“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!
Nikos Galis – A scoring machine
In the history of European club competitions, there have been several great players who, despite brilliant careers, are missing an important title: the EuroLeague. One of them is the legendary Nikos Galis, one of the biggest figures in European and world basketball of the 1980s. If I had to define Galis in a few words, it would be easy: a scoring machine. I have seen many great scorers, and it is hard to choose one of them as “The Best”. However, in any quick selection of the greatest that I have seen, I would surely include Radivoj Korac, Nikola Plecas, Drazen Petrovic, Oscar Schmidt, Drazen Dalipagic, Dragan Kicanovic, Manuel Raga, Bob Morse, Juan Antonio San Epifanio and, of course, Nikos Galis.
Compared to the rest of players on this list, Galis had a big disadvantage: his height. He was only 1.83 meters tall, which in theory is very short, even for point guards. But for most of his career, Galis was an unstoppable shooting guard! It was unbelievably easy for him to score and he could do it in every imaginable way. He could shoot from mid-range or behind the arc. He could penetrate, run the fastbreak or even jump higher than taller opponents. His specialty was shooting with contact, with the hand or the whole body of a defender on his right wrist. He was almost always shorter than his defenders, but he was also always stronger and better prepared physically. He could play 40 minutes with no problems and could jump high enough to always launch clean shots.
From the ring to the court
Nikos Galis was born in New Jersey, USA, on July 27, 1957, as Nikolaos Georgallis. His parents, Georgios and Stela, were Greek emigrants with roots on the island of Rhodes. Nikos’s father was an amateur boxer. He thought that boxing was ideal for his short, strong son. Until age 15, Galis also boxed, but constant pressure from his mother led him to switch sports. He tried American football, but he soon turned to basketball, and in no time became the best player on his high school team, as a point guard. In 1975, he entered Seton Hall University, where coach Bill Raftery changed his position to shooting guard. The results were mind-blowing. In the 1978-79 season, Galis finished as the third best scorer in the NCAA with an average of 27.5 points per game, behind only Larry Bird (28.6) and Lawrence Butler (30.1). His scoring average over four years of college was 20.3 points. In April 1979, he played in the college basketball all-star game in Hawaii and everything pointed towards a great future in the NBA. However, his agents seemed to be more focused on managing singer Diana Ross and Galis slipped to the fourth round, where he was selected by the Boston Celtics. He had to go through the summer camps and fight with several other players for one or two free spots on the team. An injury kept him sidelined, and when he returned, the Celtics’ roster was already closed, so coach Bill Fitch wished him better luck for the following year.
It’s difficult to know whether Boston, with this decision, lost a great player. But there is no doubt that European basketball, especially Greek basketball, got the better side of the deal. A neighbor in New Jersey who was also of Greek origin tried to convince Nikos to go to Greece to play for Panathinaikos. But Nikos didn’t want to go far from home and also refused an offer from Olympiacos. The clubs only offered him long contracts and he wanted a one-year deal so the next summer he could try for the NBA again. The third club that tried to sign Nikos Georgallis was Aris Thessaloniki. The president of the club, Menelaos Hagigeorgiu, traveled to New Jersey, and with his sincere words he convinced Nikos’s parents and, after them, Nikos himself. But the deal was for one year only, until the end of the season.
His arrival in Thessaloniki brought about many doubts, especially because of his physical stature. Instead of a shooting guard or a tall forward, here was a young kid whose body didn’t promise especially good things. He spoke Greek poorly and could not express himself well or understand what was wanted from him. But from the first practice, and later when the games started, the “little American” shut everyone’s mouths. He scored with unbelievable ease. Defenses would do everything against him, but nobody could stop the rain of points.
His official debut came on December 2, 1979, against Iraklis. Galis finished the game with 30 points. At the beginning of 1980, a new coach arrived to the Aris bench: Dusan Ivkovic, the Serbian coach who had led Partizan to the Yugoslav League title in 1979. He saw Galis’s enormous potential on the spot. Galis soon became the idol of the fans – and not only Aris’s. He finished the season as the third-best scorer in the league, averaging 33.0 points. But there was a player who scored more than him, Panagiotis Giannakis of the small Athens club, Ionikos, with 36.5.
Already in 1980, Galis made his debut with the Greek national team against Sweden and scored his first 12 points. From then on, he enjoyed life in Greece and decided to forget about the NBA and signed again with Aris. He finished the next season with an average of 43.9 points (!) and, against Ionikos, set a Greek League record with 63 points. However, Aris finished third behind Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in the standings. In the 1983-84 season, Aris lost the title in a tiebreaker against Panathinaikos played on the island of Corfu. New coach Giannis Ioannidis was also becoming an important part of Galis’s career, but there was still something missing. When the club directors managed to sign Giannakis from Ionikos, and 2.17-meter big man Dimitris Kokolakis, all the pieces of the puzzle were in place.
