Istanbul 2012, General Spanoulis and the last second victory


“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes”
“fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts”
Virgil, Aeneid

On Siskauskas’ second miss, Papanikolaou grabbed the rebound with 9,7 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, and passed to Spanoulis. Olympiacos trailed by one point, after CSKA seemed to have shut down the game in the third quarter.

When Vassilis received the ball the time was at about 8 seconds, but his interior clock ticked slower than the CSKA’s, the referees’, the public’s. His basketball mind set all players in the court. Hurry did not touch him. A strange calm descended on him, while all the CSKA’s players moved like bees, angry because somebody was trying to steal the beehive.

Few things are more Greek than Spanoulis’s head. It has the perfect shape for an ancient helm, like Milthiades, the winner of Marathon. And like all the great Greek generals, Spanoulis owns that sense of tactic that makes him act when it is time, not worrying before the end.

It’s the sense of tragic, the confidentiality with the gods. He does not curse when things go wrong, waits patiently, knows that he will bend destiny to his feet.

Those seconds seemed endless. Spanoulis ran, with his short steps that allowed him to change direction and confound the defense. When a player like him has the ball, the opponents know that he can do anything. The amount of possibilities is innumerable. He can shoot, pass, or wait for a foul to give him free throws and sink in the victory.

Everything revolved around him. The complex story of an intertwined final came to a very simple play. 6 seconds.

The game had begun a couple of hours before. On one side the heavily favoured CSKA, led by the Lithuanian Kuzminkas on the bench, winner of the 1999 Euroleague, with loads of talent in every role.

First and foremost AK47 himself: Andrey Kirilenko. A sublime basketball player, who had returned from the Utah Jazz in the NBA to win the Euroleague with his home team. One of the best European basketball players, a seven footer who could shoot, pass and rebound.

With him under the basket, Nenad Krstic, a talented though sometimes soft, loafer player from Serbia, who also played in the NBA with the Nets. Then, Ramunas Siskauskas, a talented Lithuanian small forward, one of the best European players in his role in the decade.

The key player, the one everybody expected, was Milos Teodosic, the point guard, or shooting guard. Actually, who cares? Roles are not important in cases like Milos’s. A former Olympiacos, with which he had lost the 2010 Euroleague final, Milos embodies the idea of the great Yugoslavian player. Not so much a Petrovic, more a Delibasic or a Kicanovic, Milos’s talent is also his oath. He does not find joy in “beating”, he loves to wonder the people, to create the next big thing. This final had to consecrate him as the greatest European player, and it seemed impossible to fail, given CSKA’s powerful lineup.

Khryapa completed the starting five, with Shved coming out of the bench.

On Olympiacos’s side, Dusan Ivkovic, the great Yugoslavian coach, who had been around since the 1979 Korac final with Belgrade, made it easy. At the top of the hierarchicy sat Vassilis Spanoulis. A great playmaker, a scorer, a passer, a team leader.

As a player, smooth, not very physical, fast or a natural jumper. His body frame, though, allowed him to venture near the basket, where he could wisely score layups avoiding the stretched arms of tall players. Like all the Greek heroes, Vassilis was above all smart and a combatant, one who does not want to give up the chance to win.

Basketball wise, Vassilis lived in a world of his own. If you look at his eyes when he is on the court, you would see emptiness, like a hypnotized who does not seem to have energy to move. In reality, inside the helm-shaped head, a whole basketball universe moves. In that, you would find in advance all the movements he was thinking to do. Vassilis’s mind possessed surgical precision, the capacity to cut in the right place, and take away your heart without letting you know.

In contrast, Milos’s mind must seem like a Goran Bregovic song. Noisy, funny, full of different instruments, but inexorably willing to spur its ego. Milos has fun in the first 3 quarters, when his magic does not have an immediate effect. As the 4th quarter comes, his gambling attitude often makes him hurry up, as if the ball is burning into his hands. This generated the mistakes that taunted him for a long time, labelling him as a “loser”.

Though it’s not fear that drives him, maybe it’s too much courage, too much willingness to take upon him the responsibility. The gambler accepts the risk to lose, the surgeon can’t. this is how Vassilis was surrounded by a group of players and a group of fans so devoted, so much waiting for Vassilis’s talent to appear, that they would faithfully hold on to the moment, without thinking about the failures, the errors. They knew that, at the right moment, his talent would appear.

Because, if you expect Milos’s talent to come out in any moment, Vassilis’s would hide in the darkness, then come out all at once, when it is the time.

The Olympiacos supporting cast displayed very respected names, though not, apparently, at CSKA’s level. The skilled small forward Papanikolaou, the guards Mantzaris, Sloukas and, under the basket, a group of players ready to do anything to win: Dorsey, Printezis, Kesely, Antic and Kyle Hines.

5 seconds to the end, Vassilis stood, pushing the ball to the ground, looking at the position of all the players. A moment of apparent silence, in which for a second all the universe stood unmoving.

In the first quarter, nobody seemed to be able to score. After 3,30 minutes the points were still 2 for each team. Spanoulis scored a triple then, and after this CSKA began his game. Though they did not score much, they stifled Spanoulis constantly, doubling and isolating. Dorsey missed an easy layup and only Papanikolaou scored a two pointer.

The first quarter finished 10-7 for CSKA, indeed very low even for an amateur game. However, finals are like this. Every error you make is an advantage for the opponent, you are more afraid to risk, rather than willing to go on and try. The teams remain stuck in this balance, like boxers constantly moving to make the other show a corner where to hit.

In the second quarter, CSKA accelerated. They seemed to wake up all at once. Their defense improved and the offence could score. A possessed Ivkovic moved on the sideline, trying to revive his players. He knew the team had to resist. He pushed in his entire bench, changed hysterically, always trying to find the dam that could stop the tide.

