BROOKLYN – Around the time that the Dodgers cruelly abandoned Brooklyn and left its three million residents fearing they would never again celebrate champions and championships, two young Greek-American men brought glory to their borough through their boxing prowess.
On April 17, identical twin brothers Petros (Pete) and Nicholas (Nikos) Spanakos were among the first inductees into the Daily News Golden Gloves Hall of Fame at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
From 1955 to 1964 Petros was a ten-time undefeated Golden Gloves Champion – an unprecedented feat – and Nikos won seven times. Pete won a bronze medal at the Pan-American Games in Chicago in 1959 and Nikos represented the United States at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Those achievements sufficed to guaranty their induction on Thursday night, but the brothers were also lauded for their character and lifetime of community service, showing appreciation for their God-given gifts by giving back.
Nothing in their biographies is accidental. Michael and Stella Spanakos left Mani province at sixteen in 1912 and six years old in 1908, respectively. They were married in 1927 and had seven sons who survived childhood, all of whom appreciated the sacrifices and lessons they learned from their parents.
The family’s story was featured in a 1981 B’Nai Brith/PBS documentary called “American Story -The Spanakos Family.”
Stella didn’t want to be in the film, but Pete said “Mama you have to do it. There are a lot of Greek women who are not being recognized for what they do and you have to represent Greece.”
In 1962 she was honored as NY State Mother of the Year by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In 1964 she was runner-up for National Mother of the Year, and Grand Marshal of the Greek Parade.
GOD WAS IN THE RING
America opens wide the doors to success and prosperity to hard-working talented people, but immigrants often don’t land in the best of neighborhoods. Peter and Nicholas were the youngest of very bright boys – they have the PhDs and law degrees to prove it – but at 14 they realized that in order to survive and realize the American dream, toughness had to be added to their mix of talent.
They learned to box, a sport they love, and as the newspapers reported their victories in the ring, “The guys who would once look for us now crossed the street when they saw us coming,” Nikos told the Daily News.
Asked how they started boxing, Pete said it was something between an accident and a miracle. “In 1952 we were asking God how we could defend ourselves and we were delivered into boxing.”
Their father didn’t see it that way. “Oshi!” he said in his thick Maniatiko accent “you mustn’t fight.” He wanted them to be gentlemen. “I said ‘Patera, every day I get my — kicked. I hate to be disrespectful but I have to fight back.’”
They were so good they had the privilege of experiencing a more refined danger.
Pete was quoted saying “I was more of a banger…if it looked like I could put a guy away, I would go for the knockout. Nick was more of a boxer. There were times when he could get the knockout, but he kept boxing.” Why did Nikos prolong victory? “It’s fun, I love the movement. It’s too much fun.”
The Hall of Fame induction was held during the intermission of the championship round of this year’s Golden Gloves.
From a distance, spectators make mental notes to keep their distance should they ever bump into a boxer in a bad mood, but it is different up close: Punches land on chests with frightening thuds and spit flies from punches to the helmets (do they really protect?).
At ringside, the experience is more visceral, the reality more dangerous – the jabs are lightning-quick.
In the blink of an eye a man could be killed, twice.
Their mother’s icon lamps must have been burning overtime.
But the Spanakos brothers are a tribute to the Greek excellence of body, mind, and spirit.
Following examples set by their older brothers, Pete earned a JD from Brooklyn Law School and spent most of his career as a counselor for the NYC Board of Education, and Nikos has a doctorate in Business Administration. He taught in the CUNY system for 26 years.
The twins’ five other brothers, Bill, John, Ernie, George, and Charles, served their country in the military while also distinguishing themselves athletically. Four of them also have law degrees.
The second American-born generation produced six more attorneys – one a judge, and others earned MAs, MBAs, and PhDs from top universities.
The twins’ lives also demonstrate the importance of mentors and inspiration from outside the family. Gene Rossides, a star quarterback for Columbia University who later distinguished himself in government and as founder of the American Hellenic Institute, was one of the first Greek names to become famous in America.
The brothers cannot thank him enough for his moral support and guidance. Nikos told TNH “Gene is a legend, and Pete said, “He was our hero and told us he would do ‘anything you want.’ Gene helped every Greek he could.”
Legendary boxing promoter George Parnassus was another important mentor.
After following nearly identical paths through life, today Peter and his wife Stratoniki live in Brooklyn and Nicholas and Barbara Spanakos reside in Florida, but the latter returns often to his beloved borough.
Products of Brooklyn’s public schools, they attended the College of Idaho, for which they both expressed deep gratitude. The professors, whom they still see as “walking icons,” gave them makeup tests so they could compete, and they feel privileged to be able to donate to their alma mater.
The excellent liberal arts college was a far cry from Red Hook, Brooklyn, however, a neighborhood dominated by the docks and gangs.
Peter told the story of coming home from Sts. Constantine and Helen Cathedral where they were altar boys. They got off the trolley car and some Italian guys were making fun of them. “We walked our parents home and then we ran out of the house and went after them. The first guy started hitting us and the other guy ran away. Then we ran away because they came back with a gang,” Pete said.
The next day the infamous gangster Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo came into Red Hook saying “we’re going to kick those Greeks’ —es.”
But they ran into two big Italian-American families, the Pepitones (one of them, Joe, played first base for the Yankees) and the Montfortes. “They loved my father. He was very generous with them during and after the war,” Pete said.
In the cross-country competition for the 1960 Olympics “some Greek would always get up and shout ‘come on patrioti’ and cheer us on.”
In Chicago “and all the Greeks came out like crazy,” he said, but their victories made them targets for city thugs. The Greek policeman and taxi drivers looked out for them, however.
At the Pan American games in Chicago in 1959, Cassius Clay was his roommate. Pete said he inspired the future Muhammad Ali’s “GOAT – Greatest of them all,” tagline. Pete was the first GOAT – “I was ‘The Greekest of them all.’”
Clay was also Nick’s Olympics roommate, but he feels his brother belonged with him in Rome, where he experienced profound loneliness. “I thought he was well-qualified.”
Pete first went to Greece on his honeymoon in 1966. “My wife was great and she’s still great,” adding, “Her name is Stratoniki and she is from Lemnos. My mother forgave me for not marrying a Maniati.”
Nikos took his time and finally – just last May at age 73 – found his Greek bride: Barbara Stamatopoulou.
Asked what it felt like for a Greek-American to be in Rome representing America in the Olympics as a 22 year-old recent college graduate, Niko’s answer was clear: “That was the highlight of my life.”
One of the high points was meeting the Greek team. “I was very surprised; they knew all about me and we hugged each other, and I even got to be their coach because they did not have one,” Nikos said.