While the OAKA remains one of the most intimidating basketball venues on the planet, due to perhaps the sport’s most raucous supporters, there have been a couple of emotionally-charged nights in the Greek capital. Those occasions can truly show you how much the club means to the fans that dress themselves in green every week, and also the players that don those Panathinaikos jerseys as well.
Last season Mike Batiste, then at Fenerbahce was greeted by 19,000 Panathinaikos fans as a video tribute was played and gifts were presented to him by management.
Then, the arena fell silent as Batiste grabbed the microphone. The mood inside the arena was surreal. It was almost like a leading political figure was about to speak. And the moment Batiste said that the fans will be in his heart until the day he dies, the tears streamed out.
Nine years at a basketball club is a long time. In that stint you are bound to have some sort of affiliation with the fans as well as your team-mates, coach and day-to-day staff. The emotion that Batiste displayed though proves how close the Panathinaikos family is and how grateful they are of your contribution, whether you’re a player, a coach or even the mop boy. You are part of the Panathinaikos tradition, as long as you don’t go to bitter enemies Olympiacos, of course.
If we thought Batiste’s return to Athens was emotional: Zeljko Obradovic’s comeback to the OAKA as Fenerbahce coach was like watching a film where the ending made you cry – no matter how hard you tried not to. Think Batiste’s return and multiply it by two.
Obradovic struggled to make it out of the tunnel as a sea of photographers and broadcasters blocked the entrance, but once the Serbian came out, the emotion, appreciation and excitement came out like never before. Fans rolled out a gigantic banner with a picture of Obradovic accompanied with the words: “The King is Back” scrolled along. Panathinaikos staff, led by team president Dimitris Giannakopoulos presented the Fenerbahce coach with a framed picture of Obradovic’s finest achievements plus a personalised jersey. After the fanatical chanting and cries of “Obradovic; Obradovic”, the man himself emulated Batiste; stood on center court and grabbed the microphone.
“Do you have an idea of how difficult this is for me?” he said to the sold out crowd before switching to Greek and thanking the fans for 13 wonderful years at the club.
I lived here for the 13 best years of my life and my emotions are very high,” Obradovic said, post-game. “I want to thank the Giannakopoulos family, the team and the fans of Panathinaikos for what they did for me tonight.
“It was very nice to be back, but it was also very hard for me. I feel grateful to all of them and everything I feel and have said, including the Greek phrases, come from the bottom of my heart.”
It was tough for Obradovic, emotionally. Fenerbahce unfortunately couldn’t make it a happy return as a woeful Fenerbahce side lost 76-67. Obradovic stated that he felt embarrassed for his team to play like that on his return. In reality, he has nothing to be embarrassed about. He turned Panathinaikos not just into a Greek giant – but a European giant. The man himself though is a total and utter perfectionist. Even if it isn’t broke, he would still fix it to make it perfect.
One thing Obradovic can take pride in is that the current coach and one of his former players Fragkiskos Alvertis has been trusted with carrying on Obradovic’s legacy after the short reign of Argiris Pedoulakis. While Alvertis is still adjusting to his new role and career path following his retirement with Panathinaikos in 2009, the future with him as coach should be in safe hands.
Obradovic has Fenerbahce on his mind 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s his job. Deep down though, he’ll always have Panathinaikos in his heart and he will care about what is happening in the green half of Athens. Knowing that one of his most loyal confidants, a man that knows the values of Panathinaikos inside and out is looking after it is comforting.
Alvertis will probably be the first to admit that he has to learn his new position. Experience has to come from somewhere, after all. But he has made a winning start to his coaching life with his first and only love. And with the players playing together and well, the Panathinaikos great should be fine.
For Obradovic, he has not ruled out a return to the club he transformed into a Euroleague powerhouse. He respects Alvertis’ position and the fans are happy with him as coach. But they want their king to return back to the kingdom he created.
He will honour his contract with the Asian-based side first. Then … who knows?
As for Fenerbahce: They will wonder when they will have a Euroleague contest in Athens when the main focus is basketball.