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Greece, Sports, And Two Weeks In Paradise

The Greek port of Egina on the island of Aegina is a place with its own pace.  

It's a port whose activity is dictated by the day cruises that park there for a couple hours in order for international tourists to sample local seafood, walk through its narrow streets, and maybe stop to buy some souvenirs or maybe a cup of coffee.

We found ourselves there, myself and my family, during the last two weeks, blessed to be able to experience that pace far away from Trump's latest Twitter mishaps and the emotional ebb and flow of the never-ending sports calendar.  

It was a break from reality, with the ability to swim in Paradise in the clear waters in the Aegean Sea.  It was a time to shop lazily in local stores, cook our own fresh food with whatever came to mind, and meet up with family friends to chat and exchange ideas.  It was probably the closest I will ever come to being Garrison Kellior.

In disrupting my writing rhythms in America, it created a set of observations about following sports in Paradise.  Greece is a country where three sports dominate over all others: basketball, soccer, and whatever national team sporting the Greek flag happens to be doing well at the moment.

My wife and I were blessed to live internationally when we both were younger, so it's in our blood to travel outside the country.  And our son, on his first international trip, seems to also have it in his blood as well.  "It feels like home here," he told us, and to my wife and me it felt like vindication, finally being able to scrape up enough money and logistics in order to spend two weeks in paradise.

We went to Greece not having a lot of expectations.  Expectations are a luxury for those with lots of money.  

What we saw and experienced was the hustle and bustle of Athens, the laid-back island of Crete, the tourist-filled island of Santorini, and the peacefulness of Aegina.

It truly is a country of spectacular views, unimpeded views of the sky and sea, cities built on the side of ancient volcanoes.  

As we hiked for miles in the broiling daytime heat of Santorini, the volcanic epicenter of the ancient Minoan eruption that may have devastated the early world was visible to us as we walked along a path between cities.

But the volcanoes have also made places of indescribable beauty in the Aegean as well

One of the places we went to was Red Beach, a place with crystal-clear water and an amazing red sand beach, created by the volcano years ago.  It seems like a dream.

I struggled for a while to try to describe Greece to others, perhaps as I was spending time with the family, always planning to pen the Great American Blog Post but ending up too busy reconnecting and enjoying time with the family to do so.  But despite my wife's pleas to me to relax and enjoy myself, my mind, as ever, returned to sports.

That was when I realized that Greece is the Philadelphia sports fan of Europe.  

There is a special magic around Greece.  Greek people and Greek ex-pats pine for Greece, identify as Greeks and root for Greek sports teams, much as Phillies fans who grew up in Philadelphia identify as Philadelphians even though they've moved to Florida.

Greeks are proud of their history, a history where Pericles and Socrates established their dominance over the ancient world.  In that sense, it's a lot like 76ers fans, reminiscing about Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving dominating their NBA competition in their respective eras.

Aside from the fact that they live in an actual paradise, the Greek people seem to want nothing more than to share that paradise with you and demonstrate to you their huge pride in their country, their natural beauty and their storied history.

Dig a little deeper and you do detect some tensions.  This is a society, remember, that very nearly exited the Euro over a sovereign debt crisis (caused by government mismanagement) that caused turmoil among the Greek people for the last seven years.  As of today, some level of normalcy has returned - thanks to bailouts, large tax increases, and austerity measures - but Greeks have a long memory, and they haven't forgotten how they were treated.

But the Greeks we saw and met weren't primarily interested in talking taxes - they were much more passionate about their own businesses - their own restaurants, bakeries, stores, taxis or hotels - and the progress of the women's basketball team in the European Championships.

One day on our trip, after a long day of travelling, we found ourselves plopped on some comfortable seats in an outdoor taverna in the port of Egina.   

In that taverna and everywhere else on that street at the main harbor, every television had the quarterfinals of the Greece/France game being held in Prague, because it was Greece.  The Greek national team was playing in the semifinals, and it was Saturday night's show, the center of attention. 

All eyes were on the game, the smell of cigarettes and souvlaiki in the air, the hot air finally cooling after a blazing orange sunset, a breeze coming in off of the marina.

Most Americans couldn't even tell you a single international women's basketball competition that the US women's basketball team competes in, but on that sultry night on a Greek Island at 10 o'clock after a burning orange sunset, everyone was watching former WNBA guard Evanthia Maltsi try to stay hot from 3-point land.

I can't emphasize enough how each Greek person I talked to about the championship really knew what they were talking about, how they knew that the Greek national team were underdogs going into the tournament, but beat the defending champions (Serbia), knocked out a highly regarded contender (Russia), and utterly humiliated their geographic rivals (Turkey).  It might have gone unnoticed in ADHD-induced America, but in basketball-crazy Greece, their own Rocky story in the FIBA European Championship was front-page news, with baseball very far down the list of sports concerns.

Rooting for Greece internationally is kind of like always rooting for an FCS team to beat an FBS team, or a Kansas City Royals to beat the New York Yankees.  In Europe, Greece seems to always underfunded and has fewer resources than the Germany's, France's, England's or Italy's, but every once in a while they assemble a team for the ages and win the European Championship in basketball or soccer (which they actually have done in the last twenty years).  

It's a similar story with their top club soccer team, Olympiakos.  

Most years, they are in contention to win the Greek Super League and make it to the lucrative Group Stages of the competition, facing off against much richer teams like Arsenal, Paris-St. Germain, Real Madrid, and other giants of international soccer.  In their own country championship, they're dominating, but in the Champions League, all of a sudden they become Rocky.

The two main sports that Greeks seem to love the most are basketball and soccer.  

Even though you've certainly heard of Giannis "The Greek Freak" Antetokounpo, who is rocking the NBA right now as a star of the Milwaukee Bucks, Greece has consistently been a player in European basketball since the late 1980s, when they won the FIBA Championship.

Travelling around Greece, the day-to-day dramas of baseball and the Mets and even the ebb and flow of college football previews were only a trickle as a whole new focus on sports came in its place.  There was no SportsCenter, but there was plenty of basketball on TV and speculation on Panthiakos, Olympiakos, and AEK's latest soccer signings.  (Of all places, the hottest place to read about this critical soccer news was none other than a newspaper.)

It seemed like talk about sports came mostly at night, the heat of the day spent on either business, eating, swimming, or shopping, depending on which side of the marina you were on.  In a sense, it was understandable - because who wants to play sports when you're in paradise?  Perhaps at night, after the burning orange sunset.


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