The club that has won the most Euroleague titles over the last 44 years, Panathinaikos Athens, has its sights set on some even bigger goals as it arrives at the 2012 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul. The Greens have piled up their six Euroleague titles so far since 1996, the second-fastest trophy-collecting pace in competition history. The next title would break a tie with their semifinals opponent this season, CSKA Moscow, and put Panathinaikos within one more trophy of tying European basketball’s most successful club ever, Real Madrid. What's more, victory in Istanbul would make Panathinaikos just the second team to seize back-to-back continental crowns over the last two decades, the golden era of European basketball. And since winning Final Fours has become second nature to Panathinaikos lately, all of it seems possible in Istanbul.
The Greens were one of the earliest basketball dynasties in Greece thanks to 12 domestic titles in a 17-year stretch between 1967 and 1984. After a dip in quality in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Panathinaikos bounced back to become a top team and. After back-to-back semifinal defeats in 1994 and 1995, Panathinaikos finally claimed its first Euroleague title in 1996, led by Panagiotis Giannakis, Dominique Wilkins, Stojan Vrankovic and Fragiskos Alvertis.
Its true golden era began in 1999, however, the year that Zeljko Obradovic took over the Panathinaikos bench. The maestro led the Greens to Final Fours in each of his first three seasons. In the very first of those, Panathinaikos lifted its second Euroleague trophy in Thessaloniki with a victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Two seasons later, in 2002, the Greens won it all again by upsetting Virtus Bologna in comeback fashion, marking the only title game of the 25-year Final Four era won on the home floor of the other finalist.
Panathinaikos lost its only semifinal under Obradovic at the 2005 Final Four in Moscow, but within two years, the trio of Dimitris Diamantidis, Mike Batiste and Ramunas Siskauskas led the Greens to a fourth title at home in Athens before more than 18,000 of the team's incredible fans at OAKA arena. Starting then, the Greens have owned the Euroleague title in odd-numbered years. With victories in the Berlin 2009 and Barcelona 2011 title games, Panathinaikos added its fifth and sixth Euroleague crowns with confident displays of know-how against classic opponents. Now the club has reached yet another Final Four to accomplish the only thing missing from its historic run of greatness – back-to-back Euroleague championships.
Panathinaikos started the 2011-12 campaign with the vast majority of last season's squad back, experience that showed with three big wins to start the Euroleague season. The Green's first test came against their future semifinals opponent, CSKA Moscow. Panathinaikos lost a late lead and fell at home in overtime. An unexpected road loss at Brose Baskets followed, and a third in a row – which hadn't happened to Panathinaikos since 2006 – seemed imminent until reigning Euroleague MVP Diamantidis hit consecutive three-pointers in the game's last 12 seconds to beat Unicaja on the road. The Greens followed with two wins by a combined 53 points, and despite a loss in Moscow, finished Group B in second place with a 7-3 record.
The Greens started the Top 16 with a blowout win at EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, but lost the following week at home to Unics Kazan. Kostas Kaimakoglou starred in the team's first visit to Istanbul this season as Panathinaikos beat Fenerbahce Ulker first away and then at home. Another surprise Top 16 home loss, this time at the hands of Milan, set the stage for a decisive Top 16 final at Kazan. In the end, its bench players scored 47 points to overwhelm Unics and send Panathinaikos into the playoffs with home-court advantage.
In their best-of-five series, the most intense rivalry in the world this century, Panathinaikos vs. Maccabi, got even better from game to game in what turned out to be one of the great playoffs in basketball history. Panathinaikos won Game 1 rather easily, but Maccabi evened things with an overtime victory at OAKA in Game 2. A Maccabi home win in Game 3 put the Greens' backs to the wall. However, Panathinaikos rallied to take Game 4 and survived Game 5 in the closing seconds behind a mighty Diamantidis to secure a spot at the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four.
With 10 players who have been Euroleague champs on the roster and a coaching wizard pulling the strings, Panathinaikos can never be called underdogs. What's more, the Greens land in Istanbul with the full confidence of champions looking to celebrate their first repeat title when the weekend ends.