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1996: A great milestone year

The year 1996 is a milestone not only for Panathinaikos, but also for Greek basketball at large. The first European championship title at club level becomes a reality. It is celebrated, carved out in history for all time, remains unforgettable, creates moments that stay untouched by time, is forever recalled to the memory of all those who were fortunate enough to live it on site or through their television sets, pictures, and newspaper articles. Even those Panathinaikos’ fans that were too young to live through it have somehow “memories” of it.  

The year ended in Paris, inside the Palais de Bercy, amongst celebrations and broad smiles, with most people not… knowing what to do in those amazing moments. The course to those moments, though, had begun months earlier and way northern; it began in Kaunas, Lithuania, in an era that is just 15 years ago, but seems to be going much farther back in time. At the time, Lithuania was a country that had celebrated its independence not long ago. The hotel where the team settled had but a single telephone set at the reception area; there was no heating; and as far as meals were concerned, food was served in a huge, yet almost empty dining hall, and soup with loads of pepper for purely…heating purposes was the main course. It was a big surprise for many, and most of all for Dominique Wilkins. It was his first time with Panathinaikos in an official European away game and he was certainly used to much different things. However, he did not complain; not even once. He kept asking to learn more about the country and sat down in the reception area for quite some time to discuss it with other team members; and all that with the telephone… queue getting longer by the minute. The arena was filled to capacity; the fans, contrary to the weather, created an atmosphere that was way above 0 degrees centigrade, but Panathinaikos got the coveted victory by 59-56, with Nikos Ekonomou scoring 22 points and Fragiskos Alvertis bagging 11 more. Vrankovic and Wilkins scored 9 points apiece.  As regards the journalists work after the game, let it be said for historical purposes that in order to send the stats report to the newspaper, a journalist had to first get clearance for it from the call centre! A task that would be impossible to accomplish without the help of the Zalgiris Kaunas staff, who did their very best to accommodate every need the press had to the fullest extent possible. From every respect, the home game in Athens would prove a much easier task. Panathinaikos won by 86-66 with Tzannis Stavrakopoulos coming out as the top scorer (18pts) and Vrankovic registering a double-double stat (17 points, 11 rebounds). Three more players had double-digit scores in that game (Wilkins 14, Alvertis 12, and Ekonomou 11).

The “Greens” steped into the regular season. Their first opponent is Real Madrid and the first victory was a tough one, the score being 54-52 and Vrankovic – Wilkins leaving the court with double-double stats: 15 points, 13 rebounds for the former and 12 points, 14 rebounds for the latter. The game against the other great Spanish team was not as successful. Panathinaikos was defeated by Barcelona by 63-57 (Alvertis 19), only to return to the OAKA and victories in the game against Cibona Zagreb (79-61, Wilkins 20). The next destination was France to play against the team of Pau Orthez, a city somewhere in the Pyrenees that came alive during basketball games… In a game that Vrankovic, despite running a very high fever, chose to not stay at the hotel and played to help the team, Panathinaikos clinched victory by 87-79 (Ekonomou 29), competing without Dominique Wilkins who was out with an injury. The next in line was Benfica against which Panathinaikos got another home victory (67-51), with Vrankovic having yet another impressive performance with 17 points and 15 rebounds and Pecarski having a double-double stat as well (14 points, 13 rebounds). The next stop was Bologna and the opponent was the team of Kinder. The “Greens” had a hard time in a full arena that was particularly “resounding” and extremely… chic, since many came to Casalecchio wearing suits and many of the ladies wearing… evening gowns. No matter how they were dressed, they all left equally sad since Panathinaikos got the victory by 72-69, with Dominique Wilkins returning after his injury, Ekonomou scoring 25 points, and Vrankovic grabbing 15 rebounds. The opponents’ top scorer was an old acquaintance of Panathinaikos, Arijan Komazec, who stopped at 16 points. In the OAKA, 67 points were enough for the “clover” to win the game against Maccabi Tel Aviv (67-62) and for the Croatian giant to mark yet another double-double stat (16 points, 14 rebounds).

Panathinaikos will continue with two consecutive losses. The two Spanish teams are still on his path and Panathinaikos was defeated in Madrid by Real (80-73) and in the OAKA by Barcelona, with a 21-point difference at that (74-95). The year had not begun with the best possible signs, but things got getter after the away victory over Cibona Zagreb (82-93). In Croatia Dominique Wilkins gave one of his best performances, with 32 points, while Stojan Vrankovic felt right… at home and left the court having scored 17 points and bagged 16 rebounds! Losing to Pau Orthez in the OAKA (67-69) came as a powerful shock to Panathinaikos, which saw Antoine Rigaudeau stop at 31 points (Wilkins 21, Vrankovic 11points, 10 rebounds). The situation became even bleaker after a most definitely unforeseen defeat: Panathinaikos lost to Benfica in Lisbon (96-87). Panathinaikos wanted to win, to complete the regular season with a victory. It managed to do that in the next games. It defeated Kinder Bologna in the OAKA by 72-69 (Ekonomou 26, Wilkins 22) and then Maccabi in Tel Aviv by 86-79 (Ekonomou 35, Wilkins 28 points, 10 rebounds) to write the ideal ending to that leg of the journey just before the playoffs.

