By Kevin Anselmo
Greece was not supposed to win the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens, similar to how the current team didn’t have gold on their minds in Belgrade.
The goal for Greece entering 1987 competition was to finish in the top eight. Coached by Costas Politis, they defied all odds and won the gold, launching a Greek basketball revolution.
At the outset of EuroBasket 2005, Greece’s goal was a top six finish, with anything more being a significant feat. Greece is one win shy of duplicating the 87 team’s magical run if they can beat Germany in the gold medal game.
One of the common bonds between the two teams is Panayotis Yannakis. The current head coach of Greece was also the team captain, starting point guard and heart and soul of the 1987 squad.
“I am thrilled to be still involved with basketball – a game I love so much and that gave me so many great memories,” said Yannakis, who coached the national team from 1997-98, before stepping down and then taking over the reigns again in 2004. “I am proud to be involved in such a great moment with such great team and I hope this makes people understand the joy of basketball.”
“He helps us have a vision,” said guard Theodorus Papaloukas of his head coach. “Most of us starting playing when they won the title.”
|Panayiotis Yannakis in 1987|
The 1987 Greece basketball team’s quest to the final was truly a Cinderella story. Prior to 87, Greece had only cracked the top eight in the final standings one time in their previous 11 appearances and had never participated in a FIBA World Championship.
With Yannakis orchestrating the offense as the point guard and the legendary Nikos Gallis providing scoring, Greece finished 3-2 in preliminary round play, setting up a quarter-final match-up against Italy.
The Greeks beat Italy 90-78 – their first win ever against the Italians. Next came Yugoslavia, whose roster included the likes of Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Stoyko Vrankovic and Toni Kukoc. Again the Greeks pulled off an upset and defeated Yugoslavia for the second time in the competition with an 81-77 win.
The gold medal game was a sight to behold. The arena’s capacity was 15,000, yet 20,000 were in attendance, including all prominent government officials and celebrities, as Greece took on the mighty Soviet Union, winners of 14 EuroBaskets.
With three seconds remaining in the game and Greece trailing by 89-87, Liveris Andritsos hit two free throws to force overtime.
The game went back and forth in the extra period and Argiris Kamporis was fouled with three seconds remaining. Kamporis, a 67% free throw shooter who prior to the competition was a construction worker, calmly sank both to give Greece a 103-101 lead. The Soviets came down and missed their final shot, setting off a celebration from border to border in Greece.
Champagne bottles were opened throughout the company and fireworks burst into the night sky. The duration of the winning Greek team’s bus ride from the arena to the team hotel, which was only five kilometres in distance, took over two hours as thousands of drivers and fans circled the bus to congratulate their heroes.
“It was crazy - there was complete madness throughout the country,” said Sophie Gialleli, who currently works as a journalist for Athlitiki Echo in Greece but at the time was a 17-year old student and basketball fan.
Gialleli confesses that her studies were put on hold during the summer of 87 as watching basketball took precedent.
Asked about her reaction following the win, Gialleli said: “We went crazy. That’s the only way to describe it.”
“The victory gave Greeks confidence,” said Yiannis Fileris, who covered the 1987 EuroBasket and currently works for sport24.gr. “It was a very important win for all Greek sports because prior to that we had never won any international competitions.”
Even a song by Portoualoglov Ninos entitled We Are Now Champions in recognition of the team’s triumph became well known.
Basketball rocketed to the number one sport in the country, a place it would hold for over a decade, as courts and gyms began propping up from one end of Greece to the other.
Greece made their debut in Olympic basketball in 1996, finishing a respectable fifth place.
Basketball has slightly dropped off since this time, but Yannakis feels that the 2005 team can have a similar effect as the 1987 team.
"Ten years ago in Greece most of the basketball gyms were full, and in recent years this has changed,” he said. “This generation gives the people in Greece the chance to get to know basketball again.”
The current team which has marched to the medal round following improbable upset wins over Lithuania and France, only have to look over to their bench to see a symbol of the 87 squad in their coach Yannakis.
Greece forward Mihalis Kakiouzis, who was 10 years old when Greece upset the Soviet Union, said: “Our coach is an excellent example for us. We grew up with this team. We were all young and started playing basketball when they were playing. They gave us a lot of passion and heart.”
“It is honouring because we have some good young players,” Yannakis said in regard to the high praise he has received from his team. “It shows the meaning of our accomplishment in 1987 with the respect they give us and the love they have for the game.”
Asked if players from the 87 squad offer a message to the current one, Papaloukas said: “They keep telling us to believe in ourselves and have faith.”
If this recipe works one more time for Greece in the 2005 EuroBasket, another boisterous celebration will be taking place in Athens and a new group of legends will be born.