Thessaloniki basketball hits all-time low

The numerous fans of basketball in Greece’s second-largest city will be forced to watch the rest of the A1 league playoffs on television, along with next season’s top European club competition, the Euroleague, as Thessaloniki’s game suffers a major decline. Aris’s loss to Maroussi in the league quarterfinals last Thursday meant an all-Athens top four of Panathinaikos, Olympiakos, Panionios and Maroussi, three of whom will represent Greece in the Euroleague next year. There are also a further three Athens sides in the 14-team A1 division. In contrast, Thessaloniki has been left with just two teams in the top flight at the moment, and only just, as historic PAOK, northern Greece’s most popular club, escaped relegation to the A2 division in the last round of games thanks to a favorable head-to-head record with the teams with which it finished level in the table. Another historic and popular Thessaloniki club, Iraklis, was demoted to the A2 two years ago and has been languishing midtable in the Greek second division since then. Yet it was not always like this. It was a Thessaloniki club, HANTH (or Thessaloniki’s young men’s Christian association) which was the first to introduce basketball to Greece, early in the 20th century. Athens teams such as Panellinios, Panathinaikos and AEK may have built excellent sides from the 1950s to the 1970s, but it was Aris which captured Greece’s imagination with their total domestic domination in the 1980s and early 1990s, while being a regular member of Europe’s elite. Aris’s local derbies with PAOK were always the deciders of domestic titles and it was on the players of these two teams that Greece mostly relied to win its first European Championship in 1987. Thessaloniki was the capital of Greek basketball and names such as Nick Galis, Panayiotis Giannakis, Panayiotis Fassoulas and Nikos Philippou were regularly heard in households across Greece as the country took to the sport with passion after the European trophy. As teams rely increasingly on foreign imports, northern Greek talent is often squeezed out of the Thessaloniki teams. This season’s Aris is a typical example, often playing games without a single Greek in their starting five. Where there is some talent, though, there are financial problems. Thessaloniki still has a chance of fielding a third team in the A1 next season as A2 club Panorama is close to promotion. However the little-known club, named after the city suburb in which it is based, has had such serious financial problems that its players went on strike this year. As basketball shifts southward, with central Greece accounting for three teams in the top division for the first time next season, Thessaloniki must work harder so that the good old days return and it can regain the reins of basketball in the way it has recently been dominating volleyball.