Background I am camped out on my couch at 8am watching the Greece-USA Olympic basketball game on USA Networks. This has potential to be a great game.
Team USA is, well, Team USA.
Greece is the third best basketball team in the world and, more interestingly, is the only team that beat the USA in their 21 international matches since the 2004 Olympics. Greece beat a very strong US team in the semi-finals of World Championship in 2006.
While I am watching I will give some background on how Greece, a nation of 10 million short stocky guys, has created a national team capable of hanging with the US and has a local league that is starting to pick off serious NBA players.
My prediction for the game. The US should win. It is still group play, the US has a loss to avenge, this team is a better team than the 2006 team (though that was the best US team in years).
Greece will be defensively strong as always; to win they also have to be hitting their threes. When they beat the US in 2006, they shot 62.5% from the floor. As usual, Greece only has a chance if everything goes right.
Current Score: Ok, we won't know the final score because I have to go to work, but the US will win easily. EDIT: Final Score 92-69 USA
First and third quarters were fairly even and the USA crushed the 2nd quarter and everyone is playing subs in the 4th. Greece turned the ball over a lot and couldn't hit threes and there is no way they will be competitive against the US doing that.
Greece needs to close out Angola and China and hopefully will be seeing the US again in the knockout round!
Good game summary at the SF Chronicle:
For nearly two years, it had been the burr under their saddle, the stick in their craw. If not a hot, searing memory that kept them awake at night, it at least burned their pride when the topic was brought up.
So Team USA took the floor Thursday night and served up a reminder of their own with a 92-69 thumping of Greece to run their record to 3-0 in the Olympics.
Their ultimate goal is to reclaim the gold medal. But there was the matter of taking care of business first against Greece.
It was Sept. 1, 2006, when Vassilis Spanoulis and his buddies stuck it to the U.S. at the World Championship in Japan. That game forced the Americans to settle for the bronze medal, but it also gave them the fire that has burned in their bellies on the long road to China.
Greece took the U.S. to the woodshed that night by running 42 pick-and-roll plays that Coach Mike Krzyzewskiâ€™s team was unable to stop.
The six players (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony) who were on the court that night at the Super Arena in Saitama had spent more than 23 months thinking about payback.
The U.S. had won 13 consecutive international games since then, but this was the one that really mattered.
Now, on to our Greek basketball history lesson!
Greece Basketball, the Ghali Era
Before the mid 1980s, Greece was not a factor in international basketball. Their rise to prominence can be directly traced to the decision by one man, Nikos Galis to come back to Greece after he was injured after he was drafted by the Celtics and was cut.
Galis was probably the best pure scorer in European basketball history.
He is only 6'1 and had a style of play that I have not seen before or since. He was not particularly a 3 point shooter and he did not have any other superstars on his team so Greek national games were basically Galis driving into the lane against guys 2x his size, double and triple pumping, and somehow getting it in. I have not seen that type of thing consistently from a guy his size.
Galis was the leading scorer in every major European and world international competition that he participated in from 1983 onwards, the Eurobasket 1983, the 1986 FIBA World Championship, the Eurobasket 1987, the Eurobasket 1989, and the Eurobasket 1991.
He averaged 33.0 points per game at the Eurobasket 1983, 33.7 points per game at the 1986 FIBA World Championship, 37.0 points per game at the Eurobasket 1987, 35.6 points per game at the Eurobasket 1989, and 32.4 points per game at the Eurobasket 1991.
Galis greatest moment came in the European championships in 1987 held in Athens. At that point, the overwhelming tournament favorite was the Soviet Union (which incorporated Lithuania) and had a monster and very large team. The Soviet Union had won the European Championship 14 (!) times and beat Greece all 12 times they had met.
Greece met them in the final and Galis single-handedly pushed Greece to victory 103-101 in overtime
At the time, this was probably Greece's single largest team sporting achievement and was seared into the minds of every teenager in Greece and made basketball an extremely popular sport.
That performance led former Soviet Union star Sergey Belov to comment:
â€œI admire him. When he plays one against one there is no way to stop him. I never thought that could be a player who could on his own beat the Soviet Union.â€
â€œI feel that if Galis wants to make a basket, he will do it no matter who his opponent is,â€ said Lithuanian star Arvydas Sabonis.
Needless to say, he also dominated the Greek club league, both domestically and in international club play.
His personal scoring record in one game was 62 points, achieved in a Greek League game in 1981
He played 13 seasons with Aris, winning eight Greek titles, five Greek Cups, one Korac Cup (1985) and also making three EuroLeague Final Four appearances. Of the eight Greek titles, six were consecutive during which Aris put together a remarkable 80 game winning streak.
