Wilkins wears a net
Since 1988, eight Greek teams had played in six Final Fours and advanced to title games in 1994 and 1995. But only in 1996 could Greek basketball finally claim its first continental title at a club level, thanks to a dramatic win by Panathinaikos at the Final Four in Paris. To get there, the Greens had signed Bozidar Maljkovic, the coach who had already won two titles with Jugoplastika and one with Limoges. As every year, there were some newcomers in the competition, such as Unicaja Malaga of Spain, Iraklis of Greece and Olimpique Antibes of France. CSKA and Barcelona ended as their respective group leaderswith 10-4 records, and beat their rivals in the quarterfinals round, Barca against Ulker (2-0) and CSKA against Pau-Orthez (2-1), just like Real Madrid eliminated Olympiacos by 2-1 as well. The only team that overcame the homecourt advantage was Panathinaikos, which had been third in its group (9-5) and needed a one-point road victory over Benetton Treviso, 64-65, to win their quarterfinal series (2-1). At the Final Four in Paris, Barcelona won the Spanish semifinal duel 76-66 despite Real Madrid's 15-point lead in the first half (19-34). Panathinaikos prevailed over CSKA by 81-71 thanks to a great performance by Dominique Wilkins, the big star of the team, who scored 35 points. In the breathtaking final, Panathinaikos beat Barcelona by a single point, 67-66, on a last-minute blocked shot by Stojko Vrankovic to secure the first title for a Greek team.
Interview: Panagiotis Giannakis of Panathinaikos
Giannakis: One for Greece
He is not only a legend of Greek basketball at the club and national level. His 25-years career and list of great achievements make Panagiotis Giannakis one of the most important personalities of the European basketball something that was acknowledged again with his selection to the Euroleague Technical Committee. The so-called "Dragon" has participated as a player in five editions of the Final Four, both with Aris (1988, 1989, 1990) and Panathinaikos (1995, 1996). He failed to reach the final game on those first four occasions, but he and the Greens came up big in Paris as Panathinaikos finally was able to put a Greek team on top of Europe. Seven years later, the current coach of Maroussi, remembers with great emotion the 1996 Final Four at Palais Bercy, considering it the "creme de la creme" of his club career. What Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca
- 'We'll always have Paris' - will always be true of the Greens and Panagiotis Giannakis.
What do you remember most from that Final Four?
"The award ceremony, no doubt. That is a moment to remember from my entire life. I was proud to be the very first Greek player ever to take this trophy in his hands. It's all about an unforgettable image. I was not sure if I should have another chance to play such a final game. So I enjoyed this and later, when I was presented at the official press conference, I decided to speak in Greek, to honor my country."
But let's rewind this great night in Bercy. Before the award ceremony, it was a thrilling and controversial game...
"All that happened at the end of the game is unbelievable, a few seconds that lasted one century! I remember Stojko (Vrankovic) running like...Carl Lewis from one side to the other to stop Montero. He blocked the layup almost at the buzzer and he sealed the victory. I had fallen trying to save the ball and when I got up I ran with all my force to help my teammate. I remember everything, second by second, step by step. Sometimes I live it again. It's a big emotion, something you can't imagine unless you live it. Barcelona protested and they made an appeal, saying that the block was irregular, but I can tell you that a lot of irregular things happened against Panathinaikos before that, especially because of the 30-second clock. I am sure that the time had expired and the ball should have been given to us."
Had you been afraid that Paris 1996 might be your last chance to win the trophy after four previous losses at the Final Four?
"I retired four months later, five minutes after our last game in the Atlanta Olympics, but my decision was taken just there, in the locker room. In April, I still didn't have any ideas about my future, but it doesn't matter. I wanted this trophy. I wanted it very much not because of my possible retirement, but because I was not sure that I should have another opportunity to play in a Final Four. Imagine, a big club like Barcelona still has never won this trophy."
What was the key point for Panathinaikos to go all the way and to win the title?
"I would say our combination of experience and enthusiasm. Panathinaikos was composed of players who had matured and were ready to die for this trophy. It was not easy to reach our target and we risked elimination at the quarter finals against Benetton. Fortunately, Vrankovic also blocked Rebraca at the buzzer of the third game and we made it. But, the so-called secret of our success was the full participation and concentration af all the players to the team effort. No other Greek team crowned European champion has had so many contributions from Greek players. Anyway, Panathinaikos proved that it was the best team and deserved to win. Unfortunately everybody sticks out in the last action of the game and this is unfair for us. We had a double-digit lead a few minutes before the end and we should have won by more than the one-point gap of the final result."
Before that, you have enjoyed the 1987 European Championships gold medal with Greece and the 1993 European Cup Winners Cup. What makes the 1996 trophy special?
"The European Championships in Athens was the highlight of my entire career. No doubt. But, to win the trophy in Paris, it was like killing the ghosts! I had experienced the Final Four in first three editions with Aris and once again with Panathinaikos and I failed. So, I was feeling that Paris was my destination. I tried to stay calm, but at the same time I was feeling the support from all my effort and all my life in basketball."
Is there any secret to winning the Final Four?
"Not a secret, but a must to have: balance. That means good preparation, confidence, concentration, focus, availability from all players to take advantage of any given opportunity. In Paris, Panathinaikos had the privilege to take help, both in semifinal game against CSKA Moscou and final game against Barcelona, from players who usually came from the bench, such as Korfas, Stavrakopoulos and Vourtzoumis. You cannot win a Euroleague trophy with just five players."
Is there anything you are missing from a Final Four atmoshpere?
"I miss it all. This is a great basketball event. To be honest, my goal is to return to a Euroleague Final Four as a coach."