The basketball program of ARIS has been one of the most gloried
athletic programs in Greece, and winning the 1997 Korac Cup has only bolstered
the notion that ARIS has a unique place in the history of Greek basketball,
in fact in the history of Greek sports altogether. It was not
coincidental that the ARIS basketball team of the 80s and early 90s was
called "The Empire".
The team's first championship in the modern era (1979 --achieved to a great extent through the inspired play of Haris Papageorgiou) helped provide a spark for what would be an almost complete domination of Greek basketball by ARIS during the second half of the 80s and the early 90s. If that first championship was the spark, then the fuel for ARIS' brilliant stint at the top of the sport was undoubtedly Nikos Galis, thought by the vast majority of Greek basketball fans to be the best Greek basketball player ever, and one of the best ever in Europe.
Galis came in 1980 and it took ARIS three years to rise to the top
again, becoming national champions in 1983 under the coaching of Giannis
Ioannidis and with Galis taking the game in Greece to new heights,
showing coordination and creativity then (some would argue even now)
unprecedented in Greek courts, and almost singlehandedly beating
powerhouse rivals like Olympiakos and Panathinaikos.
A very successful 1983-1984 season had a bitter ending, as ARIS battled for both the championship and the cup but lost the national cup final to crosstown rivals paok and the championship game to Panathinaikos. A taste of things to come, however, had been offered during ARIS' games against Maccabi Tel Aviv in order to qualify for the European Champions' League in the fall of 1983. ARIS was narrowly eliminated by the very powerful Isreali team, but not before posting an away win at Tel Aviv, something that no other European team had managed to do for ?? years.
Disappointment did not get much in the way of ARIS' progress. Possibly the most crucial transfer in Greece occured after the 1983-1984 season, bringing Panagiotis Giannakis to ARIS from Ionikos Nikea. Galis now had a first-class partner. The result? Total carnage for other teams. The lethal backcourt blazed through the Greek league for seven consecutive years, with the help of players such as Filippou, Romanidis, Subotic, Doxakis, Lypiridis, and others, winning 7 championships, and 5 cups (one cup being memorably lost to Panathinaikos in 1986, with Galis performing surprisingly poorly in a single-elimination game in Athens). Especially between 1985-1988, the question was not who the champion would be, but if ARIS would go undefeated or not.
In 1984-1985 came ARIS' first significant European success: ARIS
reached the semifinals of the Korac Cup, eventually losing to Varese of
Italy and without the services of Galis for the first game in
Thessaloniki (he was injured in practice 3 days before the game).
ARIS formed the backbone of the Greek national team, sending Galis,
Giannakis, Filippou, Romanidis, and Lypiridis (to help Greece win the
medal in Eurobasket 87 and the silver in 89). The backcourt of
Galis-Giannakis first came to european prominence in the 1986 World
Championship in Spain, where upstarts Greece performed surprisingly
while Galis won the top-scorer award.
It was during that year, 1986, that ARIS made the news in Europe in
Champions League qualifying round. Having been unceremoniously
by Limoges of France in 1985, ARIS was arbitrarily paired against Tracer
Milan in the qualifying round. An insurmountable task, considering that
Tracer were arguably the best team in Europe and furthermore had
acquired Bob McAdoo, possibly the best american player (still) to ever
play in Europe. ARIS --sporting Galis, Giannakis, Subotic, and a third
rate american player, Jackson-- managed an unbelievable win in
Thessaloniki by 31 points, almost assuring the elimination of Tracer and
advancing into the final group of the 6 best European teams.
Unfortunately, the return leg saw Tracer winning by 34 points and
eliminating ARIS. Much has been said about backstage scenarios that led
to this result, but nothing has been proven.
Aris had to wait for another year to compete in Europe again, but his
strength had been established: in 1987 ARIS were not paired against an
established team and thus advanced to the final round of the 8 best
european champions. The same was achieved in the next four years, and
while Aris did not win the Champions Cup they were very successful in
the tournaments, reaching the final-four in 1987, 1988, and 1989. By
ARIS had become a household name in basketball in Europe.
The most important contribution of ARIS to Greek basketball was not
recognition brought from Europe. It was the establishment of the sport
of basketball in Greece as an almost pure spectacle. ARIS (chiefly
through the amazing play of Galis) elevated the measly standards that
existed among mostly stiff and unimaginative teams to heights that
demanded the attention of the sports fans. Here was a team who could
mesmerize audiences used to boring styles of play, and could show
flashes of brilliance night in and night out. The fervent desire to see
team they support win --quite evident in greek people-- succumbed to the
enjoyment that the fans received from watching a team perform in such an
entertaining fashion while dismantling their opponents.
Arenas were completely sold out wherever ARIS was playing, opponents'
fans were applauding ARIS for their performance, and streets were
empty when ARIS played European games, as Greeks throughout the
country were glued to their TV sets to watch the inspired play of Galis
and co. Such was the impact that basketball overtook football as the
most popular sport in Greece.
