This is how things have worked throughout history: From crises emerge heroes. And heroes create the losers. Sometimes underdogs have more advantages simply because they have nothing to lose. It’s not unusual that we see situations like a 10-man football team winning against a stronger side. Sometimes having options confuses minds, creates problems in concentration and ambiguity in methodology. Those who have no real options perhaps have just one way and they become focused on the goal, which brings about greater optimization and efficiency.
I was thinking like this before the match: “If CSKA wins, there will be not many stories but in case of Olympiacos winning, there will be a variety of options in exposing the classical underdog story with many different perspectives. I hope Olympiacos wins.”
The day before the Euroleague final, I was at Abdi İpekci Hall to see some action in the Nike International Junior Tournament. There I saw Stevislav Pesic, also one of the greatest coaches in European basketball, the man who famously brought a European title to both Germany and Alba Berlin, who were real underdogs. I thought that it would be a great idea to take some predictions from him. Said Pesic: “I was not suprised when Olympiakos won against Barcelona, because Barcelona changed its game this year and were somewhat inconsistent throughout the season, whereas Olympiakos improved much compared to the beginning of the season.”
And what about the final, that final in which nearly nobody gave Olympiacos a chance of winning? “I don’t think that they will suffer a severe loss. In fact, there is a strong possibility for a victory. They have a great team and a great coach [in Dusan] Ivkovic.”
Honestly speaking, it was Pesic who made me believe that Olympiacos really have a chance – or at least I expected them to take the match down to the last possession. It was a 50/50 thing for me before the game. Of course, as a talking head who had to commentate about a team that beat every team except Panathinaikos by 20 or 25 in the Greek league for a couple of years, I somehow made myself believe that the Reds could do it against the Red Army.
I was an economics graduate, so I’m some familiar with the methodology in literature. Here is the dominant and mainstream style: You make a model which you think will help to understand some phenomena. You collect your data from somewhere and put them into your fancy software as inputs. Then press “Enter” and voilà! Here is the result. If you are lucky enough, your hypothesis will be statistically significant.
The second methodology is about history. Approaching a phenomenon, you consider the sociological, cultural and economic background with a historical perspective. Despite being unorthodox, you can still find a lot of people who use this one. I like this method more and interestingly enough, it helps me to understand what happened that night, “The Famous Red-and-White Sunday.”Flashback to 1929. The world was suffering with pain which will be never forgotten: The infamous “Great Depression” forced many countries, including the US, to reconsider their approach to economics. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, the “laissez-faire” mentality, which was based on free trade and “no government intervention” principles dominated thought in the economic sphere. It seemed like the system was working but suddenly, the invisible hand ceased operation. Apparently there was a problem, which was really “Great” and people started thinking whether the market really could work without assistance. Along came British economist John Maynard Keynes, who suggested that in fact the government should intervene to “create” demand by investment. Many countries accepted that approach and the world took a deep breath for nearly 30 or 40 years. The crisis created Keynes.
The year 1991 symbolized the end of conglomerated Yugoslavia. In the summer of Eurobasket, the war broke out. Team Yugoslavia’s Slovenian guard Jure Zdovc immediately left and refused to take part in the final, which was won against Italy. In 1992, Yugoslavian clubs Partizan Belgrade, KK Split and Cibona Zagreb had to play their home matches in other countries because FIBA wanted it that way, obviously for security reasons. Partizan choose a small district of Madrid, Fuenlabrada, as a temporary home. Interestingly enough, nobody managed to beat them there, including Milano, who were among the favourites.
The Cinderella story continued in İstanbul, the host of European Champions’ Cup Final Four, where Partizan beat Milano again, in the semifinals. The famous drama was sealed in the end by the last-second game-winning shot, as we all know very well: Sasha Djordjevic was the hero and Sasha Danilovic was his prominent teammate. A young team led by rookie head coach Zeljko Obradovic and who had truly played at home only once in the season won the title. Crisis produced Partizan.
In March 1990, Lithuania declared independence. Of course, the task of rebuilding a nation state was not easy: There was hope but no money really. Like every country, they wanted to express themselves through sporting events and say to the world “We are here!” For this, there is no better way via the Olympic games. Team Lithuania’s NBA star Sarunas Marciulionis invested his own money out of his own $1.28 million contract with the Golden State Warriors.
Marciulionis did not stop there and with his teammates organised events to raise the funds necessary to land the Lithuanian team in Barcelona ‘92. The core of Soviet team was already Lithuanian before and the great players from the Baltic region – Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Sergejus Jovaisa, Vlademaras Chomicius – led by the legendary Valdemaras Garastas, managed to beat the former Team USSR, known in those Olympics as the CIS, in the third-place match. Crisis brought Lithuania the bronze medal.
