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The Greek God of Irvine

Coming to the United States to pursue a life of basketball, 7-foot-2-inch center Ioannis Dimakopoulos knew he would have to wait his turn as a freshman before becoming the starting center for the UC Irvine men’s basketball team. Dimakopoulos accepted his new role of contributing off the bench, knowing that he would have to bring more than just sheer size and strength before finding a valuable spot on the roster.

As a freshman, Dimakopoulos played behind veteran players and the tallest player in NCAA history in 7-foot-6-inch Mamadou N’diaye. He knew that he could not compete with his teammates in the strength department, so he had to find other ways to demonstrate his abilities on the court. Dimakopoulos incorporated his European game, as he knew that it would be the way he played that would distinguish himself from his teammates and give trouble for his opponents who weren’t familiar with a big man with inside-out skill. Dimakopoulos received advice from his parents and coaches back in Greece to remain humble of the opportunity to play basketball and receive an American education at the same time.
“You have to take the frustration and disappointment and turn it into motivation and bring something different to the table,” said Dimakopoulos. “I was a scorer in Greece and I knew that I wasn’t going to be a scorer for a team like UCI, so I found other ways to contribute, like passing and spacing the floor.”

Leaving UCI to pursue a professional career in basketball, N’diaye left some big shoes to fill (size 19, to be exact), as Dimakopoulos became the primary option in seventh-year head coach Russell Turner’s system. In his senior season, Dimakopoulos has blossomed and brought his slew of talents into the starting lineup — leading a team that is fairly young with nine freshmen getting their first taste of collegiate basketball. The team has needed Dimakopoulos’ leadership on and off the court, as the Anteaters were without a preseason all-conference guard Luke Nelson for the nonconference slate of the 2016-2017 campaign due to a hamstring injury. Dimakopoulos is currently averaging 11.5 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 54 percent from the floor this season. Dimakopoulos has established his presence in the Big West conference and received his first-ever Conference Player of the Week award earlier this season. The Anteaters are off to a 7-3 start in Big West play and are currently in the running for a regular season championship midway through the conference season.
Dimakopoulos is not immune to the amount of pressure that is on his broad shoulders, but he has handled it in a dominant fashion on the court.

“There is always pressure,” said Dimakopoulos. “Having nine people who haven’t played a college game and having Luke out required me to speak up but also lead by examples with my performances in games. I couldn’t expect people to listen to me when I wasn’t having good games, so when I struggled, I was a little bit more quiet, and when I had good games, I tried to tell people how they can help us win.”

Dimakopoulos had to find his comfort zone in a country that was completely foreign to him before stepping into the spotlight in his senior year. The thought of him leaving his family was already expected, as he was born into a basketball family that helped him in every way that they could. Dimakopoulos’ family moved from his birthplace of Patras to Athens so he could play for the club team Panathinaikos. He was already topping seven feet when he was 15 years old and played for both the Panathinaikos’ U16 and U18 club teams, where his teams captured two Greek championships. Having the best coaches in Greece and competing at high levels growing up only made his move the States much more natural so he could take the right steps to one day playing professional basketball.

Of those who gave him advice to move were former NBA players Nick Calathes and Michael Batiste, who urged Dimakopoulos to come to the States to pursue an education and get a taste of basketball at its highest level. Dimakopoulos also looked up to Euro League-turned-NBA stars for inspiration, such as Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki. He realized that moving from Europe to the U.S. would mean playing under different rules and style of basketball.

“The main difference is the intensity,” said Dimakopoulos. “I feel like in Europe, you play more with strategy and technique … but the athleticism in the United States is at least a step or two higher. Especially in my first three years here, I had to adjust, add a few more pump fakes, and avoid the great athletes, but I’ve been here for four and a half years and I feel like I have adjusted now. It took a while.”

While he brought the European postgame and outside shot to the United States, Dimakopoulos’ transition went further than the 94-foot length of a basketball court. Dimakopoulos was most homesick during the holidays, as both he and his freshman year roommate Luke Nelson were both without their families for the holidays for the past four years. A tough high school schedule of waking up at 3 a.m. to catch a train to school and going to sleep after practice and homework past midnight would test Dimakopoulos’ thoughts of giving up and going back to Greece. Dimakopoulos knew, however, that if he could get through the early tough times of high school, then he could eventually make it through anything.
What most hurt Dimakopoulos was not leaving his parents, but leaving behind his little brother George. Dimakopoulos is eight years older than his little brother, and not being there for George while he grew up meant a lot to him. He managed to connect with his brother, however, through video chats and instant messaging to help bring them closer together.

Dimakopoulos went to Cathedral High School in Los Angeles, a hub for international athletic talent, for a year of prep before coming to UCI. He noted the disparities in the education system in Greece and in the U.S., as he would be required to take 17 courses throughout a school year in Greece that included physics, biology, math and three different language classes. Dimakopoulos’ five years of taking French in Greece ended up being beneficial, as most of his teammates in his year of high school at Cathedral mostly spoke French. As a student-athlete, Dimakopoulos got to experience both lifestyles in Europe and America. In Greece, practices and gym time would be scheduled for after school, but in the U.S. student-athletes miss out on class for games and have practice in-between classes. Dimakopoulos would eventually assimilate into the American way of life and, when going back to Greece during vacations, would sometimes forget some words of Greek.

His sophomore season proved to be the moment when Dimakopoulos knew that he belonged at UC Irvine and made the right decision to move from home. Dimakopoulos got an increase in his minutes and played a key role in the Anteaters’ championship season that saw them earn the program’s first ever automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It was the feeling of success and belief that finally gave Dimakopoulos the sense of comfort that he belonged on the team.