Pero Antic, a Macedonian that seems to come out of a painting of the Phalanx, Phillip the Great’s elite army, fought under the basket, helped by another Greek, Georgios Pryntezys, a player who has a unique hook shot, almost impossible to block, with which he drove crazy a generation of opposing players. With them, Papanikolaou, who used his smooth shooting to amass at least enough points to keep Olympiacos afloat.

The second quarter finished with CSKA ahead of 14, 34-20, and the worst was yet to come.

That is probably what Teodosic was thinking as he tried to defend Spanoulis, at 5 seconds before the end. How, at the beginning of the third quarter, everything seemed to go well. It worked, it simply did. How had they come to that last second play, to defend one point?

In the third quarter, the CSKA hit ferociously. Olympiacos seemed hurt. At the 28th minute CSKA’s advantage reached 19 points, 53-34, but still Ivkovic refused to give up. He kept changing his players, giving instructions, while Kirylenko and Teodosic kept scoring and passing. 2 minutes before the end of the quarter, Spanoulis sat on the bench, and Mantzaris entered the court. At that moment, Mantzaris and Sloukas were the guards, Printezis the center, Kesely and Hines as forwards.

In this moment, Olympiacos resisted. CSKA could not overcome the dam. Their effort seemed to lighten, as the Olympiacos second unit fought desperately to keep Olympiacos’s head above the water. Spanoulis rested on the bench. You couldn’t say what he was thinking.

You cannot say when a game changes. This game changed between the 28th minute and the span between the 3rd and 4th quarter. Sloukas drew a foul, but scored only one free throw. Jamont Gordon missed a shoot, and Kyle Hines a layup. Then, Shved turned the ball over, Sloukas passed to Printezis who scored two points. Shved missed the subsequent shot and fouled Mantzaris, but Evangelos missed both free throws, hanging his head on despair. Kazalauskas sent Teodosic in, to try a three pointer, but Milos missed, Sloukas got the rebound and passed to Mantzaris who revenged the two free throws missed with a three pointer, to make 53-40 at the end of the third.

Something eroded CSKA’s strength, while reinforcing Olympiacos’s. The CSKA players were not aware of this. They felt that, going back on the field, they would score and the game would go on as before. Hybris works like this. The gods of basketball hate this self-confidence, this certainty that you have won.

The god of hybris gets into you silently, and does not make you feel that he’s there. It’s the same as the cyclist who takes his hands off the bar, because believes he’s won, and another surpasses him on the finish line. The CSKA players did not consciously think they had won.

At the beginning of the last quarter, Ivkovic kept on the court the commando-style five players who were eroding CSKA’s advantage. And it happened. CSKA missed several easy shots. Teodosic, who was 4/5 for three pointers at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, reached 4/9. Easy layups were missed. Sloukas scored a three pointer, Printezis a lay-up and Keselj another three pointer, and it was 8-0.

Kazlauskas called a time-out. The players did not understand what was happening. They were doing the same things, but they just didn’t work out. The Athens boys ran more, in some part of themselves they saw a little light from a hole and were working to make that hole bigger and bigger.

CSKA played faster, frantically. Then tried to play slowly. Missed easy shots, lost rebounds. The Olympiacos players would just get there before them. CSKA players wanted the game to finish quickly, they felt it was slipping from their hands, as a skier sliding on the ice tries to hold the surface but can only go down.

Spanoulis came back in the game. He felt the smell of blood from CSKA players. The match became a battle. No ball was spared its own convulsive trials to be caught by the stretched hands of players. Little by little, Olympiacos came near. CSKA players tried repeatedly to set up some offensive movement, but they intimately felt unsecure, as though they had no faith they would score.

At 55-52 for CSKA, Krstic scored two free throws and soon after Kirilenko scored two points, to make it 59 to 52.

Then, all unfolded in the last two minutes. And this was stinging Teodosic’s side, 5 seconds to the end, the consciousness that victory had been so much in their hands, that they were sure they had got it, that it was theirs. But it wasn’t.

Mysteriously, Teodosic, Kirilenko and Siskauskas shoot 6 free throws but could only score 2. How is it possible that three of the strongest players in Europe, all very good free throw shooters, lost their coldness at the same time?

And on SIskauskas last error, Papanikolaou grabbed the rebound and there they were, five seconds to the end, Vassilis in front of all of CSKA, time inexorably going to the end.

Spanoulis pretended to go to the left, the whole defense moved, but he went straight to the basket. And here, CSKA players must have felt it was going, when they understood that Vassilis’s mind worked faster than theirs. They tripled on Vassilis, but he knew and let go a laser like pass to Georgios Printezis, in the low post.

Printezis took the ball, back to the basket, turned and let go a high ball, a hook that flew over the CSKA’s stretched hands and fell right into the basket.

Olympiacos fans exploded in a roar, the team hugged, cried, while the CSKA felt devastated. It was the oddest final of all. The CSKA players thought they had won it, but their own self-assurance deceived them.

A long time ago, Greeks specialized in this kind of victories, against overwhelming armies. They did it in the same way: not giving up, using their few advantages and making the enemy play on their ground, not theirs. Which is what CSKA had to go through.

Milos shook his head not believing it. The Euroleague Trophy became his Holy Grail. He had to wait for some years and to endure countless delusions, before he would win one.

Vassilis hardly smiled. He knew inside himself that all would go well, as long as the team resisted and kept the opponents at the right distance. The distance of one infinite shot, that he gave to a free player, not thinking that victory only came from him, but from the effort of all, once he armed their hand in a free spot, that he was the only one to see.