Life decisions and fate are obviously very profound matters. My outlook is that the ideal thing to do is always give our best to everything we do. After that, whatever our destiny is, will be revealed that way.
It’s important how we interact with each other to always make sure that we do our best in basketball and life. At the end of the day, it’s the only way to move on. Our fate is there.
I am not sure how much I thought about destiny in my life. It’s great when we can seek whatever our gifts are. We must find our way.
Of course, there is failure in doing things that don’t necessarily grow us but it makes us the best we can be. We all have individual gifts, being a basketball player or politician, and doctor or whatever it is.
The main thing is to find your passion, your mission. I ended up finding my gifts for basketball, because a long time ago I hated to play the game! I didn’t think it was for me.
Growing up I decided to trust my skills, my coaches and I began to really enjoy it. When I realized that, I was always trying to be the best I can be.
Perhaps playing in Greece in the early 90’s was something like a destiny for me. Now I truly believe that.
I had a long road back in America, where I gave my best effort. But my basketball destiny was probably the European basketball. My Greek experience was phenomenal! I count it as one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.
Playing for PAOK Thessaloniki was quite a journey for me, even if it wasn’t the first trip of my career in Europe. I started in Italy.
I played for a great team like Tracer Milano and then I moved to Israel, to another powerhouse club, in Maccabi Tel Aviv. Both were great memories, but I really found a new home in PAOK. Me and the team grew in a very positive way. I was a young player in Milan, but when I arrived in Thessaloniki I was more matured and the club was a great fit for me.
I also remember, back then, how Athens fans used to cheer for PAOK and Aris. I guess that happened because the rivalry between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos was not so big and tense those days.
I do recall the supportive reactions for David Ancrum of Iraklis, even in Athens!
I talked to David a few days ago. He is playing basketball every day. He was such a tremendous scorer and competitor and I am not just saying that because he is a friend of mine and I love him.
After graduating from Notre Dame, I had a car accident with my friend and former teammate, David Rivers. David also played in Greece, for Olympiacos and they went to win the European title in 1997.
Our accident, in late August 1986, was a terrible day… I was driving. There was another driver who was intoxicated, who didn’t respect the signs to stop his vehicle and he caused me to swirl. Our car turned over. It turned over two or three times and David was thrown out of the window… He had a ten or 12-inch cut on his stomach.
When I went to talk to him in the field, he seemed normal to me. But it was very dark and when I tried to help him stand up, he told me that he was in a lot of pain.
I pulled up his shirt and I looked, and his body was open up and covered in blood. I couldn’t believe how he was speaking in that condition. He was very calm even when he was starting to lose his breath.
The ambulance arrived, he got some medical assistance and he was able to recover. Because I must admit that I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to play basketball again.
It was a horrific moment and situation.
I remember that people tried to put the blame on us. They said that we were drinking alcohol.
David said, before the negative tests, that it was insulting. Even in the major sports networks in the States, they were reporting in the beginning that they cannot rule out drugs and alcohol.
But that wasn’t true even in that moment, because we had to get blood test and give urine sample before our respective surgeries. I had a plastic surgery in my ankle and David was in the surgery room for six or seven hours and they already knew that we hadn’t used any substance.
We know that sometimes the media prefer the rumors from the truth.
It was very hurtful for me and David Rivers, because neither of us drink, to hear people say that we might have used something.
The other driver came around our car, a lady from a house also came to us and she never made a report that she was there. I did, but they didn’t believe me.
When I saw David injured I couldn’t believe it. He was the one to told me to calm down! He may have said something like “I don’t want to die”. We were fortunate that the ambulance came in five minutes. An accident like this is for sure a life-changing incident. Before that, David Rivers and I were both very grounded and knew who we are as people and not only as ball players.
Both of us are filled with a spiritual life and respect for God and we were blessed we didn’t die that day. When our van turned over, I thought for sure that we were seconds from dying…
You feel completely helpless. Even after the accident happened, both of us were grateful and that gave us deeper appreciation and value for life.
I never thought that the incident had to do anything with me not playing in the States. That was more of a business matter.
I was drafted by the Lakers in the 1986 first round, as a 23rd pick but I got traded to the Atlanta Hawks. We started negotiating but couldn’t come to terms.
I ‘ve been to Europe before and knew the level and the high quality over there. At that moment, none thought I would leave for Europe. They offered me guaranteed contract, but I passed.
