Basketball History Friday: The 13th Olympian Was Nick Galis

Oct 9, 2014; Lithonia, GA, USA; The NBA logo is shown with basketballs as the Atlanta Hawks conduct an open practice at Miller Grove High School. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 9, 2014; Lithonia, GA, USA; The NBA logo is shown with basketballs as the Atlanta Hawks conduct an open practice at Miller Grove High School. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

In today’s installment of Basketball History Friday, we look back at the best Greek basketball player in history, Nick Galis

You know, there are some athletes that pop in your mind when you name a sport and a country. For example, when someone mentions basketball and Germany in the same sentence, you are bound to hear the words “Dirk Nowitzki” come up next.

Such is the influence these people have had in the specific sport’s development in their country that they became synonymous to it. When it comes to Greece, the name for basketball is Nick (Nikos) Galis.

Nick was born in 1957 at New Jersey and is the son of George and Stella Georgalis, both immigrants from the island of Rhodes in Greece. He took up boxing as a child but eventually basketball won him over. He enrolled at the university of Seton Hall and enjoyed a great 4-year career. Galis was the third best scorer in the nation during his senior year with 27.5 ppg (second one was some guy named Larry Bird).

After graduation, he was hoping to get drafted by the Boston Celtics who had expressed admiration for him via legendary president Red Auerbach. Indeed, he was selected in the fourth round (68th overall), but an injury during training camp and an inexperienced manager led to the Celtics withdrawing their interest.

Maybe it was that lady luck had other plans for him, as his Greek roots made the journey overseas a possibility. He was signed by the Greek team Aris Salonica on September 1979 and the mythical journey began. For over a decade, the team became synonymous to success as the team went from strength to strength. He joined forces with legendary point guard Panayiotis Yannakis and shaped a formidable duo at the backcourt.

The team went on to win nine domestic championships while remaining undefeated for 80 consecutive games at some point.

There is no way to stop Galis when he is determined to score – Arvydas Sabonis

It was the era of Aris. One nation, one sport, one club – everybody in Greece cheered for Aris. Every Thursday night, when Aris used to play for the Euroleague (Champions Cup at the time), the theaters and cinemas all along Greece would shut down because everybody was watching Galis and Co create magic.

Nick led his team to three consecutive Final Fours from 1988 to 1990 but failed to win the trophy. A financial turmoil at Aris management led to Nick Galis leaving the club and signing for Panathinaikos Athens in 1992. He played there for another three years before suddenly retiring in 1994 after a conflict with his coach.

"Nicknamed “the Gangster” for his ruthless play, he could fly high in the air and score drive after drive while his opponents where left stunned. His jump shot was legendary and he was fearless in front of taller and stronger defenders."

Some statistical feats to prove the obvious:

  • 11 times top scorer in Greece
  • 8 times top scorer in the Euroleague
  • All time leading scorer in the Euroleague
  • Member of the FIBA Hall of Fame and one of the 50 best players of all time
  • Scoring records were 63 points in Greece and 57 points in the Euroleague
  • Dished 23 assists in a European Cup game
  • Averaged 31 points per game with the Greek National Team
  • He was the top scorer in every major National Team competition he participated from 1983 to 1991

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As you may have guessed, Nick Galis’s greatest performances came when he was wearing the blue and white jersey of the Greek National Team. Before we continue with the narration, we have to take a glimpse at the country’s situation when Galis arrived, at the early 80’s.

Politically speaking, the small country of 10 million people was six years out of a military regime that suppressed people’s rights and opinions. Sportswise, the country was lost in anonymity. There was some occasional Olympic Games success, a silver or bronze medal now and then in track and field or wrestling but nothing else. In team sports, Greece was a nobody.

The basketball national team was struggling to participate in major tournaments and enjoyed their last medal in the distant 1949 (bronze).

"Nick Galis joined forces in the Greek National Team with three other European legends: the aforementioned Yannakis, center Panayiotis Fasoulas and swingman Fanis Christodoulou ; aka the “Four Musketeers”.  After years of trying to compete but falling short, the time for the Greek team to shine came in 1987."

The European National Championship was held in Greece, so there were no qualifiers for the home team. The favorites for the gold medal were the Soviet Union led by Sarunas Marculionis and the Yugoslavian team that featured Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and Drazen Petrovic among other stars. Nobody expected Greece to make an impact, qualifying from group stage was considered a coup.

But Galis and his teammates thought otherwise. With the crowd providing immense backing, they finished 4th in their group after a memorable win against Yugoslavia 84-78. At the first knockout round Italy was no match and succumbed 90-78.

In the semifinals, the Yugoslavians came looking for revenge but Galis had a game for the ages scoring 30 points against any (and sometimes every) defender they threw at him. Greece was ready to explode. All people were talking about was the upcoming final against Soviet Union. It was time for pride.

Galis was now playing with wings attached to his feet and a whole nation over his shoulders. He scored 40 points in a game that went to overtime, where the Greeks won with two free throws made 4 seconds before the end. Team Greece was in heaven and Nick Galis was Zeus, Neptune, Pluto and the rest of the gods combined.

That medal is still mentioned as the moment that changed greek sports forever, sending thousands of youngsters to the basketball courts.

But the story does not end there. Even though the whole Europe took a bow before Galis, there was a common belief that the Greek achievement was a flare, something that was not to happen again and surely not any time soon. So, two years later in 1989 and the tournament is held at Belgrade, Yugoslavia. This time, the main adversaries are truly stacked with talent. In addition to those who played in 1987, Yugoslavia also had Dino Radja available while Soviet Union would lean on the giant Arvydas Sabonis.

Galis was determined to prove that the team was worthy of glory and provided all the firepower for Greece to overcome his opponents.

The key match here was the semifinal versus the Soviet Union. Greece won 81-80 after Galis’s 45 points and the world was shocked. That little guy, barely 6 inches tall, almost single-handedly beat the mighty Soviet Union again.

The final game versus Yugoslavia was a tough one, as the hosts showcased their super team against the tired Greek team and won cleanly 98-77.

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His contribution to his country can not be overstated. To honor him, both stadiums that  Aris Salonica and the Greek National Team use for their home games are named “Nick Galis”. At the 2004 Olympic Ceremony for the lighting of the torch, Nick was the first runner to enter the field and was greeted with stadium-wide cheers.

Maybe the best way to describe the Galis phenomenon is through the words of his contemporaries and peers.

Here goes:

"Arvydas Sabonis : “There is no way to stop Galis when he is determined to score”Bob McAdoo : “I’ve seen Galis do stuff that the Lakers or Celtics would find impossible to reproduce”.Woychik Krygowski (opposing coach) : “I showed my players how to mark the rest of Ari’s lineup. For Galis we’ll just say a prayer.”Michael Jordan : “I never thought I’d find such a great offensive player in Europe, let alone Greece.”Drazen Petrovic (1) : ” You call me the son of the devil, but he is the devil himself”.Drazen Petrovic (2) : ” I want to play alongside him. I will just pass him the ball and he will score.”"