Vasilis Spanoulis: A natural-born leader!
Back when I was in my mid to late high school years, I followed the team passionately. Like one of those crazy fans you might see at the left-hand side of the stands of the 'Karaiskakis' stadium who are on their feet for over 90 minutes, chanting songs and booing the opponents as loudly as they can. For days after the game, my voice would be blocked from yelling so much. Not much room for objectivity, it was all about Olympiacos. That's the type of fan I was.
With every given opportunity, I would attend the games, either in football or basketball. But, to be honest, back in those days (late 90's-early 00's), there was a bit of a 'status quo' in the two most popular sports in the country. Almost everyone knew that football belonged to Olympiacos (although Panathinaikos did have their fair share of success in Europe), while the 'greens' owned the basketball. And it was incredibly difficult for one to rival the other in either sport, but for some reason, it was all fans wanted to see: for one team to secure both trophies in both sports for at least a single season.
Football seasons would usually end pretty early since there were no playoffs back then, and more often than not the 'erythrolefki' would claim the championship title with a huge point advantage. That pretty much erased any sense of drama in the competition. But basketball? Well, that was a different story.
Although Panathinaikos would usually take first place in the regular season, there was always a glimmer of hope in the finals series that somehow Olympiacos would be able to pull off one or two wins at the Olympic Stadium and claim the trophy for themselves.
But the difference was simply too great. During those days, the Panathinaikos team had the greatest players all across Europe such as Ramunas Siskauskas, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Dejan Bodiroga, Oded Katash, Mike Batiste, and Dimitris Diamantidis, all lead by the mastermind Zeljko Obradovic.
Also among them was a player who, while quite skillful, didn't appear to be all that thrilled with his role. In my many times attending the Olympiacos-Panathinaikos finals at the Peace and Friendship stadium (Irinis Kai Filias) -some of which never actually ended- my friend and I would discuss that he seemed rather cold and distant, even when scoring his usual three-pointer shots. That man was Vasilis Spanoulis.
Despite the many millions that were thrown around by both former club chairman Sorkatis Kokkalis and his successors, the Aggelopoulos brothers, being crowned Greek champions simply seemed like an unattainable dream for Olympiacos as the 'greens' kept soaring to greater heights, claiming trophy after trophy and eventually being crowned European champions for the sixth time in their history. Being a hardcore Olympiacos supporter, I can tell you this was truly frustrating.
But then, in 2010, something changed. The club owners decided to take an all around different approach and create a team based on young talent that would only require a few experienced players to serve as guides inside the court. One of those players was Spanoulis himself.
Tired of constantly being placed in the shadow of Dimitris Diamantidis and determined to prove what he's worth, the point-guard from Larissa decided to make the controversial switch. Naturally the Panathinaikos fans did not take his 'betrayal' so lightly and made sure to express their emotions at his every visit to the Olympic Stadium.
This new team created by legendary coach Dusan Ivkovic only had three or four experienced players. The rest were from academies or lower divisions. But their talent was able to shine so brightly that it took them all the way to the top of Europe -for two consecutive seasons! The key to this success is that everyone understood their role inside the team and their responsibilities. And Spanoulis had the biggest role inside the court.
But it was as if Spanoulis thrived in this new challenge. He enjoyed it. He was right at home being the leader at his new team and not only did he never hide from his responsibility, he took it head on. He would always be the one the ball would go to when the Olympiacos team needed to unlock an organized defense. He would always find the ideal pass to a teammate when it mattered the most. He never shied away from taking a shot that other players might be too anxious to even think about. He was the player that could take the load off his young teammates' shoulders and show them the way to victory.
Rarely had Olympiacos fans felt such confidence from a player holding onto the ball. But Spanoulis was such a natural born leader and he felt the support from everyone at the club - be it the fans, his teammates, his coach, or even the club owners themselves- that he was always able to bring his best in every game and reward their faith in him.
It's not by chance that Spanoulis was able to score so many crucial three-pointers, such as the ones back-to-back against Real Madrid in the final of London in 2012, or the one against Panathinaikos at the Olympic Stadium in front of Diamantidis that gave Olympiacos a championship trophy or provide the assist to Printezis in the 2012 Euroleague final that gave the team their second title after 1997. None of the many things that Spanoulis was able to do in his career with the red-and-white jersey was by chance.
He was already a good player at Marousi. He became even better at Panathinaikos, the Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs. But at Olympiacos, he thrived. He was allowed to play his own basketball, by his own rules. He became a leader. Something he was always destined to do. Under his guidance, Olympiacos found their way back to the top of Europe. It remains doubtful how and when they'll ever be able to do so now that he's gone.
Things aren't the same in the European basketball landscape after the departure of such a legend. It seems a little poorer. But, if anything, he has earned his time to rest and spend some time with his wife and six (!) kids while he watches on to see what the next generation of basketball players are like. After all, it was his skills that inspired both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic to play the game and not many can say that!
Thank you for everything Vasili!