Athens basketball: Devotion through the decades

Apr 09, 2007 by Danos Tsakalos, Athens Print
Greece Eurochamps 1987 In a city where history is ever-present, the 2007 Final Four will help contribute to a rich basketball legacy that makes Athens one of world's basketball capitals. Although basketball was introduced late to Greece - almost 30 years after the game was invented - it caught on quickly and endured even through wars both world-wide and civil to emerge as a favorite sport of the city. It was 80 years ago, in 1927, that the first Greek League was formed, with Athenian teams dominating its early editions. Roughly halfway between then and now, in 1968, Athens also hosted the game that still holds the world record for attendance, 80,000 people at the outdoor stadium where the first modern Olympics had taken place. More than three decades later, the next Athens Olympic Games proved without a doubt that basketball's global competitiveness had caught up with its popularity. Before the 2007 Final Four adds its own chapter to the annals of Athens basketball, take a walk through the timeline of basketball in the Greek capital.

Early years

Although basketball was spread by missionaries to many corners of the world soon after being invented by James Naismith in 1891, Greece came late to the game, but with a first-hand source. Michael Sterguiadis. one of the assistants to Naismith in Springfield, introduced basketball at the YMCA in Thessaloniki in 1919. The first recorded presence of the sport in Athens came a couple years later, but it soon became a very popular activity among soldiers. It wasn't long before numerous athletic clubs embraced basketball. Especially after 1921, when the first tournament took place in Athens, basketball's popularity as a passtime spread throughout the city. By the time Panionios hosted a regional tournament in which at least 35 high schools competed, in 1925, it was official. The descendants of Aristotle had fallen in love with basketball. The inaugural Greek championship tipped off in 1927 and a season later the so-called "Olympic Champions" of Panellinios were crowned champions of Greece. In the ensuing seasons, Athenian basketball continued to be victorious as such as Near East and the University Of Athens ended up with the championship medals in their trophy showcase. However, the dark clouds of the Second World War soon loomed over the world and the leather balls were replaced with guns.

With peace came a dynasty

World War II and the subsequent civil war in Greece did not impede the march of basketball. In fact, the fighting was still going on when the Greek League was reestablished in 1946 and a dynasty took its first steps. That 1946 season marked the first of four consecutive titles by what would become the green empire of Panathinaikos. Even more remarkable was that Panathinaikos went through three of those seasons undefeated. Its run was finally stopped by Panellinios, whose starting lineup of Mimis Stefanidis, Themis Holevas, Aristeidis Roubanis, Panagiotis Manias, Kostas Papadimas became legends known as the "fabulous five". Their coach was the legendary Nikolaos Nisiotis, a future IOC member and professor of theology in the University of Athens. They trounced other pretenders to the crown and then beat the champions from Panathinaikos by 61-54 en route to a well-deserved place in Greek basketball's Hall of Fame. The would share dominance during the 1950s with Panthinaikos and stars like Missas Pantazopoulos, Giorgos Nikolaidis, Fedon Matheou, Takis Arvanitis, Giorgos Lambrou, Nikos Milas. As the years went by, a special bunch of young prodigies emerged from the cemented courts of the Greek capital and turned a few Athenian clubs into dominant forces. By the 1960s, a decade in which AEK won a total of six national titles and Panathinaikos added four to its tally, other clubs were producing stars, too. Prolific scorers were in abundance during those days, most notably Giorgos Kolokithas, who became the two-time scoring champ at the European Championships, and his teammate at Sporting, Giorgos Barlas, whose own son Panayiotis would later win a gold medal in the 1995 Junior World Championships.

A game to end all games

Another of those top scorers from the 1960s was AEK leader Giorgos Amerikanos, who holds a special place in Athens basketball history. Despite many talented players, Greek teams had failed up to then to make an impression in European competitions, never reaching a semifinal - until AEK went against the odds and became what its growing hordes of fans called "Europe's Queen". After three consecutive national titles, the talented "gang" from Nea Philadelphia was ready for the big tiime. In 1965-66 AEK reached the semifinals of Europe's only club competition, but ran into the obstacle of Slavia Prague in what was the first Final Four ever on the continent. Two years later both teams met again in the final of a new continental competition, the Cup Winners' Cup. In the decisive game, all of Athens stood still as 80,000 boisterous fans poured into the renowned Kallimarmaro Stadium, where the first modern Olympic Games had taken place. Even the fan seated furthest away could see 2.17-meter Giorgos Trontzos, a fian for the times, as well as legens Christos Zoupas, Aias Laretzakis, Stelios Vasileiadis, Antonis Christeas, Lakis Tsavas and Petros Petrakis. But it was Amerikanos who rose highest to the occasion by scoring 29 points in an 82-76 victory over Slavia, making AEK the first Greek club in any sport to lift a European trophy.

My name is Giannakis. Panayotis Giannakis

Panagiotis GiannakisAthenian clubs remained on the driver's seat in Greece throughout the 1970s. Panathinaikos won six championships in seven years, from 1969 to 1975, with the exception of the 1969-70 season, behind Giorgos Kolokithas, Christos Iordanidis, Takis Koroneos, Apostolos Kontos, Dimitris Kokolakis, Chris Kefalos, Petros Panagiotarakos, Kostas Politis and Andreas Chaikalis,Andreas Papantoniou and Xaris Papazoglou. Olympiakos popped champagne corks twice, in 1976 and 1978. The era featured brilliant Greek-Americans such as Steve Yatzoglou, Giorgos Kastrinakis and Christos Kefalos, although homegrown scorers like Apostolos Kontos and Vassilis Goumas more than measured up. Goumas remains the second all-time scorer in Greek League history, behind only Nick Galis. Another reason to smile though was the emergence of a young player who was about to lead Greek basketball for decades to come. His name: Panayotis Giannakis - no introduction needed. At the tender age of 17, "The Dragon" debuted with the men's national team and few years later he put on a display so fascinating that die-hard Greek basketball fans to this day beg, borrow and even steal DVD copies of it.

