Panathinaikos completes comeback; Olympiacos fans unravel; and the uncomfortable reality of ‘ultra’ culture

Yesterday was a big day in European basketball. Fenerbahce, as expected, took a two-game lead over Besiktas in the Turkish BSL finals. Brose Bamberg won their third straight German title, and eighth domestic championship in nine seasons. And, Valencia pulled off a huge upset in Madrid to even the up the series in the ACB Liga Endesa finals.

However, all of those games deferred to the last big game of the day, which was the deciding Game 5 of the Greek Basket League championship between heated rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in Piraeus.

If you follow European basketball (or just basketball in general) on Twitter, you probably heard about the incident in Piraeus that resulted in a wild, but dangerous ending. I will talk about that part later, and some of my own thoughts about the “ultra” culture.

However, I want to talk about the game first, for what PAO did seems to get lost in the discussion due to the events that happened in the last two minutes.


pappas_league-title_web-thumb-large

Make no mistake, what PAO did wasn’t easy. While PAO took care of games 2 and 4 in Athens, they struggled immensely all year in Piraeus. Going into game 5, they were 0-4 for the year on Olympiacos’ home turf, which also includes their matchup in the Euroleague. The Red and White’s extremely physical style of play proved to be difficult for PAO, as their 90’s New York Knicks approach to basketball seemed to throw PAO off rhythm, especially on the offensive end. With a Greek Basket title on the line, and the Olympiacos ultras going to be in full, ridiculous and intimidating force, it seemed unlikely that PAO would be able to pull off Game 5 and come back from a 2-1 deficit in the series.

And yet, PAO not only beat Olympiacos in Peace and Friendship stadium, but absolutely dominated the game from the five minute mark of the first quarter on. Olympiacos put up an early 11-3 lead, but the wheels came off for the defending champs after the hot start. Though Olympiacos led 17-14 in the first quarter, PAO won the second quarter 10-22 and then the third quarter 10-21 to go up  37-57, which was too insurmountable for the home team to overcome, as they lost 51-66 to the Athenian visitors.

One could credit PAO head coach Xavi Pascual for adjusting his offense in the critical game. A coach who depends on his big playbook and heavily patterned offense, Pascual ceded control to his ball-dominant point guards Nick Calathes and Mike James. Calathes and James hurt the Olympiacos defense all game long, whether it was in isolation, drive and kicks for open threes (especially to KC Rivers who hit three 3-pointers), or in the pick and roll. For the game, Calathes put a line of 12 pts, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and James, the MVP for the game, put up a line of 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, good for a game high PIR of 19. If you watch the highlights below, you will see Calathes and James come up time and time again making big plays on the offensive end.

On the defensive end, PAO took away drives and the paint from OLY and forced their rival to beat the Greens from deep. The strategy worked, as OLY shot 25 percent from beyond the arc on 28 shots. Add that with 12 turnovers committed (in comparison to PAO’s 7), and it made sense that PAO won by such a large, and comfortable margin. Center Ioannis Bourousis took away scoring opportunities in the paint from OLY, as he had two blocks, a steal, and neutralized Nikola Milutinov, Khem Birch and Patric Young in the block, as they only combined for 8 points combined.

The disappointment in the finals for OLY could somewhat be contributed to stars Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis failing to come through in the big moments. One could blame fatigue or PAO’s depth and defensive focus just getting to them in the final game of the year. However, the fact of the matter is OLY depends on their top two stars to win, and when they don’t play well, the game become very difficult for the club, especially on the offensive end. Spanoulis went 2-for-11 from the field and had 4 turnovers, good for a PIR of 5 (9 points total). Printezis was even worse, as he went 2-for-14, scored only 4 points, and had a 0 PIR. A combined 13 points from your two biggest players is not a formula for success, and OLY learned that the hard way in the title game.

