Greeks celebrated a major basketball victory this week. Sure, it’s just basketball, but the win might be more than just a feel-good thing for Greece, at a time when the country is going through a major crisis.
First, the game. Greece’s Olympiakos played in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final (apparently, you can sponsor anything in European sports) on Monday in Istanbul. The Euroleague pits the best European club teams against each other in a playoff format, and is Europe’s premier club basketball tournament.
Olympiakos was expected to exit early from this year’s tourney. The financial crisis meant the club from Athens’ port city, Piraeus, had to cut its budget by a third – that’s even more than ordinary Greeks, who’ve seen salaries drop by 22 percent. It released its best player, Josh Childress, a former Atlanta Hawks star who four years ago signed a European-record $20 million, three-year contract (don’t worry about Childress; he went to play for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns). Also leaving the team was Theodoros Papaloukas, Greece’s point guard when it won the international Eurobasket competition in 2005 and beat the U. S. “Dream Team” at the 2006 World Championships.
But Olympiakos kept one key veteran, Vassilis Spanoulis, a guard who paired with Papaloukas on that championship-winning national team and spent a season in America with the Houston Rockets. With him leading a squad of journeymen and unproven young players, it stormed to the final, where it faced tourney favorite CSKA Moscow, European basketball’s answer to the Miami Heat. CSKA’s version of Miami’s Big Three (Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh) are Nenad Krstic, a seven-foot center who spent seven years in the NBA; Andrei Kirilenko, an NBA All-Star when he played with the Utah Jazz; and point guard Milos Teodosic, a main-stay at Olympiakos until the downsizing.
CSKA jumped out to a huge lead, and by the third quarter were up 53-34. But Olympiakos persevered and subbed in defensive specialist Acie Law, a Texas-born guard who’s played for seven NBA teams and one in Serbia. Law shut down CSKA’s Teodosic on offense and undersized Olympiakos began hitting shots en route to an 18-2 run that brought the Greeks back into the game.
With just under 10 seconds to go, though, CSKA was still ahead by one, and had Ramonas Siskauskas on the free throw line to shoot two. What happened next was a thrill for basketball fans in any language: Siskauskas (a 45 percent free throw shooter) missed both shots. Olympiakos rebounded. Playmaker Spanoulis raced up the court and drove to the basket, drawing two defenders and freeing up forward Giorgos Printezis, who was wide-open on the wing. Printezis threw up an awkward shot that somehow went through the net with almost no time on the clock, giving Olympiakos – and Greece – a 62-61 victory.
It was “the greatest comeback European basketball has ever seen,” said the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. But more than that, it might hold some lessons for Greece in its current austerity crisis:
1) You don’t have to spend big to come out on top.
2) Invest in local talent (21-year-old Kostas Papanikolaou was Olympiakos’ top scorer with 18 points).
3) Cut unnecessary costs.
Can Moneyball tactics work to help Greece – and Europe – avoid debt default? Austerity does seem better suited to basketball than government. Greek political leaders would have to show the resourcefulness of Olympiakos’ Serbian Coach Dusan Ivkovic, who reportedly canceled practice and took the team out for a coffee to calm the players’ nerves the day before the big game against CSKA. Will there be a last-minute buzzer beater for the Greek economy? Improbable, but as Olympiakos showed, not impossible.