“If I’m the Devil’s son, then Galis is the Devil himself”
A long time ago, the Greeks specialized in winning as underdogs. In Marathon, a huge Persian army was beaten by some tens of thousands of troops led by the brilliant tactic of Miltiades. In Salamina, Themistocles won the, again, Persians, in the sea, trapping the heavy ships of his enemies in the narrow coast of the islands in front of Athens.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise when, 30 years ago, on July 14 1987, a heavily underrated Greek basketball team faced the USSR powerhouse. Though, without the injured Arvydas Sabonis, in one of the most fought finals of the Eurobasket. Their Themistocles, at the time, was a hardly 6 foot Greek from New York, Nikos Galis, who had given up a career in the NBA, where at his best he could come from the bench, to become a basketball god in Greece.
Because, we should remember, modern basketball in Greece is a creature of Nikos Galis.
Nikos came to Aris Thessaloniki in 1979, out of Seton Hall University. Nikos dominated the game with his unrivalled shooting, the moves, the charisma, and his hardness. Almost never hurt during his career, Nikos became a messiah in Greek basketball, until then ranked very low in the European list.
In Aris he teamed up with a Greek guard, that looked like a Spartan warrior: Panagiotis Yannakis. Two basketball fine minds, Galis and Yannakis were also tough players that perfectly complemented each other, so much that they took the reins of the Greek basketball team and elevated it, thanks to an unmatched growth of talented players.
At center, Fassoulas, with his never-ending arms, provided the rebounds, the blocks and the points in the paint. At forward, Fannis Christodoulou, an all-around player with great skills and a fine basketball intellect.
The Eurobasket took place in Athens, at the Piraeus, where the passion of the Greeks and the desire of the title, made every game something halfway between a battle and a popular party. The arena was hot for the heat in July and for the cries of the fans, real explosions of joy at every basket of the Greek team.
Nikos averaged 37 points per game. Still the highest average in the history of the tournament. How a player like him, average height, not very athletic, could play in a game that was heading towards taller players, still remains a mystery. The secret lies in his basketball technique. Nikos was the typical player grown up playing against taller ones, who absorbed the secrets of how shooting against any center of the time.
There were several players like him. Adrian Dantley and Berard King in the NBA, for instance, Darren Daye in Europe. Mysteriously, they went to the low post, or in the center of the area, and cheated the long players shooting in a different rhythm.
Then, there was his spirit. Nikos was a winner, a fighter. In a friendly game of Aris against North Carolina he scored 50 points. North Carolina displayed a player deemed to become quite famous: Michael Jordan.
In a good day, nobody could stop him.
And the competition itself was, for Nikos Galis, the staircase to a glory a few players ever achieved in history.
The competition was not easy. In the group games, Greece lost against Spain and USSR. A last victory against France qualified them to the quarterfinal against Italy, a good team, but not enough for this Greece.
The semifinal against Yugoslavia, with the young talents of Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, still acerbic, was a battle that the 30 points from Nikos and the sacrifice of all the team won, to reach the final against USSR.
The Sovietic team put on the field the enormous Ukrainian Vladimir Tkachenko, the CSKA center, Sarunas Marciulionis and Valdemaras Khomicius as guards and Valeri Tikhonenko and the promising Georgian Sasha Volkov as forwards. Vladis Valters, the only real Point Guard of the team, started from the bench, like Iovaisha, and both were decisive in keeping the USSR team afloat.
The following year, at the Olympics, the USSR would defeat the powerful USA team, the last college team, with an incredible, dominant game from Arvydas Sabonis. That night, though, a different fate waited for the Russian team.
Nikos scored 40 points in any possible way. He shot from near and far, free throws, passed the ball when the defense closed on him. His individual talents matched to his vision of the game, made him a player impossible to guard, in his best days. He could change direction on a dime and make any defender look like a fool.
Two minutes from the end, down 98-95, Liveris Andritsos took the ball on the offensive side on the left, his back to the basket, turned and shot a poisonous ball that touched the board and went inside. On the change of front, the USSR missed the shot and Nikos received the opening passage on the midcourt line. He dribbled between three Soviets and was fouled before he missed the shot. He sank the two free throws.
On the opposite side, Valters missed the shot but received a foul. Before throwing the ball, he nervously walked on the free throw line, thinking who knows what. Missed the first shot. On the bench, the legendary Alexander Gomelsky didn’t believe what he saw. Vladis, took the ball again and missed also the second. The ball rebounded to the left, over the hands of the players.
Andritsos touched it but realized that Tarakanov was also trying to get it and slammed the ball with the hand on the Soviet’s knee, who could only scream uselessly against the smart Greek.
The following play is a real beauty of the game, which tells what level of confidence the Greek team had in itself. Nikos crossed the midcourt line dribbling the ball, faked a penetration and passed to Ioannidis, who dribbled on the outskirts of the three point line, to reach the middle, in front of the basket. Nikos, in the meanwhile, went down deep and came up behind two picks, received the ball and dribbled until the center of the area, the defense closing on him.
There, he handed the ball to Christodoulou, and hid himself in the low post on the right of the basket. Fannis dribbled and jumped but, instead of shooting, he passed to Nikos who made a very strange shot, over the stretched hands of Valters and Pankrashin. Something he probably learnt in the streets of Newark, New Jersey, and New York. Something that remained in his hands from his youth. The ball went very high, touched the board and fell sweetly in the basket, while the people shouted with all their heart. It was 101 to 98.
The Soviets were not done though. Valters took the ball, passed to Tarakanov, took back a fired a pass on the 3 point line, where Sergius Iovaisha waited to shoot one of his 3s that made it to 101 to 101.
The Greeks gave the ball to Nikos, who walked to the other side with the snake’s eyes. Khomicius guarded him toughly. Galis passed to Andritsos, took it back, then to Ioannis, who entered a small crack of the defense and shot the ball, that rebounded and fell in the hands of Anargiros Kambouris, upon whom Iovaisha and Gaborov made a foul.
Kambouris had all Greece in his hands. 4 seconds to the end, the teams stuck at 101 to 101.
Nevertheless, the gods, long asleep, probably kept a compassionate eye on their beloved Greece. Kambouris scored both baskets with the 15000, maybe 20000 of the Piraeus everytime screaming. The Soviets could not score on the opposite, and Greece was the European Champion of 1987.
Nikos became instantly the modern version of an ancient hero. Not so much Hercules, probably more Theseus, a smart man who never gives up, and finds the Soviet Minotaur in the middle of the Piraeus. Greece began a long era of confidence with basket, making it almost their national sport.
Galis kept playing in Aris Thessaloniki and later in Panathinaikos. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2017.
The USSR dissolved a couple of years later, after handing a terrible loss to the USA team led by David Robinson. As a multiethnic of basketball, led by its most prestigious coach, Alexandr Gomelsky, a man who navigated the intricate ways of Soviet power for more than 40 years, the USSR has been one of the greatest creators of basketball.
But, like the Persians against Miltiades or Themistocles, they could not do anything against the heart of the Greek people, behind their greatest player, who was not scared to take such a heavy role in the birth of Greece basketball: Nikos Galis.