It’s Greek To Me! The Best Greek Basketball Players To Play in the NBA

It’s Greek To Me! The Best Greek Basketball Players To Play in the NBA

ZHTO H ELLAS!!!  (Long live Greece!!!)

Greece is known for many things including its rich culture, ancient history and being the birthplace of democracy.  The Greeks gave the world philosophy, language, the marathon, and the Olympic Games among many other things.  Greeks are known for their “Filoxenia” (hospitality) and “Filotimo” (think respect and honor).  More recently Zorba the Greek, flaming cheese (Saganaki), smashing plates, “Papouli” from the 90s TV show “Full House,” and the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” movies became pop culture phenomena associated with Greece.   The country is also known for its great cuisine and for being one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Most people don’t view Greece as having a rich basketball history.   Allow me to give you a brief history lesson.  Many basketball fans know of the powerhouse Soviet and Yugoslavian teams of the mid-to-late 1980’s/early 90’s.  Did you know Greece beat the mighty Soviets to win the 1987 European Basketball Championship, otherwise known as EuroBasket?  That team was led by 7-foot center Panagiotis Fasoulas, Fanis Christodoulou standout combo-Guard Panagiotis Giannakis, and Hall of Fame guard Nikos Galis.  That same squad was the 1989 Eurobasket runner-up to a Yugoslavian squad that featured the late Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, and Dino Radja.  There’s no shame in losing to that team.

During the 1990s, Greece was like the Portland Trail Blazers on the ‘80s and ‘90s.  They were always competitive and ranked among the best teams, but they never won it all.  The Greeks were consistently ranked between 4th and 6th in the world throughout the decade.  Surprised?  They didn’t have any medals or championships to show for it during that time.  We remember the U.S. Dream Teams and other great European teams (Croatia, Serbia, and Lithuania to name a few). Those countries medaled.  It’s probably why most people don’t remember that the Greeks were actually pretty good at basketball. 

People learned about Greek Basketball in the mid-2000s.  Who handed Coach K his only loss as the U.S. Men’s Basketball Head Coach?  Greece.  In 2006, a squad led by Dimitris Diamantidis, Theo Papaloukas, Vassilis Spanoulis, and guy nicknamed “Baby Shaq” picked and rolled the Americans to death in a 101-95 FIBA World Cup semifinal win.  This was a U.S. team that possessed future Hall-of-Famers in Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James.  Perhaps you have heard of them.  The Greeks were blown out by a legendary Spanish team in the FIBA World Cup final but who cares?  The same Greek team won EuroBasket in 2005 which was helped by one of my personal favorite game winning shots in the semifinal…

Giannis Antetokounmpo, known to most as “The Greek Freak,” is the most famous Greek basketball player in the world today.  He’s also the most popular and successful Greek basketball player EVER.  Giannis being an NBA All-Star, a two-time NBA MVP, and 2021 NBA Champion highlight his career accomplishments so far.   Antetokounmpo is among the best player in both the NBA and the world today. His brothers Thanasis, Kostas, and Alex are the next recognizable Greek basketball players going today. 

Sure many know of the “Antetokounbros” but what about other Greek basketball players?  Who are those guys?  In honor of Greece’s Independence Day (March 25th), I have decided to put together a list of the “other” best Greek basketball players to ever play in the NBA.  I’ve also thrown in the guys who were good enough to play in the NBA but never did.  Here we go…

Lou Tsiroropoulos

Tsioropoulos was a Greek American who played his college ball at the University of Kentucky for the great Adolph Rupp.  He, along with Hall-of-Famers Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan, led the Wildcats to the 1951 NCAA Championship.  His #16 hangs in the rafters of Rupp Arena today.  Tsioropoulos then played for the Boston Celtics from 1956-1956 and was the backup small forward to Hall-of-Famer Tom Heinsohn.  He was also a two-time NBA Champion.

Nick Mantis

Mantis was also a Greek American who starred in both high school (East Chicago Washington) and college (Northwestern).  He was key player on the Wildcats’ 1958-59 team, one of the school’s best squads.  He then played briefly in the NBA from 1960-62 with the Lakers and Hawks.  Mantis also played in the American Basketball League (ABL) and was the league’s MVP in 1964.