For those coaches who he came up against, most strategies to stop him proved futile. Former Nashua Den Bosh coach Rood Harrewain advocated locking Galis in the dressing room before the game, while Wojeck Krajowski of Lech Poznan looked to a higher power: â€œBefore the game we made our plans on how we will stop the four players of Aris,â€ he said following a European club competition game. â€œFor Galis, we made our prayersâ€¦
Greece Basketball, the Current Era
After Galis retired, Greece basketball receded slightly for a few years, but by the mid to late 90s the team was again among the best teams in the world as all the teenagers inspired by Galis came into prominence.
Over the last 15 years, Greece has consistently placed in the top 6 teams of the world and has been especially strong recently.
World Championships: 90 (6th), 94 (4th), 98 (4th), 06 (2nd)
European Championships: 87 (1st), 89 (2nd), 91 (5th), 93 (4th), 95 (4th), 97 (4th), 03 (5th), 05 (1st), 07 (4th)
Olympics: 96 (5th), 04 (5th)
In 2005, they again won the European Championship and in 2006, they had their biggest victory ever when they beat the USA in the semi-finals of the World Championships.
This was a bit of a shock to a US team that has not otherwise lost since the 2004 Olympics. Unlike the 2000 and 2004 teams, Team USA 2006 had real stars (james, wade, etc) and a good coaching philosophy.
Greece beat them with solid defense, non-stop pick and roll and great 3 point shooting.
Greece Basketball 2008 and beyond
Going into the Olympics, Greece is probably the 3rd best team after the USA and Spain. Spain has has been a massive thorn in Greece's side recently, beating them for the world title in 2006, the euro championships in 2007 and the Olympic group play.
Good overview of the Olympic teams is here.
All three teams should advance from group play, though it is going be tough going in the knock-out phase since all three top teams are in the same bracket.
The future of Greek basketball should remain solid regardless. Greece recently won the under 18 European championships and at the Club level, Greece has 2 of the best teams in Europe, Olympiakos and Panathiniakos, both of which are NBA-caliber teams.
So this remains to me a great example of how passion for a sport has transformed a country. There is no logical reason why a country of 10 million that is not particularly tall should be consistently a top 6 team against countries with 50,60,200, 300 million, 1.2 billion people. But that is hoop dreams I guess...As the NY Times said:
The Greek basketball team could be considered the Hoosiers of the Adriatic, with no players currently in the N.B.A. The teamâ€™s success, including a silver in the 2006 world championship, has been predicated on its ability to play together.
I will close with this very funny quote about the Lebron rumors.
I imagine that most of you out there doubt that the club is ready to pony up the sort of paper necessary to tempt LBJ. If my time living in Greece taught me anything, however, itâ€™s that wealthy Hellenes are, almost without exception, passionate to the point of eccentricity. Consequently, I wouldnâ€™t put anything past the Aggelopoulos (an-ghell-op-oo-loss) brothers, the billionaire owners of Olympiakos and two of the biggest hoopheads in Greece, a country where basketball is the national sport and "friendly" discussions thereof regularly lead to felony assaults.
Talking of which, itâ€™s difficult to convey the place hoops holds in Greek culture with mere words, but a brief anecdote should give you some idea. Last week, I stayed in the Piraias suburb of Athens at my auntâ€™s place, a small, square house about five minutes from the â€œPeace and Friendship Stadiumâ€ in which Olympiakos play. Seeing the spotless interior of the house, I asked my aunt why they hadnâ€™t painted over the numerous graffiti that scarred the front of the building. She pointed out that some of the scribblings had, in fact, been covered with whitewash, although the largest one was left untouched. I again asked why that was.
She explained that fans of Panathinaikos, a rival club, had painted their motto on the house, but before they could get rid of it an Olympiakos group had covered it with their own. Being Olympiakos die-hards themselves, they decided to leave the faÃ§ade as it was. Not only was my fifty-five-year-old aunt fan enough to leave her home adorned with a crudely-drawn Olympiakos logo and several curse-filled exhortations, but she was also able to name Scoonie Penn, Qyntel Woods and Roy Tarpley as former players. Before I could retrieve my jaw from the lemon-scented floor of the cramped kitchen, she went on to detail the various reasons Josh Childress would have difficulties adapting to Euroleague defences. Then she cooked calamari. With six million more like her in the city, itâ€™s no wonder Greek club owners are willing to dig deep to bring big names on board, even knowing that theyâ€™ll likely never recoup their investment.