Who is Vassilis Spanoulis in 2017? The ageing, possibly fading legend who shot 28% on threes and had twelve games of at least five turnovers before the playoffs? Or the ageless champion who lifted a whole squad on his shoulders and carried them, unbowed, once again to the Final Four, just like all those other times before?
Who was he in this series with Anadolu Efes? Άγιος Βασίλης of Piraeus, who rippled shot after improbable shot, never doubted even between exhaled breaths by the faithful? Or the furtive, erratic figure heaving attempts from behind the arc at ever jauntier angles from the rim as the crowd tensed and waited for Efes to trip over their own feet when it mattered? (Which, continuing this fatalist construct, of course they did)
Forgive the inadvertent blasphemy of the preceding paragraph if you’re a believer (of the Church, if not Spanoulis, or maybe both?) But without wanting to imply spiritual significance to the most trivial of activities, writing about Spanoulis, and by extention, Olympiacos since the fourth quarter of the 2012 Euroleague Final has felt more like repetition of blind devotion than an exercise in analysis.
Barcelona, CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid has a stronger team? That only means Spanoulis will play harder, and His miracles will be more divine (and produce more memes). Underdog status seems to be a pre-requisite. The Vision will not appear unless the unfaithful first profess it to be impossible. Each time It Happens, the articles of faith grow stronger. The path to true belief is not always linear. Euroleague Semi-final, 2015, Vassilis misses his first 11 shots. Same number as his points in the final quarter. Olympiacos beats CSKA again. ‘Fucking Spanoulis’.
If Einstein’s apocryphal definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, can this be adapted to apply to Spanoulis and his self-evident infallibility? Given the same results, at least once he shed the (Green) skin of his career’s first act, why should we expect the same things to have been done? The causality is reversed – Spanoulis wins, therefore we work back over events and describe the inevitability of such acts. Spanoulis won because he wins, and he wins because he has won.
This circular logic will only become more entrenched if Spanoulis’ Olympiacos beats CSKA Moscow in another Final Four. How the rich and powerful are reduced to tragicomic clowns once the supernatural interferes with the real (or the Real?).
This website’s podcast did the same in looking forward on the eve of the playoffs: Boiled down to an elevator pitch, my verdict was “Would you bet against Spanoulis?” I concluded that I wouldn’t, but hedged my take to cover the Istanbul team’s superior rebounding, athleticism, matchup advantages and recent form: Olympiacos in Five. This is not self-administered back-slapping. It was the only series I picked exactly right.
Belief that one of the most cold-blooded shotmakers in European hoops history will rise to the occasion isn’t an exercise only in faith, of course. But as weeks piled up into months where he looked mortal, tired, even jaded, it was tempting to theorise that the Spanoulis era may be waning. Was this merely a test of faith? As Abraham was directed to kill Isaac, his son, were we challenged by the basketball Gods to ignore every clumsily forced pass and wayward three point shot? Over this season, and others, I did not pass this test. I questioned, I wavered. I sinned.
This last series wasn’t a one-man job, it never is: As the series hung in the balance in Game Five, Ioannis Papapetrou dropped eight points in a row, including a barrage comprising dunk followed by pull up three in transition, which is becoming his trademark. Think back to the win over Panathinaikos at SEF just into the new year, as the young Greek turned PAO’s ‘maybe’ into a definite ‘no way’.
Papapetrou has become the new iteration of Kostas Papanikoalou, both do-it-all blocks-and-threes wings who specialise in rapid destructive bursts to flip momentum back in their direction. They daze you, knock you out, then they stand on your neck while you’re down. It was typical that Papapetrou waited til the third quarter and a moment of pivotal tension. Five years ago in Istanbul, the Final Four revealed Papanikolaou to the world. Now, heading to the same venue, Olympiacos has not only the original, but also Version 2.0. With Erick Green, Khem Birch, Nikola Milutinov, this incarnation of Kill Bill has fresh, new footsoldiers alongside him, both unburdened and unassisted by experience.
The story of Efes’ possible victory in this series was former Red and White comrade Bryant Dunston, the biggest head in Efes’ imposing, muscular hydra of a frontline, which led the league in offensive rebounds and covered up for the team’s questionable halfcourt offense. In Game Five, Olympiacos won the rebounding battle 40-32, with Khem Birch and his 11 boards as a one-man security team patrolling the paint. Dunston fouled out in under 16 minutes in the decider; such were his activities curtailed by the refs that he “didn’t even need to shower” as he complained to the postgame media.
Should the quick whistles of the referees be added to the Spanoulis legend? Should it subsume the efforts of Birch and his maniacal pursuit of every ball bouncing off the rim? Was it the aura and mythos of Spanoulis that seeped into Jayson Granger and Derrick Brown’s psyches and forced them to make exactly the wrong decision at the wrong time?
To the dispassionate analyst, of course not. But after the adrenaline of victory and the anguish of defeat have subsided, doesn’t every detail of what actually happened appear not only subservient to the wider narrative, but somehow ineffably caused by it?
We know that every point of data and object of experience in our brains is part of a scattered, dispersed network, connected in multiple directions, fragmented and complex. Navigating towards meaningful knowledge involves charting a map in real time through ever-changing, shifting terrain. More often than not, it is easier, and more reassuring to take these objects and arrange them in a straight line, with a clear path to one destination, a single conclusion:
Never, ever, bet against Spanoulis.
Rob Scott / @robscott33