How a group of players with nothing but the love for the sport in their hands went on to conquer Europe
The story of the Olympiacos Basketball Club season 2011–2012 that began in total indifference and doubt by the fans and ended with absolute glory.
I wouldn’t even think about writing this article but considering there was even a small audience for my previous piece about the Greece vs. France game, then I couldn’t really help myself. So here we go.
The year is 2011. The location, Piraeus, Greece. The local club, Olympiacos, one of the most successful — if not the most successful — in the entire country is sick of living in the shadow of their eternal rivals Panathinaikos, who have known both domestic and European success in basketball for a long time now. The burden is way too heavy for the pride of both the fans and the people in charge of the team to bear. Something must be done.
Contrary to Panathinaikos’ six Euroleague (the most popular European basketball competition, something like the Champions League of basketball) titles, Olympiacos have only one to show for themselves, won way back in 1997 during their golden era when they were also dominating all domestic titles. But it’s been a long while since then and all they’ve really achieved as a club ever since is to win a few championships and Greek Cups.
Giorgos and Panagiotis Aggelopoulos, the new club owners that took over in 2009 from former chairperson Sokratis Kokkalis have already tried bolstering their squad with impressive signings. In their inaugural season as shareholders, they made some truly impressive signings, bringing in players such as Josh Childress, Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic, Linas Kleiza, Theodoros Papaloukas, Scoonie Penn, Yotam Halperin and Sofoklis “Baby Shaq” Schortsanitis (some of these players were already at the club,) yet all they managed to do was reach the Euroleague final where they got thrashed by a much superior FC Barcelona lead by Juan Carlos Navarro and Ricky Rubio.
Something needed to change. The club needed to create a family atmosphere, where players would not simply play for a paycheck, but also for one another. The first step into making this happen was to bring in a coach who could create and nurture such an environment which would help young players grow and develop their talents.
The Aggelopoulos brothers decided that the person most suited for this job would be the same man that lead the club to European glory the first time around, back in 1997: Dusan Ivkovic. The ‘professor’, as was his nickname in his home country of Serbia, decided to once again take the reins of his beloved team and help them reach the highest level of Europe.
Then there was the player roster. Vasilis Spanoulis, former Euroleague winner with eternal rivals Panathinaikos was made the de facto leader of this team and no one would dare to question that, with longtime Olympiacos power forward Giorgos Printezis right beside him. They were surrounded by a group of experienced players from the rest of Europe — such as Pero Antic, Acie Law, Kyle Hines and Joey Dorsey — and young talents from all around Greece, like Vangelis Mantzaris, Kostas Sloukas and Kostas Papanikolaou.
That was the team under coach Ivkovic’s orders. No changes were made, even though there were some injuries along the way, such as Acie Law’s in January. But things went on according to plan. It was a very bumpy start for the team, who in regular season were barely able to advance from their group with a record of six wins and four losses. In fact, they were handed some very heavy defeats in both Spain by Bilbao on matchday one (76–61) and Istanbul by Fenerbahce (86–70) but the main thing is that they made it through the group stage unscathed.
At this early point of the competition, most fans of the young Greek side weren’t even paying much attention to their efforts. They had their hopes crushed way too many times in the past and were suspecting that the team would probably make it up to the final eight, then inevitably get knocked out before even being able to reach the semi-finals.
In the second group stage of the tournament, the aspiring Olympiacos team was put to the test and began to show their mettle against superior opposition. Having won three (against Anadolu Efes, home and away, and Galatasaray at home) and lost three (against CSKA Moscow, home and away and Galatasaray away in overtime) they were able to advance thanks to their greater point advantage over the team from Istanbul.
Unfortunately, having qualified as second meant they were up against a disadvantage. Five games, two at home, three away, first to reach three wins qualifies to the final four in Istanbul. Their opponent: Italian side Montepaschi Siena. The Greeks really had a bad history with this team, especially when considering that only last season they had managed to leave Olympiacos out of the Final Four with a 1–3 win record. But that also meant the young team had something extra to play for.
After the end of the first game, Olympiacos claimed a shockingly comfortable 75–82 victory. The second game saw the Italians better prepared, but barely able to escape with a 81–80 win, bringing the series back to a tie and giving the home advantage to the Greek side. In Piraeus, with thousands of their fans now out at their side supporting their every effort, Ivkovic’s men left no hope for Siena, annihilating them in both games (75–55, 76–69) and leaving no doubt as to which is the better team.
