He drove and willed the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA title, is two-time MVP, so talented with his shooting, rebounding, passing, agility, and wing span on a 6-11 body. He looks like a pterodactyl flying down the floor but Giannis ‘A-Train‘ Antetokounmpo hasn’t brought Greece a European title or an Olympic berth.
He got pushed around too in the 2019 FIBA World Championships where Greece finished 11th, continuing its futility – apart from European titles in 1987 and 1995 – but the 1987 team couldn’t qualify for the 1988 Olympics.
Hoop-crazy Greece has been in the Olympics only four times since 1952, and in 2004 only because it was the host country. And after a miracle 101-95 upset of the United States in the World Championships semi-final in 2006 – the American squad included Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade – It’s been all disappointment.
The new failures aren’t on Antetokounmpo because he plays every game for his beloved Greece with the same heart and passion he displays in the NBA, just like on the playgrounds in the Athens neighborhood of Sepolia where he was discovered as a youngster.
But it’s frustrating and befuddling, the lack of achievement for Greece basketball on the European and international stage and in recent years has largely been due to a deficit of world-class talent apart from him.
This year’s Eurobasket flop was especially hard to take because he was essentially unstoppable but Greece got bounced – and so did he, ejected for throwing a hard elbow in a quarterfinal 107-96 loss to Germany, in Berlin.
Losing to Germany is tough enough because their national sport is war, but the look on his face when he was tossed said it all for Greece’s basketball fortunes for years, ranked high in the world and still losing on the court.
The elbow was the second of two unsportsmanlike fouls, coming with 4:56 left in the fourth quarter, Greece trailing by 14, The A-Train taking a hard swipe at Johannes Thiemann, hitting him in the face in trying to knock away a rebound.
It seemed unintentional, just like Greece again bowing out of a tournament in which the national team had been predicted to go further with him in the lineup, although there was none of the fervor of the 1987 championship.
That team of 35 years ago included American Nick Galis, who still lives in Greece and if not for an injury would have been a Boston Celtic during their championship years and is still the one who brought Greece a title.
In the greatest basketball game in Greece’s history, Galis led his team – the final was played in Athens before delirious fans – to an impossible 103-101 win over the Soviet Union at its height, the heavily favored Russian-led team left stunned.
Galis was electrifying in the manner of Drazen Petrovic, a Croatian who went from the bench to one of the NBA’s greatest shooters before dying in a crash in 1993, so good that another marksman, Reggie Miller, said Petrovic was the toughest guy in the league to defend.
That’s Antetokounmpo too, but the players around him, including his brothers Kostas and Thanasis and American Tyler Dorsey, just aren’t good enough at the international level, the veterans on the team of European and world events past their prime, including American Nick Calathes.
The 1987 Eurobasket was a sensation that set young Greeks off on a blaze of glory to emulate Hoop God Galis and while Antetokounmpo is even more talented he’s been less successful for the national team.
Not his fault, and his peerless ability is matched by humility, the kind you have when you don’t forget growing up selling sunglasses near a metro station to help your family, and never forgetting that if not for basketball you’d still be doing the same and wouldn’t have gotten citizenship.
Germany didn’t stop him either, as even with the German defense around him more concentrated than around Berlin in World War II with the Russians closing in, they couldn’t do anything about it.
He had 31 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals in 30 minutes, going 13-for-22 from the floor showing that it’s still he – ahead of Serbian Nikola ‘The Joker’ Jokic, Slovenian Luka ‘Faux Bird’ Doncic, and Cameroonian Joel Embiid as the NBA’s top four players, said ESPN.
Steph Curry, who couldn’t carry Larry Bird’s shoes, is the first American in the top 5, unprecedented for America’s sport and showing why the NBA should add an International League – for money and exposure.
For all his greatness for Greece, Galis – from New Jersey and Seton Hall – would never have been a dominant player in the NBA but would have been a very good one. How good?
He would have been on a Celtics team with Larry Bird in his rookie season and other Hall of Famers Dave Cowens and Pete Maravich – and what would you have paid to see Galis and Pistol Pete in the same backcourt firing away? That team went 61-21, a year after John Havlicek retired.
In an exhibition against North Carolina – with Michael Jordan – Galis scored 50 and showed why Celtics late legendary coach and General Manager Red Auerbach said, “the only big mistake of my career was not signing Galis back then.”
Let’s hope Greece rides The A-Train to the top.