The day that Athens breathed basketball

Apr 09, 2007 by Danos Tsakalos, Athens Print
Giorgos Amerikanos with 1968 cup Few basketball players have been at center stage of history-in-the-making quite like Giorgos Amerikanos was on April 4, 1968. The setting itself was historic - Kallimarmaro Stadium of central Athens, scene of the first modern Olympic Games some 72 years earlier, in 1896. The result was historic, too, as Amerikanos led AEK to victory in the final of the Cup Winners' Cup, giving Greece its first European trophy in any team sport. But what really made the game memorable was the crowd, more than 80,000 fans packed into the outdoor arena in what is still considered to be the largest live audience ever to see a basketball game in person. And as Amerikanos recounted recently for, the only thing that kept the record from being 50 percent higher was the confines of the old arena: "There were 40,000 people outside the stadium, too!"

On the day of the game, before Amerikanos ever saw the crowd, however, Amerikanos spent practically alone.

"I had my superstitions, you know," he recalled. "Each time I happened to see a hearse on my way to the basketball ground, I knew we would win. There was also a small chapel in Spata, where I would go before matches. The priest would give me his blessing. He had also given me a talisman, which I wore in every single game I played. On the eve of the final against Slavia, I visited that chapel in Spata."

Amerikanos knew about the crowd outside the stadium from having passed through it to get to the entrance. He knew nothing, however, about what to expect when he and his teammates walked out of the locker room.

"It was a sense of awe", he says. "When we got out from the dressing room to the court, we were absolutely intoxicated by the heat of the crowd. They went wild when they saw us. We felt that we should not let down all the people who had come to support us. We had to win by all means. So, I gathered my teammates around me and we vowed to win the game".

And so they did, thanks to a memorable performance by Amerikanos, who rose to the occasion with 29 points in an 89-82 victory over Slavia Prague. The Athenians poured into the streets celebrating the first-ever Greek team to win an international trophy in any team sport. "And ours was an all-Greek team," the game's hero now emphasizes. "OK, there was a guy called…Amerikanos (American in Greek), but he was very much Greek."

The whole city was in ecstasy mode and Amerikanos above all was their hero. On the way home from the stadium came the memory that Amerikanos has still not forgotten, almost 40 years later: "A group of fans lifted my car - I was inside accompanied by the trophy and six more people - and they took it all the way from Omonia Square to Victoria Square" - a distance of almost two kilometers!

One thing that the decades have not erased is the conviction of Amerikanos that he and his team did, indeed, make history that day.

"That game brought all the Athenians together, all Greeks together," Amerikanos says now. "To my mind, it was then that basketball touched the hearts of the young people."