26 September, 2016
30 April, 2017
34 Akeem Wright (Apoel) (photo: Martin Pröll)
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APOEL frontman Wright enjoying the FIBA Europe Cup challenge

NICOSIA (FIBA Europe Cup) – The never-ending basketball journey has brought Akeem Wright to Cyprus this season, where the 32-year-old APOEL forward immediately asserted himself as one of the premier players in the FIBA Europe Cup.

The well-traveled Philadelphia native, who had already played in 13 different countries across five continents before moving to the Mediterranean island, has embraced the unpredictable nature of a professional basketball career, welcoming every single stop as a new challenge.

In no small part due to Wright’s dominant play in the Regular Season, the Nicosia club have enjoyed a relatively successful campaign in the FIBA Europe Cup, with the player averaging 15.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 steals per game in international play.

Although the sub-par start to the Second Round, which has coincided with Wright’s drop in form, has backed APOEL into a corner in Group M with a 1-3 record, the team’s recent victory against Telekom Baskets has kept their qualification hopes alive.

Wright talked to FIBA.com about the current FIBA Europe Cup campaign and his personal basketball journey.

After losing the first three games of the Second Round, APOEL celebrated a momentous win against Telekom Baskets in Nicosia. You had lost the away game to the Bonn club by 38 points in Germany, but managed to get revenge at home. How did you guys manage to turn it around?

In the game in Bonn, we felt like we played well for the first 16 minutes of the game or so, we were moving the ball and getting good shots. When they started to make a run, we were not able to slow them down and started going one-on-one, getting away from team offense and the coach’s game plan.

After looking at film we understood what we had to do in the home game, but knew that it would still be a challenging task. We stayed with our game plan of sharing the ball and making sure we ran our sets and not getting into isolation basketball. Defensively, I think we had great rotations and we were able to get stops and their players still missed some shots that they normally make.

Has the result brought new energy to the locker room?

As far the locker room goes, everyone felt good about the win, but we couldn’t do too much celebrating, seeing we are still fighting an uphill battle and need to win the last two games for us to advance. And we had to turn the switch because we had a Cypriot league game on the weekend as well.

At 1-3 in the standings, you still have the odds stacked against you in terms of qualifying to the Round of 16. Do you look back at the two close losses to Vytautas and Redwell-Gunners as games you should have won?

The game against Vytautas was frustrating for me because we really felt we gave that game away with some mistakes we made late in the game. I didn’t have a good game, going 1-of-10 and put a lot of blame on myself for not showing up and having a better offensive game.

The Austrian team did a great job of mixing defenses and their guys really stepped up and made big shots. There were a few times late in the game, where we played great team defense and they were able to make last-second shots to beat the buzzer. We could never put them away being up 5-6 points and they were able to answer, score and take the lead.

In spite of showing some really good basketball this season, you have not won more than two consecutive games in the competition. How would you rate this international campaign so far for you as a team?

Before the season started, we wanted to come out, compete and shock people and advance as far as possible. As a team we really felt like we let a lot of games slip away both in the Regular Season and in the Second Round, but we’re playing against a lot of talented teams and many great players in the competition and we can’t really hang our heads.

From the outside looking in, it seems coach Dimitris Koustenis has a somewhat hands-on approach on the sidelines, yelling out plays and different defensive coverages all the time. What philosophy has he tried to implement?

Coach is very hands-on and always talking and yelling (laughs). That’s just how he is, so we have got used to it. His passion for the game really shows on the sidelines. His emphasis changes from game to game and depends on the type of team we are facing. It’s all about what we need to do in order to win. Since we are not a very deep team and not the biggest one either, he makes sure we understand the importance of getting good shots, dictating the pace of the game and minimizing our mistakes to have a chance to win games in the FIBA Europe Cup.

How do you think you fit the system, what strengths have you been asked to utilize on the court?

I think I fit very well in the system. The coach has been utilizing everyone’s strengths and reflecting on what a player can and cannot do in order for plays to be effective. I play both forward positions. When I play on the wing, he has a lot of situations for me to post up and use my size and strength over some smaller wings that we have faced. And since we are not that deep, I sometimes have to play the four spot and that puts me in a position where I am able to use my speed and quickness over the power forwards that have to guard me.

You were one of the top performers in the competition in the Regular Season, but you have not managed to replicate it with the same efficiency in the Second Round. What has changed, in your mind – is it a case of defenses focusing on you more or just a regular shooting slump you know you will get out of sooner or later?

I think it’s me being in a slump. I didn’t like the break we had after changing groups, I really was in a nice groove (laughs). Also, the teams have focused on me a whole lot more and getting the ball out of my hands in certain spots and really putting their best defenders on me. This round has been a challenge for sure, but that’s what you love about competition and playing against great players. Even with that being said, I still got pretty good looks and those shots that were falling in the Regular Season, haven’t been going in. I’m hoping to get out of the slump in the last two games of the Second Round, but even more importantly win and be able to advance again.

APOEL are third in the domestic championship in Cyprus right now. What are your thoughts on the season so far and, at the same time, what do you hope to achieve?

We lost a few games in the Cypriot league we know we shouldn’t have. The games here are a different style from the FIBA Europe Cup, so it took some time to get used to it. The referees really let you get away with a lot of physical play.

Our hopes and expectations is a championship. APOEL has always been in the championship race, but the club lost to AEK in the last few years. Our goal is to get back to the final and hopefully be able to win it.

You have played in five continents and Cyprus is your 13th country as a professional basketball player. USA is obvious, but could you actually name the rest, if someone asked?

Yes, I can still name them all (laughs). United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Ukraine, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, and now Cyprus.

How are you finding this aspect of professional basketball – is traveling and discovering the world, going to new places something you enjoy naturally or rather a thing you have had to come to terms with?

Being able to travel the world and play basketball has been a great experience and I have always been excited to see different countries. In the beginning it was a culture shock, but as I got older it has become the norm, but still fun at the same time. I can say I have really enjoyed being able to travel and play basketball. It’s a blessing I try not to take for granted.

In your career, has there been a place that stands out from the rest, is close to your heart and you would maybe like to return to someday?

I really loved Dubai, Israel and New Zealand. I would love to go back to any one of those places.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have found yourself in some not-so-nice situations as well in that time as well, with bombings in Israel and the military conflict in Ukraine...

My family was freaking out. Those were scary situations. The Israel one wasn’t as bad as it didn’t last that long and my team and my agent’s partners made sure I was okay and safe. Ukraine was a different story. Even though my team was close to the conflict, nothing escalated in my city, but to see what was going on in Kyiv on the news and some of the other cities was very scary and once the majority of the Americans started to leave I knew I had to get out of there.

You have played in Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America. Do you sometimes joke with your friends about ticking off the two remaining continents?

I never even thought about that. That is something that I should look into doing just to say I did it (laughs).

On a more serious note, you are 32 years old and still have some good years left in you. What keeps you motivated and what would you still like to achieve?

I would like to get to the higher levels and just to continue playing competitive basketball. The one thing I love about the game is the competition and going up against some of the best players and facing those challenges. My family, my wife and two boys, keep me motivated. Even though I’m 32 years old, I don’t feel like it and I don’t move like it. I feel great. That keeps me motivated as well – knowing that if I can stay healthy, I can reach a few more goals in this game before I call it quits.