Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, September 4, 2006

It’s All Greek to Me

About a month before the 2004 Summer Olympics, in one of the most surprising and stirring runs by any team in football, an unfancied Greek team rudely ushered out teams like defending champion France and a high-scoring Czech Republic side en route to an improbable UEFA Euro Finals seat against host Portugal. Prior to this tournament, Greece never won a game in Euro competition and against a strong Portuguese team with Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo, it seemed that despite upsetting the hosts in the first round with a 2-1 win their luck would run out. Not against a resurgent Portugal and in front of a home crowd at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon that smelled victory. Instead, the Greeks played a suffocating defensive and a physical game that threw the host team out of rhythm. When Angelos Charisteas headed in a corner shot in the 57th minute, it was good enough to give them their first ever football championship on July 4th, 2004.

I was living in New York City at that time and it was day-long celebration. Aside from the nation-wide celebration of America’s 228th birthday, predominantly Greek-American Astoria, Queens exploded with scenes of frenzied partying. Streets and houses were decked with Greek colors. Motorists honked their cars and residents danced in the streets while shouting “Ellas! Ellas!”

It seemed that partying would extend itself for more than another month as Greece hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics. When the International Olympic Committee awarded the centennial summer games to Atlanta in 1996, the Greek nation went into an uproar of protest. If there was any place where the games should have been held, it should have been back to its birthplace. Greece finally got its second opportunity to host the games eight years later, but the pre-games preparations saw Greece roundly criticized being behind schedule in the constructions of facilities, poor security measures, strikes by hotel and construction staff, and the deaths of 14 constructions workers.

The Games thankfully opened on time and without any further hitches. The widely praised and wonderful opening ceremony began one of the most unforgettable games in recent memory. The Greeks used their 2004 UEFA football title and 15th place finish (out of 301 countries) in the Athens Olympics as a springboard into another incredible run.

Almost a year later, Greece beat Germany this time to win the 2005 FIBA Euro Basketball Championship setting off another long and frenzied celebration. That momentous win in Belgrade, the site of the basketball championships was commemorated by the Greek government with a stamp.

Despite their win, the Greek squad of coach Panagiotis Yannakis went into Saitama, Japan not one of the favorites to win FIBA Gold. Maybe that was because they didn’t have any NBA players on their team.

When they won last year’s Euro basketball finals, guard Nikos Zisis tearfully cried, “We still can't understand what we've achieved. Right now, we know that thousands of people are celebrating in Athens. We’ve made an unbelievable journey. Imagine, Greece has been without a basketball medal for 16 years and now this…

Zisos can very well reprise what he said today. Only this time, after being lost for the rest of the FIBA tournament after suffering broken bones in the face in the game against Brasil, it was his backcourt mate Theodoros Papaloukas doing the talking heading into the semis match against the USA, “Having Zisos on the bench; we’ll have more motivation to play.

And with Zisos on the sidelines cheering his teammates on, Greece is still on their way into another magical ride into sporting immortality. They’ve beat Lithuania, Australia, Brasil and the USA; all stocked with NBA players. Their dismantling of the USA will go down in history as another historic win for this country of 11 million. But for now, behind their legendary coach, Panagiotis Yannakis (who played on that Greek team that beat a Soviet team led by Sarunas Marcuilionis, Arvydas Sabonis, Alexander Volkov and Rimas Kurtiniatis in overtime 103-101for its first-ever Euro Basketball title in 1987), the number eighth-ranked basketball country in the world is continuing to write its own history whatever the outcome of the 2006 FIBA Championship game against Spain.

And why not, after four incredible sporting runs dating back to the 2004 UEFA Euro Football Finals, these astounding and classic victories are the stuff of modern day Greek legends. And somehow I think it sounds just right.

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