Kurt Rambis

Here’s another Greek American and arguably the most famous non-Antetokounmpo on this list.  Rambis played in the NBA from 1981-1995, mostly with the Los Angeles Lakers.  He’s a four-time NBA champion and was a key player off the bench for the great 1980s Laker teams.  Rambis was known for his hustle and thick black glasses on the court.  Before starting his NBA career, Rambis played one season in the Greek league for AEK Athens.  The player known in Greece as “Kyriakos Rambidis” helped AEK to win the Greek Cup in 1981 with a couple of guys on this list.

Antonis Fotsis

The 6’11’’ Fotsis started his professional career as a 15-year-old in 1996 and is still playing today.  He is a former captain of the Greek Men’s National Team who is also one of the most decorated players in Greek League history.  Fotsis was a key player on Greece’s 2005 EuroBasket championship team and the 2006 FIBA World’s runner-up squad.  He also spent the 2001-02 season with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies where he showed flashes of being a solid NBA player.   Fotsis possessed skills of a guard and could hit an outside shot.  He could have carved out a solid career in today’s NBA.

Vassilis Spanoulis

Spanoulis is one of the greatest Euroleague players of all time.  The former standout guard won multiple MVPs, championships and other awards (including Euroleague Player of the Decade for 2010-2020) playing in Europe.  Yeah, Spanoulis was THAT good.  He was also a key part of Greece’s 2005 EuroBasket championship team and the 2006 FIBA World Cup runner-up team.  The man was known as “Kill Bill” in both Euroleague and Greek League play because of his ability to step up in crunch time and hit big shots.  Spanoulis spent the 2006-07 with the NBA’s Houston Rockets, but it wasn’t a memorable experience for him.  He saw limited playing time – an average of 8.8 minutes per game in 31 games.  Spanoulis also had a falling out with then-Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy over playing time.  He was traded to the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 but left to go back to Greece.  Spanoulis could have been a solid NBA player in the right situation but ended up becoming a European legend instead.

Dimitris Diamantidis and Theodoris Papaloukas

To me both men are forever linked as backcourt stars for the Greek National Team during the decade of the 2000s.  Vassilis Spanoulis was also part of a three-guard rotation for then-Head Coach Panagiotis Giannakis.  Like Spanoulis, Diamantidis and Papaloukas were key players for Greece’s 2005 Eurobasket and 2006 FIBA World Cup teams.  Both men were allegedly offered NBA contracts, but both elected to remain in Europe.  Both became Euroleague and Greek League legends with lengthy basketball resumes.  Diamantidis was more known for his all-around play, primarily on the defensive end.  This Bruce Bowen with a better offensive game and longer wingspan.  Diamantidis was referred to as “Octopus Man” or “3-D” (Dimitris Diamantidis Defense).  Papaloukas was also a highly decorated European player and one of the Euroleagues best point guards.  His three-year stretch between 2005-07 is as good as anyone’s on this list – or in Europe, period.  Papaloukas was offered contracts by the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and Milwuakee Bucks in 2007 but chose to stay in Europe.  As a comp, remember former Clipper backup point guard Milos Teodosic?  He was solid.  Papaloukas was better…much better in my opinion.

Kosta Koufos

Koufos is a 7-foot tall Greek American who had a solid NBA career after playing one collegiate season at Ohio State.  “Gus Deaf” (an ironic translation of his name, not a nickname) played in 686 career NBA games from 2008-2019 with a number of teams.  Koufos had his best NBA season in 2013 with the Denver Nuggets where he averaged 8.0 points and 6.9 rebounds in 81 games (all starts).  He was a starter for about one-third of the games he played in during his time in the NBA.  Koufos also played for the Greek National Team from 2009-16.  Today he played for the London Lions of the British Basketball League (BBL).

