In the history of basketball, there are many cases in which the names of two players go hand in hand as if they were one. For instance, Kicanovic and Dalipagic in Partizan, Slavnic and Kicanovic on the Yugoslavia national team of the 1980s, Solozabal and Epi in Barcelona, Marzoratti and Meneghin in Varese, Corbalan and Luyk in Real Madrid and Gyergya and Cosic in Zadar… And one of the most outstanding cases of this phenomenon is, without a doubt, the duo that saw action in the Greek national team and Aris Thessaloniki during the 1980s. A duo formed by Nikos Galis and Panagiotis Giannakis.
Neither of them is from Thessaloniki, but that’s where the most important portion of their careers took place. Galis, who is 18 months older than Giannakis, was there first. The son of Greek emigrants to the United States, he made his debut on December 2, 1979, and finished the season with an incredible average of 33.0 points per game. However, he was not the best scorer in the Greek League that year. That honor belonged to player from the small Athens-based club, Ionikos Nikaias, whose Panagiotis Giannakis finished with a 36.5 average! Giannakis was already a relatively well-known player. I saw him for the first time in Split during the Mediterranean games, where in the final, he led Greece over a solid Yugoslavia team 85-74. That Yugoslavia team had names like Mirza Delibasic, Mihovil Nakic, Rajko Zizic, Andro Knego, Ratko Radovanovic, Ivica Dukan, Misko Maric and Boban Petrovic, but the Greeks were better. Thanks especially to 34 points from the hands of Giannakis.
Curiously enough, Giannakis recorded his best scoring game in the Greek League, 73 points (!), in a game against Aris in 1981. That was just one more reason to sign him. Some years later, Aris managed to get Galis and Giannakis together and that was the birth of one of the most famous duos in the history of European basketball. The dominance of Aris in Greece started right away and led the team to seven straight titles. In Europe, which would have the Final Four from the 1987-88 season as the way to decide the champion, Aris reached the final stage three straight times, but never made it to the title game and finished fourth twice and third once. Defeats in Ghent in 1988 against Milano and Partizan were frustrating. One year later the same thing happened in Munich, where Maccabi was better in the semis despite 25 points by Galis. In the game for third place, Aris beat Barcelona 88-71 with 36 points from Galis and 22 by Giannakis. The third wasn’t a charm either, in Zaragoza in 1990. First, Aris lost to Barcelona and later to Limoges, despite 43 Galis points.
Consolation in Turin
This great duo finished their career together in Aris without any international titles. Galis decided to join Panathinaikos in 1992, but Giannakis stayed with Aris one more year.In that 1992-93 season, he managed to win with Aris the Europe Cup, FIBA’s secondary trophy at the time, by beating Efes Pilsen 50-48. The final was played on March 16 in Turin, Italy, in front of 7,000 fans, most of them Aris and Efes fans. At the time, the diplomatic relationship between Greece and Turkey was not healthy and it’s no surprise that the game turned into one of the biggest, unprecedented scandals in the history of European basketball. There was a battle in the stands, with seats turned into weapons… Four Efes players and even the FIBA delegate wound up in the hospital. In a tense and ugly game, Efes was close to victory, but in the final minutes the experience of Roy Tarpley (19 points, 18 rebounds) and Giannakis himself, despite only 2 points, allowed Aris to take the win.
Galis, meanwhile, was not lucky with Panathinaikos either. He managed to play the 1994 Final Four in Tel Aviv, but in the end he retired without fulfilling his dream of winning the continental crown. Giannakis was a bit luckier. He followed Galis’s footsteps and signed for Panathinaikos in 1994 after a season with Panionios. His first attempt at the Final Four in Zaragoza 1995 ended like the others with Aris, but in the second try, Paris 1996, Giannakis finally managed to lift the Euroleague trophy. In a dramatic and historic game, marked by some serious mistakes by the referees and the officials’ table, Panathinaikos won 67-66. Giannakis, at 37 years old, played 38 minutes and scored 9 points. His dream came true. That same summer he played at the Atlanta Olympics and then retired. Behind him were 351 games with the Greek national team and 5,309 points, which remains the record. In the Greek League he scored 9,291 points, the third best mark of all time.
A miracle in Piraeus
What Galis and Giannakis didn’t manage to do with Aris, they accomplished with the national team at EuroBasket 1987. It was played in the then new Peace and Friendship Stadium in Piraeus. Giannakis played his first EuroBasket in 1979 in Turin and finished with a solid average of 7.8 points. Two years later in Prague, his average was already 10.2 points and in Nantes 1983, he climbed to 15.3. In the Spain World Championships of 1986 he had 17.3 points per game. His most brilliant moment arrived on June 14, 1987, when Greece, in the game known as “The Miracle of Piraeus”, managed to defeat the USSR in overtime 103-101 to claim the European title. Galis played all 45 minutes and scored 40 points, but the game leadership, vision, assists and security that Giannakis gave to his teammates turned him into the other hero of the game. Two years later, in Zagreb, Greece again reached the final, but lost to Yugoslavia. At the World Championships in Argentina 1990, Galis averaged 26.0 points and in the 1993 EuroBasket it was 19.3.
Giannakis was a point guard and by definition he was supposed to be a player that helped the others, but his great scoring abilities turned him into a great scorer. Since Galis could also play point without problems, often they switched positions during a game, causing confusion in the opponent. Giannakis was taller than Galis (1.92 meters), had a good outside shot, good penetration and was also a solid rebounder. But most of all, he was a leader. In decisive moments, his teammates turned to him because his hands were like a safe around the ball, and he could also score. He was a life insurance policy for his teammates and coaches. He was also a sportsman of excellence without a single stain in his résumé. A player loved by all, even by rivals, who respected his professionalism.
The only double Euro champ
Panagiotis Giannakis is the only man in basketball to have been European champion both as a player and coach. Svetislav Pesic did it at the club level with Bosna in 1979 as player and with Barcelona in 2003 as a coach. However, at the international level, only Giannakis has a title as a player (Athens, 1987) and coach (Belgrade, 2005).
After putting an end to his brilliant playing career, he turned to the Greek national team and already at EuroBasket 1997 in Barcelona, he led the team to the semifinals. He did the same one year later at the World Championships in Athens. After that, he coached Panionios and stayed there until 2002. His next stop would be Maroussi, but in 2004 he was back on the national team bench for the Athens Olympics. Greece finished fifth, but the following year, in Belgrade, it won the European title. In 2006, Giannakis led Greece to a victory over Team USA at the World Championships in Japan, but had to settle for silver medals after falling to a great Spain in the final. From 2008 to 2010, he coached Olympiacos and reached the Euroleague Final Four twice. In 2009 the Reds fell to Panathinaikos in the semis in Berlin, and in 2010 Olympiacos fell to Barcelona in the title game in Paris. He also helped the Reds snap a long title drought at home with the 2010 Greek Cup.
In 2008, Giannakis was rightfully selected by Euroleague Basketball among the 50 Greatest Contributors in the first 50 years of the competition. He is Panagiotis Giannakis, the Dragon of Greek basketball.