|16 May 2012|
BASKETBALL IN EUROPE
|Olympiacos players surround Georgios Printezis who scored the winning basket in the Euroleague Final |
In Greece, a country that is going through some very testing times right now, sport has traditionally been a polarizing affair.
It would be inconceivable to see devoted fans of any club to cheer for a rival in any sport, let alone celebrate their victory.
Or at least it was until Sunday night, when the country witnessed the greatest comeback in the history of European finals on their screens.
Olympiacos' triumph against all odds in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four united and inspired not only opposing fans but the entire nation, albeit momentarily.
That win against CSKA in the final when all seemed lost, was welcomed as an unexpected ray of light in the deepest darkness.
A glimpse of hope that maybe, just maybe, if everyone pulls together, things will turn out alright in the end.
Coach Dusan Ivkovic has had a lot of signature moments in his career but this has to be one of the most important.
He had won the Euroleague crown before at the helm of Olympiacos, in 1997 when the Final Four was held in Rome.
That Olympiacos team beat Barcelona and did not have to stage a miracle comeback to do it.
Few could have believed that the Reds had a chance on Sunday, but Ivkovic was among those who did.
"I never stopped believing," he said.
"Even when we found ourselves down by 19, I still told my players that they can do it..."
CHAMPIONS FORGED FROM EUROPEAN METAL
|Final Four MVP Vassilis Spanoulis has now two Euroleague titles to go with his EuroBasket gold and World Championship silver medals |
It came as no surprise that Ivkovic's players immediately got the message.
Many of them learned what it was like to cope with pressure as teenagers, when they developed a habit of winning titles.
Look at the Olympiacos trio of 22-year-olds.
Evangelos Mantzaris, Kostas Papanikolaou and Kostas Sloukas were members of the great Greek team at the 2009 U20 European Championship.
That side lost just once, to France, en route to the gold medal three summers ago in Rhodes.
In the title game, Greece avenged that setback with a 90-85 victory over the French.
Papanikolaou, who had 15 points and six rebounds, was the MVP of that 2009 tournament.
That same summer, Papanikolaou, Sloukas and Mantzaris travelled to New Zealand and played at the U19 World Championship.
They impressed there, too, but settled for a silver medal after falling 88-80 to a solid United States in the title game.
The year before, in fact, 2008, had also belonged to the same trio for they had been players in the Greek team that hosted the U18 European Championship in Pyrgos and won gold.
In a thrilling title game against Lithuania, Sloukas led the hosts with 16 points and Papanikolaou hit two free throws and tipped in another missed foul shot over the final 44 seconds to secure the victory.
The Greece youth teams were not the only ones to provide firepower for this season's gritty and determined Olympiacos side.
Turn the clock back to 2008 and the U20 European Championship that was played in Riga, Latvia.
Marko Keselj didn't just play for Serbia in the gold medal game, he buried three of five shots from behind the arc and finished with 20 points as they defeated Lithuania, 96-89.
He shot 42.4 per cent (14 of 33) from long range and averaged 14.5 points for Serbia that summer.
Another Olympiacos player, Martynas Gecevicius, was in the Lithuania side at the same Championship.
Big man Pero Antic meanwhile started his international career as a 17-year-old and has played for F.Y.R of Macedonia national teams at all age levels.
SENSATIONAL CAPTAIN SPANOULIS
|Kostas Papanikolaou, who will be 22 in July, led all scorers in the final to join the elite company of Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc|
Vassilis Spanoulis has had a lot of big moments in his time as a professional.
He celebrated the gold-medal triumph with Greece at EuroBasket 2005 and played on the team that shocked the United States at the World Championship Semi-Finals in 2006.
Spanoulis was the MVP of Euroleague Final Four that Panathinaikos won in Berlin in 2008 and on Sunday, he was the MVP of the Final Four for the second time.
Greatness started for him, too, however, as a youth player.
The 1.93m shooting guard represented Greece at the European Championship for Junior Men in 2000 and captured a bronze medal.
Two years later, at the European Championship for Young Men, Spanoulis shot 47.7 per cent from long range and averaged 16 points to lead Greece to gold.
Even Georgios Printezis, who hit the game-winning shot with 0.7 seconds remaining for Olympiacos, played for Greece's youth teams.
He did not finish top of the podium in his younger days, but he clearly developed as a player in the youth national teams and in his last tournament finished fifth at the U20 European Championship in Chekov, Russia.
How crucial were these players for Olympiacos?
The Greek internationals, Antic and Keselj scored all of the champions' 62 points.
KOSTAS MAKING HIS MARK
Papanikolaou, when he poured in 18 points against CSKA, became one of the youngest players in the modern era to lead all scorers in a Euroleague Final.
The 2.03m forward, who only turns 22 years of age on 31 July, is in elite company.
The legendary Drazen Petrovic was not even 21 yet when he scored 36 points in the 1985 final as Cibona downed Real Madrid 87-78 to claim their first Euroleague title.
In the modern era, after the Final Four was established, Toni Kukoc, playing for Jugoplastika Split on 19 April, 1968 - five months short of his 22 birthday (18 September, 1968), had 20 points in a 72-67 victory over Barcelona.