Olympiakos Hoop Players Pick Team First, Country Second

The National Herald

Olympiakos basketball jerseys from 2009 and 2010. Photo: Sportingn, via Wikimedia Commons

When the 1992 U.S. Dream Team came together to show the world basketball is America’s game, they came from the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors, and San Antonio Spurs.

The coach was the now late Chuck Daly of the Detroit Pistons, a team hated by most of the players on the Dream Team who even kept off that club’s star guard, Isiah Thomas, ranked one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time. After the 1988 Olympic debacle under Georgetown coach John Thompson, who mismanaged college All-Stars who lost 82-76 to the Soviet Union and became the first U.S. team not to reach the Gold Medal game, America wanted redemption.

The NBA let its best players participate, a team unparalleled in basketball history unless you count those who, for various reasons – ineligibility, boycott, unfairly cut – never made an Olympic team: John Havlicek, David Thompson, Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy, Elvin Hayes, Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Connie Hawkins, Stephen Curry, Rick Mount, Austin Carr, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kevin McHale, and Bill Walton.

Now THAT’s the Dream Team and I would put that bunch up against the 1992 team that redeemed the U.S. with routs that saw opponents asking teammates to take photos of themselves being embarrassed.

That’s what happened to Greece – as well as a second-rate junior varsity U.S. team – at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Even with NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who played as if he wasn’t there, Greece, which had been a dark horse favorite because of him, finished 11th, four spots behind the U.S. backup team.

Now Greece finds itself in the dilemma of being the 7th ranked team in the world in standings by FIBA – which has bastardized the American game – and will have to try to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and probably won’t get there again.

That’s because Antetokounmpo, who had previously bowed out of playing for Greece’s national team in a European League tourney – citing a bad knee – hasn’t said if he will play in the qualifier in Vancouver, Canada where Greece is paired against China and Canada in the opening round.

Greece’s coach Rick Pitino – who coached the Boston Celtics, the New York Knicks, Providence College, Kentucky, and Louisville and led Panathinaikos to the Greek league championship, could be without Antetokounmpo and three of Greece’s best players.

The reprehensible milksops are Giorgos Printezis, Kostas Papanikolaou and Antonis Koniaris of Olympiakos, who said they won’t play for Greece because Pitino is the coach of their hated eternal rival Panathinaikos.

Now that’s the kind of courage the Spartans could have used at Thermopylae, but Printezis, Papanikolaou, and Koniaris, who put their team first and country second, wouldn’t have fought for Greece then because, after all, Sparta was coached by King Leonidas, the hated rival of Athens.

Greek basketball federation (EOK) head Giorgos Vassilakopoulos said a letter the players signed was written by someone else, suggesting they were forced by the club – owned my shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis – to do it.

Pitino properly spoke of a lack of respect by the Olympiakos Three who have escaped being berated by Greek basketball fans who are notoriously rabid and split over their allegiances too.

Olympiakos – which wears red – dropped out of the Basket League this past spring and even in the A2 division this season put up a team of only young development players and refused to let any its Euroleague players take part in the Greek Cup championship.

Such is the hatred between Greece’s traditionally two strongest teams that Panathinaikos owner, Dimitris Giannakopoulos, showing his disdain was fined 3,000 euros ($3340) for leaving a pair of red women's underwear on Olympiakos’ empty bench after Olympiakos in February quit a game at halftime, upset with the refereeing, showing its real color – yellow.

Pitino, who has more love for Greece than do Printezis, Koniaris, and Papanikolaou, who said they won’t wear the jersey that says Hellas as long as he’s the coach, now has the unenviable task of trying to get Greece to first qualify for the Olympics without most of the best players.

Emiliano Carchia of Sportando wrote the Three Chickens sent their letter to EOK saying the situation was “toxic” and that, “If something does not change immediately on the bench, we cannot be part of the team.” Go tell the Spartans.

Greece could use Printezis, who was third in scoring for the national team at the world cup but it’s he who is toxic, and has good company in the U.S., where NBA stars sat out the world tournament because they, too, care more about their teams and wallets than their country and there was no sense after the embarrassment that they wanted to redeem the league, themselves, and the U.S. at the Olympics in Tokyo.

Pitino had the last, and right word on this. “For the next eight months I’m not American, I’m not Italian – I am Greek. This is the way I will carry myself. You won’t see anybody who will bleed every possession like I do to win a game. This is very important to me and significant to everybody in Greece, who has treated me with such kindness.”