Although all that excitement about basketball progressed the game to new heights, prompting many youths to take up the sport and resulting in a large pool of talent for Greece, the game's elevation as a spectator sport was not to last. Nowadays Greece boasts 3-4 clubs that can be considered among the top in Europe, but the satisfaction given to the fans by the teams' quality of play is minimal. The domination of suffocating defenses throughout Europe has favored less talented but physically gifted athletes to take over, dramatically reducing the fan's enjoyment. To this point no team in Greece has matched the Aris team of 8-9 years ago with regard to spectacle.
Special reference must be made to the rivalry between ARIS and paok,
the two biggest athletic clubs in Thessaloniki. Fierce rivals in all
sports, the ARIS and paok basketball face-offs had a distinct flavor
between 1985 and 1992, as those were the two top teams in Greece. In
games where a loss is more than a loss --the mood of most of the fans of
either ARIS or paok is quite seriously affected for some time following a
loss to paok or
ARIS-- paok fans had to suffer through seven agonizing years of being
second or third in the league, witnessing ARIS beat their team
time after time en route to winning the 7 consecutive championships. In
fact, between the fall of 1984 and the fall of 1989, ARIS had posted at
least 13 victories (some Cup victory might be escaping my memory)
against paok, losing only one game in November of 1988.
Galis and Giannakis provided an unbeatable combination that paok could not defeat, even though they tried hard to, by transfering players from left and right. Those classic Saturday evening games at Alexandreio Melathro were a relaxing and entertaining experience for ARIS fans --almost assured of the victory before the game even started-- and somewhat of a nightmare for poor paok fans, who displayed inexplicable faith by coming back to support their team, hoping for a miracle win every time. The most memorable game was the third playoff game between the two teams in 1991. Aris had a 2-game lead from the regular season, but paok managed to even the score with 2 victories in the first 2 playoff games, so, naturally, they had the momentum going into the 5th game of the best-of-seven series. In fact they were up by 4 points almost 10 seconds before the end of that 5th game. What followed left scars in many paok fans: Giannakis scored a quick 2-point basket, reducing the deficit to 2 points. A sloppy inbounds pass was stolen by Aggelidis, who passed the ball to Galis, who (guarded by a frenzied Stavropoulos) started to penetrate but then passed the ball to Giannakis who drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer. ARIS went on to win the next playoff game and thus the 1991 championship.
Despite all the rivalry and constant mocking, I believe most ARIS fans
did respect paok's team, as they were the only ones who could give us a
run for our money. Towards the end of the 80s and the beginning of the
90s that respect even turned to trepidation as many of the matches came
down to the wire and victory was no longer automatic. It is to paok's
credit and a rather impressive fact that they did not fold after all
these years being at the number 2 spot. In fact the time came in 1992 when
they were the ones to win the championship, leaving ARIS third behind
second-place Olympiakos. Losing the second spot that year was a disaster
for ARIS, since that meant they could not participate in the expanded
European league, losing recognition and revenue. That season was salvaged
somewhat by winning the Cup of 1992, versus Aek. That final was
quite significant since it marked Galis' last game for ARIS. The
player who almost by himself made basketball hugely popular in
Greece had won 8 championships and 6 cups with ARIS in 13 years.
The team management made
what was proven to be a mistake in their plans for the 1992-3
season. The president (Mitroudis) in cooperation with Giatzoglou
(the new coach) decided to build the new team around Giannakis
instead of Galis. Even though Roy Tarpley was signed and Aris was
dominating in the start, things fell apart and irresponsible
management in conjuction with lack of discipline led to the 5th
spot in the final standings of the Greek league. While Galis was
playing for Panathinaikos, Olympiakos was now the top team (with
Ioannidis at the helm), and ARIS were clearly relegated to
pretender status. Again, the season was not a total failure: Aris
won their first European title, the Cup Winners Cup, beating Efes
Pilsen of Turkey 48-50 in a very sloppy, yet dramatic, game. The
words of Mitroudis: "God showed pity for us" ("o
theos mas lypithike") echoed the sentiment of all ARIS fans
that, indeed, this team did deserve to finally win a European
trophy. ARIS fans would rather the next two seasons (93-94 and
94-95) did not take place at all.
With the exception of advancing to the semifinals in the weak Cup Winners Cup of 1994, those two seasons are marked by players (Giannakis, Vourtzoumis, Petsarski, Lypiridis, Misunov) filing suit against the team for not receiving their earned salary and incentives. Repeated wrong choices for foreign players, changing of coaches, as well as inept management by the ownership were the highlights rather than success on court. Well-known Terry Catledge fled the team, Vincent and Higgins were released while other inappropriate choices such as Frederick and King were made. Despite all this, the unexpected support of the fans combined with the rise of some Greek players (Angelidis, Liadelis) held ARIS from falling to complete disarray, as the team managed to qualify for the Korac Cup of next year. The team's stock had fallen so much that finishing in 6th or 7th place was considered a success.