In their first season, the Galis-Giannakis duo worked perfectly. Aris won the Greek League with only one defeat and Galis was the best scorer with an average of 34.0 points. They key was that Galis and Giannakis switched between point guard and shooting guard as they pleased. It was the birth of one of the best duos ever in European basketball.
Miracle in Piraeus
For the 1986-87 season, a playoff was introduced in the Greek League. Aris won the title again – this time with no losses – and Galis scored a total of 808 points for an average of 40! To top it off, Galis then led the Greek national team to the EuroBasket title in 1987 at Peace and Friendship Stadium in Athens.
Galis was already a well-known and respected player in Europe. At EuroBasket in both 1981 and 1983, he had been named to the all-tournament teams. He also had been the top scorer at the 1986 World Cup in Spain, with 33.3 points per game. There, with his personal best of 53 points against Panama, Galis for the first time outscored Oscar Schmidt in an international competition, averaging 33.7 points.
Now, playing at home in the 1987 EuroBasket, the victims of Greece and Galis before the final were Romania (Galis, 44 points), Yugoslavia (44), Spain (35), USSR (31), France (34), Italy (38) and Yugoslavia, again, in the semis (30). But his big day was on June 17, 1987. In front of 17,000 fans, Nikos Galis scored 40 points against the USSR and, thanks to him, Greece claimed the title in overtime, 103-101. His average was 37.8 points. He committed just 7 fouls throughout the tourney. He was chosen MVP of the tournament and was also named the best player in Europe through a survey in the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. Galis was for a long time the only 1,000-point scorer in EuroBasket history and his career average of 31.2 points is by far the best ever in that tournament. He also owns the highest career scoring average in the World Cup, with 33.7 points over his 10 games played in that event.
He was a great scorer, but also a generous player. In FIBA competitions, his 23 assists in a Saporta Cup game in 1990 are still the record. But that historic game against the USSR marked a before and after in Greek basketball. Galis became the most popular sportsman ever in Greece. He was an idol, a sports icon and a symbol of national pride. Thanks to him, the Greek Federation saw the number of registered basketball players go from 92,731 in 1987 to 163,000 in 1991!
The first European millionaire
All the European greats wanted to sign Galis, but he loved Thessaloniki. He used his genius on the court and his popularity to make a lot of money. Prior to the 1987 EuroBasket, he played for $150,000 a year. After that, he improved his salary to $700,000, and not much later Galis became the first European player with a contract higher than $1 million, apart from his many publicity contracts. In Greece, he was considered to be the player who earned the most money until then, but nobody could deny that he earned every penny. The fact that over 12 seasons he only lost 6 games and appeared in 97% of them (including 99 in a row) says everything about his professionalism. He won eight Greek League titles and seven Greek Cups. He was top scorer in the Greek League 11 times. He was the best passer four times and was European champion with his national team.
With Aris, Galis went to three straight Final Fours: Ghent 1988, Munich 1989 and Zaragoza 1990. But despite his points, Aris always lost in the semis. At the 1989 EuroBasket, Greece won the silver medal and Galis finished with an average of 35.6 points. He was also a member of the all-tournament team with Drazen Petrovic, Zarko Paspalj, Vlade Divac and Arvydas Sabonis. Galis, like the legendary Korac, was the top scorer in four EuroBaskets. At the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome, Galis scored his 5,000th point for Greece against Czechoslovakia and FIBA allowed the game to be stopped so everybody could pay tribute to the legendary scorer. His international career ended with 167 games and 5,130 points (30.5 per game).
In the 1991-92 season, Galis lost the scoring throne despite posting 31.0 points per game. Paspalj, the new Olympiacos star, beat him. For the first time since 1985, Aris did not win the Greek title and was third behind PAOK and Olympiacos. His golden years at Aris were coming to an end. For the 1992-93 season, Galis finally left Thessaloniki and joined Panathinaikos, who used him as the answer to Olympiacos bringing in Paspalj. Galis finished with 23.6 points and 6.7 assists in the league as the Greens won the cup. The following year, he improved his numbers to 24.1 points and reached his fourth Final Four in Tel Aviv, but Panathinaikos lost in the semis against arch-rival Olympiacos. Galis finished his career at age 37 during a 1994-95 season in which he posted averages of 22.5 points and 3.6 assists. Already without Galis, Panathinaikos reached the Final Four in Zaragoza but lost again to Olympiacos in the semis. His last two games in the EuroLeague were against Budivelnik, with 16 and 23 points.
In September of 2007, Galis entered the FIBA Hall of Fame, and in 2008 he was chosen by Euroleague Basketball as one of 35 players to be honored among the 50 Greatest Contributors of the first 50 years of European club competitions. The Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield opened its doors to Galis in 2017.
As a player, Galis didn’t speak much and he tried to avoid journalists. He was a tough negotiator, but he was a scoring machine on the court. He stayed in Thessaloniki after his playing days, saying that he loves the Greek way of life. Those of us who were lucky enough to see him play can tell the young ones that once upon a time there was a super scorer like few, if any, named Nikos Galis.