College basketball means almost nothing to me, but professional basketball outside the confines of L’America is something I find increasingly fascinating. This is the most entertaining sports essay I’ve read so far this year. It’s long and worthwhile.
The Exile of Rick Pitino, by By John Gonzalez (The Ringer)
In 2017, the Hall of Fame Louisville coach’s career collapsed under a string of scandals, leading to his firing from the school he had coached for 16 years. Now, Pitino is finding himself in Greece, coaching Panathinaikos, working for a self-styled Bond villain, and enjoying a new chapter of his life.
In that way, the Greek Cup semifinal could not have gone better. I’d heard so many tales in advance of the game, but the proceedings exceeded expectations. In the early 1900s, basketball players were called “cagers” for the metal fence that often surrounded the court. In Greece, that term still applies. There was a protective wall behind the benches of both teams, and a net was raised to the rafters to prevent people from throwing things on the court.
There was good reason to take the precautions. The air inside the arena was thick with smoke from cigarettes and flares, and the stands were packed with frothing fans. Almost none of them were women. There were even fewer children. In the front row, one man wearing white-and-green face paint shook a giant inflatable penis at the Olympiacos bench. Not far from him, another man, also in face paint, was shirtless and played a bongo he’d somehow smuggled into the arena. Basket teams in Greece have firms, just like European soccer clubs. Each part of the main fan area was divided into subsections with signs for identification: Victoria, Skyros, the Hooligans, Gate 13, Kavala, and, the hardest to miss, West Block, which unfurled a giant banner from the upper deck with a menacing gas mask emblem. When the Olympiacos players came out for warm-ups, the fans made the Greek fuck-you gesture and chanted in unison. I asked Liogkas what they were saying, and he smiled: “Olympiacos, motherfuckers.”