“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
For many years, the great duo in the Greek national team that won the 2005 EuroBasket was formed by Vassilis Spanoulis and Dimitris Diamantidis. They also played together for Panathinaikos Athens before Spanoulis would end up with arch-rival Olympiacos Piraeus. Both are symbols for Greek basketball and icons in the sports capital of Athens, but not everyone knows that neither of them is from that city.
Spanoulis started playing in Larissa, a town between Athens and Thessaloniki, while Diamantidis took his first basketball steps at 14 years old in Kastoria, located in the north of the Macedonian region of Greece, prior to signing, five years later, for Iraklis Thessaloniki. The key moment for Diamantidis was the EuroBasket won by Greece in 1987. Funny enough, his idols were not Nikos Galis nor Panagiotis Giannakis, the two big aces of Greek basketball back then. He explained that at the beginning he had no idols, but later he liked Fanis Christodoulou a lot “because he could do many things.”
The home of his parents Maria and Tomas, in Kastoria, was right next to a school that had a basketball court where a young Diamantidis spent days and nights practicing, even in the summer, when he needed to ask for the keys so that he could open the locked doors to get on the court. In 1999-2000 he signed for Iraklis at age 19. His club of origin, Kastoria, would later put his name on its arena. Diamantidis stayed in Iraklis, where he started with humble numbers (1.8 points in only 9 games played), until 2004. Those numbers truly hid the future star: 16 points in 9 games, only 29.4% accuracy on two-point shots, 0-for-3 in triples, and just 6 assists. More than one person said he would be a mediocre player.
After five seasons in Iraklis, he moved left Thessaloniki with vastly different numbers: 14.8 points, 51.9% in two-point shots, 33.3% in threes, 6.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists. He also earned 2003-04 MVP honor in Greece. In the 2004 Mediterranean Games, he made his debut with the national team. Watching at a distance was the Panathinaikos head coach at the time, Zeljko Obradovic, who signed him for the next season.
In an interview with Frank Lawlor for EuroLeague.net in 2011, Diamantidis explained the changes he went through when he joined Panathinaikos:
“When I was young, I watched basketball because I liked it. I didn’t follow any particular players. When you are so young, you cannot understand some elements of the game, how the game is really played. You watch the game and you simply enjoy watching it. I believe that I picked up more elements of my game from my coaches and not from other players. When I first came to Panathinaikos, my coaches showed me that basketball can be played in a different way than the one I knew until then. They showed me that there are other things that can be done and showed me the way to do them. I saw a different kind of basketball, which I liked.”
Obradovic took notice of his defensive skills more than his talents on offense. In his first season with the Greens, Diamantidis improved his percentages (59.3% twos, 35.8% threes), doubled his average in assists, and also performed great invisible jobs not always seen in the statistics.
The best opposing scorers had real nightmares when dealing with Diamantidis, but when the team needed points, his left hand was also a reliable source. His height (1.96 meters) allowed him to play at point or shooting guard, even small forward if the situation required. At 100 kilos, he had a strong body that could take contact. However, his best weapons were his fast hands and his court vision. He collected many steals and he was a sure thing when dribbling the ball. Two seasons after his retirement, he is still the EuroLeague’s historic steals leader with 434 (1.56 per game). His total performance index rating (PIR) of 3,806 stands behind only Juan Carlos Navarro, who had 3,890, although played a lot fewer games. His total assists, 1,255, follows only Spanoulis, who has 1,275 – and counting. Diamantidis was the first player to reach 1,000 assists in the EuroLeague, which happened against Fenerbahce – with Obradovic now on the opposing bench – on October 14, 2014, in front of his home fans in Athens.