It was an easy decision to sign with Tracer Milano back in 1986. I am a matter-of-fact person. I believe on my own talent and my own destiny, and I was always prepared to make choices like that.
When my agent talked to me about the offer from Italy, I said perhaps that market is better and not only for the money but more because of the opportunity to play.
You must play to stay employed. If you don’t spend much time on the court, your value becomes declined and it is difficult to find new chances for your career.
Before my long stop in Europe I was a member of the 1986 NBA Draft. The so-called “Cursed Draft”, with players like Len Bias, Roy Tarpley and Drazen Petrovic that have passed away…
Players like Chris Washburn, William Bedford and others that, due to addictions or injuries, never met their high expectations. But that’s the bad side of that class. The good side was Dennis Rodman, Jeff Hornacek, Otis Smith. Guys that made it even as low picks.
It’s easier to point out the bad side. The interesting thing is that NBA scouts made so many mistakes on character reference.
Roy Tarpley was a tremendous player. Bedford and Washburn were in the same level of talent. But Len Bias, the 2nd pick for the Boston Celtics, who died in a party two days after he got drafted, was the best player.
It looks tragic, but on the other side there were guys who played extremely well in the NBA for years.
I played against Bias in college, Tarpley in the NCAA and in Greece and Drazen in exhibition games in Europe. Those guys were killers! You have good players and you also have exceptional athletes. The three of them were something else.
My favorite quote is for Drazen… They asked him about his nickname, the “son of the devil”. And he said that “if I am the ‘son of the devil’, Nick Galis is the devil himself”! What a high honor!
When we first played against each other, we were both 18 or 19 years old. Notre Dame travelled to Europe for exhibition games and faced the Yugoslavian national team.
I thought, like I did for Len Bias, that this guy is really really good! Drazen, Bias, Tarpley were already in superstar level.
Petrovic was in my college team’s recruiting list. “Digger” Phelps, Notre Dame’s head coach from 1971 to 1991, used to bring Yugoslavian young players to campus in the summer and took us to Yugoslavia for friendly games every four years.
He was very familiar with Drazen since “Petro” was 15 or 16 years old. He wanted him badly. Theoretically it was supposed to be a team with David Rivers, Drazen, me, Donald Royal -who later played for five NBA teams and Maccabi Tel Aviv- and Tim Kempton, who was a member of ten NBA franchises and clubs in Italy, France, Spain and Turkey.
I think it would have been a team that could have won a national college championship.
The level of competition I faced in Europe was a pleasant surprise.
My biggest surprise, though, was my first trip to Thessaloniki, to play against Aris in Palais de Sport. Nick Galis scored 47 points and I was like “oh my God!”. They beat us by 30!
I couldn’t believe it. It was socking, not only for the great players over there but for the enthusiasm from the fans. I couldn’t have had imagined that I would go in a stadium with this kind of atmosphere. It was a great learning experience.
I was already playing in Tracer with the great Bob McAdoo, who I knew. In the Italian league you could find George Gervin, Oscar Schmidt and local players like Walter Magnifico in Pesaro, Roberto Brunamonti from Bologna, my other teammate, Antonello Riva.
In European leagues you could face Arvydas Sabonis, Drazen, Kevin McGee. It was a very high level of basketball and I don’t think people in America really understood that level. I knew it was good, but I hadn’t realized it was so high.
It was such a great experience and the offer from Tracer Milano is a story that I am referring to the book I just wrote and it’s coming in the next weeks.
I am going to let you read my book to see how special Bob McAdoo was. I couldn’t have asked for a better teammate to mentor me. He was 35 years old in Milan, but he had the same passion to win, after MVP awards and scoring titles in the NBA!
I remember talking to Bob about Nick Galis and how good he was. I was aware of that, but when I faced him too, I found out how great and incredible Nick was. And how warm the Aris and generally the Greek crowd was.
This is not a joke. I think that in Palais de Sport there were no female fans! I guess there were seven thousand men smoking cigarettes and “shaking” the stadium! Galis was always a tough opponent and coaches used to “throw” me at him. But I think Oscar Schmidt was the toughest one. I faced him in the Italian league.
He is a guy that touched the ball in every possession and tried to score each time he got the ball. The same thing, of course, was the case with Galis.
It’s difficult to defend against players who have the ability, the talent and the right to shoot every time. Oscar was smart, tall, extremely skilled. I am saying he was the toughest because sometimes I had to play him in the playoffs for three consecutive times and I couldn’t catch a break.
