Up until 1987, basketball in Greece was as mediocre as Greek football usually is at a European level. Yet on June 14, 1987, something miraculous happened and Greeks began a love affair with the orange ball which has yet to cool down.
It was the 1987 FIBA European Championship and Greece had made it to the final. It was a time when the first Greek basketball legends were born, the ones who inspired the next generations and who first put Greece into a prominent place on the basketball map.
It was the time of Nikos Galis, Panagiotis Giannakis, Panagiotis Fassoulas, Fanis Christodoulou, and Memos Ioannou, names that became familiar to most Greeks, and their posters decorated the bedrooms of many a teenager.
After eliminating Italy and Yugoslavia — both favorites to win the tournament — in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively, Greece came upon Russia in the final, at a time when the countries of the Soviet Bloc had very strong national teams in almost all popular sports.
The game, held at the newly-built “Peace and Friendship Stadium,” was a nail biter, with the buzzer finding the two teams tied with a score of 89-89. In overtime, the blue and white players managed to win 103-101, sending millions of Greeks across the globe into ecstasy. Galis scored an unbelievable 40 points.
Hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — of Greeks took to the streets all across the country waving the “Blue and white” in a frenzy of singing and wild celebration. The joy was so overwhelming that an outsider would have thought that the people were celebrating the end of a victorious war.
Basketball rockets in popularity in Greece
Europe’s “Final Countdown” was blaring all over Greece, coming from boomboxes and car stereos. From then on, the national basketball team was beloved of all the Greek people.
The sport of basketball instantly rocketed in popularity, with young Greek kids abandoning football and starting to play basketball. And soon they even found out that they were good at it.
So good that in the 2005 EuroBasket Greece won its second medal after defeating Germany by a score of 78-62. One year later, in the semifinal of the 2006 World Championship in Japan, they beat the United States 101-95.
The Greek national team has not won any medals since 2005, but it always stands out in international tournaments, usually finishing somewhere in the first five places.
Sadly, the legendary Greek coach, Kostas Politis, the architect of Greece’s triumph, passed away in 2018.
Politis will always be remembered as the man who lifted the trophy along with Nikos Galis, Panagiotis Giannakis, Panagiotis Fassoulas, Fanis Christodoulou and Memos Ioannou — men who became household names to most Greeks, with their posters decorating many teenagers’ rooms.
At a club level, however, from the 1990s and onward the teams Panathinaikos and Olympiacos star in every year’s EuroLeague Final Four. The “Greens” have won six European titles and the “Reds” three, consistently putting Greece into the highest bracket of European basketball.