Red vs. Greens, baptism of fire

Nov 10, 2017 by Frank Lawlor, Print

Consider the plight of Kyle Wiltjer as he stands to make his Turkish Airlines EuroLeague debut in the Game of the Week between Olympiacos Piraeus and Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens on Friday night.

The newest player for Olympiacos, registered this week, may get his introduction to European basketball by playing in what is arguably the most intense basketball rivalry – bar none – in the world.

What he will find is that, in Europe, every game is do-or-die, every possession truly counts, and passion for your colors is ultimate the measure of the player.

If there is any time when those maxims apply most, it's when the Reds and the Greens get together for one of their battle royals, which now happens twice a year in the competition whose trophy they have lifted a combined nine times in just 22 years, the EuroLeague.

If that feels like pressure, Wiltjer can feel fortunate for a couple of reasons. First, he is part of the YouTube generation and so he has a looking-glass into what he can expect. Second, his father preceded him to Europe, having played late last century for both FC Barcelona and Aris BSA, whose rivalries with Real Madrid and PAOK, respectively, also rank up there among the best and most heated. Greg Wiltjer surely had some stories to tell his son about how such battles are won.

And still....ask anyone who knows what it's like to be on the floor for these games, and they will tell you: yeah, the stories are true, the videos are vivid, but until you are on the battlefield, you can't imagine what it's really like. "It's like being electrocuted," James Gist of Panathinaikos says in the video below. "You feel it, you feel the energy. If you usually jump this high, after you walk into the gym and hear that crowd chanting, you're going to jump [higher]. It's crazy.

"It's like they love the game more than us, you know, but they can't play it so they expect us to do it for them." A native son who knows even better is Ioannis Papapetrou, who grew up a Panathinaikos fan but has made his pro career where the opportunity came to him, with Olympiacos.

"Everywhere there are derbies," he says, "but here people get so fanatic about it."

One of the fascinating things about this rivalry is how it is not territorial or political or tribal. Although Olympiacos is in Piraeus and Panathinaikos in Athens, fans of both are everywhere in the greater Greek capital, and beyond that, in the country as a whole and among the extensive Greek diaspora worldwide.

All of them will be on the edge of their seats Friday night for the latest chance at bragging rights. It doesn't matter to them that several newcomers like Wiltjer will be experiencing this rivalry for the first time. Or that a central figure who has played for both teams, Vassilis Spanoulis, likely will not be back from injury. Or that a couple of players – Georgios Bogris of Olympiacos and Matt Lojeski of Panathinaikos – will appear in it again, but in different uniforms this time. It might not even matter much that their places in the standings will shift, for good or bad, with the results.

What matters is that on this night, at this time, and in this moment, their team is better than their arch-enemy. "The fans create an atmosphere where the hairs on your body will stand up, during the game," says another player who has been on both sides of the rivalry, Ian Vougioukas of Panathinaikos. "There's a saying in Greek that kind of says, 'If your enemy dies, you live'... So it's a tough environment to play in, but high risk, high reward, I guess." Kyle Wiltjer may or may not play tonight, but one thing is for sure: he will never forget it.