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Galis, Not Antetokounmpo, Still Greece’s Real Hoop God

The National Herald

Nick Galis during his induction into the Hall of Fame. Photo: Courtesy of Navarino Challenge

Giannis Antetokounmpo plays like Superman for the Milwaukee Bucks where’s the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, but like Stuporman for Greece’s national team which he hasn’t been able to elevate into the world’s elite or bring any titles.

So until he does – his woeful showing in this year’s world basketball tournament where was essentially a no-show and got shoved around the court like a chump instead of a champ was not encouraging – he won’t be the best player Greece has ever had.

That crown still belongs to Nick Galis, the gallant Greek- American who came an injury away from joining the Boston Celtics during a championship run and instead found himself in Greece, playing primarily for Aris in Thessaloniki as an unstoppable shooting machine guard after his career at Seton Hall in New Jersey.

The late Celtics coach Red Auerbach said that, "the only big mistake of my career was not signing Galis back then.” That was in 1979 when Galis was hobbled at the team’s training camp with an ankle injury that led him to Greece.

"It was my decision too," Galis told MassLive after he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2017, adding that he never really looked back at what might have been in the NBA with the Celtics.

"We sat down and talked. I had generous offers from Greece, coming from a poor family to go overseas. It was a decision I never regretted because I fell in love with the place and people as soon as I got there. I've been there 38 years now. I never left. No regrets.”

That Celtics team finished first in the regular season behind rookie Larry Bird and with stars such as Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens, and Pete Maravich but lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 playoffs, so you can imagine what Galis might have added.

He was a superstar in Greece, the EuroLeague's all-time leader in points per game, leading the competition in scoring eight times, taking Aris to the EuroLeague Final Four four times, including three straight from 1988-90 and again with Panathinaikos in 1994.

An eight-time Greek league champion, Galis is the Greek Championship's unofficial all-time leading scorer, in both career points scored and career scoring average, counting all league formats but those are just numbers that can’t reveal how indomitable a force he was.

His biggest triumph – before his country’s fans in Athens – was taking the team to the 1987 Eurobasket title, stunning the heavily-favored Soviet Union 103-101 in overtime, one of the greatest basketball games ever played, putting him into the Greek god pantheon and making lots of young admirers take up the game for the next generations.

Galis, who seemed to will Greece to victory, was the tourney’s Most Valuable Player and it was made sweeter by winning at home before 17,000 fans in Athens’ Peace and Friendship stadium, a lot of whom swarmed the floor in rapture.

How good was he? Michael Jordan couldn't stop him. In 1983 while playing in an exhibition game at the Demetria Tournament with Greece's national team against Jordan's North Carolina, he scored 24 points – with Jordan trying to guard him.

He was the leading scorer at the 1986 FIBA world championship tourney with 337 points a year before taking Greece to the European title and a career still unparalleled in the country's basketball history.

That includes Antetokounmpo who is having a stellar career in the NBA but wasn't even a factor when playing for Greece, starting in 2013 when played for the Under-20 team which finished fifth in the FIBA tourney.

In 2014, Antetokounmpo played for the senior men's Greek national basketball team for the first time but averaged only 6.3 points a game as the team struggled and finished ninth showing none of the form that would make him an NBA star. At EuroBasket 2015, he couldn't get Greece past the quarterfinals, losing to Spain.

At the 2016 Turin FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament he averaged 15.3 points a game – which Galis would have by half time – but Greece didn't qualify for the Olympics and likely won't this year either as he said he might not even play for the national team because the qualifiers might conflict with the NBA playoffs, after claiming a knee injury kept him off in 2017.

After tearing up the NBA, the Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard shut him down in the playoffs, showing what could happen when Antetokoumpo comes up against a stifling defense, which is what happened at this year's world tourney where the rules are more like Old School American-style and let players get rough instead of having a score-a-thon.

Greece finished 11th after coming into the tourney a semi-favorite because of him, although still ranking seventh in the world despite being humiliated at the world event where opponents put the clamp on him.

Antetokounmpo is a great player, certainly destined for the NBA Hall of Fame, and a humble ambassador for Greece and Hellenism, perhaps too nice as he needs to show some strut and Larry Bird-like confidence.

Galis was nicknamed the Gangster for his all-business style and a glaring look that would melt rivals. Ask Jordan, who said, "I did not expect to find such a good offensive player in Europe, especially Greece.” That’s Galis.