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EUROLEAGUE > Olympiacos completes inspiring comeback story

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DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

Çetin Cem Yılmaz Çetin Cem Yılmaz cetincem.yilmaz@hdn.com.tr

Olympiacos’ Turkish Airlines Euroleague victory is the perfect comeback story -- both on and off the court. Georgios Printezis made a last-second shot to beat CSKA Moscow 62-61 on May 13, giving Olympiacos Piraeus its first Turkish Airlines Euroleague title in 15 years, in arguably the greatest comeback European basketball has ever seen. 

After leading 53-34 in the third quarter at the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul, CSKA Moscow, the favorite for the title since the start of the competition, seemed well on its way to victory, but the Reds fought back and brought the game to the wire. 

A 14-point run brought Olympiacos back and Coach Dusan Ivkovic’s boys stayed close until the end, taking a chance after former most valuable player Ramunas Siskauskas missed twice from the line with 9.7 seconds remaining. With one point down, point guard Vassilis Spanoulis, an easy choice to use the last shot, passed the ball to Printezis after being double-teamed. Printezis hit the two and capped Olympiacos’ comeback.

The real comeback is not only limited to the Greeks’ dazzling second-half fight, though. Sunday’s victory marked Olympiacos’ return to Europe’s basketball elite, at the end of a season during which it had been written off as a contender. Definitely affected by the financial crisis, the Greek team has been forced to take drastic downsizing measures in the last two years. The payroll has been cut to one-third of the extravagant spending Olympiacos indulged in a few years ago. Gone were the days of luring Josh Childress from the NBA to European basketball with a continental- record contract of $20 million over three years. Playing with a squad of Europe’s most elite players, such as Theodoros Papaloukas, Linas Kleiza, Milos Teodosic or Rasho Nesterovic, was not possible either.

Olympiacos players collect the net after winning the
 title at Euroleague 2012. DAILY NEWS photo,
Emrah GÜREL

This time Olympiacos tried something new. After a dramatic pay-cut, the club kept point guard Vassilis Spanoulis as the only high-profile member of the squad, and gave Ivkovic some good and hardworking players. The start of the season was not promising, especially when Spanoulis was injured. An 87-62 defeat against Anadolu Efes in a friendly tournament in Istanbul was definitely not a good sign. “No one, even Olympiacos fans,” believed they could go all the way, and “the venues were empty,” as Ivkovic recalled during an interview with NTV Spor on Sunday.

However, Olympiacos improved along the way. It suffered four defeats in 10 group games and punched the ticket to the playoffs only after a hard-fought win against Galatasaray Medical Park in the last week of the Top 16. The playoffs were grueling, but they managed to outlast Montepaschi Siena, a wealthier team that the star-studded Olympiacos lost to last year, in five games. 

As the team with the lowest winning record, many people were ready to see Olympiacos as also-rans in the Istanbul Final Four. However, Ivkovic’s team battled hard and knocked Barcelona Regal and CSKA Moscow, this year’s top two teams, out of the competition, and deserved their first continental trophy since 1997. 
On a team that has played many do-or-die games this season, Olympiacos’ players were well accustomed to playing with their backs on the wall. They fare well under pressure, maybe because their coach Ivkovic has taught them how. A day before the final, he reportedly canceled the last training session and took the players to out for a coffee to help them cope with the stress. 

CSKA Moscow, on the other hand, seemed built to win the trophy, and had rarely been challenged this season. CSKA took nearly all of its games by storm and turned the last two quarters into light training sessions all year long. Maybe that was why they could not respond to Olympiacos’ pressure. 

After the game, Ivkovic was asked whether winning the trophy with this unheralded team was in any way sending out a message to the basketball world. A humble and cool Ivkovic said: “I will go to the dressing room now and celebrate with my players. And then the message will be to keep working,” adding: “This victory is not important. It’s how we came to this point that’s important.” 

Ivkovic’s views were shared by Printezis, the game’s hero. “The last basket did not win the game, we won it during the game,” he was quoted as saying on the competition’s website. 

This brilliant team effort has resulted in one of the most memorable victories in the history of European basketball. And the way this club was able to cope with dire circumstances is likely to show the way to other middle-level clubs aspiring to go all the way to the top.

May/14/2012

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