“I really believe that people get better during practice and by themselves, but playing time is very important, and coach [Turner] trusted me since my sophomore year. He already had in front of me a few people he could play, but he still gave me playing time — significant ones in some games — and that’s what makes you evolve,” said Dimakopoulos.

Another thing that helped Dimakopoulos evolve as a player was coach Turner’s inside-out style of play. Having played as a center in his college days, Turner has a soft spot for his big guys and challenges them to be dominant every time they step on the court. Turner helped develop Dimakopoulos into a confident post player and instilled the belief to combat the opposition’s brute strength with his finesse near the basket.

“Everyone likes to talk about the fact that he is tall and he shoots threes, but the reason he’s having the success he’s having now is he’s learned to love earning tough points around the rim which is where he is a difference maker,” said Turner. “He is able to get those baskets and there’s not that many guys in college basketball good enough to get him … and I‘m more pleased with that than anything else.”

Coach Turner has always challenged Dimakopoulos throughout his four years at UCI to be more aggressive in game and during practices — sometimes at the top of his lungs. It is a relationship that seems unhealthy, but Turner’s methods have produced winning results. Whether it is Dimakopoulos being stubborn or Turner demanding nothing but perfection, both have found a common ground for Dimakopoulos to be effective on both ends of the court. Dimakopoulos cannot complain, as Turner’s system looks to give their post players the ball, which has become an identity for the team these last four years.

“I know, having my own father coach me, if the coach is not vocal, it means they do not care about you, so the more he talks to me, the more I know he cares,” said Dimakopoulos of his relationship with Turner. “You can’t take it personal, and you have to listen to the good things and try to improve according to what he wants.”

It is Monday afternoon and the Anteaters are on an eight-game win streak. The team has started to a perfect 6-0 record to conference play, and coach Turner is holding practice before their Thursday night game against a winless Cal Poly. Coach assures his team that even though the Mustangs have lost 10 games in a row, they can very well be be beaten. Both coach and the veteran players on the team are preaching to the younger guys to steer away from complacency and to keep their recent spark in aggression going.

Dimakopoulos, the only seven-footer on the squad, is the tallest player on the practice floor. He is one of three seniors on the team and is expected to be vocal and whip a team with mostly freshmen on the roster into championship shape. While fellow seniors Jaron Martin and Luke Nelson are more boisterous with their leadership, the 255-pound native from Greece uses a more quiet approach and lets his play do the talking.

Coach Russell Turner splits his team up into three groups and has them run the same play against each other. The play is revolved around Dimakopoulos, as he holds the decision to pass out to a teammate on the perimeter or to make a play himself towards the basket. He passes out, his teammate makes it from beyond the three-point arc. They run it again, same result. Testing the streaky shooter, again from deep. It is three plays in a row that the Anteaters have converted shots from deep, but coach Turner is displeased. Turner, who has a 6-foot-7-inch frame himself, goes up to the towering Dimakopoulos and challenges him to be more assertive in the paint.

“Don’t fall in love with that three-point shot!” a raspy-voiced Turner said. “Our bigs are shooting 60-something percent down there, so I want to see us throw it down inside.”

Turner gets right into Dimakopoulos’ face, but doesn’t yell; he consoles. Turner simply wants him to make things easier on him instead of trying too hard. There is a mutual understanding between the two, as Dimakopoulos looks as he has had this conversation before. The ball is tucked in Turner’s arms, which stops all action so that everyone can hear his conversation with Dimakopoulos.

The green-eyed, bearded Dimakopoulos gives his coach a nod and gets right back into his position. He is tall, and built, but doesn’t retaliate as a man of his stature would be expected to do. He responds like a student who acknowledges his mistakes and can only try to not make the same errors again. Back to the basket, and fed a ball, Dimakopoulos backs his defender down and utilizes a single step to face the basket and hook his shot inside the hoop. Next possession, he pivots his foot to face his defender and uses his height to shoot a mid–range jump shot over the defender that touches nothing but net. He cannot miss; his defender smothers him the second he catches the ball, but Dimakopoulos ignores the contact and is able to make the basket with the foul. He is on a roll, but it is his confidence that allows him to be comfortable. At last, Dimakopoulos is confident being on the court and comfortable being 6,921 miles away from home.

Dimakopoulos was born in the city Patras, located in western Greece. His father Dimitris was a member of the Greek national team in 1986 and was rarely home since he was 18. Dimakopoulos’ first exposure to the basketball court began when he was an infant, when his mother would take him to see his father play. As Dimakopoulos was growing up, his father became a coach and introduced him to some of Greece’s most successful professional basketball players. This strengthened his interest in playing. Along with playing for Panathinaikos, Dimakopoulos played for the U16 and U18 Greek national teams where he spent time with some of the senior players that motivated him to come to the states to play college basketball.

Dimakopoulos is a sociology major and hopes to graduate in the spring. He will let basketball take him as far his body will allow, and then will consider a job coaching.

With his team off to their best start to conference play in 11 years, Dimakopoulos knows that what matters is just three games in March. The Big West Tournament crowns the winner of three games in three nights as the tournament champion and gives the winning team an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Being part of the Anteater team that won the Big West Tournament back in 2015, he has tasted that success and desires to culminate his time at Irvine with one more ring to add to his championship collection.

“At the end of the day, it comes down if you can win three games in three days,” said Dimakopoulos. “Our goal has always been to take games [incrementally], especially with a young team, but I have a lot trust in my teammates and what we can do as a group, and we just have to see what we can do.”