Humble sports sensations are hard to come by, but recent Geelong Cats recruit Paul Tsapatolis is all that and a bag of chips.
The young high school graduate has made a big leap from basketball stardom playing for Australia at FIBA Oceania (2019) and Asia (2018) tournaments, to joining the AFL with the Cats.
Despite having offers from many clubs, it was the Cats that made him feel most secure.
“Geelong was honest from the start, they told me how it was. Whatever they had been saying was getting published by the AFL and there was no leading me on. The trust I grew with Troy Selwood and the other recruiters at the club, I didn’t have that bond with any of the other clubs at that time,” he told Neos Kosmos.
These days the sporting young gun rubs shoulders with Aussie rules legend Anthony Koutoufides, with whom he has a long running history.
“Kouta is a great man. It’s a funny story, I was training with his son and someone on the team said ‘It’s Koutoufides!’. I was 13 years old, I didn’t know who he was and so I asked dad and he goes ‘he’s the best Greek footy player’.”
Tsapatolis talks about the influences in his sporting career and who his favourite Greek music artists are to train to.
What drew you to Aussie Rules?
I started when I was in the under 11s. I used to play basketball and a lot of the kids were playing footy and I always wanted to play footy from a young age. My coach was part of the Yarraville Seddon Eagles and he asked me and my dad if I could play and come down for a couple of training sessions.
From that training session, I played at Yarraville for a good three years, but basketball told me that I’ve got to stop or I’ll never make it in Australia. As a 13 year old that’s a bit intimidating and you just had to go with it.
How did the opportunity to play for Geelong come about?
I did some work experience in Adelaide about three years ago now at a law firm as part of my basketball because they’ve got sports management there as well. One of the other lawyers asked if I would be interested in joining a Category B position in the AFL. I had no clue what that was and so he explained it to me.
It was funny because I had been speaking to my parents about getting back into footy and he (the lawyer) said we’ll speak to the Crows because they’re based in Adelaide. From there it just never stopped. We spoke to Adelaide, Hawthorn, Richmond, North, Sydney Swans, Essendon and Geelong.
It’s game day, what do you do to get in the zone before the match?
After school or when we were international I’d wake up in the morning, go for a team walk, come back and have lunch, have a 45 minute nap, a snack before the game which is about two to three hours out and then about an hour and a half of preparation.
Top 3 training songs?
I’m not kidding, they’re all Greek songs! I do like Notis Sfakianakis and I like To Magazi by Dimitris Giotis. Magia by Josephine would have to be my favourite Greek song. I just play them in my headphones because no one else in the team knows Greek.
What do you think you’ll find most challenging about the game?
I’ve said it a few times but it would have to be just getting my fitness up to scratch. Physically I have a pretty filled out body, it’s just the fitness side of it.
Aside from the obvious difference in the two sports, what do you think will be the biggest adjustment for you leaving basketball and entering Aussie rules?
I’ve always loved the physicality side of it and that’s why I did find myself in basketball in foul trouble, so that was definitely one of the biggest reasons I wanted to switch back over. I just missed the competitiveness and the physicality. It’s more about the endurance and fitness hurdles to over come.
What has been a highlight in your sporting career thus far?
Probably the phone call I got from Troy. I’ve won the Asian championships and the New Caledonia ones, but that phone call where Troy told me ‘you’re going to be a Geelong Cats player’. For about half an hour I was holding tears back because we were on the phone for that long. After that I did go have a cry with mum and dad, because last year was crappy I’d say so some good news was good.
How has basketball impacted your life?
I’ve had some amazing coaches; Darren Perry, Andrew Gaze, Warrick Giddey and they’re all very disciplined. I know how to deal with adversity, when a coach says something to you I know not to take it personally and that they’ve got my best interest at heart. The basketball world is so much bigger than AFL, so I do feel like in that aspect I’m more mentally resilient.
What is something you learned about yourself through playing the game?
Regardless of any setbacks and injuries, or not getting played or missing out on a team, if you do the work it will eventually pay off in the end. It has shown now that since I’ve joined the Geelong Cats because during the pandemic I was going for runs every day, lifting every day, so it does pay off. Obviously there’s more to do now to try get onto a senior game, there’s always something to be working towards.
What do you hope to achieve in the next year?
It would definitely have to be playing in senior AFL games, that’s what I really want to do and I’ll do everything that I can. That is up to the coaches though and not me. I just want to get better everyday at the club, whether that be personality wise or just physically getting better.
What’s something someone might be surprised to learn about you?
Most weekends I’m always at the same spot, I’m always out Oakleigh way drinking a frappe at Nikos. I’m never at nightclubs or parties, I’m always there. Going out doesn’t benefit me, so I’d rather go there with my girlfriend and my cousins and my parents.
What are you most looking forward to in 2021?
Being at the club and being around everyone and just seeing where it all takes me.
What is something you want to be remembered for?
That I did everything I could and that I didn’t take anything for granted. Things don’t happen overnight and there is a process. You work hard and make it work.