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The bittersweet world of Greek basketball in ’03

For Greek basketball fans, the year just gone left bittersweet feelings behind. Despite never hitting full stride at any stage of the tournament, the men’s national basketball team ended fifth at the European Championships in Sweden last summer. At club-level competition, Aris provided joy by clinching the FIBA Champions Cup, while the absence of a Greek club from the Euroleague’s Final Four competition took away from some of the country’s prominence built up by Greek clubs over the years. Last year could be summed up as one of pre-Olympics appraisal of the state of Greek basketball. The results are neither discouraging nor particularly encouraging. The national team’s fifth place in Sweden last summer drastically improved its standings in European basketball. However, a victory over Italy, which deprived Greece of a semifinal berth, would have made a world of a difference to the team’s morale ahead of the Athens Olympics this August. A top-four placing at the European Championships would have reinstated Greece among European basketball’s elite, after a six-year period in the doldrums. A semifinal berth may have even led to a medal, which would have trumpeted Greece’s return to the top contenders. Even though distinction at the Athens Olympics ranks as Greece’s primary objective at this stage, Eurobasket 2003 served as a first-class opportunity for the team to regain lost confidence. Greece’s shock defeat against underdog Italy will, no doubt, provide a valuable lesson to this young and talented side ahead of the Olympics. Even so, fifth place was a vast improvement on more recent efforts. Greece had ended a disappointing ninth at the previous Europeans in 2001 and was among the bottom-placed sides (13th to 16th) two years before that. It had won the tournament in 1987 and ended second in 1989 before performing steadily throughout most of the previous decade. Greece’s under-19 team, which narrowly missed out on a world title in 2003, settled for silver, at the World Championships held locally in Thessaloniki. Greece had won a world title at under-19 level back in 1995, also in Greece, in Athens. The women’s team, competing in the European Championships finals for the second time, ended ninth in 2003. Aris did not miss out on the opportunity to add another European title to its collection. The Greek club triumphed in the Champions Cup final played in its hometown Thessaloniki. Panathinaikos, a dominant side in Europe and at home in recent seasons with European titles in 2000 and 2002, as well as a string of domestic league titles since 1998, failed to reach the Euroleague’s Final Four competition, held in Barcelona, as did Olympiakos, also a European title holder, and AEK. In domestic competition, Panathinaikos returned to the throne after being deprived of it by AEK for a season. Besides the lower standard of play in last season’s domestic competition, another major concern is the growing number of players testing positive for banned performance-enhancing substances.