Up until 1987, Greek basketball was as mediocre as Greek football at a European level. Yet, on June 14, 1987 something miraculous happened and Greeks started to love the orange ball.
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 that put Greece in a prominent place on the basketball map.
It was the time of Nikos Galis, Panagiotis Giannakis, Panagiotis Fassoulas, Fanis Christodoulou, Memos Ioannou, names that became familiar to most Greeks, and their posters decorated many teenager rooms.
After eliminating Italy and Yugoslavia — both favorites to win the tournament — in the quarter final and semi-final respectively, they came upon Russia in the final, at a time when countries of the Soviet Bloc had very strong national teams in almost all popular sports.
The game at the newly built Peace and Friendship Stadium was a nail biter with the buzzer finding the two teams with a 89-89 score. In overtime, the blue and white players managed to win 103-101, sending millions of Greeks across the globe to ecstatic glee. Galis scored an unbelievable 40 points.
Hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — of Greeks took it to the streets all across the country waving the “blue and white” in a frenzy and singing. The joy was so overwhelming that an outsider would think that the people were celebrating the end of a victorious war. Europe’s “Final Countdown” was blaring all over Greece, coming from boomboxes and car stereos. From then on, the national basketball team was the “beloved” of all Greeks.
And so did the sport of basketball. Young Greeks abandoned football and started playing basketball. And soon they found out that they were good at it. So good that in the 2005 EuroBasket they won their second medal after defeating Germany 78-62. A year later, in the semi-final 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 finishing in the first five places.
At a club level though, from the 1990s and on, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos star in every year’s EuroLeague Final-Four, with the “greens” having won six European titles and the “reds” three, putting Greece in the high places of European basketball consistently.