This season is a bit of validation for Pascual, who was fired last summer from Barcelona despite his history of success with the club. In his first season in Athens, Pascual won a Greek title (snapping Olympiacos’ title streak) and made the Euroleague playoffs as a 4 seed (19-11 overall) despite taking over after the season started. That is a stark contrast to Barcelona, who finished 11th overall in the Euroleague (12-18 overall), lost in the first round of the ACB playoffs, and is now looking for a new head coach after firing Georgios Bartzokas after one season.

As Barcelona shuffles again for another head coach (and apparently being rejected by Sarunas Jasikevicius, who is apparently staying with Zalgiris), Pascual is once again on the top perch with the best coaches in Europe. Quite a turn of events in less than a year.


panathinaikos-olympiakos-2

I am still new to European basketball, as I have been following European ball on a regular basis for about 2.5 years now. When watching domestic leagues, it is refreshing to see how styles are different from country to country. The ACB is a more wide open style, with a bigger focus on offense and games being called more tightly. The Greek Basket league on the other hand is 80’s Big East Basketball: physical, no-holds barred, and not a lot called (and not just Olympiacos; I watched some AEK, PAOK, and Aris games and they all played the same way). I can appreciate both styles, as diversity in the game is always fun to see from a fan’s perspective.

However, the big difference between Europe and American NBA fans is the “ultra” culture. Though it’s pretty well-known in soccer circles, it does carry over to basketball, especially in Greece. In the last two minutes, with the game obviously going to end in PAO’s favor, the Olympiacos ultras showed their “dissatisfaction” with the result around the two minute mark, as evidenced below.

For a fan that’s used to NBA fanbases, who switch their team allegiance depending on what club LeBron James is on, this was quite the sight. I mean, fireworks, flares, explosions and for a good 20-30 seconds, the players didn’t seem fazed, as if this was just normal for them. Even on Twitter, as I remarked my shock, I was brought back to earth by people quite familiar with the Greek basketball scene:

Yep. I still have a lot to learn about Greek, and perhaps even European, basketball in general.

Overall, even though I imagine this kind of stuff is going to be expected on my end in the Greek League, it shows how different and ugly “ultra” culture can get. Sometimes, as Americans, “ultra” culture can be seen as “wow, these fans are so much better than American ones” or “it’s like a college environment!” And yes, when the focus is on the games, the “ultras” can give off that impression to us “outsiders”. It’s easy to see the positive when you only look at the surface.

However, between this incident, and my viewing of a recent documentary “Forever Pure” which looks at the La Familia “ultra” fan base of Beitar Jerusalem, I definitely have a modified view of “ultra” culture. It’s not just a bunch of fans coming together to be loud and cheer. There’s deep politics to these groups, as “ultra” groups can be vessels for extreme politicians who know they can mobilize people and an agenda better at a sporting event than a rally. And unfortunately, these “ultra” politics sometimes can be racist and hateful. There can be violence. There can be demonstrations of slurs that would make most people in America cringe. I mean, take a look at some of the photos below:

Can you imagine if a scene like that broke out in America? Can you imagine what Adam Silver would do? Hell, could you imagine what senators would come out of the woodwork and claim that as an act of terror? Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock (or even Donald Trump, that ever-opportunistic bastard)  would be spewing conservative nonsense for weeks. This made “Malice in the Palace” look like a middle school lunchtime scuffle.

I’m not referring to all Olympiacos fans as responsible for this incident. I know many Olympiacos fans and they are practical basketball people who don’t get wrapped up in the politics or antics of “ultra” culture (like the people who run Courtside Diaries who are good knowledgeable basketball people and excellent writers not to mention Olympiacos fans). And yet, honestly, my view of Olympiacos and perhaps Greek basketball clubs as a whole has changed because of this. I am not a fan of this shit in any sport, and it’s a big reason why I don’t embrace soccer as much as other people. This is not fandom. What happened was outright dangerous for everyone involved.

I love European basketball, and I do love the Greek game, and will continue to love both going forward. It’s physical, heated on the court and amongst fan bases, and when things are in control, the fan environments can be the best in Europe, maybe the best in the world. But it’s important to understand the depths of “ultra” culture, and it’s not always positive, and it shouldn’t always be duplicated. Even in America we see MLS fans try to “duplicate” this behavior in their own fan sections and stadiums without knowledge of what these “ultras” are really about, which isn’t always about the game, but rather politics.