The most difficult to defend in one-on-one situation, though, was Walter Berry. Berry is like a magician. It’s amazing!
I knew that in the 90% of the times he was going left, he had that hesitation move and read the defense so well, and he ended up going right. He had that unorthodox style and shooting mode which made it almost impossible to defend it.
I played Galis, Tony Kukoc, Schmidt, MacAdoo. They are all Hall Of Famers! I tell that to people all the time, not to speak highly of me.
When you must play Tony Kukoc and the next game you have to face McAdoo and the other stars, that’s tough. My coach in Maccabi was telling me the day before the Aris games that “you got to play defense on Galis”. I was like “come on, I don’t want to play Nick again!”.
It was a time that power forwards didn’t use to guard small guys. In my time in Tel Aviv my coach thought I was the best defender, so I had to face Galis.
It was a challenge, but a difficult one. He was gifted but, most importantly, Nick was always mentally tough and ready to play.
The games, the style of play, back in my time, basketball was more physical and tougher. Talking about great players I didn’t include big guys like Vlade Divac or Audie Norris.
There was that Yugoplastika team with Dino Radja, Zoran Savic and Goran Sobin and all those guys. It was an era of tough but also skilled basketball.
There was a great balance between guards and big guys. I played with Doron Jamchi, Bane Prelevic, Mike D’Antoni, Roberto Premier. But all the good teams had special big guys like Dino Meneghin.
The game was physical but very much skilled, like the NBA in the 80’s and 90’s. Today we see more specialized players. The game is more focused in shooting and there isn’t a good balance for inside and outside basketball.
The game is softer… I am not following the European games as much, but in the NBA they try to limit the injuries and the fights…
There were so many game fights in the States and in Europe back then.
My last year in Maccabi, in the 1989-1990 season, I had a knee surgery. I played but not at my highest level.
At the end of the season, I told my agent that I wanted to return to Italy. “Find me a good team there”, were my words, but we didn’t find something interesting.
Then PAOK called and my agent gave me some information, because I knew more about Aris in Greece. He told me about a team with good players, which tried to overtake Aris.
The season had already started and he also told me that if I was interested, I got to sign and play against Aris in three days. It wasn’t an issue because I was familiar with Aris. I arrived on Tuesday or Wednesday in Thessaloniki and on Saturday we played Aris. We lost by one point. It was the time that in A1 the regular season games counted in the playoffs series.
We lost the two regular saeson games by a total of two points and we started the finals 2-0 down. We won the first two postseason games and tied the series to 2-2. In today’s situation, we would have been up 2-0.
In this series I made a mistake in Game 5 and Panagiotis Giannakis made a nine or ten-meter shot to win the match for Aris. It killed me, because we lost the title.
Brad Sellers, who played for Aris and is a good friend of mine, came to me and I didn’t want to shake his hand… “Come on, we are friends for 15 years and you can’t give me your hand, man?”, he asked. That turnover killed me.
Before that final series with Aris, we won the 1991 European Cup with PAOK.
What an extraordinary feeling! I was feeling healthier than in Maccabi. I was stronger, we won and I was happy not only for PAOK, but for Greek basketball too. Because it was the first European title for the country in 23 years.
I remember people celebrating in Thessaloniki and jumping in the sea! I figured out how special moment was that for me and for Greek basketball. I can’t forget the broken trophy after the final. I think Panagiotis Fassoulas broke it, right?
I loved played for that team. We got great chemistry and balance. Fassoulas was a big part of that. He used to make people angry all the time, but he was a great teammate.
I enjoyed playing with him. We built something special and it was a matter of time to be the number one team in Greece.
I knew from my first year in PAOK, after winning the European Cup and just miss taking the Greek league, that we can beat Aris.
We got confidence, we believed it and the timing was perfect. We were very excited going to 1991-1992 season. We thought we had a great chance. During the season, I played a Nintendo videogame with John Korfas and Pete Papachronis. The name of the game was Castlevania.
We used to play it in flights, in the hotels. The strategy of that was to kill a Dracula, to take the castle.
You had to navigate the game. It almost took us the entire season to learn how to do it. Just before the Greek championships, we collapsed the castle!
All the members of the team started saying that “now we are going to collapse Aris’ ‘castle’”! That was really symbolic. It was kind of the same thing for us to beat Aris and win the title, after their A1 reign for so many years.
