-term commitment to coach a national team led by NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo has an undeniable appeal. Though Greece has never medaled in Olympic men’s basketball and last qualified for the Olympic tournament in 2008, it was responsible for the only defeat Team USA suffered during Mike Krzyzewski’s 76-game tenure as the American coach. Despite finishing a disappointing 11th in September’s World Cup in China, Greece stands seventh in FIBA’s current world rankings.
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Of the 24 nations that will compete for the four remaining Olympic qualifying spots June 23-28, only Serbia ranks higher than Greece.
“The teams are excellent,” Pitino said. “The thing is, would I have enough practice time to make a difference? I’ve got to see who the commitments are, what the logistics are … where (qualifying) is going to be held, how much practice time I will have. There are guys we’ve got to get on board: (Former NBA guard) Tyler Dorsey is half Greek; (7-footer) Kosta Koufos, from Ohio State, is playing in Russia. They are very loyal to Greece. And it’s a big deal for these players to represent their country.
“The negative about the whole thing is these guys are all coming off professional seasons. And they’re tired. So it’s (a matter of) getting enough practice time.”
Thanasis Skourtopoulos coached the Greek team in the World Cup, and encountered sharp criticism for his handling of Antetokounmpo. Playing less than 25 minutes per game, the “Greek Freak” averaged 14.8 points during the tournament – barely half of his scoring average with the Milwaukee Bucks last season.
“Giannis came in with a great attitude, but somewhere along the way, I think he was stressed out because he wanted to prove everyone right in Greece and here in China,” Skourtopoulous said, according to Eurohoops.net. “Everywhere he went, fans were following him. It was the first time we had Giannis on our team and (we) tried very hard to use him in the best possible way. However, he didn’t get the respect he deserved, from the organizers, but also the referees.”
Pitino, who coached Antetokounmpo’s older brother with Panathinaikos, plans to meet with the Milwaukee star when the Bucks visit Miami in March.
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“I think what they have to focus on, and what I have to focus on is getting the Greek Freak to play,” Pitino said. “Obviously, we’re not going to qualify without him. If we’re going to make the Olympics, it has to be with him.”
George Vassilakopoulos, head of the Greek federation, confirmed to Sport24 that Pitino had been approached about coaching the national team, but described him last week as one of several candidates. “I can’t add anything further at the moment,” he said. “I am actually not allowed to comment on the matter.”
Pitino said the job was his if he wants it.
“It’s all set for Monday to have a press conference if I accept the job,” he said. “I’m going to meet with the head of the federation. Then I’ve got to decide on whether I want to do it or not.”