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BASKETBALL HISTORY OF ARIS SALONICA
Many thanks to Ilias Glavinas, Platon Tsakiroglou, Aris Bitzenis

THE EMPIRE

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 COMES

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.

THE 7 YEAR REIGN

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.

EUROPEAN FAME

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 gold 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 well, while Galis won the top-scorer award.

It was during that year, 1986, that ARIS made the news in Europe in the Champions League qualifying round. Having been unceremoniously eliminated 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 then
ARIS had become a household name in basketball in Europe.

GREECE'S FAVOURITE TEAM

The most important contribution of ARIS to Greek basketball was not the 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 the 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.

THE ARIS - paok RIVALRY

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.

DECLINE

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.

HOPE

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 Markopoulos.

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 Panathinaikos' decline.

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.

WE KNOW HOW TO SURVIVE

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...


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