We were Greek champions and the next step was the European championship. I hear that PAOK fans are still hurt about the 1993 Euroleague Final Four in Athens… I can sense that disappointment. We still feel the same way too.
Sometimes, there are unexpected things in basketball. Maurizio Ragazzi, who was not playing much, came and hit a crucial shot that sucked the energy of the building and of our team.
Benetton Treviso was good, but I still think we were better. We played in Athens and I thought that we had a slight advantage going to the semifinal.
But when you play sports there is always the possibility to lose by a single point. The game came down to that. It was devastating. We had a great team, a great coach in Dusan Ivkovic, but not much of a depth.
After Christos Tsekos got hurt in a car accident, we lost one of our two bench players that provided energy. The other one was Nikos Boudouris.
We were only seven ready to play players, but we were great seven guys! All of us still have pain for losing that title.
Some of the energy of the team was gone after we lost to Benetton and that costed us the Greek title against Olympiacos.
We lost something in Athens that year and we came up “empty” in the Greek finals.
The 1993 Final Four loss was a very challenging moment for all of us. But now I can speak for me.
Losing to Benetton for a shot seems like a “scar”. We faced Olympiacos in the A1 finals. A good team, with Zarko Paspalj, Walter Berry and Dragan Tarlac and a great coach in Giannis Ioannidis, who used to be scary to the referees.
We were trying to find our energy and the home court loss was more like a boxing fight than basketball… A low score game and when you have so high expectations and you lose, it’s hard.
Ultimately, you have to come back. That’s what great teams, coaches and players do. If we have won the Greek league that season, we could have the chance to try again in Euroleague.
I supported the late Dusan Ivkovic’s style of coaching. He was a very strong personality and he expected nothing but the best from each player, even after a defeat. His focus was to regenerate the team and bring us back to play at a high level and be ready and in a fighting spirit. I highly respected “Duda”. He was a tremendous coach and a great person.
I am a friendly person, but also a driven person. Very serious in basketball and with coach Ivkovic we had the same personality.
You have to be able to shut out everybody else, to do your job and fight for your job. We shared that mentality with “Duda”, Prelevic, Cliff Levingston, John Korfas.
The tough part is playing when you are wounded, and we were hurt after the Benetton loss… It was a tough mountain to climb.
I played for some great coaches, I don’t like to rank them, but Dusan Ivkovic is at the top. I knew he trusted me and there were few games that I really felt he did, because he was designing plays for me, when we needed a basket. I felt his trust and confidence in me and I always appreciated that.
One of the funniest moments, I think in ’92, was when we were playing against Aris. It was a close game and he said in a time out that “we will throw the ball to Ken”.
Boudouris passed it to Prelevic and Bane tried a half-court shot! I was like “what happened?”. I was supposed to get the ball. It didn’t matter because we won the game.
I also had confidence in coach Ivkovic and as a player you appreciate a coach who shows you confidence and trusts your game. It makes you a better player and a better person. And Dusan could do that.
I could sense that with him. If he asked me to jump off the stadium, I would do it for him!
I shared many of these memories with my son, Kelsey, who also played in Greece a few of years ago.
When he went to play for Trikala, I advised him not to go there! I told him, “Listen, if you go there, in a small town, it’s going to be very tough against Olympiacos and Panathinaikos”.
But he is fearless. He remembers as a child the atmosphere in a gym, but he is not afraid to play everywhere.
Kelsey also played for AEK Athens and it would have been awesome to play for PAOK too. Not only because of my history in the team, but because he was born in Thessaloniki, in 1991. Now he plays in Argentina.
He likes challenges and he is always ready for the next one.
I share some other memories of mine in my upcoming book. The idea came up mostly for the story of how I played in Italy back in 1986 and won the Euroleague in 1987.
The book is about how I was able to decide to play in Europe even if the NBA offered me a guaranteed contract. I tell people how I prepared myself to make such a choice.
Because most of the American players would not have made that choice. For me, when I decided to do it, I had very little information about Europe and US players going there.
Bob McAdoo was a big piece of my decision, Tracer Milano was a great club and I enjoyed it, as I did in Israel and in Thessaloniki.
Writing the book was fun. I did not want to do it first, but when I started writing down, it was a great experience.
I am looking forward to being published and I will try to bring it to Greece.
Editor: George Adamopoulos
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