The Club Scene: Aris Egnatia Bank

Dec 20, 2004 by Javier Gancedo, Print
The Club Scene: Aris Egnatia Bank
Aris BSAAris Egnatia Bank has played a crucial role in the development of Greek basketball from an unknown sport to the pride of a whole nation in the 1980s. Aris won seven of its 10 domestic titles from 1985 to 1991, relying on a pair of players who changed Greek basketball for good: Nikos Galis and Panagiotis Giannakis. Galis was an offensive talent like few ever seen in Europe, while Giannakis provided experience, talent and know-how in an explosive combination. They were the heart and soul of Aris in its golden age, and eventually led their national team to the 1987 European Championships gold medal on Greek soil, turning Greece into a basketball country forever. With Aris, they made it to three consecutive Euroleague Final Fours between 1988 and 1990. After some up and down years in which the team added more titles to its roll of honors, but was on the verge of disappearing, Aris is back on track in its first-ever ULEB Cup appearance. Even when its rival PAOK was the first Greek club to win a European trophy and both Panathinaikos and Olympiacos have won Euroleague titles, there is no doubt that Aris was the team which took basketball to a different level of popularity and success in Greece.

Thessaloniki had been a basketball city ever since the sport debuted there in 1919. Three years later, Aris founded its basketball section, and by 1930 won its first league title. It took Aris almost 50 years to repeat that success, but the team established itself as a solid one in the Greek championship. The Greek League stopped from 1931 to 1948, and Aris finished second four times between 1957 and 1966. The team won the Greek Cup in 1966, allowing Aris to make its European debut the next season, where it lost in the first round of the Cup Winners' Cup against Maccabi Tel Aviv. The same teams would meet again with a lot more at stake a couple decades later. In the meantime, Aris returned to Europe for four consecutive editions of the Korac Cup, between 1974 and 1978, but got knocked off as many times in the early rounds.The next year, however, success returned. Vangelis Alexandris, Haris Papageorgiou and Vassilis Paramanidis were the Aris stars who led the team to win the Greek League title in 1979 with a 24-2 record. That was before Galis arrived and changed the history of the game in Greece forever.

Galis, born and raised by Greek immigrants in New Jersey, USA, had an outstanding career at Seton Hall University, finished as the third top scorer in the NCAA in 1979 at 27.5 points per game, behind that year's scoring champ, Larry Bird, the top draft choice of the Boston Celtics. Galis was drafted by the Celtics, too, in the fourth round, but but an injury prevented him from making the team. Until then, he was unaware that basketball was played professionally in the land of his forefathers. Aris sent representatives to Galis's home in the United States with presents for his whole family, trying to persuade him to join the Greek League title holders. After negotiating for three long weeks, Galis agreed. He arrived to his first practice with a terrible toothache, and had to face Alexandris, the best defensive player in the country then. After 20 minutes of playing one-on-one, Alexandris surrendered and called Galis is "the most unstoppable player in Europe, and even better than the great Drazen Dalipagic." In his second season, 1980-81, Galis averaged an incredible 43.9 points, including a 62-point game against Ionikos. He would continue to score 30 points on a night-in, night-out basis throughout the early 1980s. He led Aris to its third league title in 1983, scoring more than 33 points per game. Fadeaway jumpers, turnaround shots, mid-range jumpers, drives to the basket, fastbreaks, whatever: Galis simply did it all.

By that time, Galis had started to team up with Giannakis on the Greek national team, whose audience grew with fans eager to see the offensive skills of both players. Giannakis joined Aris right after the 1983-84 season, when Aris became the first foriegn team to beat Maccabi in Israel, but Panathinaikos got the Greek League title. The Aris dynasty started. Giannakis, a tall playmaker with deeper shooting range and great court know-how, was the perfect complement for Galis, while Nikos Filippou or Michalis Romanidis anchored the froncourt. The team was coached by legend-in-the-making Giannis Ioannidis. Aris won seven consecutive league titles and as many as 81 consecutive games between 1985 and 1988. Aris reached the 1985 Korac Cup semifinals, but Galis injured his hand and Aris was stopped. Although they were already celebrities in Thessaloniki, where the Aris-PAOK rivarly raged and anyone important came to see the basketball in Alexandrio Stadium, Galis and Giannakis really became famous in 1987, when they put Greek basketball on the map by winning the gold medal at home in the 1987 Eurobasket on two free throws by Argyris Kabouris for a 103-101 upset victory against the Soviet Union, who would win the Olympic title the next summer.

Amid winning Greek League and Cup trophy doubles in 1988, 1989 and 1990, Aris took Greek basketball another step forward by reaching three consecutive Final Fours, the then-new format for deciding a European champion. In 1987, the last season before Final Fours, Aris had lost to eventual champion Tracer Milaon in a two-way elimination round despite having won its home game by 31 points. In 1988, Galis, Giannakis, Filippou and center Greg Wiltjer powered Aris to its first-ever Final Four, but eventual champion Milano knocked off the Greek champs 87-81 in semifinals. Aris made it again in 1989, but had no chance in the semifinal game against Maccabi. Its final effort came in 1990, now with the additions of versatile forward Mike Jones and big man Stojan Vrankovic, but Barcelona beat Aris once again in semis. Along the way, however, Aris had earned a reputation as one of Europe's superpowers, turning basketball in Greece into a passion. Moreover, its fans stood as one of the most loyal and noisy all around the continent. Galis got his 11th top scorer title in 1991, when Aris won its last title, but soon left the team, and the dynasty was over. Even so, Aris won the 1993 Greek Cup and also conquered its first-ever European title, the Saporta Cup in 1993 in what was the last European game for Giannakis with Aris.

Aris returned to the Saporta Cup semifinals in 1994, but did not win another trophy until it took the 1997 Korac Cup in 1997 with a stunning 70-88 road win over Tofas Bursa of Turkey. The heart of a champion club still beat with players like Panagiotis Liadelis, Piculin Ortiz and Mario Boni. Despite subsequently tough economic times, Aris still managed to win the 1998 Greek Cup title in epic fashion, overcoming a shortage of players to knock off Panathinaikos and AEK and win the title. Several quiet years followed, but the team bounced back in 2002-03 to win the FIBA Champions Cup as Will Solomon scored 32 points in the final-game victory, 84-83 over Prokom Trefl Sopot. Aris extended its recent success with another Greek Cup title last season, and now takes on a new competition, battling away in difficult Group D of the ULEB Cup. With some of the most loyal fans around, Aris hopes to meet the expectations and try to get back to its glory days. Aris was crucial in the development of Greek basketball, and the team is living up to its reputation.