Eleanna Christinaki arrived at Maryland in January not knowing two vitally important things: when she’d play competitive basketball again, and where to get some decent Greek food.
The Athens native had come to College Park to restart her promising college career after a sudden exit from Florida, a land of many Gators but few Greeks. A month into her time with the Terps, Christinaki heard about a place just off College Park’s main drag. NCAA rules forbade her from hoops, for the time being, but not gyros.
When she threw open the doors to Marathon Deli, it smelled like home. She scanned the menu — there were tyropitas and dolmades — and they had her favorite, avgolemono. Just to be sure the place was legit, she ordered in Greek. The owner, George Soldatos, answered in English: “Ohhhh, are you Greek?” Christinaki said yes, and they started conversing in their native tongue, a line of hungry customers held up behind them.
“Heaven,” she recalled of the experience.
On Wednesday afternoon, Christinaki will make her long-awaited debut for the No. 15 Terps (10-2) at Coppin State (1-10), more than a year after the 6-foot wing’s final game with Florida and one semester later than coach Brenda Frese had hoped for. The absence has been “very hard,” Christinaki acknowledged. She’d left Greece to play basketball. But when she went looking for it at Maryland, the best thing happened: She found Greece instead.
“I think she was unsettled and had been searching for that kind of inner peace,” Frese said. “I'm not saying she's at peace yet, because she still has to groove into this team, but I do think she's more settled, she's happy. There's a content level just in her day-to-day life of the routine and the happiness and people that truly care about her and her best interests.”
Christinaki is the first midseason transfer Frese has signed at Maryland, evidence as good as any of the junior’s unlikely odyssey. On Dec. 11, 2016, Florida announced that Christinaki, then a sophomore leading the team in scoring (17.6 points per game), had quit the team after refusing to accept a suspension. One day later, Terps assistant coach Bett Shelby, who had communicated with Christinaki while recruiting her at Virginia Tech, was helping to arrange a call with Frese on the team bus, just hours before tipoff at Loyola Maryland.
“That's how quickly you have to be on things,” Frese said, especially with competing powers Louisville and Baylor also on the trail.
Christinaki agreed to visit later in the month, and in the interim, Frese and the coaching staff “did our homework behind the scenes.” They talked to Christinaki and her father and their sources around the sport. (One exception: Florida’s coaching staff, which Frese indicated was not among those sought out.) What they found in their research was to their satisfaction.
In late December, Christinaki and her father flew in for Maryland’s nationally televised game against No. 1 Connecticut. The Terps lost, but Frese, who opened her locker room to the visitor, had won Christinaki’s trust. Her signing was announced seven days later.
“She was the same person every single day, even if they were playing against UConn,” Christinaki said of Frese. “She's the reason that I'm here.”
Christinaki is reluctant to compare the programs at Florida and Maryland, but only now does she understand the cost of leaving one for the other. When Christinaki arrived in Gainesville as an 18-year-old freshman, already the second-youngest player ever on Greece’s national team, she spoke little English. Her first semester at Florida, she took two English classes, which helped only so much. During one practice in her first Gators season, she was told to be “deliberate.” “I will do that,” Christinaki recalled saying, “if I knew what it means.”
Another thing she didn’t know: When she decided to leave Florida, she’d have to miss the rest of the season elsewhere. In Division I, student-athletes have five calendar years to play four seasons of competition, and Frese petitioned the NCAA to grant Christinaki eligibility for the start of this season, so she wouldn’t have to wait a full year to begin her junior campaign. But her appeal for a waiver was denied.
“You only get one college career, and she only gets three years,” Frese said. “That's a tough pill to swallow.”
At Maryland, it was hard to avoid feeling like the new girl at school. Christinaki was on the scout team for a Terps squad in the middle of a dream regular season, but she neither lived near her teammates nor was allowed to travel for road games. Forward Stephanie Jones (Aberdeen), then a freshman, was also a newcomer to the program. But even she could tell that life was “really hard” for her new teammate.
Then Christinaki went to Marathon Deli, and she came to understand that home didn’t have to seem so far away. On the days when basketball was of no comfort, she took solace in another support group, her new Greek friends, the students and locals who knew where she came from and what it meant to be 5,000-plus miles from home.
“It's so hard to be away from family and away from your culture. It's a big difference,” Christinaki said. “It's just good to have another family here that is your culture and speaks your language. It's hard to speak, all the time, English. So it's good.”
Over time, a cultural exchange developed. Netflix has bolstered Christinaki’s English, but so have exchanges with teammates such as senior guard Kristen Confroy, who during one shootaround had a shot knocked away by another ball. “Interference,” Confroy claimed, before having to explain to Christinaki what interference was.
Christinaki, for her part, has taught the Terps how to say “turtle” in Greek. She got Jones to try her first Greek food. She even indirectly helped Frese get an all-expenses-paid trip to speak at a coaches clinic in Greece this May.
“That's my Mother's Day gift,” Frese joked.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, a fellow Athenian and budding superstar for the Milwaukee Bucks whom Christinaki has known since she was a teenager, has told her not to be nervous. So she has looked to Wednesday’s game with unfiltered excitement instead, counting down the days after each game and urging teammates to join her chants. With each practice, each semimonthly trip to Marathon Deli, the Terps learn a little more about Christinaki, and Christinaki about her second home.
After all, what there is to know about her game, those around Maryland’s program already do. Frese called her “one of our better players,” something Confroy, a three-year starter, seemed to realize as early as one of Christinaki’s first practices with the team. “She's longer than me, taller than me, so it was just one dribble, pull up over me” and an “automatic” two points, she remembered of their encounter last year. “And I was like: ‘Where did this girl come from?’ ”