Fassoulas and friends
For the 1996-97 season, FIBA changed the competition system. Instead of 16 teams divided into two groups of 8, the league started with 4 groups of 6, 24 teams total. As a result, there were a lot of newcomers: Stefanel Milan and Teamsystem Bologna of Italy, Ulker Istanbul of Turkey, Panionios Athens of Greece, Alba Berlin of Germany, Spirou Charleroi of Belgium, Asvel Villeurbanne of France, Caja San Fernando of Spain, Dynamo Moscow of Russia and others. (After the first phase, the 24 teams reorganized themselves in 4 new groups, each with the best three teams of one original group and the three worst teams of another group of the first ones. The top three teams wouldn't meet each other again in the second phase, but only played against the bottom three teams.) The best 16 teams advanced to the elimination rounds. In the eighthfinals, only Panathinaikos (against Limoges) and Teamsystem (against Caja San Fernando) swept their series 2-0: the others needed the third game. In quarterfinals, there came another Greek derby between Panathinaikos and Olympiakos, which ended 0-2 for the Reds (49-69, 57-65), ending the reign of the defending champion Greens. The surprise Final Four qualifier was Olimpija Ljubljana of Slovenia eliminating Stefanel. Barcelona did the same with Teamsystem Bologna and Asvel with Efes Pilsen. In the semifinals, the favorite teams advanced with no problems at all. Barcelona defeated Asvel 77-70 and Olympiacos prevailed over Olimpija 74-65. In a great final marked by the point guard duel between David Rivers (26 points) and Sasha Djordjevic, Olympiacos showed clear domination in rebounding (39-26) and the Reds won by 73-58 to get their first European title, the second in a row for Greece.
Interview: David Rivers of Olympiakos
Rivers led the Reds
When anyone thinks of 1997 in Rome, the name of David Rivers is the first that pops to mind. Not only was he named MVP, but he steered Olympiacos with such confidence that it seemed the Reds were pre-destined to win their first title that year. Rivers scored 28 points in the semifinals against Olimpija Ljubljana and 26 in the final against Barcelona for one of the highest Final Four totals ever. What's more, he did it with such accomplished opponents as Arriel McDonald of Olimpija and Sasha Djordjevic of Barcelona trying to stop him. It was futule. As he says in this interview, Rivers arrived to Rome calm. Getting there was the hard part, he says, so after that Rivers felt victory was on its way. And he was right.
What were your first impressions of Olympiakos and Greek basketball when you got there in 1995?
Prior to Europe, I had played a top college program at Notre Dame and had the luck to be drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers and play with a bunch of legends. Both were priceless. Then I hit the bottom part of the NBA experience, playing for the Clippers, and the hard lessons continued after that in the CBA. The opportunity to play internationally was great for me, because from that point on my entire career seemed to travel in an upward motion. Having heard things about Greek basketball, I had said before going there from France that was the one place I didn't care to play. But the opportunity came with an offer that was difficult to refuse, and I have always been glad I went there. My experience was nothing like the stories I had heard."
The battles between your team and the defending champion in 1997, Panathinaikos, are part of European basketball lore. How do you explain that rivalry to an American, for instance?
"I explain it and they look at me like I am crazy. It doesn't penetrate, because you just have to experience it yourself. It is one of the great rivalries in international game and wonderful to be a part of. The only thing I would like to see changed about it is the throwing of objects. But let me tell you: I played in NBA championship finals and the intensity and excitement in air around the Olympiakos-Panathinaikos rivalry was compatible to the excitement of the NBA Finals. It was that enjoyable for me."
Take us back to Rome in 1997. What was your feeling going into the Final Four?
"We had been knocked out the year prior, so during that 1996-97 season, we were getting a lot of heat from journalists and the media. But I stayed the course and told everyone what I believed, that we would get there and we would win. For me, the hard part was getting there to the biggest stage. When we got there, I felt calm and at ease, because I knew the hard part was over. I didn't think winning would be difficult. We had faced challenges that entire season. We overcame obstacles. So by qualifying - which was the hardest part - I was able to remain calm and focused on what I had to do when we got there."
They talked about your duel with Sasha Djordjevic of Barcelona going into the final. Did you approach it that way?
"No. I didn't. I gave him time and attention in the same respectful manner I would approaching any game against any opponent. I didn't put any added significance to the fact that it was him. Of course, Djordjevic was a great player, but I was just more in tune with my own job and what I needed to do."
Any memories that stand out from the big night?
"I don't recall a lot, actually. Collectively, we had a good game, so we won and got to hoist the most coveted championship cup in the international game. What I remember most is looking at the sideline and seeing my head coach, Dusan Ivkovic, without expression at all. He and the assistant coaches and the rest of the team on the bench, it was as if they were in the game themselves. That was beautiful."
Now, Ivkovic is going back to the Final Four with CSKA. What does he give a team in a situation like a Final Four?
"He's excellent, just excellent. The way he excels at that stage was in fact the same way I tried to do my job: without losing control at all. He will speak and talk to players in a manner that brings calm and confidence to the situation. I think players feed off that. He was never out of control or irate. He had a plan and made sure the team knew how to execute it."