I am not totally discouraging “ultra” culture. I know it can enhance the game experience. And I know it’s not just a basketball thing, as it is more pronounced in soccer. However, I got a new perspective on European basketball this weekend. There’s a dark side, a reality that isn’t really all that comfortable to witness. I have to admit, I felt uncomfortable watching the last two minutes of that game. I felt something horrendous was going to happen. I felt as if I was watching something from a movie, not a live game.

We shouldn’t feel that way when watching sport, especially basketball.

We should just enjoy the beautiful game. And we shouldn’t expect chaos because the road team won on a hated rivals home court. It shouldn’t be “well…it wasn’t that bad all things considered.”

But it’s going to be that way from now on. I am going to expect shit to go down now in certain matchups from here on out. And that’s sad considering how much I love European basketball.

It’s amazing how one event can scar or desensitize you so easily.

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7 thoughts on “Panathinaikos completes comeback; Olympiacos fans unravel; and the uncomfortable reality of ‘ultra’ culture

  1. Πάτε καλά; June 12, 2017 / 6:25 pm

    Pierre Marie, the ultra culture in Europe does not state with the fans. It also sides with politicians (e.g. Silvio Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy) or billionaires (Agnelli, Moratti). The culture goes beyond European limits; see Leicester and the Thai billionaire family who owns the team or the Arab owners of M. City and Paris St Germain. In Eurasia (and L. America but they are worse), sports are the closest thing you will have to a gladiator’s arena. This ain’t always a good thing but you know, this is Eurasia and L. America. Wars can very well start due to sports (in L.America it DID happen).

    That being said, 20k people were waiting for the team in OAKA:
    http://www.sdna.gr/mpasket/article/338751/xamos-sto-oaka-pano-apo-10000-opadoi-perimenoyn-toys-protathlites

    whereas Gist and Singleton travelled together standing on the TOP of the bus back to OAKA (yep, that’s the very same bus that brought PART of the team from Constantinople)

    That being said,

    here are some videos from the OAKA celebration

    (1/3)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Πάτε καλά; June 12, 2017 / 6:26 pm

      *Does not just stay with simple fans. First line, first comment and I made a typo. Nice start.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Pierre Marie Corbacho June 12, 2017 / 11:26 pm

      Very true. In Latin America we have seen this with soccer (Colombia being a prime example). I like the Gladiator arena analogy. In America, it feels like sports is kind of a diversion, which is why so much money is spent in arenas because people want “more than sports” and not just the sport itself (i.e. food, wifi, entertainment, etc.). That doesn’t seem to be in Europe where it is more of an emphasis on sport, but as you can say that can drive out the worst at times (like against OLY) because fans are so passionate and live and die with their clubs. I think to an extent we do that, but not as much as with European, Eurasian or Latin American sports teams. I personally admire that about sports in other countries, but then again I don’t want to be caught in a war zone at a game either so it’s got it’s positives and negatives like you have mentioned.

      The celebration was awesome. I really felt that this PAO victory meant a lot. OLY really has dominated the Greek basketball scene as of late, and PAO always seemed to come short. After losing game 3, it seemed like it was a done deal that OLY was going to cruise to another title. I’m glad the Athenian fans were able to celebrate when they got back immediately, especially since I imagine for some of the newer players to the Greek scene (like Singleton) that experience was probably eye opening for them. My favorite moment of the game was that some of the players came in rattled from all the fireworks and flares and Calathes was just pumped, didn’t give a shit and was like “We’re the fucking champs!” in the player hall. He played a great series and he deserved it as long as with the other PAO players and staff.

      Like

  2. Πάτε καλά; June 12, 2017 / 6:48 pm

    Let’s move to my favourite part, the worse pests in the modern history of mankind, OSFP fans. Last year, OSFP won TWO games inside OAKA during the finals, with a buzzer beater, celebrating their championship at the last active year of Diamantidis and with V-Span provocating the fans. Not a single nose bled.

