For almost every American kid growing up, following in the footsteps of NCAA Tournament heroes like UCLA's Tyus Edney, Duke's Christian Laettner, or Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves is part of the path of fulfilling their hoop dreams.
While the NBA is a far off goal, Papi wanted to come to America to play college basketball.
For many foreign kids, their dreams are usually set a little higher. They tend to aim for the Dirk Nowitzkis, the Pau Gasols, the Yao Mings. Heck, even the Vlade Divacs.
The point is, kids who don't grow up in America tend to set their hoop dreams on the NBA. College basketball doesn't usually register on the radar.
Texas' Greek freshman Ioannis Papapetrou, simply called "Papi" by his fellow Longhorns, is different. The NBA is obviously a dream - what college player doesn't dream of shaking hands with David Stern? - but Papi came to the states with dreams of cutting down nets, not hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Papi vividly remembers watching his first NCAA basketball game, one featuring an early-2000s Duke team. Back when sharp-shooting J.J. Redick was Public Enemy No. 1 to virtually every college basketball fan.
"I saw the level of play and I saw the intensity in the crowd and I was so excited about just being a part of it," Papi said
From that point on, Papi's goal wasn't to come to America to play in the NBA. It was to get to the states to play in front of those passionate college hoops fans. Those crazies that aren't found in NBA arenas. The ones you can only find standing, jumping and screaming in student sections of college arenas all over America.
Papi, the son of former Greece professional baller Argiris, dominated his youth leagues in Athens, Greece. He was always the most talented player on his teams growing up. He grew up seeing guys like Nowitzki excel at the highest level of basketball and thought one day he could play on the same floor.
He also saw that a lot of those European players took some years of callousing to catch up to American professionals. He's not afraid to say European players tend to be softer than their American counterparts.
Papi had to learn to take care of himself as a 15-year-old living in Melbourne, Fla while attending Florida Air Academy.
"I think doing it this way, coming through college first, you're better prepared for the NBA," he said.
Doing it this way wasn't an easy choice for the 6-foot-8, 225-pound small forward. He had to decide at just 15 years old that he needed to travel nearly 6,000 miles from Athens to Florida's east coast where he would attend Florida Air Academy. When the trip was made he left his supportive father, understandably distressed mother, friends and everything he had grown to know behind him in Greece to try to get himself ready to land at a place that could offer him the opportunity to one day cut down some nets and have that 'One Shining Moment'.
Just coming to America wasn't going to get it done, though.
Papi will tell you he was too small and too weak to cut it even on the AAU circuit when he first got to the states. He played AAU ball for all of two weeks before he realized he needed to get into the weight room. He needed to get bigger and stronger if he was going to play any meaningful basketball after he graduated from FAA.
He hit the gym hard and put on weight – without growing an inch he’s now up 35 pounds - while also showing out for Air Academy. It took no time at all for him, his coaches and his teammates to see the new guy in town was the best player on the team.
He was living by himself in the dorms in Melbourne, Fla., learning how to live as an American while also learning how to do the simplest things to take care of himself as a 15-year-old like making his bed and ironing his clothes. And he was doing this while in the meantime becoming the star of his high school basketball team.
The only problem is this star of the Florida Air Academy Falcons, a guy who didn’t make the rounds on the AAU circuits, wasn’t getting a whole lot of attention by the colleges he so desperately wanted to hear from.
"I got recruited when schools came to recruit some other guy that we were playing against, and all of a sudden they saw me," Papi said. "They didn't know about me."
Gaining muscle and distancing himself from the "soft" European image has been a long process for Papi.
Schools like the College of Charleston and Georgia Southern were the first ones to see that the scrawny Greek kid could ball. It wasn't until his junior year, with a lot of help from his high school coach, Aubin Goporo, that major programs started taking note of the budding star.
In that junior season he started to hear from the schools of which he'd dreamed. First it was the Florida Gators. Then it was the storied Kansas Jayhawks. Those two schools were sitting in a very good spot until another major program came around.
When Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns came calling on Papi, they won his attention fast.
"When Texas came it changed everything," he said.
Texas was competing with schools which had won national championships in recent years; programs that would seem hard to overshadow for a kid with no ties to the Lone Star State and looking for that big collegiate moment. But Texas had one thing those other schools didn't. Texas had Barnes.
"He recognized my ability playing all around, being versatile," Papi said. "He knew exactly what kind of player I am just by looking at me playing for ten minutes. He told me everything about me. I just trusted him."
Papi, with his parents thousands of miles away, was on his own to make his college decision, and he made it with little hesitation. Once he got the pitch from Texas' head coach it was only a formality to make it official and become a Longhorn. Papi visited Austin on Oct. 14 and committed to UT eight days later.
Now that he's in Austin he's got another challenge ahead of him. Playing in the NCAA is a whole lot tougher than playing on the AAU circuit.
The summer workout program with strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright has helped Papi get farther away from that “soft” stigma that follows so many European players. He continues to learn how to play physically, and he’s still working on adding muscle, but he’s still going to have to adjust to the college game on the fly in his first year in Austin.
“He’s found it a little bit harder than it would be,” Barnes said. “Probably more so from a defensive standpoint.”
It’ll take some time for Papi to fully develop on the defensive end – that’s the area virtually every freshman struggles with at first. His offensive game, however, is already on point.
That versatility Barnes saw in the gym in Melbourne has been on display behind closed doors on the 40 Acres in the summer workout sessions and fall practices. And it was quickly noticed by Longhorn players.
“He really surprised me how talented he is,” freshman forward/center Prince Ibeh said. “He does it all. He’s big, he’s 6-8, he handles the ball, he shoots it. He pretty much does it all.”
Papi is now finished with Wright’s summer workout plan. He’s done with his first fall camp.
Now, with Texas’ first regular season game tipping off tonight, it’s time for Papi to take that first step toward the dream that's been a decade in the making.
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