This Friday night, Maccabi Tel Aviv was supposed to be in Athens to face Panathinaikos in a huge Euroleague match up in the second to last game of the regular season. However, due to the coronavirus all sports around the world have come to a screeching halt including of course the yellow-and-blue’s current campaign that saw them battling for home court advantage just ahead of the playoffs.
Maccabi and Panathinaikos have had years of mutual respect and admiration with each team having won six European championships a piece over the years. But there is only one person who has captured the continental trophy a record five times as a player and once as an executive. And that is Fragiskos Alvertis who is now the club’s general manager.
The Sports Rabbi had the privilege to visit the great Alvertis at his former stomping ground, the OAKA Arena in Athens to look back at his storied career which spanned twenty seasons, all with Panathinaikos.
When one steps foot into the 20,000 seat facility just north of Athens city center, the first thing that can be seen is a huge mural of Alvertis. There is unparalleled joy in his face as he hoists the Euroleague trophy in the same OAKA Arena to the delight of the fans back in 2007. But the 6”9 forward didn’t want to dwell on just that picture, “It’s not only that picture but it’s all of the pictures starting with 1996 and winning the title with Dominique Wilkins going all the way to 2011. They are big memories for us and each picture has its own history for the club. For me, I am still here, living in the same area, hanging around with the same people year by year as we continue to chase the same targets as a club.”
“The picture does show much happiness, that’s for sure but you also don’t see any white hair!,” Alvertis continued. “This was satisfaction and the successful end of the journey that we made that year in our own home arena with thousands of our fans. We played good basketball and made it to the end. It was pure happiness.”
The last time Panathinaikos won the Euroleague was back in 2011 and the goal now is to bring back that joy, “Sometimes things just need time. Every win that we achieved wasn’t easy. We came year in and year out to try and get to a level where everyone knows what to do and what their role was in order to get a picture like that. Don’t forget that things have changed here in Greece over the last decade. The budget isn’t what it used to be, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t chasing our target each season. We are competitive domestically every year but we need something more to get back to the Euroleague Final Four and have the chance to win the championship again.”
The current path saw Rick Pitino as head coach over the past two seasons and he helped set the ship straight as the club will be looking to fill his shoes for next season after the two time NCAA Champion coach went back to the college ranks to take over the reins at Iona, “I believe that we are progressing well but we still need more time and to understand how to play with each other even better. Our fans always make every game special and with a little bit of luck we can do something good.”
Alvertis was born in Athens in 1974 and took up playing basketball at a very early age, “Basketball was the sport I grew up playing in my neighborhood and at school. My friends joined a local team and encouraged me to do the same. I did and I really enjoyed it, plus I was tall so off we went.”
“When I was 13 years old in 1987, the Greek National Team won the European Championship at home and that ended up being huge for all of the kids. Everybody wanted to be like one of the great players and after a few years I was fortunate to be in the same lockerroom as some of my heroes.”
There haven’t been many Greek stars in the NBA, although today Giannis Antetokounmpo is an MVP player for the Milwaukee Bucks, “I believe that this is important for not only Greek kids but for all of the children. He is a terrific example that with hard work anything can happen. He is a very humble and good person that is an example for everybody. If you have some difficult times and you can get to where you are, you earn the respect of everybody.”
But back in the day growing up in Greece, the NBA was revered as a dream and something that was unattainable due to other activities at home, “It was very different back then and we had many obligations in the summer time with the National Teams. We had no time to rest at all. To spend a month in the United States at a training camp would have been very hard. Plus I never had the desire to play in the NBA. But now if I could go back in time for sure I would. Maybe it wasn’t in the DNA of the Greek basketball player, but we for sure had players that could have made it.”
At the start of the 1995/1996 season one of the all time NBA greats actually made the reverse trip from the United States to Greece to join up with Alvertis and help Panathinaikos win their first Euroleague title. That player was the high flying, mega dunking machine and future Hall of Fame forward Dominique Wilkins.
“Dominique Wilkins was one of the players like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird that we saw in those video tapes that people brought back to Greece and then the next morning he was practicing with us. We had some great, great moments at the club, but when Dominique arrived it was evener greater.”
“It took some time for him to adjust on the court. But after a couple of months we realized who he was and who Dominique Wilkins was. He was a very good player and very athletic even though he had achilles surgery, but he led us and helped us take our first championship.”
Alvertis’s second title in 2000 was also the first for Israel’s current National Team coach Oded Katash who played with the Greens for two seasons. After starring with Maccabi Tel Aviv between 1995-1999, Katash moved to Greece due to the NBA lockout after agreeing to join the New York Knicks. However, Katash made the most of his time with his new team and ironically defeated Maccabi in the Final to capture the trophy.
“We knew Oded as a player and not as a person before he arrived at Panathinaikos. We knew he was a fabulous player but his qualities as a person we only found out about once he joined the team. The best memories we had as a team about Oded was what type of person he was. Everybody still loves him and when we see each other now we are very happy. The most important thing in sports is the relationships that are made through the years. When you see someone after three, five or ten years it’s having the same feelings that you used to have.”
“For us, the biggest shock was how the Maccabi fans cheered him and threw him up in the air at the airport after he had beaten their own team. That was the biggest surprise for us. This means that it’s not just our opinion of Oded as a person but everyone’s. He was something special. To get that type of reaction from your own fans after a loss. He was special.”
Alvertis not only won the Euroleague three more times as a player and once in the club’s front office but he was also named one of the 50 Greatest Euroleague Contributors. Add to that 11 Greek League titles, eight Greek Cups, MVP trophies and having his iconic number 4 jersey retired in 2009, the former captain was a standard of consistency.
“It was special to play for the same team for my entire career and now I am trying to help the team get back to those heights. I am very happy as to what I am doing now because I am still part of the team that I grew up in. I am also the director of our academy and I am with kids every day which is something very important and interesting as well. I am still living the pressure and atmosphere of big games that I miss because I can’t play anymore.”
“I was lucky to have played with many great players throughout Europe and from the rest of the world. Like I said earlier, it’s the relationships that are made in sports. Everyone has his time to star and he will one day have to retire, but friendships are forever.”