The 1995-96 season can be
considered the messenger of a change in ARIS' fate. With Soulis
Markopoulos as coach, ARIS played disciplined basketball with
extra emphasis on defense (perhaps for the first time in Aris'
history). Liadelis and Angelidis, along with the unexpectedly
good Harrold Ellis started to draw the crowd back into
Alexandreio. That ARIS team beated paok twice during the regular
season (after three years of defeats to them), while advancing to
a 4-team group in Korac, and almost getting first place in that
group. Still, at the end of that season there was little to
marvel at. Although elimination by paok in the playoffs set a
dismal tone, it was clear that things were on the upswing. In the
summer of 1996 something extraordinary for ARIS happened.
The team sponsor, Zafiris
Samoladas, spent a huge amount of money and revitalized the team.
Ortiz, Shackleford, Stavrakopoulos, Floros, Boni, Papadatos,
Holopoulos joined the team, which, all of a sudden, appeared very
strong and with exceptional depth at every position. The team
started well by beating paok and Panathinaikos, but faltered
against Olympiakos both for the championship and for the cup,
losing both games in Thessaloniki and prompting the firing of
Subotic, from the 1987-1992
era, took over as coach and produced some satisfactory results,
but ARIS still displayed a lot of the disadvantages of a newly
formed team. ARIS, though, had a spectacular run to the Korac
Cup: Besiktas of Turkey, Beobanka of Yugoslavia, Peristeri of
Greece, and Benneton of Italy were all eliminated in dramatic
fashion, with the overtime return leg game in Italy reminding
many of the old glory of ARIS in Europe. The final was against
Tofas Bursa of Turkey and there couldn't be a more satisfying way
of winning the cup: ARIS --the heavy favorites-- lost in shocking
fashion by 11 points in the first game in Thessaloniki. Centuries
old passions and nationalistic enmity resurfaced, as the Turks,
assured of the cup at that stage, were waiting to give the final
blow in Bursa. Fortunately for ARIS' and Greek fans, the
difference in talent and coaching showed in the game in Bursa,
where ARIS dramatically won by 18 points (70-88), in an arena filled with
fanatic spectators who finally broke down and started hurling
debris towards the court, when the outcome was evident.
It was a remarkable moment
as Liadelis-Angelidis-Sioutis and the other Greek players, lifted
the Korac Cup inside the Turkish arena, and filled millions of
Greeks with pride. paok fans are (affectionately :-)) called
"Turks" by ARIS fans, because of paok having been
originally founded by Greeks who used to reside in
Konstantinoupoli (Istanbul). After all the wins over the
"Turks" of paok in the 80s and early 90s, and coupled
with the defeat of Efes Pilsen in the final of 1993, this last
triumph over Tofas Bursa established ARIS as the only Greek team
who can rightfully be called "Tourkofagos". That was
proven to be the high point of the season. ARIS returned to the
Greek championship games and in idiotic fashion lost three games
against inferior opponents Panionios, Papagou, and Peiraikos. If
one of these games were won, ARIS would have ended up in 3rd
place in the regular season, and would have had homecourt
advantage for the very important 3rd place in the final playoff
standings, that led to the Euroleague for 1997-98. ARIS faced
Peristeri for advancing to the final four and was eliminated in a
best of 3 series. All in all, the 1996-97 season was bittersweet.
ARIS did become a powerhouse again, and could not be counted out
of any game, and also won the Korac Cup. Not qualifying, however,
for the Euroleague was a tremendous disappointment, considering
the fact that ARIS had a huge pool of talent and also considering
It was a missed opportunity that turned more bitter when paok --arguably inferior to ARIS in the course of the championship-- managed to qualify for the Euroleague. In the 1997-98 season, which has yet to start, ARIS is sort of an enigma. Having retained all but one (Shackleford) of its main players, and having signed Paspalj, Sok, and Galakteros, the talent is still there, although rebounding problems are sure to appear. The hiring of Kioumourtzoglou as coach was viewed skeptically by many, as he is regarded as an old-fashioned coach who employs aged and predictable tactics for his teams' play. Samoladas has stepped down from the sponsor position, and the team still does not have a wealthy sponsor or a certain source of revenue to pay for players' high salaries. Qualification for the Euroleague is critical this season, but not many of ARIS' fans believe it is a realistic goal, as Olympiakos, Aek and Panathinaikos seem to be way ahead in terms of personnel and financial status. Still, miracles can happen.
Miracles can happen, and this sentence was perfectly understood by our players. Suddenly Jose Ortiz left us at mid-January, due to the fact that the team hadn't had the money to pay him. Tit Sok followed his way as well. Leadership of Lefteris Hatzopoulos quits, Efthimis Kioumourtzoglou is not longer our coach and ARIS is on God's will since those dramatic moments of the club took place. We have no money, but we 've got plenty of soul. Within two weeks, we beat all of the -considered- big teams of Greece (Olympiakos, paok, Panathinaikos and Aek), the two last ones in the Final-4 of the Greek Cup and we become winners of the 1997-98 Greek Cup. Mario Boni was about to leave us too before the Final-4 but he stayed cause he loves us, and he helped a lot in this tremendous effort. Then he moved in Roma as he couldn't stand it anymore either. Braveheart ARIS continues with 8 players from now on. But we 've showed that we are born to survive. We will survive...