This young and ambitious team is now within the four best of all of Europe. But this doesn’t seem to be their ceiling. They look like they’re capable of a whole lot more. Joining them in Istanbul are the true heavyweight of the competition: FC Barcelona, CSKA Moscow and eternal rivals Panathinaikos.
Their first opponents are the Catalans. Despite the fact that they were up against a highly experienced team that possessed quality in the faces of Juan Carlos Navarro and Marcelinho Huertas, it was the Greeks that played as real champions, gaining an early lead in the first quarter (17–11) and holding onto it until the final buzzer despite the many efforts of coach Xavi Pasqual’s men. This young group of rag tags had made it back to the European final for the first time since 2009. But this time they were hoping to do a little bit better.
In the other game, CSKA Moscow were narrowly able to brush Panathinaikos to the side thanks to a fourth quarter comeback that left the Athenian team with no response. But if the Russians believed that this was a hard fought contest then they had no idea for what was coming to them…
CSKA Moscow possessed one of the strongest lineups in Euroleague history at the time. With players with NBA experience such as Andrei Kirilenko and Victor Khryapa and other European all stars such as Milos Teodosic, Ramunas Siskauskas, Alexey Shved, Darius Lavrinovic, Jamont Gordon and Sasha Kaun, there really wasn’t anyone lacking in talent within this team!
So it made little surprise to all those watching the Euroleague final when they dominated the young Olympiacos side at the start of the game. And if in the first quarter the Greeks appeared to be hanging in there (10–7), in the second they had surrendered entirely to their superior opponents (24–13 score for the quarter, 34–20 overall at halftime.)
The Russians continued to play their own game and even appeared to be having fun with it at times in the third period. That is until about less than two minutes before the end. That’s when coach Ivkovic requested a time-out to speak to his players and clear their heads. They were down by 19 points at that time and everyone was expecting them to lose. It would’ve been fine if they had lost. No one would’ve said anything to them. They had already done more than anyone would’ve expected from them.
But then, something happened. It was like, all of a sudden, a switch had been flipped in the Olympiacos team. Every player began fighting for the ball like mad and shooting like crazy. And whatever attempt they made, whether for three or for two, it was going in. Suddenly, this 19-point advantage that CSKA had built up was slowly but surely getting eaten away.
The Russians looked like they didn’t know what hit them. On the other hand, Ivkovic was making changes, bringing on young players from the bench such as Katsivelis, Sloukas, Papanikolaou and Mantzaris and they were all having the night of their lives and scoring three-pointers! This game had been flipped on its head.
It’s worth mentioning that one of those youngsters, Kostas Papanikolaou, finished the game with 18 points, the most any player scored in the evening, with 3/3 in his three-point efforts, while Russian NBA star Andrei Kirilenko was limited to 12! This is the kind of game we’re talking about.
Down to the final seconds of the game and Olympiacos are still down by a single point. Having no other options, the reds foul Ramunas Siskauskas, sending him to the free-throw line. This was a player that in his long career barely missed a shot, with a percentage of over 85% from the line. And yet, in the final game of his career, where he had the opportunity to leave as a champion of Europe, he inexplicably missed both of his free-throws!
As if that wasn’t enough, captain Vasilis Spanoulis claimed the rebound to carry the ball forward and find an unmarked Giorgos Printezis who, with only seconds to go until the buzzer and with the Russian defense rampaging towards him, simply tossed the ball into the CSKA net…
AND IT GOES IN!!! After all of that, with barely 3 seconds remaining, Olympiacos are able to turn around a 19 point disadvantage to emerge as Champions of Europe for the first time in 15 years! The scenes that followed were of pure ecstasy, with club owner Giorgos Aggelopoulos rushing into the court right after Printezis’ winning shot, even though the game hadn’t officially ended yet, then immediately turning around to get back to his seat after realizing.
The Olympiacos fans in the Istanbul Arena were ecstatic. Finally, after all these years watching Panathinaikos lift all the trophies, it was their turn! All the hard work and preparation that went into this team by everyone, from the shareholders to coach Dusan Ivkovic to everyone else surrounding the team had born fruit in the best way possible!
Olympiacos would go on to win yet another Euroleague trophy the next season against Real Madrid but none will carry the same weight as this one. For the way it happened, for the team, for the young players and for the way that it inspired young talented Greeks to pursue their dreams, no matter how crazy they may seem…