Nick Calathes

Calathes is a 6’6’’ Greek American who starred collegiately at the University of Florida before starting his pro career.  He averaged 16.3 points per game over two seasons for head coach Billy Donovan, before becoming a second-round pick of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves in 2009.  Calathes chose to start his professional career in Greece with Panathinaikos in 2009.  He did eventually come back stateside to play in the NBA in 2013 with the Memphis Grizzlies.  Calathes was the 2013-14 NBA Rookie of the Month for February of that season.  He played one more season in Memphis before returning to Panathinaikos in Greece.  Since then Calathes has played for some of the Euroleague’s top clubs: Panathinaikos, FC Barcelona, and he’s currently with Fenderbahce of Turkey.  Calathes has played with the Greek Men’s National Team since 2009.

Kostas Papanikolaou

Papanikolaou is a 6’8’’ swingman who started his pro career in Greece at age 18 with Aris of Thessaloniki.  He’s also played with FC Barcelona and is currently with Olympiakos of the Greek League where he is the team’s captain.  The lefty is known as a great defender in Europe and a good three-point shooter.  Papanikolaou also spent two years playing in the NBA from 2014-2016 with the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets.  He appeared in 69 games in those two years.  One of the highlights for Greek basketball fans came in a game between Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks and Papanikolaou’s Houston Rockets in November 2014.  Both young Greeks saw significant playing time.  Giannis finished with 17 points and 7 rebounds in 35 minutes.  But Papanikolaou helped his Rockets to victory with 12 key points off the bench in 29 minutes.

Panagiotis Giannakis, Panagiotis Fasoulas, & Fanis Christodoulou

I put these three Greek basketball legends together for a couple of reasons.  They played together on the Greek National Team for over 10 years.  All three men were drafted by NBA teams in the ‘80s: Giannakis in 1982 (9th round, 205th pick by the Celtics), Fasoulas in 1986 (2nd round, 37th pick by Trail Blazers), and Christodoulou in 1987 (4th round, 90th pick `by the Hawks).  None of the three ever played in an NBA game.  All three could have played the NBA in their prime though.  Giannakis was a high scoring combo-guard who could also be a table setter as a tradional point guard.  Fasoulas was a sneaky rebounder as a lanky 7-footer with a decent jump hook.  Christodoulou was a cross between Charles Barkley and a stretch-four of today’s game.  They’re also linked to…

Nikos “Nick” Galis

The American-born Galis is arguably the best Greek basketball player of all-time.  To many, he’s the best Greek basketball player of all-time not named Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Galis starred collegiately at Seton Hall for head coach Bill Raftery.  His 27.5 points per game average in 1978-79 was the third highest in the country.  Galis was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1979 and went to training camp with the team in Larry Bird’s rookie season.  He suffered a severe ankle injury and decided to start his pro career in Greece instead.  Galis went on to be one of the greatest, if not greatest player in Greek League history.  He also became of the best Euroleague players of all-time.  His 31.2 career points per game average in EuroBasket play is still a record.  His 33.5 points per game in FIBA contests in also a record.  Galis could score at will but was also a great passer.  His game was based on penetration and attacking from close range, despite being just 6-feet tall.  Galis had legendary stamina and could jump with the best of them.  He was the 1987 EuroBasket MVP after scoring 40 points in the championship game win over the Soviet Union.  I can spend a whole blog on Galis, and one day I will.  The Michael Jordan of Greece is the only player on this list to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.  

Best of the Rest:

Efthimios Rentzias – The big man played 35 games for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2002-03.  At the time he was only the second Greek-born player to appear in an NBA game.

Andreas Glyniadakis – The 7’1’’ Glyniadakis played in 13 games for the Seattle Supersonics in 2006-07.  I’m seeing a trend with Greek big men here…

Georgios Printezis – The 6’9’’ versatile forward was a second-round pick of the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 but never played a minute in the NBA.  He was a Greek League and Euroleague standout mostly with Olympiakos for almost 20 years.

Georgios Papagiannis – “Big George” (7’2’’) was a former NBA lottery pick of the Sacramento Kings in 2016.  He played in 39 total NBA games with the Kings and Portland Trail Blazers from 2016-18.

Georgios Kalaitzakis – The 6’7’’ swingman joined the Bucks a year too late.  He showed flashes with the Oklahoma City Thunder.  He appeared in 13 games during the 2021-22 season with the Bucks and Thunder.

Photo Credit: Depositphotos