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Thursday, May 15, 2003

Sports

Aris on the Rebound


You know something big has just happened in Thessaloniki when you hear one of the city’s basketball players say, “Now we’ll tear the White Tower down and then go to the bouzoukia.” Yiannis Gangaloudis, point guard of Aris Thessaloniki, was talking to the media after his team won the 2003 FIBA European Champions Cup on their home court by defeating Poland’s Prokom Trefl Sopot in the tournament final.

This is not something seen very frequently in Greece. Teams from Thessaloniki seem always to be playing the role of permanent runner-up to the Athens and Piraeus powerhouses. Thessaloniki teams occasionally finish high enough in the basketball and soccer leagues to qualify for the European tournaments that are the equivalent of American playoffs, but they are never expected to go very far, let alone win.

“This is a great victory for Greek basketball,” Gangaloudis told ERT, Greece’s public television network — although “Greek basketball in a globalized era of international rosters” would have been a better way of putting it, since Aris includes two Americans and a Serb, who is now a naturalized Greek citizen. The non-Greek players would play a crucial role in the game’s dramatic finale. Prokom had gone two points ahead just before the final buzzer. The Thessaloniki team made one last desperate attack, but its guard Willie Solomon was fouled.

This was going to be Solomon’s most important couple of foul shots in his short basketball career, which started at Clemson University and continued last year in the NBA after he was selected thirty-third overall by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2001 draft. After just one season with the Grizzlies, however, Solomon moved to Thessaloniki and became a star player for Aris, along with Ryan Stack, a center out of South Carolina who played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Spain’s Gijon, and Israel’s Maccabi Ramat Gan. At mid-season, things suddenly got bad for Solomon when he tested positive for marijuana, but, after a four-week suspension, he regained his stride.

Solomon scored on his first free throw and the crowd of 6,500, mostly Aris fans, were on their feet, willing him to make the second shot and send the game into overtime. But the second free throw clanged off the rim, quieting the crowd in the Alexandrion Melathron arena (the old Palais des Sports, which had acquired a new name in the recent era of nationalist sentiments in a ridiculous association of basketball with Alexander the Great). Happily for Aris, the rebound was snatched by its center, Yugoslav-born Miroslav Rajcevic, who scored off the backboard, giving Aris the 84-83 lead, which was the final tally.

Celebrations followed, as did the postgame interviews in which team captain Gangaloudis hailed the Greek victory and announced the imminent razing of the White Tower en route to the bouzoukia. On a warm night in Greece’s second city, large screens had been set up around the White Tower on the waterfront and jubilant crowds witnessed the epic game and its exhilarating final seconds. They surrounded the bus that arrived with Aris’s team brandishing their trophy, and a police escort helped the new European champions thread their way through the crowds and up into the Tower.

Ottoman landmarks have not fared very well in modern Greece, and you have to look hard for the magnificent mosques, public baths, and fountains the Turks built in what is today mainland Greece. The White Tower is one of the few buildings that date back to that era, and even though it was used to quarter the elite Janissary corps and then a death-row prison, it is now the city’s symbol. It helps that it looks like a generic medieval fortification rather than anything explicitly Ottoman or Islamic. Indeed, most local tourist guides provide scant information about its origins but make the point, nonetheless, that it was built on the site of an old Byzantine church. In any case, the architects and masons who produced the circular tower’s ramparts could not have anticipated their future uses — in particular, as a victory podium from which to display the trophy awarded to Aris Thessaloniki as the new European basketball champions.

At about the time the victorious players fulfilled their last assignment — a victory party at a nightclub where they were serenaded by two of the biggest names in Greek popular song, Dimitris Mitropanos and Angelos Terzis — postgame analysis was in full swing throughout the country. The commentators on ERT’s Athlitiki Kyriaki were among those whose assessment would be echoed the next day by the print media. Rather than describe the event as a great Greek victory, the consensus was that this was all about Aris’s return from obscurity back into the basketball limelight.

