The shot heard around the world: One of the greatest upsets in European Basketball
It all happened in 2005 at the Belgrade Arena. The match: France vs Greece
I decided to write this article inspired by my fellow co-writer at SUPERJUMP Shawn Laib’s piece about Pete Maravich (you can read it here) which brought back quite a few memories of days spent watching basketball games in Greece. Additionally, one of my roommates yesterday was watching a documentary about the career of San Antonio Spurs former legend Tony Parker, so you could say it was a number of things.
For those who don’t know, basketball in Greece is a very popular sport. In fact, it is the second highest in popularity behind only football (or soccer if you prefer) and the teams there have known great success in both the national and European level. Many teams have gone on to win international trophies, which further demonstrates the great strength of the country in the sport. I mean, it is where the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo comes from!
And even though things right now may not be going so well for both the Greek clubs and the national teams, it wasn’t the case back in the middle of the 00’s. Back then, there were many great players to choose from and they formed a formidable national team that was chosen to represent the country at the 2005 European Championship in Belgrade, Serbia, under the orders of former legend Panagiotis Giannakis — a player that once joined the Boston Celtics of Larry Bird himself!
All of Greece was flying high in those days, having won the Euro back in August of 2004, the Eurovision song contest a few weeks earlier and having hosted the Olympic Games of 2004 with great success. All that was missing was a trophy in the second most popular sport. But the positivity that was felt throughout the entire nation was somehow ‘spilling’ onto the team itself, who began the tournament very impressively, winning two out of their three opening games in the group stage and qualifying for the knockout stages.
After making short work of Israel and Russia in the round of 16 and quarter-final respectively, Greece had one major obstacle to face if they wanted to make it to their first ever European final since 1989: France.
The two teams had played in the opening round of the group stage and in that game Giannakis’ men were clearly the dominant side, coming out on top with a 14 point lead (50–64.) But this time things were going to be different. After all we were talking about a French team full of talent and they had something to prove.
First and foremost to stand out of the French squad was the aforementioned Tony Parker. This match took place during his glory days at the San Antonio Spurs and he was clearly the man to lead the “tricolore” so far in the competition. Surrounding him were a number of equally talented players: Mickael Pietrus, Antoine Rigaudeau and Boris Diaw were only a few of the players to keep an eye on.
On the other hand, Greece were good but they didn’t possess any key players, no one man to carry the team on his shoulders, no NBA stars. It’s worth mentioning that not a single player from that squad of 2005 had first team NBA experience. Some did participate in boot camps during the summer but had only returned to Europe a few weeks later after being unable to find a place for themselves in the team squads.
So the game begins. The French are going head-to-head with the Greeks, not giving them a single inch. Despite their narrow lead in the first quarter (16–14) Giannakis’ men can tell this is a whole different ball game from the previous time the two teams met. Nothing much changes on the way to half time with the French going to the locker rooms with a half-basket lead (29–30.)
Things continue in the same, dramatic fashion in the third period. The Greek defense is unable to stop Tony Parker who is having a field trip and ends the game as the top scorer with 20 points. End of third period. Score: 44–45. France maintain the lead but they can’t shake the Greeks off who just seem to be hanging on for dear life.
It all boils down to the final minutes of the game. All of Greece is watching. Hoping. Praying. They’re sending all of this built up positive energy to the team. Just one minute and 12 seconds before the end of the game, the French team is up by seven… All hope seems lost.
That’s when Greek coach Giannakis asks his playmaker Theodoros Papaloukas (European Champion with CSKA Moscow) to get up from the bench and bring his energy into the court. He immediately scores to lower the difference between the two teams to five points. Suddenly, the French can feel the hot breath of the Greeks on their shoulders. The difference temporarily goes back up to seven thanks to Pietrus but then Papaloukas does it again, this time winning a free shot to go with it! The substitute by Giannakis has clearly altered the balance between the two teams and that’s obvious. A dunk by Boris Diaw is little consolation as Nikos Zisis is given three free throws a few seconds later. The AEK Athens player makes no mistake lowering the difference ever further to four points, with 38 seconds remaining.
The Greeks send Tony Parker to the free throw line, hoping he’ll make a mistake and the San Antonio Spurs man validates their decision, missing both shots! Papaloukas makes a mistake but France fail to make anything of it, as Diaw never picks up the free throw by Rigaudeau, giving the ball right back to Greece. Tensions are rising in the Belgrade Arena and every tiny error of judgment could be worth the game.
With only 30 seconds to go, Lazaros Papadopoulos dunks on the French basket to take the difference separating the two teams down to just two points! Panathinaikos key player and three-time European Champion Dimitris Diamantidis pulls the breaks on Tony Parker, sending him right back to the free throw line in the hopes that the stress will continue to affect him. But this time, the Frenchman makes no mistake, restoring his team’s four point advantage. This doesn’t remain for long however as the French defense remains powerless to deal with Papaloukas who scores yet again and makes the score 62–64. After an exchange of free throws between Rigaudeau and Papaloukas that sees the Greek player sent off with five fouls to his name, the French have a narrow two-point lead (64–66), with only 12 seconds remaining.
Zisis carries the ball forward. The seconds are counting down. He’s blocked by three French players. He looks around, trying to do something with the ball. He finds an unmarked Diamantidis right behind him. Seven seconds to go. Diamantidis rises for three at the buzzer. All of Greece is watching…
AND IT GOES IN!!! Greece win the game by one point at buzzer, 67–66! The celebrations both in Belgrade and Greece begin in earnest and they continue on way after the sun rises. After all, this was one of the greatest upsets in Greek sport history, not only due to the size of the opponent — this was one of the best national French teams of all time — but also for the way it was achieved, with that three-pointer right at the buzzer and with Greece trailing the score for most of the game but hanging in there and never giving up.
Eventually the team would go on to win the whole tournament — beating Dirk Nowitzki’s Germany in the final — but it’s this particular game against France that everybody still remembers, almost as much as the Euro 2004. It was one of the best games ever witnessed in the nation and one of the greatest upsets in European Basketball history.