Philadelphia, PA – Proud Greek Americans took over the Wells Fargo Center on Monday evening for the Sixers game. Dubbed Greek Heritage Night, it was sponsored by the Philadelphia Greek Basketball League, Greek American Heritage Society of Philadelphia, the Federation of Hellenic American Societies of Philadelphia and Greater Delaware Valley and Colonial Marble. The event brought out basketball fans to see the Sixers take on the rising NBA star, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Over a thousand Greeks were treated to basketball, Greek music, Greek dancing, and then got to shoot a few buckets on the court where the stars of the NBA come to play. Atlantis of Philadelphia greeted visitors at the entrance lobby with Greek music and singing. Greek Sixers fans and the public, joined hands and started dancing at the same time selfies started popping up on the net as the energy of the Greek community transitioned the evening. As the music played, Atlantis announced, “Everyone’s Greek tonight.”
Section 118 and 123 of the Wells Fargo Center filled with blue and white shirts, flags and signs bearing Antetokounmpo’s name. Before the game started, Co-commissioners of the PGBL, John Vasiliou and Bill Zonios, stood at center court for the captains ceremonial greeting. Stathis Karandonis of the Federation and Nick Yiantsos of Greek American Heritage society were also recognized as key leading members of their respective organizations. All of them got to shake hands with the team representatives of the Sixers and the referees before the game started.
As the lights were brought down, the Color Guard marched onto center court and over the loudspeakers was heard, “And now, to sing the National Anthem, from the Greek-American community and the band Atlantis of Philadelphia – Kaliopi Karapalides.” Popi’s stunning rendition of the National Anthem brought on cheers and to some, tears of joy. As she exited the floor, basketball fans reached out to shake her hand. One fan shouted, “Beautiful, just beautiful, God bless you. You have a beautiful voice”. Popi Karapalides told Cosmos Philly, “I have been singing the National Anthem in public since I was a kid, but I was a little nervous before such a big crowd, but after hitting the first note, it was all go. I was ecstatic, honored, and proud – it was the biggest moment of my life singing in front of so many people, especially before our Greek American community.”
As the game began, all eyes focused on Antetokounmpo. “Gianni is an exceptional athlete with the height of an NBA center and the playmaking ability of a shooting guard. At 20 years old he still has a tremendous amount of room to grow as a basketball player. His potential is through the roof and we are only beginning to see how good he can really be”, says John Vasiliou of the PGBL. Many players from the famed Philadelphia Greek American Basketball League were also in attendance sporting their PGBL sweat shirts.
Throughout the evening, Antetokounmpo thrilled his Greek supporters who looked on. Children dressed in Greek folk attire stood with parents cheered and waving posters with his name. Antetokounmpo chipped in 12 points for the Bucks who beat the Sixers on this evening and who capped a turnaround from the NBA’s worst record last season. Their win on Sunday over the Nets gave them a playoff berth.
At half time, the Pegasus dance group of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox church did it again. Last summer at a Phillies’ game they performed on the field during the 7th inning stretch. Tonight, the kids from St. D’s, got to put on another performance by dancing several Greek numbers on the court. Family members delighted as the next generation of young Greek-Americans from Philadelphia showed off their stuff. Dressed in regional outfits from Greece, they circled their way to the cheers of the fans as they were featured on the jumbotron above. Pre-game and during half-time, a brief video from the Greek American Heritage Society of Philadelphia was shown on the jumbotron. GAHSP president, Nick Yiantsos, and all the Greek American fans watched with pride what the Society is doing for our community.
When the game concluded, Greek fans stood waiting for their hero to arrive and greet them. Vasiliou, Zonios and the Sixers media representatives did an excellent job of taking care of the Greek community. Children came down onto the floor with parents and started snapping photos while others lined up for a shot on a professional basketball court. A surreal scene overwhelmed many who had never experienced being so close to a professional sporting event.
Minutes later, everyone was asked to return to their seats by Vasiliou in anticipation. Many fans lined the corner tunnel and began to yell out – Gianni! Gianni!. Suddenly, Antetokounmpo appeared smiling and hi-fiving Greeks as he entered the floor. “It makes me proud to be Greek seeing so many people who came out to support me” he told Cosmos Philly reporter Eleni Seleni. Towering over the reporter and fans he took several photos before answering questions about the evening. As he was ready to reply, he asked in Greek, “Can I speak Greek?” The crowd went wild. Cheers brought on a big smile from Gianni that was immediately reciprocated by the star struck crowd.
Bill Zonios and John Vasiliou then presented Gianni with a sweatshirt from the PGBL basketball league and plaque. Gianni was officially inducted as an “honorary” member of the Philadelphia Greek Basketball League. He waved the plaque and smiled as a sense of pride took over as he gazed over the Philadelphia Greek community. A giant group shot of the crowd with Gianni sitting center and a few high fives again as he exited the court, concluded the historic and inspiring moment.
The PGBL, the GAHSP, the Hellenic Federation, Colonial Marble and the Sixers certainly brought great joy to the Greek-American community of Philadelphia and it will be a night long remember in our community.