In 2001, the people were holding demonstrations in the streets of Argentina. Neverending inflation combined with a widening proletariat army who had lost its job made for a worsening situation and a furious public. The sequence of events eventually led the collapse of the government and its declaration of bankruptcy. On the other side of the continent, the FIBA World Championship was held in Indianapolis in 2002. The Argentinean team, coached by Ruben Magnano, included many stars such as Manu Ginobili but did not have much opportunity to work together; nevertheless, they were in the headlines with the first and maybe the greatest upset of the tournament. Team USA saw the end of its 58-0 winning streak in losing to the Argentineans. Despite a defeat in the final, crisis gave Argentina a silver medal.
In 2008, the international credit crunch returned. One of the most affected countries was Lithuania. The team from Vilnius, Lietuvos Rytas, was not able to keep its star US player Hollis Price because his contract was too costly. Moreover, Matt Nielsen left for Valencia and Rytas parted ways with Antanas Sireika after a heavy defeat to archrivals Žalgiris Kaunas. The new head coach, Rimas Kurtinaitis again, counted on domestic talent – Marijonas Petravicius, Mindaugis Lukauskis, Arturas Jomantas, Steponas Babrauskas and Donatas Zavackas – together with Chuck Eidson, who later became a Euroleague star, played as a team. Their opponent in the Eurocup final, BC Khimki Moscow region, had a star-studded squad with Carlos Delfino, Maciej Lampe, Kelly McCarthy, Jorge Garbajosa and a first-class coach in Sergio Scariolo. However, L. Rytas was the one to be victorious – again, perhaps helped by the crises.
Today, Greece is in a difficult situation to say the least. Maybe they counted on their European Union membership too much in the past, but somehow the country’s budget deficit had reached a substantial amount. After a point, as we all know very well, people started to get worried. This time it was Greeks who were in the streets, demonstrating for a better life. While governments tried to impose austerity packages, the EU meanwhile discussed Greece’s future in the elite club: Should they be expelled or was the country’s presence in the Eurozone too crucial for the integrity of the Union and without them the growth of the EU unsustainable?
This was a hopeless situation according to some; however, some optimists believed that surely there was a way out if the right people impose the right policies at the right time. All well and good, but who would those right people be? The leaders of political parties were some anxious to take responsibility alone. The country was without a government when the Olympiacos team landed in İstanbul.
Last summer, the Angelopoulos brothers, Olympiacos’ main financial resources, announced that they were close to ending financial support of the club. They were fed up with referees and poor decisions, the overall situation of Greek basketball and/or perhaps the harsh criticism from supporters after each unsuccessful result. In my opinion, maybe they figured that the Reds, despite having players such as Theo Papaloukas, Sofoklis Schortsanitis, Milos Teodosic, Linas Kleiza, Rasho Nesterovic and Josh Childress plus coaches like Panagiotis Giannakis, Pini Gherson and even Dusan Ivkovic in the past were just not able to beat Panathinaikos and never would be. The brothers might have seen no possibility in the near future to bring a European crown to Pireaus.
The Angelopouloses afterward changed their decision but with one clause: An inexpensive squad must be built. They said yes to Ivkovic but no to signing of star players. At the end of the season, nobody was sure as to whether the team would go on or not. Minutes before the game, a Greek journalist told a dear colleague of mine, sports geek Caner Eler, simply this: “No way are we a Eurocup team this year.”
Whatever happened in the finals was the repetition of history, albeit with an exciting and dramatic finish. This “Eurocup team” played against the shining stars of CSKA Moscow, fielding Teodosic, Nenad Krstic, Andrei Kirilenko, Victor Khryapa and Ramunas Siskauskas in its starting five. Well, as Final Four MVP Vassilis Spanoulis said after in the post-match press conference that God always helps those deserving.
I don’t know it was God or not, but I do know that today there is another champion arising out of crisis. Thank God it was European basketball!
Uygar Karaca is a sportswriter and TV commentator from Istanbul who is enthusiastic about European basketball. Combining the game with history and analysis; nothing is more delicious for the former small forward who is interested in coaching. He has no favourite teams or players; he’s just looking for stories. Karaca earned MA and BA degrees in Economics, explaining his tendency to see the socioeconomic aspects of the game. However, the reasons why he watches 20- and 30-year-old games again and again, looking for old newspapers that write about basketball, are still unknown even to him. The only things he knows for certain about the game is that the Americans invented it and the Yugoslavians perfected it.