When you grow up Greek, you get the entire culture instilled into your veins. From the stubbornness that flows with your words, to the passion you show when speaking about your home country. It’s all there. Growing up in America, I still felt as Greek as someone born in Athens. The pride in our heritage goes to immense lengths.
Nikos Galis. He’s the one figure you can look at who embodies all of this. Many had never heard a word about him until this historic Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction. To Greeks, of all ages, he’s iconic. Iconic in everything he has done.
Growing up in Union, New Jersey, Galis was on a path to the NBA. His journey started near his hometown, playing collegiate ball at Seton Hall. He played well enough to be drafted by the Boston Celtics in the fourth round of the 1979 NBA Draft. With his chances already looking bleak, an ankle sprain sent him overseas, where he’d establish the most illustrious career a European can have for the Greek team Aris.
From there, he’d become Greece’s greatest story. He holds the scoring record for the Greek League, and led the country through its golden era of basketball, winning EuroBasket in 1987 and placing second in 1989. Immense glory and pride spread across the nation, and out of nowhere, the kid from Union became an actual Greek god.
As cliché as it sounds, the mystique of Galis is just that incredible. He reached the most rare heights of stardom, similar to the way Michael Jordan became the greatest NBA player. Go to the courts scattered throughout Greece and listen—listen to the esteem which Galis is held by.
“I went to play basketball with a couple of friends,” explained George Orfanakis, a Greek journalist for eurohoops.net. “On the court next to me were kids around 15 years old. The one kid tried a difficult basketball move, and his friend joked with him asking, ‘Take it easy! Who are you, Galis?’”
His legendary status continues to follow him. Why? “That was Galis. The man—synonymous for unbelievable basketball,” explains Orfanakis, “the unthinkable that became reality. One of a kind.”
Galis was one of a kind. He has forever stood ahead of the pack when it comes to Greek basketball.
And on Friday night, he pushed himself further. As he stood at the Naismith Hall of Fame podium, donning his white sports coat, he had an entire nation behind him. “This is a childhood dream come true,” were Galis’ words as he went on to tell the story of his incredible career. He mentioned he “fell in love with the country of Greece,” and his people. That love came back to him tenfold.
He finished his speech with a story about a lady who hugged him in the streets of Thessaloniki. The lady claims that Galis’ victory in the 1987 EuroBasket tournament saved her son’s life, who was a drug addict-turned-basketball fanatic. With that closing story, he became immortal, as he became the first Greek enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
What does Galis and his induction truly mean to Greece? Ioannis Psarakis of the Greek newspaper Live-Sport put it best.
“This induction means a lot to all Greeks and especially for the… older ones who were lucky to see Nick at his playing times back in the ‘80s. Galis was not just the person who changed the history of Greek basketball through the gold medal at ’87 Eurobasket. He was the man who changed the way Greeks see sports. He was a real professional, an athlete who was taking care of his body, never talked too much, and—the most important—proved that Greeks should not be afraid of any opponent, no matter how much stronger they seem to be.”
Galis’ quote, “This is the biggest win in my career till the next one comes,” after the quarterfinal of ’87 Eurobasket is still mentioned in all of Greek sports.
That’s what Nick was and still is. The man who changed the (sports) world for Greece. Whenever you mention Galis in Greece, it means “winning.” It means “effort.” It means basketball.”
Galis carried the same evident confidence, the same determination and pride that Greeks have been associated with for centuries.
“We owe it to Nikos Galis. It’s no mystery he’s the one who carried that ’87 team that revolutionized basketball. What really impresses me about Nikos Galis is his untouchable mystique. You see kids ages 10–15 who have never seen him battle, but know that he is God,” explains Orfanakis.
If that’s not enough proof that Galis is Greece’s version of His Airness, then take it from the words of some of the nation’s elite players in recent years. George Zakkas of sdna.gr points out the greats that have praised him.
“Dimitris Diamantidis once said: ‘Nick Galis was, is, and will be one and unique.’ Vasilis Spanoulis called him ‘GOAT.’ What else do we have to say about him? Even the real GOAT, Michael Jordan, praised him for his scoring ability! From now on, Nick Galis is not just the Greek God of Basketball, he is also a Hall Of Famer and he totally deserves it.”
If the first two names don’t sound familiar, Diamantidis is a legend for Panathinaikos, and Spanoulis has the same status for rival club Olympiacos. And you all know the last person named.
Like Jordan, Galis’ status is heightened by the stories surrounding him. While playing in his prime in Greece, the Boston Celtics and New Jersey Nets offered him a contract to play in the NBA. But he denied what was once his dream.
The reason? This was before professional athletes were allowed to play for their nation. At the time, FIBA didn’t have professional status which allowed players to play for the national team.
Galis denied the NBA. The pinnacle of the sport. His dream. He denied it for Greece.
John Karalis, founder of the popular Celtics blog RedsArmy.com, reflects on Galis as a Greek-American.
“When Red Auerbach says one of his biggest regrets is not getting you to play for him, you know you’re a big deal, and Nick Galis is a big deal. I wish he was healthy enough to be more of a household name, but maybe his induction into the Hall of Fame will inspire more people to learn more about him. Regardless, he’s a huge inspiration to kids in Greece and a big reason why basketball has grown so quickly there. I’m excited for what his induction means for the future of Greek basketball.”
Former Orlando Magic blogger, Adam Papageorgiou, also explained why his physical stature allowed Greek fans to connect with him more.
“Probably the most remarkable thing about his career is Niko doesn’t look like a legendary basketball player. He’s like the Allen Iverson of Europe. Just some normal guy, not really tall, not a physical behemoth. And I think that plays a role in why all Greeks around the world who care about basketball have so much respect for all of his club/country records and accomplishments.”
It’s true, go back and look at video. Galis was not a physical specimen of any sort. Yet it still seemed like he was a level above anyone he played against. He was the underdog even as the best player on the court. He was the player who played with controlled recklessness, yet somehow showed elegance and grace around the basket.
He is the epitome of a Greek. From denying the NBA for the national team to his last career game. Galis retired at halftime of a game, in protest to his coach not starting him. You might be thinking, why? It’s because he’s Greek. His pride can be misinterpreted for arrogance, but it takes complete immersion into Greek culture to fully understand what he felt at the time. He is the representation of us. He is Greek basketball.
A legend in all aspects, he finally got his recognition Friday night. So as we salute Galis into basketball immortality, let us appreciate. Appreciate what he has done to change the culture of Greek basketball. Appreciate the hope he gave the nation.
Not bad for the kid from Union.
Congratulations, Nikos Galis. Congratulations.