Last week I talked about the great comeback of Union Olimpija against Alsace of France when in the 1962-63 season the Slovenian team rallied from 19 points behind in a two-game all-points series to win at home 128-94. Twenty-five years later, in the 1986-87 season, an even bigger comeback occurred, which still stands as a record. Olimpia Milano – that year called Tracer, among several sponsor names over the years including Simenthal, Philips, Stefanel or currently Armani Jeans – came back from 31 points behind to win. Tracer Milano was then coached by Dan Peterson, who returned to the Milano club this season after 23 years away. Although they would win the European crown at the end of that season, the team’s start fell just short of disaster. In that season’s firs round of two-game total-points series, the Italian champ tied against modest Murray BC Edinburgh, the UK representative, 83-83. In Milan there were no problems and Tracer won their second game 101-83 and advanced to the next round, to meet mighty Aris Thessaloniki. In their first game, played on October 30, 1986, Aris won by 31 points, 98-67. Led by a fantastic Nikos Galis, who scored 44 himself, Aris was already leading 60-34 at halftime. The Italians had played an awful game and when they finished down by 31, nobody in Italy expected a miracle. But Thursday, November 6 of 1986, was a day on which history was to be written.
Aris was still a team in the works. As a matter of fact, it would play three straight Final Fours a few years later. Next to Galis was future legend Panagiotis Giannakis; American Brian Jackson, who was a really good player; and Yugoslavian scoring ace Slobodan Subotic, who was a holder of Greek passport. Nikos Filipou and Vassilis Lipiridis would later become members of the Greek national team too, but on paper, the stronger team was Tracer Milano. The Italian champs boasted a pair of Americans in Bob McAdoo and Ken Barlow; Mike D’Antoni, who played as an Italian thanks to his origins; Dino Meneghin was still one of the toughest centers in Europe; Roberto Premier also played with the Italian national team; Vittorio Gallinari, Fausto Bargna and Franco Boselli all played a lot and well, while youngsters Riccardo Pittis and Mario Governa didn’t play as much, but completed a super-team.
From minus 31 to plus 34
The basic plan of Dan Peterson was stopping the duo of Galis and Giannakis. Premier was in charge of guarding the former and D’Antoni would take care of the latter. They did pretty well. At the break, Tracer was winning by 14, 44-30, still far away from the miracle, but little by little, the deficit was vanishing. A 1-3-1 zone defense was a big problem for Aris’s offense. Galis finished the game with only 16 points, including a rare 0 of 4 from behind the arc, very far from his usual numbers at the time. Giannakis scored 1 point less (4 of 12 threes) and the rest of the Aris players didn’t even reach the 10-point mark. On the other side, despite a poor shooting night by McAdoo (4 of 14), one of the best Americans to ever play in Europe, the rest of the points were shared by all: Premier 20, Meneghin 12, Barlow 12, McAdoo 12, D’Antoni 9, Boselli 9, Bargna 8 and Gallinari 1. D’Antoni scored 3 of the 10 threes he attempted, Premier had 2 of 8 and Boselli had 3 of 4. The game entered the last minute with Milano leading by 32. Lipiridis fouled on Premier, who scored 2 free throws and sealed his team’s qualification for the next round. Tracer had won by 34 points, 83-49!
Dan Peterson sent me the following text this week in an e-mail, in which he talked about that historic game:
“I have never coached another game like it. I was not at all certain we could overcome 31 points. So, before the game, I told the team this: ‘I want to win this game… even by just 1 single point.’ That was because I wanted to win for our fans, press, TV, families, club, owner, sponsor, etc. But also because I wanted them to just play 40 minutes of basketball, not count the points. I then said, ‘But, if you are going to try to recover the -31, then don’t be in a rush. Be calm. Just try to recover 1 point every minute. If you do that, you’ll win by 40. So, don’t try to do it all at once.”
Even though 25 years have passed since that game, Peterson remembers many details and admits that never in his career has he experienced anything like that.
“I was in shock”
“We had only recovered 14 of the 31 points at halftime. And we were not playing well. It was November. McAdoo and Barlow were not in shape. I always started practice in late August, so as to be ready for the playoffs. We had to play the ‘Game of the Year’ early in this case. McAdoo told me it was the only game of his career in which he did not think about scoring points. He said, ‘All I thought about was playing defense, blocking shots and getting rebounds.’ He also told me the return game was, by far, the most intense game of his career. When it was over, I was in shock. I could hardly get up off the bench. It was, no question, the most emotional game I ever coached.”
The coach of the Greek team, Giannis Ioannidis, was not happy with the refereeing of Jahoda (Czechoslovakia) and Grbac (Yugoslavia). Even his comments to the Greek press, he talked about being suspicious about the physical state of his players saying that “it is not normal that only Brian Jackson played at his usual level,” but there was no formal protests. That night, the future European champ was born. In the mini-league of six teams, Tracer would end up with 7 wins and 3 losses, ahead of Maccabi Tel Aviv, who had the same record but worse point differential, by 3 points, in their head-to-head duels. Both teams squared off in the final played on April 2, 1987 in Lausanne in front of 10,500 fans. After 40 minutes full of drama and close scores, Tracer won 71-69 and repeated the title 21 years after Bill Bradley had led Simenthal to the title. Maccabi had the chance to win as it had the last ball in its hands, but Hen Lippin organized the last offense badly and handed the ball to Doron Jamchy too late. He shot from eight meters and the ball never touched the rim. Premier scored 23 points, McAdoo 21 points and 9 boards and Barlow added 18. But this story would never have been told if Tracer had not first performed a miracle against Aris on November 6, 1986.