HoopsHype.com Articles Don't call him Baby Shaq by Enrique Peinado / January 2, 2003 - Photo: Emilio Cobos 5.7 seconds left in the Junior European Championships semifinals. Greece is trailing by one point and Sofoklis Schortsanitis has two free-throws. Nobody in the building expected such thing, but he hit them both. Why? Because he is no Shaq -- and he doesn't want to like him. Greece ended up losing that game after Michigan State freshman Erazem Lorbek scored a basket at the buzzer that gave Slovenia the win. Sofoklis went mad. He kicked and broke some chairs and punched the floor several times. That may tell you something about the competitive fire of this outstanding physical stud, with a 6-9, 265-pound kid able to push aside any opponent of his age. It's hard to remember another European player with his physical conditions. However, he's not just a beast. He can play ball and is willing to prove that. How it all began Sofoklis Schortsanitis is obviously not a typical Greek boy. His mother is from Cameroon, the country where Sofoklis was born. His father, a Greek engineer, took them off to his homeland when Sofoklis was just two years old due to the political instability in the Cameroon. The kid was raised in Kavala, a small town in the northern coast of Greece. He started playing for the local team at an early age. Soon after, three of the biggest teams in the country -AEK, PAOK and Iraklis- expressed interest in him. It was finally Iraklis, whose president has some business connections in Kavala, who got to sign Sofoklis. They have just hired one of the most prominent players of his generation. He is officially just 17 -- something hard to believe at first sight. Sofoklis is a smart kid, but not especially mature for his age. He looks like just another 17-year-old guy when you start talking with him. He is so big that is scary. "Everything is really tough, because every time I step on the floor I have to prove I'm one of the best juniors in Europe," Sofoklis says. "My goal is to lead my team both when we win and when we lose. Winning is what I care about, I don't care about people talking about me." Schortsanitis is the focus of attention for many basketball fans in his country ever since he became the youngest player ever to start a game in the Greek League at the age of 15. It happened on February 17, 2001 in a game between Iraklis (which means Hercules in Greek -- very appropriate, by the way) and Panionios. "Coach had told me about the possibility of playing earlier that week," Sofoklis says. "I was ready to make my debut." After the game, his coach Elias Armenis said Sofoklis would be playing for the Greek National Team in the Olympic Games to take place in Athens in 2004. It was a good prediction. A perfect combination Word is that the evolution of African basketball is not going as fast as it should because African players usually don't have a European mentality to go with their great physical skills. Schortsanitis has the best of both worlds. "Everybody says that I have an African body and a European attitude. I don't know if that is the perfect combination because I'm still young. You should ask my coaches," Sofoklis says. Fact is, this 17-year-old center has already learnt some fundamentals. Sofoklis is always looking to command double-teams in the low post and passes the ball well to the perimeter. He doesn't try to do things he can't do and is aware of where his strength lies. He plays back to the basket and pushes defenders with his body as soon as he receives the ball. A dunk is waiting to happen every time he gets it in a good position. "I think basketball is a very physical game, but the most important thing is your mind," Sofoklis says. "It's like chess: you have to move your pieces the best you can and think faster than your opponent." No love for Shaq Tony Farmer, his former teammate in Iraklis, nicknamed him 'Baby Shaq'. But Sofoklis doesn't like that kind of comparisons. "Shaquille O'Neal is a great player, but he is basically a physical player. I've never seen him delivering a great assist," he says. "I love Tim Duncan, but my idols are the old guys: David Robinson, Patrick Ewing... My favorite player is Hakeem Olajuwon. His game was great -- his footwork, his mentality... I would really like people to talk about Sofoklis Schortsanitis, not 'Baby Shaq' in years to come." The future The road to the NBA is much easier to walk for international players than it was some years ago. Many scouts have already put their eyes on Sofoklis. There are some doubts about his height, but his desire to play in the league is really big. "I hope I can be one of the best in Europe, but what I want the most is to play in the NBA," he says. "That's what all the guys my age want. I know this is all about working hard and having luck." Sofoklis won't have the chance to play against Ewing, Robinson or Olajuwon, but he will probably face some of his other idols. "Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Nowitzki... They all play well and can make the difference," he says. His favorite European player is Peja Stojakovic, though. "I've already talked with him about the NBA and he told me playing in the NBA is a wonderful experience". When we talked with Sofoklis, the website nbadraft.net had him projected as a top-five pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. When told about it, Sofoklis smiled like a kid. "I didn't know that. What a great position! I'd love to be taken with the fifth pick, but I would be happy being the 15th or 17th pick. Am I really No. 5? Uff!" Everyone that has seen Sofoklis play knows he has that killer instinct. That's something he has developed growing up and and that could soon take him to the higher level. "I always want the first place, to win the gold -- every time," he says. "That's the difference between me and the American guys my age, who care about other things. I know if I do that, I will impress the people that come to see me play." We are impressed already. The task of impressing the NBA will be much harder, but he apparently has what it takes to make it possible.