Benetton Treviso was waiting for Panathinaikos at the competition playoffs. The first game between them took place on March 7th, 1996, at the OAKA in front of 18,000 fans that contributed to Panathinaikos’ achieving its first victory. The score board at the end of the game read 70-67 with Dominique Wilkins having scored 24 of those points, and Fragiskos Alvertis another 18 of them. For the next two games the teams moved to Italy, since Benetton Treviso prevailed in the second game and made the series 1-1 and the final score of that game 83-69. Henry Williams and Zeljko Rebraca were the two stars of the game for Benetton scoring 23 and 17 points, respectively, whereas for Panathinaikos Wilkins (24) and Vrankovic (14) were the only ones with double-digit scores, as well as top rebounders. The “clover” had one more chance to put a stamp on its ticket to the Final Four and had no intention of letting it go to waste. The match turned out to be a derby. The Italians were leading by 36-33 at half-time. The score went to 64-65; Williams (26) and Rebraca (20) dominate the score again. Toward the end of the game, the Serb had the opportunity to give the victory to his team, but Stojan Vrankovic had other plans. He jumped and “cutoff” Rebraca, sealing Panathinaikos’ victory and the tickets to Paris. It was the third consecutive Final Four for Panathinaikos.  

The team travels to Paris two days earlier, but it does not travel alone. Members from the management, technical staff, players and even the …French themselves gradually saw the City of Light turn… green.  Almost 10,000 Panathinaikos’ fans travel from Athens to Paris and instill life to “Palais de Bercy”. It is Holy Week…

The “Greens” do not have any particularly difficulty facing CSKA Moscow, which finds it impossible to stop Dominique Wilkins. The American superstar scored 35 points, Alvertis added another 13, and Vrankovic grabbed 12 rebounds. The final score of 81-71 sent Panathinaikos to the competition final where it would face Barcelona, the team that had twice defeated Panathinaikos during the Top-16 phase. Things, however, had changed. The “clover” had found its pace and knew what it wanted. On the day of the final even more people flew in from Greece, while the Real Madrid fans that had remained in Paris despite having been defeated by Barcelona in the other semifinal, were still in the arena and were openly rooting for Panathinaikos. Bozidal Maljkovic sees his players make a strong start and showing the clear signs of a winner. At half-time they are in the lead by 10 points (35-25). Fragiskos Alvertis’ fifth foul was a blow to the team since he was the top scorer for the Greek team (with 17 points), and Barcelona was given thus the chance to close the margin and become threatening. With the score at 67-66 and just seconds to go, Panathinaikos seemed to overcome the pressure and configuration change, with the ball in its possession. On the other hand, these last seconds made all the difference in the world. Panagiotis Yannakis has the ball, falls down on the court, the timer gets stuck, Montero takes possession of the ball and is on his way to a seemingly easy layup, Vrankovic sees him, makes a sprint of his own with his gigantic stride and intensity, jumps over Yannakis who is still down on the floor, and manages to block the Spanish guard who is left flabbergasted!  The Dalmatian giant falls down on the floor as he has suffered a sprain due to his tremendous effort, the Catalans start complaining but no-one truly understands what has really happened. The fans have begun mad celebrations on and off the court, inside and outside the Greek borders, the journalists are also drawn into the festive spirit irrespective of the team they were supporting in their…youth, the players, coaches, and managers also start celebrating as if they were little kids! Everyone shares the big moment. Everyone is waiting for the move that will confirm that Panathinaikos is the European champion. The Championship cup comes, gets lifted up in the air, and... the rest is …History! The first star on the Panathinaikos’ jersey is now a reality….

The hero of the game Stojan Vrankovic (who was not only in pain, not only in exhilaration, but also …angry, because he was drafted for doping control and lost a big part of the celebrations waiting in the infirmary!), the MVP Dominique Wilkins, the coaches, the rest of the players, and the managers who were living the biggest confirmation that justified every move they had made and everything they had contributed for a decade were celebrating! Pavlos and Thanassis Giannakopoulos were celebrating both the title and the justification of everything they have given to the team. A few hours later they felt justified for a second time, since after a marathon meeting at the hotel and after watching the last seconds over and over again, FIBA turned down the objection raised by Barcelona. The title belonged formally, substantially, practically and in every other way imaginable to Panathinaikos and Panathinaikos alone…. A few hours later, those who were in Paris would understand it even better, when upon arriving in Athens they saw thousands of people waiting at the airport, and the newspapers having dedicated pages on end (let it be noted that back then the internet was practically non-existent!). Only then did they get a grip of the extent of the celebrations… and everyone was waiting for what would come next…

…In 2014 Tyrese Rice won the Euroleague with Maccabi Tel Aviv and he was named the EuroLeague Final Four MVP.