He came as Gastone, he returns as an icon

2014-03-19T16:12:47+00:00 2015-05-24T11:09:55+00:00.

Aris Barkas

19/Mar/14 16:12


Thursday will be a night to remember as Zeljko Obradovic, once known as “Gastone” in Greece, will return as a legend to OAKA. One of the most charming men of global basketball is visiting his old home and he will be greeted like a king

Βy Aris Barkas/ barkas@eurohoops.net

I have a confession to make. I may be part-responsible for this.

Panathinaikos had just beat CSKA Moscow in a “strange”, as Zeliko Obradovic said, Final in Berlin back in 2009 and I made the last question in the official press conference, before he exited the room in order to speak directly to the television right holders. There was a reason for choosing to do so and for doing it in the last call. Obradovic‘s usual strategy in close games during most of his years in Athens was to foul in order to have the last possession, even if he had the lead.

That didn’t happened in Berlin. The Greens beat Olympiacos (84-82) and CSKA (73-71) by a bucket and Zoc decided to let his opponents take the last shot. Bourousis missed the shot which would tie the semifinal and send it to overtime. Siskauskas missed a three that would give the crown to CSKA Moscow. You could argue that Panathinaikos‘ defense made the difference, but in sports you need also lady luck to be on your side. So I asked: “Without taking anything away from your incredible work, you won both Final Four games with your opponents missing the last shot. Do you think that you were also lucky?”

There was silence in the room for a moment. Zoc wasn’t smiling and his answer was great: “If you consider luck what we have achieved in Panathinaikos during the last decade, then let us continue to be lucky”. That’s who Obradovic is. Smart as whip, quick to speak, a great guy to have a night out in town, to discuss about politics, cinema and music (and he always respects the press as you can understand by the interviews he has given to Eurohoops). He is one of the most charming people you could meet in global basketball and also a tactical mastermind. And there’s a reason for him to be mad at a Greek journalist telling to him that he might have been lucky.

From “Gastone” to Legend

Obradovic is a phenomenon of the benches. He is just 54 years old, but has been a coach in top level already for 22 years, having won 8 Euroleague titles and two European cups. He has also won the FIBA World Cup, the Eurobasket and a silver Olympic medal. Still, before signing with Panathinaikos in the summer of 1999, Greek press referred to him as “Gastone”, a nickname which was a result of his rivalry with Greek coach Giannis Ioanidis. After beating heavy favorite Olympiacos in the 1994 Euroleague Final with Joventut Badalona, the “easy” explanation for his achievements was that he is as lucky, as the Disney comics character Gastone Duck, the cousin of unlucky Donald Duck.

After all he had won his first Euroleague in 1992 as the rookie coach of Partizan thanks to a miracle three pointer by Sasha Djordjevic. Ironically in the summer of 1999 the other main candidate to be the coach of Panathinaikos was Ioanidis, who ended up returning to the bench of Olympiacos, succeeding his successor Dusan Ivkovic. There is an urban legend about Ivkovic proposing Obradovic as his heir to then owner of Olympiacos Sokratis Kokalis in the same summer, however it was never confirmed on the record.

And like that “Gastone” was a part of the Greek basketball landscape and he delivered. In his first year in Panathinaikos he won the Euroleague and the Greek championship. After 13 years in Athens, he is an honorary citizen of the city – with the official seal of the mayor – he has won five Euroleague titles with Panathinaikos, eleven Greek championships and seven cups, creating the most dominant modern dynasty in Greek basketball. You can argue that at least in the first half of his years in Greece his arch-rival, Olympiacos, was in decline, that the Greens had better behind the scenes connections a.k.a. the referees, but the numbers can’t be denied.

And Obradovic was always leading the charge, starting with the era of Dejan Bodiroda and ending with the reign of Dimitris Diamantidis, fighting not always as the favorite, as he did in 2002 at Bologna and in 2011 at Barcelona. No one calls him “Gastone” any more. He once did it himself, in the Final Four of 2009. In the opening press conference, the table before the speakers was moved by accident and every name stand fell down, except his. He smiled, looked at the Greek journalists and said in a low voice: “Gastone”.

So why he left Panathinaikos?

That’s a question which hasn’t been answered yet in a convincing way. The plan of new owner Dimitris Giannakopoulos included him and that was something which was made public by the most official way. Obradovic was loving his life in Athens, but something wasn’t right for him anymore. He didn’t extend his contract and he decided to stay one year away from basketball. Both sides, Dimitris Giannakopoulos and Zeliko Obradovic, never fully explained why they didn’t found a way to co-exist.

The end of his relationship with Panathinaikos was sudden and nobody knows what the future holds for both of them, specially with Panathinaikos calling him back to Athens. Still, Obradovic plays to win and now his mind is fixed into building a new winning project in Istanbul with the colors of Fenerbahce/ Ulker.

He will be wearing those colors when he will enter OAKA on Thursday. He was there in 2004 when Bodiroga returned as a player of Barcelona in the humble gym of Sporting, because of the renovation works at OAKA for the 2004 Olympics. This time, OAKA will be ready for his return. Expect a record crowd and his name mentioned as a song in the mouth of 20.000 people. Expect the return of the king in a night to remember.

Make no mistake, however. After the tip off, this game will not be a celebration. It will be a battle for survival between two contenders for the Euroleague play offs and Obradovic, as always, will do everything for the win. Even against his old love, even against his old captain Fragkiskos Alvertis who will face one of his mentors just in his third game as a head coach. That’s what Zoc always did, that’s what he will do now. In this case the difference will be that no matter the result, Panathinaikos’ fans will cheer for him once more after the final buzzer, ever if their team is defeated.