The night of the gunners

On January 24, 1981, at Plato Indoor Arena, home of Ionikos, Giannakis met the newly-arrived marvel Galis and his Aris Thessaloniki powerhouse. Later, the same duo would terrorize European opponents together, but tonight they battled each other to truly epic proportions. It seemed as though their teammates were not on the court, the house lights were down and there was merely a spotlight following each marksman. Giannakis would knock down a long-range jumper, then Galis would retort with a crossover dribble and a drive. The former would up the ante by bullying his way to the basket, only to be bettered by the latter who would finish a fastbreak with authority. Two legends-in-the-making were gunning without conscience. Galis was perhaps the ultimate scorer to ever play in Europe, however that night Giannakis outshined him as he scored 73 points. Galis finished with only...62. Fans knew right away that they had just witnessed one of the greatest games in league history. Final score: Ionikos 113-114 Aris.

The musketeer who knocked out the Red Army

What those fans from 1981 didn't know was that six years later, Giannakis, Galis & Co would overturn all experts' predictions and win the 1987 European Championship. Many Athenians were part of this team: Giannakis, Nikos Linardos, Panayotis Karatzas, Memos Ioannou, Liveris Andritsos and hero Argyris Kambouris, who iced the final victory by making 2 free throws with 3 seconds left. And then there was Fanis Christodoulou, the 2.03-meter forward regarded along with Giannakis and Galis as one of the "musketeers" responsible for igniting the renaissance of Greek basketball. Christodoulou was the prototypical point forward, but was able to play all five positions on the court. He could score from downtown, dish jaw-dropping assists, rebound and most importantly put a defensive stop on anybody. The biggest highlight of Christodoulou's illustrious career came two years later against reigning Olympic champion the Soviet Union at the European Championships semifinal in 1989.

One city to rule them all

For more than a decade Christodoulou was the star player of a successful Panionios team, yet starting in the mid-1980s the once-dominant Athenian clubs laid down their arms to the supreme rulers from the north, Aris and PAOK. The flag of the revolution was finally raised when tycoon Sokratis Kokkalis took charge of Olympiakos, persuaded "general" Giannis Ioannidis to coach the team and coaxed back the "red masses" to the Peace and Friendship stadium. Ioannidis was the piper who called the winning tune for Olympiakos, as he - along with the likes of Zarko Paspalj, Giorgos Sigalas, Dragan Tarlac and Roy Tarpley - held Greece and much of Europe in awe for the better part of the 1990s. The Reds won five Greek domestic titles in a row - from 1993 to 1997 - and finally, after coming close twice, were crowned Euroleague champions by thrashing Barcelona 73-58 in 1997. If there existed a fourth "musketeer" who brought basketball to the masses, it was no doubt Panagiotis Fassoulas, a giant of the game who, although he came from Thessaloniki to Athens, helped Olympiacos to win the 1997 Euroleague. However, Olympiakos was not the first team to bring the much-coveted Euroleague trophy to Athens. That honor went to its archrival, Panahinaikos, one year earlier, which had added former NBA superstar Dominique Wilkins to a roster anchored by 37-year old Panayotis Giannakis and young Fragiskos Alvertis, who would remain the constant as the Greens became the team with the most exclusive European titles, three, over the next decade.

The rebirth of a basketball nation

Panathinaikos attracted some of the biggest names in basketball, from head coach Zeljko Obradovic to multiple Euroleague MVP Dejan Bodiroga, but also depended on the contribution of some very talented Athenians: Alvertis, Nikos Economou and Antonis Fotsis. Still, the retirement of the "musketeers" saw the Greek national team hit some down years, this despite a 1995 World Junior Championship team that went undefeated with an average winning margin of more than 20 points. The expectations for that new generation were high, but the national team went through a rough period from 1999 until 2002. Enter, once again, the "immortal" Panayotis Giannakis, who took over the bench and injected a team-above-all Spartan mentality to the team. Greece came back in style. After a fifth place in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, the team stormed through the European Championships the year after, winning Greece's second gold medal. The Athenian trio of Theodoros Papaloukas, Michalis Kakiouzis and Antonis Fotsis came back in the 2006 World Champioships to help knock the favored United States from the tournament before going home with a silver medal.

A new golden age

Theo Papalukas was 2006 Final Four MVPThere is no doubt, as the big rendezvous of the 2007 Final Four approaches, that Greek basketball is enjoying a new golden age. In addition to the national team successes of recent years, Greek-born players have been winning honors far and wide. A young Panathinaikos guard, Dimitris Diamantidis, won the Euroleague's Best Defender Trophy in each of his first two seasons in the competition. Other Greek players have been in demand on clubs abroad. The first Greek player to win a Euroleague title with a non-Greek team was Nestoras Kommatos, who played a key role off the bench as Maccabi Tel Aviv won its second trophy in a row in 2005. The next spring, two more such players - Fotsis and Lazaros Papadopoulos - lifted the ULEB Cup trophy with Dynamo Moscow. And soon after that, another Greek player abroad won a Euroleague title in high style: Papaloukas took CSKA Moscow to the summit in 2006 while being named the title-game MVP and All-Euroleague first team. There is little doubt now that Greece, its teams and players at home and abroad have an admirable momentum that could culminate in yet another great tournament: the 2007 Final Four!