Aris had monopolized the public eye in the 1980s when the team was to Greek basketball what the Chicago Bulls were to the NBA during the Michael Jordan era. Aris’s Jordan was Greek American shooting guard Nick Galis, who played for Seton Hall and was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1979 before embarking on a glorious career in Thessaloniki wearing Aris’s gold and black. Galis led Aris to eight championships between 1983 and 1991. The Greek American player also led the Greek national team to its greatest achievement, the victory over the Soviet Union in the European final in 1987. Six years later, Aris won a major European club tournament.

Galis, along with his former Aris and Greek national teammate, Panayotis Yannakis, and former team coach Yiannis Ioannides, were on hand to congratulate the younger generation, whose triumph heralded the return of better days for the Thessaloniki club. Until the Eighties, Aris had struggled from the time it had been founded, originally as a soccer club in 1914.

According to Athens-based historian Vassias Tsokopoulos, Aris was the team that represented Venizelist Thessaloniki, a town in which the pro-royalist Iraklis Club dominated sports. The year Aris was established coincides with the era of the “national schism” that pitted royalists against Venizelists and split Greek society in half. When the refugees from the Asia Minor Disaster streaming into Thessaloniki established their own sports club, PAOK, it meant that Aris acquired an even more pronounced middle-class, white-collar orientation. Aris’s anthem was written by Aimilios Riadis, the director of the Thessaloniki Conservatory, a dyed-in-the wool liberal and close associate of Alexandros Papanastasiou, the republican leader, proto-socialist, and associate of Eleftherios Venizelos.

Aris’s liberal Venizelist pedigree notwithstanding, the club has mostly had to settle for the status of an also-ran, because soccer and basketball remain firmly in the grip of the Athens and Piraeus troika: AEK, Olympiakos, and Panathinaikos. The years in which Aris or PAOK have walked away with any major domestic basketball or soccer championships since the 1920s can be counted on very few fingers. Their problem is that they are in Thessaloniki, and the economic clout needed to build strong teams, along with the political influence to take care of whatever else is needed to win a domestic sports tournament in Greece, is found in Attica.

It is that permanent underdog status, not only for Aris (with the exception of the Galis era) but also, for that matter, for Thessaloniki, that gave the team’s victory over Poland’s Prokom its heroic aura. Unfortunately, the FIBA (International Basketball Federation) European Champions Cup that Aris waved from atop the White Tower is not Europe’s major basketball trophy. That loftier status is reserved for the cup awarded to the winner of the Euroleague, which attracts the stronger clubs. Aris’s wealthier southern rivals, Panathinaikos (twice) and Olympiakos have won that tournament in the recent past.

Yet as many commentators noted, Aris’s victory this year was all the more impressive because the club had experienced severe financial problems and had struggled to maintain its competitive edge. Gangaloudis, Rajcevic, Solomon, Stack, and the other players in a sense recreated Galis’s heroic era with their victory. This is a welcome development for observers who note that despite their wealth and predominance, the big teams in Athens and Piraeus have not helped the game’s popularity in Greece. Indeed, because of fan violence whenever they play each other, they’ve tarnished Greek basketball’s reputation and diminished its appeal. Can Aris restore the relative purity of the Galis era? The thousands celebrating around the White Tower after the victory certainly seemed to think that the glory days are back.

Nevertheless, even if we are entering a period in which a feisty underdog fights its way to the top of Greek basketball, we should not get carried away. The southern troika is still there and, perhaps more to the point, Thessaloniki remains in Athens’s political and economic shadow. Yes, the recent crisis over the Macedonian question unleashed a flurry of activity designed to celebrate Thessaloniki’s purportedly pure Greekness, but, no, the southern sports establishment will have none of that silly rhetoric. It may be good that Barcelona can challenge Madrid, Manchester overshadow London, or Milan and Turin prevail over Rome, but sharing the sports silverware is a European practice not quite yet welcome in Greece.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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