However, Diamantidis always had a talent that was invisible to the stats sheets but crucial for Panathinaikos: his leadership. During his 12 years at Panathinaikos, 11 of them with Obradovic on the bench, Diamantidis was always the extension of the coach’s hand on the court, the player who would always have the ball in money time. He had the freedom to choose whether to pass, shoot or penetrate. It’s not easy to count all his titles and accolades with the Greens and the national team, but I will try listing, let’s say, the most important ones:
3 EuroLeague titles: 2007, 2009 and 2011
9 Greek League titles
10 Greek Cup titles
Six-time best EuroLeague defender
EuroLeague MVP in 2011
EuroLeague Final Four MVP in 2007 and 2011
All-EuroLeague First Team: 2007, 2011, 2012, 2013
EuroLeague assists leader: 2011 and 2014
Six-time Greek League MVP
Two-time Greek Cup final MVP
With the Greek national team:
EuroBasket champion in 2005 in Belgrade
Member of the all-tournament team in 2005
2005 EuroBasket assists lead (5.0 per game)
Silver medal, 2006 World Cup in Japan
I remember each of his EuroLeague titles for something. In Athens in 2007, the final between Panathinaikos and CSKA Moscow (93-91) was one of the best games I can remember. Diamantidis, after being discreet in the semis against Baskonia (67-53), shined in the title game with 15 points. In Berlin 2009, his mate Spanoulis was the MVP, but Diamantidis played more minutes and only needed 5 shots for his 10 points (1 of 2 twos, 2 of 3 threes and 2 of 2 free throws), plus he had the highest PIR in his team. In 2011 in Barcelona, he dished 9 assists each in the semis against Montepaschi Siena (79-77) and in the final against Maccabi (78-70). He also added 16 points in the final. He had the huge quality of playing for the team at all times, but also taking over and scoring if that what was needed most.
His personal records in the EuroLeague are 43 minutes against CSKA in 2005, a PIR of 34 against Maccabi in 2012 (in a one-point victory in Game 5 of the playoffs), 26 points against FC Barcelona in 2011 (also in the playoffs), and 11 assists against Milan in 2014. His points average in 278 EuroLeague games is 9.0, but even if numbers can tell a great deal about basketball, with Diamantidis I think that personal opinions are way better. The eyes could see what the stats missed because his real influence was many times not reflected on a scoresheet. One could even say that stats were against him many times, but luckily for us, there are videos of his feats that can show us his class. Of course, after retiring in 2016, he was named a Euroleague Basketball Legend.
I followed Diamantidis all his years in Panathinaikos, but in my memory, there’s a special place for a game he played with Greece. In semifinals against France at that 2005 EuroBasket, his team was losing 64-66 with a few seconds to go, but Greece had the last possession. Everyone among the 19,000 fans at the Stark Arena, home of the Final Four in 2018, knew that the last shot would be for Dimitris Diamantidis. And it was. And he nailed the three for a 67-66 win that would put Greece in the final that it won, 78-62, against Dirk Nowitzki’s Germany.
The next summer, when Greece defeated the United States team with LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup in Japan, Diamantidis had 12 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals. Many thought that was proof that he could play in the NBA. I honestly think that he would have played well there, but he chose to stay in his country and play a leading role always. He wore the national jersey 124 times and scored 760 points. He played in three EuroBaskets (2003, 2005 and 2007), two world championships (2006 and 2010) and two Olympics (2004 and 2008). He was the idol of the Panathinaikos fans, who gave him an original nickname: 3D. They were not wrong, either, as he was a multi-dimensional player. He was also called The Octopus and Spiderman, because of his long arms and sticky hands for steals.
In 2016 he was voted the most popular player in the Greek League. That same year, Panathinaikos retired his jersey number 13 in a spectacular tribute. The tourney named Diamonds are Forever, in his honor, has seen teams like CSKA, Maccabi and Barcelona participate. In the Panathinaikos vs. CSKA game on September 16, 2016, the action stopped 13 seconds before the break to honor Diamantidis
For many people, number 13 means bad luck, but Diamantidis showed that many times luck depends on your hard work, your talent, sacrifice, ambition… He admitted that it was the only free number when he joined Iraklis, but he also said he’s not superstitious. In Kastoria, he had worn number 5.
Diamantidis was a real diamond on the court. In real life, he was almost an anti-star. He was always shy and humble and stayed away from the spotlight. He didn’t like the attention of the media, he hated official appearances because he had to wear a suit and tie, and he didn’t like to deliver speeches. He was, one could say, a very disciplined ascetic who always took care of himself. He hardly drank alcohol, for instance. He was a true example for young people.
When EuroLeague chose the All-Decade Team between 2001 and 2010, it was clear that Diamantidis had to be there. He was joined by Dejan Bodiroga, J.R. Holden, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Trajan Langdon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Theo Papaloukas, Anthony Parker, Ramunas Siskauskas and Nikola Vujcic. All of them are in this book except for Navarro, because he is still playing at this very moment, and the profiles are for retired players only.
Diamantidis was the last of the other nine to retire. He was almost singular as a player who could dominate basketball games literally from any place on the floor and come up with every kind of big play, offensive or defensive, to win them.
Dimitris Diamantidis was truly a diamond, rare and unique.