The first Greek powerhouse

Feb 05, 2011 by Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net Print
Vladimir Stankovic Veteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. For the new 2010-11 season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!

When one talks about Greek basketball clubs, the first names that come to mind are normally Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. That's logical because since 1996, when Panathinaikos won its first Euroleague title in Paris, the Greens have become the most dominant team in modern European basketball, with four more continental trophies - in 2000, 2002, 2007 and 2009 - while Olympiacos got its first in 1997. It is almost impossible nowadays to imagine a Final Four without either the Reds or the Greens, and they have even been together at the event three times, at Tel Aviv 1994, Zaragoza 1995 and Berlin 2009.

Nonetheless, the history of Greek basketball in the European cups didn't start with the growth of Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in the 1990s. Before them, PAOK Thessaloniki played a Final Four in 1993 in Athens. But that wasn't the first Greek team in a Final Four, either. Many will remember Aris Thessaloniki, the legendary team that dominated Greece at the end of the eighties with the unforgettable duo formed by floor general Panagiotis Giannakis and ace scorer Nikos Galis. Aris, with Giannis Ioannidis as coach, took part in the first three Final Fours: Ghent 1988, Munich 1989 and Zaragoza 1990, but the Yellows never played the title game. But again, Aris was not the first Greek team in a Final Four either. That honor is for AEK Athens, a team which is now going through hard times in the Greek League.

Refugees from Istanbul

AEK... how many times have you heard the name without even thinking about the meaning of the three letters? Well, those are short for the words, in Greek, "Athlitiki Enosis Konstantinopoleos" which roughly translates into "Athletic Union of Constantinople". For those who know their history, the word "Constantinople" will ring a bell and they will know that it is the ancient name of Istanbul, but relating AEK to the Turksih city will be a little harder. The explanation involves the war between Turkey and Greece from 1919 to 1922. At the time, many Greeks lived in that city, but as a consequence of the war they were forced to leave their homes. They settled on the outskirts of Athens, especially in the neighborhood today known as New Philadelphia, and there, on April 13 of 1924, the AEK club was founded. Nowadays AEK has 12 sections and the biggest ones are football and basketball. The basketball club has won nine Greek Leagues, the first one, not official, in 1925 and the last one in 2002. Three Greek Cups, one Cup Winners' Cup in 1968 and the Saporta Cup in 2000. In the modern era of the Final Four, AEK was at Barcelona 1998, finishing third, while in the first Euroleague season of 2000-01, AEK reached the semifinals. It was reached the Top 16 in 2002 and 2005.

1966: the first Final Four

This story goes much further back, however, to the1960s, when AEK won four consecutive Greek Leagues (1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966) and was the Greek representative in the European Cup. After falling in the first phase in 1963-64 against Galatasaray of Turkey, in 1964-65 AEK proved itself a contender. It eliminated Maccabi Tel Aviv (a team still far from the powerhouse it would become just a decade later) and, in the eighthfinals, it got rid of Antwerpen of Belgium. After that it fell with honor in the quarterfinals against the OKK Belgrade team coached by Radivoj Korac. In 1965-66, AEK got past Wisla Krakow of Poland, then made the quarterfinals again by stopping WAC Casablanca of Morocco. In Group B of the quarterfinals, AEK finished second after CSKA Moscow, but ahead of CSKA Sofia and a Zadar team featuring a young talent who would become a legend in world basketball, Kresimir Cosic.

In the first game they played, CSKA Sofia had beaten AEK by 25 points, 94-69, but in the second there was the biggest comeback of the competition. Playing outdoors - in front of 35,000 fans! - AEK won by 30 points, 75-45, thrashing the previous comeback record, which had stood at 19 points when Olimpija Ljubljana overcame Alsace Bagnolet of France. If you ask yourself what arena could hold 35,000 people back in 1966, the answer is "none". The game was played at the Panathinaiko Stadium (also known as Kallimarmaro Stadium and not to be confused with the stadium of Panathinaikos), the site for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. In three home games played between January and March, AEK sold as many as 108,600 tickets for its games there!

