By George Georgakopoulos
In a night of high emotions at the Olympic Sports Hall of Athens, Panathinaikos welcomed back its coach for 13 years, Zeljko Obradovic, honored him and then beat his team, Fenerbahce Ulker by nine points to edge closer to a spot in the last eight of the Euroleague.
The Greens won 76-67 on the night to cover the deficit of their five-point loss in Istanbul a few weeks ago, but the result pales in comparison to the amazing reception Panathinaikos and its fans reserved for the Serb coach who led the team to five Euroleague triumphs from 1999 to 2012.
Over 20,000 Panathinaikos supporters gave Obradovic a standing ovation when he stepped onto the court and chanted his name continuously for about five minutes. A massive green banner ran along the height of the stands reading “The King is Back”, in English.
At half-time Panathinaikos honored Obradovic by offering him a specially made frame with an artwork of photos reminding him of some of his glorious moments on the Greens’ bench, amid non-stop clapping by the fans.
The Serb wiped a tear from his eye, took the microphone and told the fans in Greek: “You understand how difficult this is for me. I love you all very, very, very much”, in what was the first time he had ever spoken publicly in Greek. The public responded with a chant asking Panathinaikos president Dimitris Giannakopoulos to reinstate the Serb at the team’s bench.
The match was nowhere near as pleasant for Obradovic, as he saw his disciple, Fragiskos Alvertis coach Panathinaikos to a precious home win, that belongs to a large part to Mike Bramos.
The Greek-American shooting guard scored seven three-pointers and 23 points in total to lead Panathinaikos to its sixth win in 11 games at this group stage, one more than Fenerbahce.
After a strong start to the game for the Turks, who advanced 14-6, Panathinaikos recovered and led 41-37 at half-time before stretching its advantage to 15 points in the second half (66-51) thanks not only to Bramos but also to two of Obradovic’s favorite players when he coached the Greens: Dimitris Diamantidis and Antonis Fotsis.
Fenerbahce’s effort for a comeback (68-62) was cut short, with the host obtaining also the margin of victory they desired, although the game will hardly be remembered for its result: Obradovic's homecoming may have actually created the prospect of the Serb’s return to the Greens’ bench in the future.
One day before the game, Giannakopoulos issued a public request for Obradovic to return to Panathinaikos ”so that we break the record number of Euroleague wins that Real Madrid has”. Panathinaikos has got six European crowns, compared with Real Madrid’s eight.
Asked about the possibility of a return to the Greens, Obradovic did not rule it out for the future, but said that he is bound with a contract at Fenerbahce until the summer of 2015 and he will respect it.
Then on Thursday a reporter asked Giannakopoulos whether Obradovic could return to Athens, and the Panathinaikos president answered “we’ll see”.
When Obradovic left Panathinaikos just under two years ago, he attributed his departure to an issue of “respect”. On Thursday night he must have felt he got at least some of the respect he deserves.