Bartzokas is first Greek coach to win the Euroleague

May 16, 2013 by Stelios Kyriakoglou, Athens, Greece Print
Bartzokas is first Greek coach to win the Euroleague
When Olympiacos lifted the Turkish Airlines Euroleague title in London, it became only the third team to win back-to-back titles in the Final Four era. Head coach Giorgos Bartzokas had at his disposal a versatile team with the ability to take victory through either tough defense or potent offense, as illustrated by results at the Final Four in the O2 Arena. In the semifinal, the Reds limited CSKA Moscow to just 52 points, while in the final it went all-out to score 100 points against Real Madrid.

Bartzokas is the first Greek head coach ever to win the top honor in European basketball, leading Olympiacos to its third Euroleague title after the club’s previous triumphs in Rome (1997) and Istanbul (2012). These precedents weighed heavy on the minds of the doubters in this campaign; those previous titles had been won under the guidance of legendary coach Dusan Ikovic, and Batzokas had the pressure of replacing the living legend on the sideline for the demanding Greek powerhouse.

A low-profile, unassuming man, Bartzokas used hard work, good game preparation and belief in his team and himself in order to add another chapter to Olympiacos history. The title was also a personal success for a man who had been a promising power forward in his youth in Maroussi, had retired early due to consecutive injuries and who had come up through the coaching ranks at local teams. Voted the best coach in the Greek League in 2010, there were still doubts from Olympiacos fans about his credentials –which have now turned into cheers for the name of Giorgos Bartzokas.

Bartzokas was born in Athens on June 11, 1965, and joined Maroussi’s youth team in the mid-70s. As a 16-year-old, Bartzokas debuted for the club’s first team in the Greek Second Division, considered to be a potential power forward for the modern era with exceptional technique. However, Bartzokas soon had to battle against serious knee injuries. Never managing to completely overcome these setbacks, Bartzokas decided to leave his playing and captaining role at Maroussi behind him at the age of 27, in order to focus on the challenge of coaching. Such a role was not new to him, as he had been coaching various local teams since the age of 22 -mostly in the northern suburbs of Athens. Pefki, Eraklio, Vrilissia and Kifissia had all been overseen by the future Euroleague title winner. The first time that Bartzokas worked as a head coach for a team in Greek A1 League, however, was at Olympia Larissa in 2006. Respectful of his roots, every time Bartzokas was called a rookie, he would offer a correction along the lines of this rebuttal: “I have been coaching for more than 20 years in a row; in local leagues, mini, junior, U19, I have worked as the fourth, third or chief assistant and as head coach. I think I have plenty of experience to know how to deal with different situations.”

Assistant Bartzokas joins up with Spanoulis in Maroussi

Olympia Larissa was not Bartzokas’s first job in the Greek A1 League. In 2003, Greek basketball legend Panagiotis Giannakis offered him the position of assistant in Maroussi, and he felt as blessed as it gets: “It is a great honor to be chosen by Giannakis and I am happy to be back at Maroussi,” he said upon his return to his former club. According to the urban legend, by that time Bartzokas was serving as a concierge, opening Maroussi's gym in the morning, but the truth is that he was working as the gym’s Managing Director at the Aghios Thomas Hall. Either way, moving from that role to the coaching staff of Maroussi -a team that had finished second in the Greek League in 2004 and 2005 and reached the FIBA Europe League final- can be considered significant progress. At Maroussi, Bartzokas had his first encounter with youngster Vassilis Spanoulis –with whom he would lift the Euroleague title with Olympiacos one decade later.

Head coach for the first time in 2006

Bartzokas had started to build a name for himself and was offered his first head coaching job in the Greek A1 League in 2006. Olympia Larissa was the club giving him the opportunity, and fate would pit him against Maroussi in his A1 debut on the sideline. Bartzokas led Olympia to back-to-back playoff appearances and a spot in its first -and to date only- European competition, the Eurocup. He can also be credited for doing an excellent job with Giorgos Printezis, who had a breakthrough season in Larissa while on loan from Olympiacos. However, Olympia Larissa was facing financial problems and, at the end of the 2008-09 season, Bartzokas moved on to pastures new.

Euroleague debut with Maroussi

It was time to return to Maroussi, only this time as a head coach. Maroussi had clinched a place in the Euroleague qualification round under coach Soulis Markopoulos, prior to Bartzokas’s arrival. The team was the underdog, both against Aris Thessaloniki and Alba Berlin, but managed to overcome both obstacles to earn a berth amongst the Euroleague’s top 24 teams. A modest Bartzokas made sure to give the credit to the previous year’s staff, but he made a hefty contribution himself. Maroussi had a tremendous performance in the Euroleague, qualifying for the Top 16. Placed in a group with Panathinaikos Athens, FC Barcelona Regal and Partizan Belgrade, Maroussi was not given a chance of making the quarterfinals by fans, but Bartzokas’s team came astonishingly close. Had at least one of the buzzer-beating attempts by players Michalis Pelekanos (against Partizan in Belgrade) or Kostas Kaimakoglou (against Panathinaikos in OAKA) gone in, Maroussi would have progressed. Playing attractive basketball and achieving success in the Greek League, the team’s form had earned Bartzokas recognition as one of the top Greek coaches around. The Coach of the Year trophy for the Greek league in 2010 was a worthy honor for him, but proved to be his final bow at Maroussi when the club began to experience financial difficulties.

Bartzokas leads Panionios to third place

The next stop for Bartzokas was Panionios BC. After a first season that saw the team finish eleventh, he put together a 2011/12 project based around young, Greek players. The result was as good as it gets; Panionios finished third behind Greek giants Olympiacos Piraeus and Panathinaikos Athens, played excellent basketball and allowed the young talents to elevate their game to the next level. He convinced most of Greek basketball with his tenure at the club –including Olympiacos presidents Panagiotis and Giorgos Angelopoulos, who targeted him as a replacement for the position of head coach vacated by Dusan Ivkovic.

Glory in London

Being compared to Ivkovic would have been hard to handle for anyone. Bartzokas faced a lack of trust from Olympiacos fans, including some booing early on in the season as Olympiacos struggled to live up to the expectations that had come with the 2012 Istanbul triumph. However, Bartzokas did not panic and did not try to make drastic changes to the defending champions.

“We have a team that was crowned champion in Istanbul. We don’t have to change much. We have made some additions that offer quality, but the main weapon for this team is that it reacts as a real family, in good and in bad times. We must keep that up. That, along with the never-give-up spirit, will be our force,” he said at the time.

Olympiacos was down by 15 against Anadolu Efes in the decisive fifth game of the playoffs, but managed to come back and seal the ticket to defend its title in London. Only Maccabi Tel Aviv (2004, 2005) and Jugoplastica Split (1989, 1990, 1991) had been crowned consecutive times in the Final Four era, before Olympiacos joined them in history and became the third. Bartzokas fielded an unstoppable team in London; one which dominated CSKA Moscow in the semifinal to keep a side with an average of 86 points per game in the playoffs (and 78 ppg. from all stages) to just 52 points. In the final, Olympiacos trailed by 17 before rallying for 90 points in three quarters and a total of 100 points – beating Real Madrid in devastating fashion. “I did not do much. I just had the luck to be in the right place, at the right time,” says Bartzokas, unwilling to take credit for Olympiacos’s success. Maybe that is the most important attribute that Bartzokas has made the most of during his 25-year-long career as a coach: He keeps both feet on the ground, never gets too excited or disappointed, and keeps on working hard.