Roula Kazakos first laid eyes on him during the summer of 2014 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Winston-Salem.
At 6-foot-10, Dinos Mitoglou was hard to miss.
“When he walked in, I said ‘Oh my God, he’s so tall,’” Kazakos recalled. “He said ‘I’m Greek.’ I said. ‘Greek? I didn’t know Greeks grew that tall.’
“He said ‘I’m from Thessaloniki. That’s when I met him.’’
Also hard for Kazakos to miss was that disoriented and perhaps even a bit scared look in Mitoglou’s eyes. It’s a look Kazakos has seen often in new arrivals to the United States since she and her husband emigrated from Greece to Winston-Salem themselves four decades ago.
Mitoglou, to his credit, had enough fortitude at the tender age of 18 to leave his family and travel 5,000 miles to a new country to play basketball at Wake Forest. His mother, Sofia, insisted, understanding the opportunity the move provided her son. His father, Dimitrios (known to friends as Jim) went along.
“Usually it’s the opposite thing — Dad likes it, Mom doesn’t like it,’’ Mitoglou explained. “Although they tell me they miss me, they know it’s really good for me.’’
But even his parents’ blessing didn’t make the giant leap of faith any easier. And two-and-a-half years later there are days — some more so than others — that he misses his father, mother and younger brother Simon, as well as his hometown of which he’s so proud.
Thessaloniki, a port city located on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, is the second largest city in Greece and the country’s cultural center. In 2011, the population of the Thessaloniki Metropolitan Area was slightly more than a million.
“The friends you have back home, you can’t find them here,’’ Mitoglou said. “There was stuff we used to talk about, the stuff we used to do. Those connections, you can’t find here.
“You can find friends, and they’re really good friends, but not like back home.’’
No one understands what a Greek new to the United States is going through better than a Greek who has made the move themselves. So it was in the warm embrace of Winston-Salem’s strong and vibrant Greek community that helped give Mitoglou the backbone and mettle to stick it out so far away from home
“It’s a sweet, sweet, sweet family,’’ Kazakos said of the Winston-Salem Greek community, centered around the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Keating Drive. “All my family is over there in Greece, but I feel really at home here in this community.’’
So coach Danny Manning and his Wake Forest basketball community owes a debt to that community. Mitoglou, late in his junior season, has played in 91 games, starting 71. A slender 217 pounds when he arrived, Mitoglou has bulked up to 255 pounds, giving him the size and strength to provide a physical presence inside.
For his career, Mitoglou is averaging 9.3 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the floor, 35 percent from 3-point range and 77 percent from the free-throw line.
“When I first came here, I didn’t know the Greek community was that big,’’ Mitoglou said. “I went to church on Sunday morning and people welcomed me. I feel so warm, and this was my home.
“It was crazy. Everybody came to me and asked where I was from and asked a lot of questions about me. It continued in time, and I became like part of the family. And I’m really happy for it.’’
Wake Forest honored the Greek community in last Wednesday’s home game against Pitt and many of Mitoglou’s newfound friends showed up. Kazakos has become a special friend, so much so she considers him her 15th grandchild.
And the feeling is mutual.
“I consider her my Ylayla,’’ Mitoglou said. “Ylayla is basically Grandma in Greek.
“I had Ms. Roula here to take care of me.’’
Another staunch friend has been Yiannis Vgenopoulos, owner of the Athena Greek Taverna in Winston-Salem. Mitoglou ate at the restaurant with his mother and family when he first visited Wake Forest, trying to decide which American university he wanted to attend. Ygenopoulos, who emigrated in September of 1999, extolled to the Mitoglou family the strength and devotion of the local Greek community.
“He was down to like three or four colleges,’’ Ygenopoulos said. “I said it was up to Dinos, but he should pick Wake Forest because the community here was strong. I don’t know if he heard me, but it was a good decision though.’’
He said he promised Sofia and Jim that he would do what he could for their son.
“I know the feeling because my parents are over in Greece, and I know how they feel — how is it for a 19-year-old to change their whole lifestyle from Greece to come over to the States,’’ Ygenopoulos said. “I’ve been through that, so I know that it was hard for him. We all tried to help him to adjust. Not just me, everybody.
“He’s a special boy. He’s a great guy, a great guy.’’
The hardest days, Mitoglou recalls, came midway through the fall semester of his freshman year, after he began to realize the enormity of his decision.
He had traveled pretty extensively with Greek national teams, making trips that kept him away a month or two at a time. He said he has played in every European country except Russia and Cyprus. But to wake up morning after morning in a dorm room in Winston-Salem, N.C., was a new experience, one he wasn’t sure he liked.
“The first two months or three months, I was like ‘All right, all right,’ “ Mitoglou recalled. “I was happy. But then I realized ‘Wow I’ll be here for six or seven months before I go home.’ Then I started realizing it. The third month until the fifth month was the worst.
“I missed my city.’’
Under NCAA rules, there is only so much even his best-intentioned newfound friends can do for Mitoglou. That became evident a couple of months after Mitoglou arrived and summer turned to fall.
This new country, Mitoglou realized, proved to be colder than he expected.
“The first year I was always sick,’’ Mitoglou recalled. “I didn’t come with a winter jacket. Do you believe that? My mother came in Christmas. I said ‘Mom, bring me a winter jacket. I don’t have any.’
“I was wearing like two hoodies or three hoodies.’’
Mitoglou returned home after his freshman season, but remained in the United States after his sophomore year, which means it’s going on two years since he has seen Thessaloniki. Although he does plan a trip home this summer, he’s determined to return to Wake Forest for his senior season and complete his degree in sociology.
And after that comes the biggest decision. Which home will he choose, Greece or the United States?
“Everybody is asking me that, people from Greece, people from America,’’ Mitoglou said. “I don’t know. It’s very complicated. It’s too early to tell.
“I don’t know yet.’’