THESSALONIKI (Basketball Champions League) - There is no shortage of storied and decorated European clubs in the inaugural Basketball Champions League but, even among such distinguished company, Group C participants PAOK Thessaloniki are always regarded as a highly-respected organisation.
It is not so much for the size of their trophycase - as current club president and former team legend Bane Prelevic points out, that amounts to two European trophies, a Saporta Cup and a Korac Cup, in addition to five domestic titles.
But PAOK, that celebrates 90 years of history this September, is proud for its longevity and the unconditional support of its fans through thick and thin. The club managed to survive even during periods when its existence was hanging from a thin thread and every player who pulled on the black-and-white jersey formed a strong bond with the club and its people.
A constellation of basketball stars including the likes legendary coach Dusan Ivkovic, Cliff Levingston, Efthimis Rentzias, Kenneth Barlow or Claudio Coldebella landed in Thessaloniki last week to attend a ceremony for the club’s 90th birthday.
Celebrations featured a friendly game against powerhouse CSKA Moscow of coach Dimitris Itoudis, who had started out as an assistant at PAOK over 20 years previously. Some, like Peja Stojakovic, could not attend but the former NBA champions sent a video message from Sacramento referring to PAOK as ‘the most beautiful club in the world’.
“The team’s protagonists during the 1990s, which was the most productive decade for the club, experienced very intense sporting moments on the court, not only successful but also disappointing ones,” Prelevic told the official website of the Basketball Champions League.
“Those moments created a strong bond between the coaches, the players and the staff. Despite competing at high level in previous decades, PAOK has won relatively few titles compared to other Greek clubs and the bulk of those trophies came in the 1990s, so it holds a special value to the people that participated in those achievements.”
In 2011, former legends headed by Prelevic took over the management of the club and steered it through its most testing, in financial terms, period. “We had to overcome the difficult financial situation of the S.A. (all clubs in the Greek A1 league are set up as public limited companies from a legal standpoint) which was facing at the time the possibility of bankruptcy every month,” Prelevic said.
“Our goal was firstly to ensure the club’s salvation and then to attract at some point an investor that would lift it up and help improve its sporting prospects. We succeeded in the first part because the club is no longer in danger but we are still working on the second part.”
One of the linchpins of PAOK during this period has been coach Soulis Markopoulos who returned in 2009 for his third spell in charge. The 67-year-old tactician had guided the black-and-whites to the Korac Cup conquest in 1994.
"I don't need to state what an excellent coach Soulis is, because that is common knowledge in the Greek basketball community," Prelevic said. "But although it is a rare qualification, it is an added extra in his case. His biggest virtue is that he fully understands and accepts the financial situation of the club.
"Any professional coach only wants his team to win, at any cost. Soulis thinks the other way around, he first calculates the costs and then assembles a team that will maximise performance within budget limitations."
Prelevic was adored by PAOK fans during his playing days for maintaining his never-say-die attitude even in the face of adversity and he is content that his team, which finished in fifth place in the Greek league last season, met the sporting criteria to show their fighting spirit in the Basketball Champions League.
"We believed in the Basketball Champions League concept from the very first moment because it is a breath of fresh air in European basketball," Prelevic said. "You have to earn your participation through your national league and we believe that this is the fair way. It is important for us to play in European competitions because it is the best way to maintain our team on a high level.
"The only approach that applies to professional sport is to look exclusively as far as the next game. The way we see it, the team has to be ready to fight what game comes next, from tip-off to the final buzzer. From then on, we obviously aspire to advance as far as we can in the Basketball Champions League."