You can be good at anything you put your mind to, but no one said it’ll be easy. The drive and dedication it takes to continuously practice, improve and never settle is half the battle. In basketball, it’s those players who weren’t the starters that encompass this stamina. New Jersey native Tommy Papas knows a thing or two about that drive and dedication.
At 26 years old, Papas wasn’t recruited for college basketball, but it motivated him to go even harder. He loves the sport and has moved to Greece after signing a contract to play professional basketball there upon his graduation from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. The only American on his team, Papas spoke with me about his journey to Mykonos—from his humble beginnings in New Jersey recreation leagues to finding a home on a team 5,000 miles away.
Papas’ grandfather immigrated to New Jersey to pursue acting.
Papas’ papou (grandfather in Greek) planted his roots in Jersey City as an immigrant from Greece in 1968 to chase a dream. “My papou wanted to make his way out to LA to be an actor. At 23, he came to America with his two kids and his wife to Jersey City and later Denville,” he says. However, his grandfather never made it to Los Angeles; he had two more children and never left the Garden State.
He started playing basketball at 5 years old.
Papas was born in Morristown and briefly lived in Denville before moving to Plainfield. He was a resident there until his move to Greece. He had many opportunities to develop his love for the game throughout his upbringing. His father introduced his children to basketball at a young age because he himself previously went pro in Greece. “When a parent likes a certain sport they funnel their kids into it, so he always encouraged us to play,” he says.
“I played through Holy Trinity Interparochial School in Westfield, my Greek Orthodox church league, St. Peter’s Preparatory in Jersey City for three years and Union Catholic for my last year of high school. With a strong basketball network in Jersey, playing in these leagues exposed me to different coaching styles, players and experience,” he tells me.
Papas was a walk-on at the College of William and Mary during his senior year.
After a great high school career, Papas was not recruited to play in college. He attended William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia where he played on the intramural basketball team for three years after not making the official team in his freshman year. However, when senior year came, he made the team for this D1 school as a walk-on.
“I’m not embarrassed to say that I was a walk-on. We had a really strong team that I was proud to be a part of,” he says. He struggled to be taken seriously when he told friends and coaches that he wanted to play professionally after only playing in four college games.
Papas strived to play in college because of words that stuck with him from a past coach. However, it was not a positive exchange. “I had a coach who told me that I’d never play college basketball, and his voice has always been in the back of my head,” he shares. “I made the team and parlayed that into a pro career.”
Playing in Greece wasn’t originally in the cards for Papas.
“There’s a saying in basketball: the ball stops bouncing for everybody. Considering I was a walk-on, the ball should have already stopped bouncing for me. To many, I was playing past the time I was supposed to stop. Looking to go pro was extending my career even further past it’s expiration date so of course I said let’s do it,” he tells me.
A past teammate soon connected him with an agent who secured Papas a tryout with Apollon Patras. Nearly a century old, it’s one of the most historical teams in Greece. Soon after trying out, he was offered a contract with the team.
In a foreign country, he faced obstacles with a language barrier.
This year, Papas has been playing in Mykonos for AO Mykonou. As the only American on the team, which is usually the case, a hurdle he’s faced is not being fluent in Greek. “In high pressure situations, my teammates don’t have the capacity to speak English,” he explains. Despite his enrollment in language classes, he states, “there are certain moments on the court where I honestly have no idea what anyone is saying.”
It’s one thing to learn the language in the classroom, but another to bring it to a high-pressure game. Papas has experienced being an outsider firsthand. “One thing that’s really interesting that happens in America a lot is when the native language isn’t someone’s first, we have the tendency to assume that they’re less intelligent than they are. Basketball is a thinking man’s game. In America, I’m considered to be a really smart player, but in Greece, sometimes they think I’m stupid.”
Papas’ Jersey roots prepared him for where he is today.
Whenever Papas meets someone on the island from New Jersey, there’s an instant connection with having a shared background in a foreign country. The strong Jersey basketball network where players have gone professional or All American has prepared Papas to play against any type of player.
One thing that Papas misses is having his Jersey fanbase in the crowd. “Greece, in a lot of ways, is like a dream vacation…a dream destination. But it’s not Jersey and it’s not home to me. You play a lot better when you’re surrounded by friends and family and it’s hard to have meaningful conversations with the language barrier. However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything and am thankful to be out there on the court,” he shares.
His brother, George Papas, currently plays for Monmouth University and is looking to join his brother in Greece next year. Papas tells me, “There’s potential for us to play together, and that has been a dream for my father for our entire lives. It would be amazing to have my brother on the court with me and can’t wait to see what we can accomplish together.”