Ioanna Chatzileonti: You Can Call me Ioanna
I’m from Greece, and I’m a basketball player. Inevitably, a lot of people wanted to give me the “Greek Freak” nickname.
I don’t mind it per se. I mean, Giannis is one of the best players in the whole world, so, in a sense, it’s a compliment.
But in all honesty, I’m not a big fan of it—just call me Ioanna.
When I’m on the floor competing alongside my teammates, I can’t think about being anyone other than myself. When the ball is in my hands, the only thing on my mind is being the best version I can be.
It’s all I know how to do.
Everything I’ve endured on this journey—the tears, laughs, fears, excitement, hard work, moments of uncertainty—made me who I am today.
The name on the jersey
I’m very proud of the name on the back of my jersey, too.
I’ve always looked up to my father. He has been my role model even before I picked up a basketball. Both of my parents played the sport growing up, and as soon as I made it known I wanted to play, too, my dad was right there training me.
Growing up, I just wanted to be as good as he was. Family outings for us often turned into little competitions on the basketball court. That’s just who we were, you know?
The dream was to get good enough to play professionally in Europe after high school. Living in Greece, college sports wasn’t really on my radar, to be honest. Developing my game and going pro in Europe was literally the only thing I knew.
But then, my parents brought up the idea of playing in the United States.
I didn’t know a whole lot about it but the more they talked, the more intrigued I was. And before I knew it, the thought of getting my degree while playing basketball on a super high level just sounded too good to pass up.
I wasn’t very proactive during my recruiting process, so coaches really had to show me that they wanted me. The University of Kansas did one better and actually sent coaches all the way out to Athens—talk about letting actions speak for themselves.
When I went to KU on an official visit, I just fell in love with campus. While touring the facilities and meeting all sorts of people, I kept thinking about their commitment to visit my parents and me in Greece.
They chose me.
So, I chose them.
The big adjustment
The first two weeks in Lawrence were challenging, to be honest.
It was in the middle of the pandemic, and I had to quarantine right away. So, of course, that wasn’t any fun. English isn’t my native tongue, which made speaking challenging for me. Even once I got out of the quarantine, I fell into a routine of just studying, eating, and playing basketball.
Everything was just so new, you know?
But thankfully, I have great teammates and coaches that were kind enough to help me adjust to life here. They really made this transition a lot easier.
Frankly, adjusting off the court was more complicated than adjusting on it.
Before college, I was fortunate enough to play at a really high level, representing Greece on some of the biggest stages in the world.
European Championships. World Championships. You name it.
At the U16 European Championships, I was even awarded with the tournament MVP title. I also got many Top-5 awards in the European competitions. And at the world championships, we left with a bronze medal and I received a Top-5 award.
Competing against some of the best players in the world at the time really prepared me for basketball in college. Without a doubt, carrying these experiences with me had a big impact on my freshman season as well.
However, I was still amazed and surprised when I was selected to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team.
I’m just so thankful that I had those opportunities to compete with so many talented women back home.
It’s always an honor to play for the national team. Just being able to wear that jersey—it’s the sort of thing you never take for granted.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind that experience paved the way for my success at KU.
My No. 1 fan
And just so everyone knows, I don’t take any of it for granted.
It’s hard to explain, but there’s this grandness about it all that really makes me feel like I’m living a dream here in the States.
At the beginning of a game, when they call out your name because you’re in the starting lineup—it’s one of those things that everyone probably just considers to be a normal thing, but for me, these moments give me the chills every single time. Not even joking!
And as you can imagine, hearing my name through the speakers has a special meaning to me.
I reflect then on those days as a kid with my dad. The journey that got me here. In that moment, I just feel closest to home in a way.
And the best of it all, when they call out my name, I know my dad is wide awake at 3AM, huddled over a laptop or television screen, and watches me play. When the game is over, he always gives me a call. Win or lose.
I think he’s my No. 1 fan.
He’s one of the many reasons I’m so proud to wear this name on the back of my jersey.
So, just call me Ioanna — no need to be a ‘Greek Freak’ when you are a Chatzileonti.