Let’s put this into perspective. The last time Olympiacos took the Greek national title, they were led by David Rivers and Dragan Tarlać. Vassilis Spanoulis was 15 years old and not near professional club play. Dejan Bodiroga was in the middle of his career and Mirsad Turkcan had just turned 21.
Across the pond, Lebron James was 13; Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and *those* Chicago Bulls were about to earn their fifth rings; Kobe Bryant had just become the NBA record-setter as youngest NBA starter ever. In international play, Team USA still wore an aura of invincibility. The World Trade Center was still standing and the European Union was optimistically looking forward to including former communist-led countries as member states.
It seems like a dream to BallinEurope, so one can only goggle at how Olympiacos fans must be feeling today (aside from hungover, that is). Yes, the Reds in the decisive game five of the national championship series took the 82-76 victory over rival Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos, nine-time consecutive champions and typically previously perpetual Olympiacos nightmare this time of year.
The victory capped what can only be described as quite possibly the most unlikely and wonderful season outcomes ever in European – and perhaps even world – club basketball. Olympiacos 2011-12 was the underdog who took it all, the team that would not die, the triumph of the oft-touted economical team-over-individual philosophy of European basketball. This edition of the Reds was a powerful display of perseverance put on by a gang of heroes emerging from crisis.
For the American sports fan, Olympiacos’ late-season run could be compared to something like the 2004 Red Sox. For the European basketball fan, the Reds’ upset of CSKA Moscow was a stunner on a level with … what? Anything in recent memory?
Now this: Olympiacos 82, Panathinaikos 76. That so-desired national title – along with the Euroleague title, gone for just as long yet somehow much less maddeningly elusive – has returned to Piraeus.
In what was supposed to a rebuilding year.
Like a dream, certainly – illogical, impossible and weird. Back on December 1, an 86-70 loss to Fenerbahçe Ülker dropped Olympiacos to 3-4 in a tight Group A. In the do-or-die game against Caja Laboral Baskonia in week eight, the Reds managed to dig themselves a 25-16 hole after one quarter before coming back to dominate the second quarter. With this win on, Olympiacos went on cruise control to take the final three.
Naturally, the Reds began their Euroleague Top 16 round by dropping their first two games to CSKA Moscow and Galatasaray. In game four, at 1-2, suddenly facing another must-win at Anadolu Efes, Olympiacos somehow managed to hold on for a two-point win after Sasha Vujacic and Oliver Lafayette had erased an 11-point lead with less than 2:30 to play. This was to be the beginning of a 22-4 run for the Reds in which the only losses would come against EL Elite Eight sides. Who knew it then?
Who could know? Olympiacos was crushed by CSKA in week five and faced Galatasaray needing to win by two or more points to advance to the playoff round. The Reds jumped out to a 10-point lead in Turkey and never looked back to win, 88-81. The magical run had already begun, but few recognized it yet; Olympiacos was still not widely seen as a “team of destiny.”
Meanwhile, back home Olympiacos had suffered a single loss in 2011, back in November to – you guessed it – PAO. Some of the sting from that L would be had the next week, however, as Panathinaikos went down to Kavala. And ultimately, on February 12, Olympiacos defended home court against their rivals, eking out a 78-77 win. The Reds were on top of the Greek League standings and would finish 23-1 in the regular season but, the pessimist could still argue, so what? Remember last year…
With surprising ease Olympiacos dispatched Montepaschi Siena in the playoff round, making them this season’s EL bracket-buster – and getting them 17/1 odds to take the Euroleague championship heading into the Final Four. The rest of the 2011-12 EL season is the proverbial history, with the Reds again with the upset wins over two teams which had played head-and-shoulders above The Continent for the majority of the year: FC Barcelona and CSKA Moscow.
The championship was another miracle win for Olympiacos in its epic journey and a tale of high strangeness to boot. Down by 19 in the third quarter, with just four players – Vassilis Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis, Pero Antic and Kostas Papanikolaou – making up all of Oly’s underwhelming 40 points in the first 30 minutes, the Reds led the game for 2.3 seconds as Printezis became the unlikely toast of Piraeus with his running jumper amidst the apocalypse of a self-immolating Red Army side.
And then there was last night. After trading games with Panathinaikos in the championship series, the once-again underdogs came out cool, calm and collecting in the face of history. Spanoulis directed traffic on both ends for Olympiacos, who started with swagger and never let up.
Well, almost. With 2:56 left to play, Lazaros Papadopoulos missed two free throws and Stratos Peperglou answered with a quick two to make the score 80-76 as Panathinaikos rode the momentum shift that had reduced a 14-point lead to two possessions. Indeed, if Nick Calathes hadn’t missed a nervy-looking jump shot at 1:40, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now.
But you are reading this. Olympiacos held on once again as they had against PAO in February, against Baskonia in March, against Barcelona in May. And today they are the champions of both Europe and Greece.
Olympiacos 2011-12 was the underdog who took it all, the team that would not die, the squad that raised the legends of Spanoulis and Dusan Ivkovic – now the coach with the record for longest gap between Euroleague titles. It was a team for the ages and will go down as one of the greatest European basketball stories ever told.
Normally, BiE would wish the men of Olympiacos congratulations for taking their national title but after this season, such a word would be crass understatement at best. The 2011-12 Olympiacos Piraeus Reds know what they’ve done and can take no end of pride in making history in the most incredible way possible.
Fantastic, just fantastic.