Upper Darby, PA – Eight years later, the Philadelphia Greek Basketball League (PGBL) is at the forefront of progress and growth, not only as a sports league, but as a new model organization in the Greek-American community of the Philadelphia area. Each year, in early October, young adult Greek-American men come to the basketball court at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Upper Darby, and the PGBL becomes center stage for fans and players of the game of basketball.
These young men unite to compete in the area’s, and some say the nation’s premiere league. It’s a chance for many of them who had played high school basketball or were lucky to play in college, to once again shine at the sport they love. In addition, the PGBL is a place where the Greek-American community has carved a new road for the preservation of our Hellenic community.
By the age of eighteen, many young men, as well as women, have cut the umbilical cord that nurtured and tied them as Greek-Americans to our community. Their journey of self-discovery and independence often lead them away from our Greek Orthodox churches and organizations. They assimilated into the melting pot of America like every other ethnic group, especially when they finished high school. By the time they graduated, many left the GOYA and were off to college as well as seeking other job opportunities. Many never returned and often married outside of the community.
If we’re fortunate, some of the values from a Greek family upbringing lingered in their memory and years later, they rejoined the community. They raised their families and followed in the footsteps of their parents and ancestors by joining the Church and many of the Greek-American organizations and societies. However, many have not and the Church and organizations suffer with depleted membership from that generation. The Church and organizations often complain about the lack of members from this generation and are baffled how to bring them back into the fold.
The PGBL is the link to that future. It keeps those young Greek-American men, particularly between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, in our Greek-American community. It offers a professionally run outlet for this generation to interact under a unique forum. Not Since the early Greek soccer leagues of the 60’s-80’s, has there been an organization of this type. Academic, religious and cultural organizations dominated our social affairs as Hellenes. Now with a credible eight year history behind them, the PGBL has become firmly rooted as a place to meet, mingle, and compete as adult Hellenes. They control their own destiny as adult members of a Hellenic organization that is well respected and organized. Although hosted within the boundaries of the Greek-American community, it is run by people their own age. That is likely the key factor in this success story. A band of brothers with Hellenic ties, run by brothers.
The league features many GOYA, high school, and several college stars from the community. It even features a former professional Greek basketball player, Pete Kathopoulos, who was voted MVP this past year. Kathopoulos is a leader for many of these young men, both on and off the court, as many of the senior members of the league are. They are progressive and successful entrepreneurs that understand the importance of the PGBL and their responsibility to sustain their Hellenic roots. Many of their businesses like Modern Auto Crafters, Emmanuelle Insurance, Alpha Card Services, and Pete’s Famous Pizza, are all success stories. As members of the league, the owners of these businesses also play key leadership roles that perpetuate the PGBL by having their businesses sponsor the league. After all is said, the PGBL is a society for young men and establishing these energetic young men as leaders in the Greek-American community. With their involvement and leadership, our community will continue to sustain itself and our values.
With the formation of the PGBL, John Vasiliou and Bill Zonios (co-commissioners and co-founders of the league), have made a hoop dream into a reality and something beyond. What started as a league of six teams, has now become a league of nine and others waiting to join. The PGBL has become so popular, that many businesses, and even the AHEPA District 4, have become sponsors, but not for the sole purpose of advertising their products, but, more importantly, to support these young adults and the PGBL and the good that it does for the community.
In the fourth year of the PGBL, the co-commissioners brought in the newly formed media news group Cosmos Philly (Cosmosphilly.com), who covered the Thursday weekly games with professional photo and video reporting. A broad range of viewers from the Delaware Valley and Greek communities around the country are now exposed to the highly competitive league. People who grew up in the Philadelphia area but have moved to all corners of the world have access to the games and see their friends and relatives competing. Because of the introduction of Cosmos Philly, the PGBL has certainly become a global phenomenon.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the PGBL has also spawned an economic and social reincarnation for St. Demetrios Church. It draws visitors to their church and provides traditional food with Greek hospitality. The league features what is arguably the best Spanakopita in the area – that guests often brag about. Parish members donate their time, weekly, working the church snack bar. Homemade Spanakopita and Tiropita, with rolled out filo dough, are prepared, cooked fresh, and sold to the fans and players. Many fans say they can’t separate the experience of a PGBL game and slice of Spanakopita. It’s like going to a Phillies game and having a Phillies Frank and Crab Fries. Often the Spanakopita is sold out by half time. That is where tradition is formed and married to Hellenism, thus becoming embedded into the Greek-American psyche.
“The atmosphere at the games are friendly and family oriented” says John Vasiliou. Many of the players have become stars and the young children of the community come to watch them play too. But so do many members of the Greek community, of all ages, come out week after week to watch Greek athletes, socialize with their fellow Greeks, and have a slice of Spanakopita – the Spirit of Hellenism is truly abundant at the PGBL games. Let’s face it. The league is very special. Some teams are made up of friends from a particular church. Others are mixed from different areas of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Off-season trades occur and rumors fly who is leaving one team to go to another. One team, F.O.B, (Fresh off the Boat) are made up of “fresh” immigrants from Greece.
Listen closely, when they play you will only hear them speaking or arguing in Greek. That’s authentic enough to make anyone feel that they’re at a Greek basketball league. Even the non-Greek referees are in awe at the support the team get and the fans that come out. They too have certainly come to love Spanakopita too!
“Thursday nights” as they’re known in PGBL circles, is a gathering point for Hellenes around the Delaware Valley. Fathers and sons, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, and players from as far away as Atlantic City, New Jersey and Reading, Pennsylvania, attend. The league has even inspired discussions in other Greek communities throughout the country in hosting their own leagues. Who knows, one day there may even be a World Cup championship made up of teams from around the country. Anything is possible with these young men.
Now firmly recognized in the community, the PGBL has announced PGBL Cares program. “This is the charitable part of our league” says Bill Zonios. “It is the way we wanted to give back in the past, but could not, until now.” The PGBL is scheduling to feed the homeless the last week before the start of the new season, along with a visit to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia during the Holidays. You can find out more about this on their facebook site (facebook.com/Philly Greek Ball). This charitable part of the PGBL was based on the NBA’s Cares program.
In addition, the PGBL is preparing a scholarship fund. A $2,000.00 scholarship will be awarded and the recipient will be recognized at the end of year during the PGBL’s banquet that is being prepared during the off season. More information will come out during the year.In the summer off season, the PGBL sponsored a summer tournament and golf outing which raised funds for the league and philanthropic efforts.
Each one has been successful and has generated more popularity for the organization and the league announced that these events will be held each year. It appears that whatever goal the founders and the PGBL leaders set, they quickly achieve it. We have learned that the PGBL’s ultimate goal is to construct a Greek-American sports facility to host athletics of all kind for the Greek-American community of Philadelphia. Architectural sketches and preliminary talks have begun. With their track record of “action first,” we wouldn’t bet against their ability to reach that goal.
It was first a dream between to old GOYA friends, John Vasiliou and Bill Zonios, to have a place to continue their passion and love for the game of basketball and the PGBL was born out of that dream. Through their leadership and dedication, they have united young men and Greek-American leaders around the Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley to create the new model of the Greek-American organization. Today, the PGBL continues to raise the bar. Philanthropic and entrepreneurial, the Philadelphia Greek Basketball League is a proud beacon for Hellenism in Philadelphia and is the “Road to the Future.”
Written by Eleftherios Kostans