    This year: The game 5 never finished, goons all around the court, flares, attack of security employees to 3 journalists (three of them being nursed at the hospital), hooligans interrupting the game and attacking even their moderate fans (ROLFMANO) but NOOO, we are all the same/It’s DPG fault, he posts provocating images from Scarface in the Instagram/ it’s not the poor Angelopoulos brothers’ fault, they have just lost control (because they are teenagers who do not know whom they can trust, no adult multimillionaires with postgraduate studies).

    They are just disgusting those fans and “journalists” who claim the above. These two last years indicate the very difference between PAO and OSFP: WE ARE NOT THE SAME, WE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.

    EVERYBODY KNEW that the game would NEVER END if PAO would be able to secure a victory. EVERYBODY. EVEN ME who I am not living in Greece. But no, they let the goons shout to the referees, the chief goon to ask the fans not to throw flares to PAO fans because the team will get punished (I mean who the heck cares about PAO players), etc. Even the very last two minutes were the proof that this team is rotten to the bone: the ONLY reason players played the last minutes was so that OSFP could avoid the punishment and start from -2 next season.

    Do not go far: just see the Twitter by Euro hoos with Bourousis receiving flares and the reporter commenting “Do not worry, he survived”. Mother!#$ka@#$s.

    Just for the record:
    http://www.sdna.gr/mpasket/basket-league/article/338892/epeisodia

    All videos are from OSFP games: the game NEVER finished when the opponent is better. The last two videos are from VOLLEYBALL against PAOK …

    The mentality is very clear: WE ARE MANY AND WE ARE POOR HENCE WE CAN FU@#CK IT TO THE BONE. Because WE VOTE. Useless rotten creatures, you are the very nightmare of Darwin…

    And NO Pierre Marie, the above is not a farfetched comment; we are talking about people who will vote ANYONE who claims that OSFP is the most important thing in his life. EVEN NAZIs.

    (2/3)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pierre Marie Corbacho June 12, 2017 / 11:35 pm

      I don’t recall last year’s game at OAKA, but again, this blew up Twitter, and I in my 2.5 years of covering European ball could never recall something to this magnitude as of late. Not in Greece. Serbia. Whatever. I will agree with you, the whole game the fans were showing that the kind of ending was near. I remember that scuffle near the PAO basket, with all kinds of security having to come out. From what I recall, nobody got removed. Not a really good standard to set, but from what it sounds like, this kind of is the norm in rowdy places like this.

      To me, I understand the fireworks aspect. I don’t agree with it, nor do I like it, but shit, Fenerbahce pulled them out at the F4 and nobody was hurt. The fact that they were throwing those flares at players to me was crossing the line. I just couldn’t believe the balls to do that. But, as I learned on Twitter, I saw a lot of other videos (mostly of PAOK soccer) of other fans throwing things at players. The only thing we have somewhat close to that is during international play, as Mexican soccer fans will throw stuff on the pitch and utilize all kinds of slurs at players. But, it’s only during the world cup (it may happen in Mexican League soccer, but nobody pays attention to that league outside of Mexico) and even then, it’s pretty tame compared to what we see in sports in Europe.

      Again, I have learned a lot about fan culture while covering European basketball. Fandom is not like basketball fandom (or even sports fandom in general) here. It has its positives and negatives, as fans really are true blue and you don’t see the kind of bandwagon antics as much as in America. But, it’s moments like these that are ridiculous and show how deep these fanbases go beyond just the cheers and banners.

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  3. Πάτε καλά; June 12, 2017 / 7:11 pm

    As for the game:

    Finally, PAO BC started to play AS A TEAM and not as units. Xavi did a lot of good work on that front. OSFP used a short rotation this year due to a smaller budget which led to a roster of lower quality. After 73 games, fatigue appeared and hence, the team had a terrible offensive record. In the very end, OSFP was a mainly defensive team that offensively was based on the playmaking capabilities of a handful of players (Lojo, Hackett, V-Span, Printezis, Green). Lojo was injured (not a surprise, he is very fragile), Hackett was injured too, V-Span and Printezis got tired and therefore, only Green had a significant amount of playmaking abilities to overcome PAO’s good defence. Mantzaris, Birch, Papanikolaou, Papapetrou are honest workers but none of them has the talent to carry its team offensively, these players are just useful tools, not the stars of the show.