CSKA and AEK together with Slavia Prague and Simenthal Milano, the two first teams in Group A, made the first Final Four, invented by FIBA as an experiment. The site of this first Final Four was Bologna, and the dates, March 30 and April 1. AEK arrived to the event with the first team, formed only by Greek players: Giorgos Amerikanos, Stelios Vasiliadis, Eas Larentzakis, Dermanoutsos, Lakis Tsavas, Georgios Moschos, Vaggelis Nikitopoulos, Antonis Christeas, Giorgos Ekonomou, Christos Zoupas, Giorgos Trontzos, Theodoropoulos and Nikos Nesiadis. The coach was Missas Pantazopoulos. But Slavia Prague, led by Jiri Zidek Sr. - father of my fellow Euroleague.net blogger - was too strong for AEK. The Czechs won by 103-73. In the other semifinal, Milano defeated CSKA by 68-57 and in the final it defeated Prague by 77-72. AEK was fourth after losing to CSKA in the third-place game by 62-85. And since bad news normally come in twos, just a few weeks later, Georgios Moschos passed away of cancer. One of the club's future arenas was named for him.

Revenge for 80,000

For the 1966-67 season, AEK had not won the Greek League and therefore had to play the Cup Winners' Cup, a new competition that had started just a year before for the individual national cup winners in countries around the continent. AEK got a first-round bye and in the second eliminated Kas Vitoria of Spain with Moncho Monsalve as the leader and best player. In the quarterfinals, AEK got rid of Royal IV SC Anderlecht of Belgium and in semis the victim was Ignis Varese, just a couple years away from becoming Europe's most dominant team for a decade. AEK reached the final against none other than Slavia Prague, its nemesis the previous year. Their single-game final was set for April 4, 1968 in Athens, and of course, the game was to be played at the Panathinaiko Stadium.

There are no 100-percent reliable data about the number of spectators, but there's no doubt that it is a record in Europe and was for world basketball attendance until recently. According to most of the sources there were 65,000 fans and about 20,000 outside the stadium. But the official webpage of AEK says there were 80,000 people that night, as do several other books. There are also stories of 40,000 people outside the stadium, listening by radio to the action. Whatever it was, there was madness in Athens that night because of AEK. With the referees Janko Kavcic of Yugoslavia and Dan Chiriac of Romania officiating, AEK won by 89-82 after having led 47-38 at halftime and surviving a Slavia comeback to tie 58-58. It was the big revenge for the loss two years earlier in Bologna. The hero of the game was Georgios Amerikanos, who scored 29 points. Center Georgios Trontzos added 24, Christos Zoupas had 12, Stelios Vasiliadis posted 11, Eas Larentzakis 6, Antonis Christeas 4 and Lakis Tsavas 3. The coach was Nikos Milas. Jiri Zidek's 31 points and 23 by Jiri Ruzicka could not save Slavia. AEK became the first great Greek team to win an international trophy in any team sport.

Almost 40 years later, in a 2007 interview with Euroleague.net, the hero of the night, Amerikanos, recounted a post-game memory that never faded. "A group of fans lifted my car," he recalled. "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. "That game brought all the Athenians together, all Greeks together," Amerikanos added.

That was the peak of the golden age of AEK, even though until just a few years ago, the team of New Philadelphia remained a standard-bearer in Greece and Europe. On this team we have seen players like Rolando Blackman, Ricky Pierce, Michalis Kakiouzis, Nikos Hatzis, Minas Gekos, Tony Campbell, Ruben Patterson, Kurt Rambis, J.R. Holden, Willie Anderson, Joe Arlauckas, Anthony Bowie, Claudio Coldebella, Jake Tsakalidis and Nikos Zisis. The bench has also had great coaches like Kresimir Cosic, Iannis Ioannidis, Vlade Djurovic, Fotsis Katsikaris, Kostas Politis, Dusan Ivkovic, who brought AEK its last European trophy, the last Saporta Cup in 2000, and Dragan Sakota, who guided the team to its last Greek League title, in 2002.

A great history, to be sure, for the "Athletic Union of Constantinople", the first Greek powerhouse.