|Not Giving Up On His Education: A Q&A with Andy Panko '09
Andy Panko ’99 made his mark at the Valley on the basketball court. The two-time Division III Player of the Year and MAC conference MVP, Panko still holds LVC’s all-time leading scoring record (2,515 points) and has been elected into the College’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
After graduation, Panko set his sights on a professional basketball career—an unusual goal for even the most illustrious Division III competitor. He played in the Continental Basketball Association, a professional American league, paying his dues between NBA tryouts—and earning the CBA’s MVP award in 2003. Ultimately he turned to the European professional arena, where he has excelled for the last 11 years.
Today, Panko plays for Baloncesto Fuenlabrada in the Spanish national league. He was named league MVP in 2012 at the age of 34. Off the court, Panko is constructing an 11,000-square foot basketball training facility in Annville in order to launch his company, Panko Performance. The business is set to open in 2014 to provide private and group basketball training and coaching and is already scheduling lessons with Panko.
How did you acquire your competitive spirit?
I got it from my father. Growing up, I always watched him—he was one heck of a golfer, and he continues to be one of the best golfers in the mid-state area at 65. To be honest, the reason I got to where I am today is discipline—it’s hard work, it’s perseverance. There’s nothing really complicated about it.
I’m 36 years old. It goes without saying that there aren’t many 36-year-old professional athletes still playing. You have to know how to take care of yourself. I’m a family man also, so my priorities have changed. I don't drink, I don’t party like some of the younger players. That’s what I mean about discipline. If you want to keep playing at this high level, you need sleep and have to take care of your body. And I get that stuff—that inner spirit—from my father.
Competition is also about perseverance. Coming from Division III, you don’t see too many athletes making the pros, so I knew I had to work harder than other players, I had to persevere. I paid my dues and didn’t give up. And for a long time I was living in a hotel making a couple hundred dollars a week.
What motivates you?
Things have changed as I’ve gotten older. Obviously, when you’re younger, different things motivate you. What motivates me now is my family and my kids, and also the idea that a lot of people think that because of my age I can’t play anymore. But I’ve earned a reputation over here [in Europe]—they respect me for what I do and who I am.
I still have goals and want to getter better even though I’m near the end of my career. I know that, but I still want to play good basketball, and I want my son to be proud of me, and I want to be a good role model for other kids who have a dream to be professional athletes. I think they could learn something from me.
What activities, people, or courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?
You don’t really associate a liberal arts school with a professional basketball player. My professors always told me, “I know you want to play basketball for a living, but don’t give up on your education.” That didn’t hit me back in the day, but looking back I’m really glad I did get my degree. Kids need father figures and male teachers, and that leads me to what I’m going to be doing in my second career—teaching kids to play basketball.
LVC opened up a lot of doors. It’s a well-known college, and I still talk to the coach there and say hello to my professors and some of the people I knew when I went to college.
How has global competition changed your field?
You see so many Europeans who are coming to America to play. When you look at the level of competition in European basketball you realize that those players are catching up to the Americans. Obviously the U.S. is still the top echelon, but you do see more Europeans playing in the NBA, and more international teams putting up greater challenges against the U.S. in the world games and Olympics.
The Spanish league is known as the second-best league in the world. That’s a change for the better. You can make a career over here, make a living, and take care of your family. I came here when I was 21 and have seen quite a change.
What’s most important to remain competitive in your field?
I think it’s the hunger and the drive to get better every day. I know that my field is very competitive. You’re only allowed two Americans on a team over here, and there are 100 guys behind me waiting to take my spot. So I have this hunger and this drive to be the best player I can be. Each year, I re-evaluate myself. There may be a time when I don’t have that drive and then it’ll be time to retire. But I’m still healthy and love to play basketball.
How do you prepare physically and mentally for competition?
It comes down to discipline. You need to understand that if you want to continue at this high level.
I don’t think I would still be here playing if it wasn’t for my wife, Eryn. It helps to have a significant other who understands what life is like in Europe. I’m on the road a lot, and Eryn is home with the kids and it’s tough.
She understands what it takes to be successful; she cooks every meal for me at home, three meals a day—it can be tough on her and that’s what people don’t see. A lot of people think that the life is easy.
I’m sore after practices, I'm sore after games—the secret is how you recuperate, how you take care of your body, whether it’s eating salads, taking special herbs or supplements. Alcohol is a big no-no.
What is your favorite book about competition?
I had this great trainer in college who just came out with a book—it’s the best book that any professional athlete or layperson should read: “Less than a Minute to Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sport, Business, and Everyday Life,” by Dr. Bill K. Thierfelder.
Who is your favorite competitive role model?
Back in the day, it was Larry Bird: a white kid like myself who came from nothing and is now one of the greatest and most historic athletes in the NBA. Now, I want to be a role model for my son.
Which leaders inspire you? Why?
If I wasn’t playing basketball, I’d probably be in the military. I have total admiration for those people, and it truly humbles me when I read books by the servicemen who come back to the United States after serving abroad. It makes me feel very lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I’m very proud of them, and I’m very humble to be doing what I’m doing.
What makes LVC competitive?
The professors make a big difference at Lebanon Valley. They understood where my priorities were. They helped me remember that basketball won’t always be there. I learned from them how to treat others, how to connect with kids, that’s one of the things that helped me. My professors were great at Lebanon Valley.
What advice would you give to current LVC students?
Try everything out. Explore the College, have fun, enjoy college life, try everything, and see what you like. Don’t pick one thing and go with it for four years because that could get boring and stale. Talk to your professors and your friends—explore.