In the history of the Euroleague there have been several great players who, despite brilliant careers, are missing an important title: the European championship. I have already written about a few of them in recent weeks like Dragan Kicanovic and Kresmir Cosic. And I will write about some more in the coming weeks and months. One of them is the legendary Nikos Gallis, one of the biggest figures in European and world basketball in the 1980s. If I had to define Gallis 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 an imaginary selection of players I would surely include Radivoj Korac, Nikola Plecas, Drazen Petrovic, Oscar Schmidt, Drazen Dalipagic, Kicanovic, Manuel Raga, Bob Morse, Juan Antonio San Epifanio and, of course, Nikos Gallis.
Compared to the rest of players in this list, Gallis had a big disadvantage: height. He was only 1.83 meters tall, which in theory is very little, even for point guards. But for most of his career, Gallis got away as 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 fast break or even jump higher than taller opponents. His specialty was the contact shot, with the hand or the whole body of the rival 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 for clean shots.
From the ring to the court
Nikos Gallis was born in New Jersey, USA, on July 27, 1957 as Nikolaos Georgallis. His parents, Georgios and Stela, were Greek emigrants with their roots in 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, Gallis was also boxed, but the constant pressure from his mother led him to switch sports. He tried American football, but he soon turned to basketball and in a short time, as a point guard, he became the best player on his high school team and in 1975 entered Seton Hall University, where coach Bill Rafferty changed his position to shooting guard. The result was mind blowing. In 1978-79, Gallis finished as the third best scorer in the NCAA with an average of 27.5 points per game, behind only Larry Bird (28.6 ppg.) and Lawrence Butler (30.1 ppg.). 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 draft. However, his agents seemed to be more focused on managing singer Diana Ross and Gallis 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, Leas Mat, 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 was Menelaos Hagigeorgiu and he travelled to New Jersey. With his sincere words he convinced Nikos’s parents and after that, Nikos himself. But the deal was for one year only, until the end of the season.
His arrival to Thessaloniki brought about many doubts, especially because of his physical looks. Instead of a shooting guard or a tall forward, a young kid appeared 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 switch on him, but nobody could stop the rain.
His official debut came on December 2, 1979 against Iraklis. Gallis finished the game with 30 points. At the beginning of 1980, a new coach arrived at the Aris bench: Dusan Ivkovic, the Serbian coach who led Partizan to the Yugoslavian League title in 1979. He saw Gallis’s enormous potential on the spot. Gallis soon became the idol of the fans, and not only Aris’s. He finished the season as 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, Gallis made his debut with the Greek national team against Sweden and scored his first 12 points. From then 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 after Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. In the 1983-84 season Aris lost the title in the tiebreaker against Panathinaikos played at the isle of Corfus. New coach Giannis Ioannidis was also becoming an important part of Gallis’s career, but there was still something missing. When the club directors managed to sign Giannakis from Ionikos, and 2.17-meter big man Kokolakis, all the pieces of the puzzle were in place.
Already in the first season, the Gallis/Giannakis duo worked perfectly. Aris won the Greek League with only one loss and Gallis was the best scorer with an average of 34.0 points. They key was that Gallis and Giannakis switched from point to shooting guard as they pleased. It was the birth of one of the best duos ever in European basketball.
Miracle in Piraeus
In 1986-87, a playoff was introduced in the Greek league. Aris won the title again with no defeats and Gallis scored a total of 808 points for an average of 40! In his best year, Gallis earned his crown by leading the Greek national team to the EuroBasket title in 1987 at the Peace and Friendship Stadium in Greece. Gallis was already a well-known and respected player in Europe. In the 1981 EuroBasket, he was named to the all-tournament team, and again in France 1983. He was the top scorer, with 33.3 points per game, at the Spain World Championships of 1986. With his personal best coming against Panama with 53 points, Gallis outscored for the first time Oscar Schmidt in an international competition, thanks to his 33.7 points per game. The victims of Greece and Gallis, until the final were Romania (Gallis, 44 points), Yugoslavia (again, 44), Spain (35), USSR (31), France (34), Italy (38), Yugoslavia again in semis (30). But his big day was on June 17. In front of 17,000 fans, Nikos Gallis 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 only committed 7 fouls throughout the tourney. He was chosen MVP with a vast majority of votes and he was also named best player in Europe through the survey at Italian paper Gazzetta dello Sport. He is still the best scorer in EuroBasket history with a total of 1,032 points. 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. There was a before and an after with that historic game against the USSR. Gallis 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 its numbers of registered basketball players to go from 92,731 in 1987 to 163,000 in 1991!
The first European millionaire
All the European greats wanted to sign Gallis, but he loved his Thessaloniki. He used his genius on 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 mmuch later he became the first European player with a contract over $1,000,000 dollars, apart from many publicity contracts. In Greece he is considered the player to have earned the most money of all time, but nobody can deny that he earned every penny. The fact that over 12 seasons he only lost 6 games and played in 97% of them (including 99 in a row) says everything about his professionalism. He won eight league titles and seven cups. He was top scorer in the Greek League 11 times. He was the best passer four times and was European champ with his national team.
With Aris, Gallis went to three straight Final Fours: Ghent 1988, Munich 1989 and Zaragoza 1990, but Aris always lost in the semis despite his points. At the 1989 EuroBasket, Greece won the silver medal and Gallis finished with an average of 35.6 points for a total of 178. He was also a member of the all-tournament team with Drazen Petrovic, Zarko Paspalj, Vlade Divac and Arvydas Sabonis. He was top scorer in four EuroBaskets, like the legendary Korac. At the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome, Gallis scored his 5,000th points for Greece against Czechoslovakia and FIBA allowed for 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 ppg.) while Giannakis was second with 4,214 points in 272 games.
In the 1991-92 season Gallis lost the scoring throne despite posting 31.0 points per game. Zarko 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 he finally left Thessaloniki and joined Panathinaikos, who used him as an answer for Olympiacos bringing in Paspalj. He 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 lost in the semis against archrival Olympiacos. He finished his career at age 37 after the 1994-95 season with averages of 22.5 points and 3.6 assists. Panathinaikos reached the Zaragoza Final Four, but already without him. His last two games in the European Cup were against Budivelnik, with 16 and 23 points. He officially retired on September 29, 1995.
In September of 2007 he entered the FIBA Hall of Fame and in 2008 he was chosen by the Euroleague among the 35 players to be honored among the 50 Greatest Contributors to basketball for the 50th Anniversary of European competitions. The Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield still waits for him, but he will get in because he deserves it. He was rather closed as a player. Gallis 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 “his” Thessaloniki forever saying that he loves the Greek way of life. After giving up his camp in Halkidiki several years ago, today Gallis has no relation to basketball whatsoever. He doesn’t visit Aris games either. He lives a quiet life. But the ones who were lucky enough to see him play can tell the young ones that, Once Upon a Time there was a super scorer named Nikos Geor(Gallis).
(December 10, 2011)