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.
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.
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.
LAMENTABLE: Lluvia de bengalas y petardos de los aficionados del Olympiacos en la final de la Liga griega de basket. pic.twitter.com/Gv4AQcdqMc
— José Manuel Amorós (@JoseMAmoros) June 11, 2017
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:
by greek sports standards it wasnt anything special..
— S.K. (@ack_fan) June 11, 2017
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:
Madness, pandemonium and insanity. Actually, this is just the norm for a road victory that ends an Olympiacos-Panathinaikos series. pic.twitter.com/izuPrxQrvA
— Andrew Bernucca (@krosoveri) June 11, 2017
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.