    Pascual tried a lot of new things and one of the key schemes was the big 3 play with Gist Singleton and Gabriel in the Forward and Center positions (with Singleton and Gabriel switching positions between defence and offence). Sfairopoulos never saw that coming.

    What next? Firstly, let us see who are the foreign players that will stay for the next season. Rumour has it that Xavi said his priorities are Singleton (nonetheless, his priority is the NBA) and Rivers. James might also stay but this depends a lot on the discussion Xavi will have with him. Mantzaris might sign with PAO (not excited), or even Sloukas (I wholeheartedly welcome this p). A lot of names are heard for the time being. As for OSFP? Probably the majority of American players will leave the club but keep that in mind: Greek players are not happy with Sfairopoulos.

    The fields where to want to see next year PAO being improved are
    I)many “safe” plays that will give easy scoring,
    II)a second big man who can play pick and roll with Calathes, helping to with on the rebound predicament we had this year and
    III) a second guard who will help PAO with his playmaking abilities and by having better FG% than Calathes he would be a safe choice for the last 2 minutes of the game, without lacking greatly in defensive capabilities.
    From this year, I would like to see my team keeping its good defensive behaviour AND its capability to kill any team with its good 3-point shooters.
    But we should wait and see how Xavi will build his team.

    ps. Awful job from the referees during the whole finals seasons. The first foul called on OSFP during the 4th quarter was in the 7th minute. How is it even possible to be following the score and not foul?

    (3/3).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pierre Marie Corbacho June 12, 2017 / 11:47 pm

      Great analysis here. What i saw from PAO in the last four games started to resemble a team. It’s a shame it didn’t come earlier, but since it resulted in a title, I’m sure a lot of PAO fans can say “better late than never.”

      Good call on the Big 3 lineup (Gist, Singleton, Gabriel). I really was more impressed with Gabriel’s performance at the end of the year. In the beginning, I didn’t think he fit in with this PAO team, but he really proved valuable as stretch 4 who could hurt teams from outside. When Gist and Calathes were able to get in the pick and roll, Gabriel and Rivers could hurt teams if Calathes would kick it to either of them. That being said, Gist could also hurt with the alley oop or Calathes would beat them with the drive. PAO really had more weapons this whole series against OLY, and it was good to see them utilize them in the biggest game.

      Yep, Sfair’s short rotations earlier in the year ended up hurting this club as they just seemed gassed, especially Spanoulis and Printezis. Really this team was sunk when they lost Lojo. They missed that consistent three point threat and Mantzaris was never consistent enough to hurt them. I was surprised by the lack of usage of Waters, as he probably could have helped at the end of the year just to save Spanoulis’ legs, but Sfair seems pretty stubborn in his rotations. I’m sure that’s a big issue fans and players have with him, and unfortunately, he doesn’t really have the results to hang his hat on to justify those moves. For a club like OLY, runner up positions aren’t good.

      I like your suggestions. I feel James though is probably going to leave. His stock has really risen, and I could see him leaving for Milano if the right offer comes. I don’t know if he’s a “premier” guard like he thinks he is, but he’s very valuable as he is instant offense for any club he plays for. Singleton will be another interesting move this offseason. I know he’s thinking NBA, but I think those days are past, and he’s just too much a tweener in the NBA to succeed. In Europe though he’s perfect, and if he stays and gets better in Pascual’s system, he could be an All-Euroleague player next year.

      A lot of good thing for PAO, and I know the club and fans will feel a lot better about going into this summer than the last one. That’s a good place to be, especially since it’s expected that OLY, Fener and CSKA will all probably lose key players to the NBA or other A license clubs this off-season.

      Like

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