The end came for Dimitris Diamantidis last night in the OAKA. Emmet Ryan writes how the way in which his career was a perfect send off for the Panathinaikos legend
Going out on top is wildly over-rated. With champions, people who have consistently got the big one over the course of their career, it leaves you wondering what might have been. The only players it really makes sense with are those who were ploughing along for so long and, at that late great moment, climbed the mountain before riding off into the sunset. That’s where going out on top makes sense, you’ve seen these guy struggle and the release is that they can finally stop.
With winners? You want to see how they adapt. What do these persistent champions do once their bodies start to fail them, once the moves that felt natural now ask more of them and young bucks come along to take their throne? With these guys the story is seeing them fight with every ounce of their being to hang on. This is where they get to show that it never came easy for them, that it was always a fight, and that they won’t give up until they are put down permanently.
That’s what Dimitris Diamantidis earned last night. DDD was staring down a man whose career has been intertwined with his for so long. DDD and Vassilis Spanoulis fought alongside one another as Greece won EuroBasket in 2005 and stunned the USA in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. At Panathinaikos they won the Greek double in 2006, a treble including Euroleague in 2009, and another Greek championship in 2010 yet it was as rivals in their later years that they defined one another. As Spanoulis entered his prime he moved to Olympiacos and the rivalry intensified. DDD won a Euroleague without Billy in 2011, claiming MVP honours along the way. Spanoulis claimed back to back Euroleague titles along with the immortal soul of CSKA in 2012 and 2013 with a MVP title of his own in 2013. In Greece they split the six championships where they were apart evenly, Diamantidis in 2011, 2013, and 2014, Spanoulis in 2012, 2015, and most finally 2016.
The rivalry extended beyond titles or indeed really how we normally perceive the battle of two greats. Juan Carlos Navarro is the easy comparison to make with both, it was a direct rivalry with a contemporary who was never an ally, never a man to be worked with. He was, and remains, a foe worthy of immense respect but there wasn’t that split in the story. It was opposition from the off. Instead for DDD the real rivalry was with whoever stood in the way of a green jersey, not just practically but also mentally. Every fan who has seen DDD take them down associate him with their club, their moments of despair, more than any personal clash with his countryman. For both men, the signature moments of their careers arguably came when the other wasn’t even in the same country. Spanoulis against CSKA in Final Fours, DDD’s at the Palau Blaugrana and Palau Saint Jordi in 2011 spring to mind. Yet that final moment, the last time one of them took the floor, made perfect sense for them to finally come together.
Game 4 at the OAKA, the Panathinaikos are up by 2, Spanoulis has the ball way back outside the arc and he’s got Diamantidis in his way with 10 seconds to play. Billy steps to the left, moves nearer the arc and then the step comes. DDD reads as though Spanoulis is going to cut back right, instead it’s a straight step back. In that instant Diamantidis, the 6 time Euroleague defensive MVP, lost his chance to close down the Oly man. The shot goes up and you know what happens next:
The easy reaction is to think that he failed on his last ride and, well, he did but what a failure. In front of a packed arena of people who have hung on his every step for a decade, DDD showed he wasn’t going to stop until he absolutely had to. That flailing effort at deterring Spanoulis at the end was out of one desperate hope to stay playing for one more day.
Think about the good Rocky movies, as in the ones that aren’t liked ironically (Sorry Ivan Drago). In Rocky and Creed it’s not the winning that matters it’s just being able to hang with the best, it’s the journey to get there. In Rocky Balboa, it’s one old man showing he still belongs on that stage. That final fight with Mason Dixon, in the final round, the people that have been with him on this journey send him out that last time. After all he has given them, he still feels he owes them and himself so he leaves it all in the ring
Big time h/t to Cagri Turhan for tweeting this as me before tip last night
That drive to keep fighting, the refusal to stop until the clock ran out, that was what we want from our champions. In defeat, DDD cemented his legacy as one of the sport’s greatest winners. Heroes come and go but diamonds are forever.