The end of the most successful combination of club and head coach in European basketball history came Tuesday when Zeljko Obradovic announced that he will leave Panathinaikos Athens after 13 seasons. Obradovic arrived to the Panathinaikos bench in 1999 and went on to win five Euroleague titles with the Greens, starting in his very first season. The continental trophies they won together are more than any other European club has won since 1978 and two more than any other club has won in the Final Four era, which started in 1988. His five Euroleague titles with Panathinaikos alone would have made Obradovic, 52, the winningest head coach in European history, and he won three more with as many different teams before joining the Greens.
“When I came in June 1999 to Athens to join Panathinaikos, I could not have imagined that this would be my team, my family, my home for 13 years," Obradovic said in an open letter to Panathinaikos fans, reprinted in full below. "In these 13 years, we had many beautiful moments, many celebrations, but also difficulties. We were always together as a great and true family."
No sooner did Obradovic arrive in Athens than he delivered the 2000 Euroleague title at the end of his first season with the club. Panathinaikos downed Maccabi Tel Aviv 73-67 in the final and used that momentum to add their first Greek League title together, too. In 2001, Obradovic took the Greens to the SuproLeague title game, but Maccabi stood in their way. Once Panathinaikos returned to the Euroleague, Obradovic led Panathinaikos to a come-from-behind 83-89 victory in the 2002 Final Four against host Kinder Bologna. It was the only Final Four title-game victory ever won on the floor of the other finalist. Obradovic and Panathinaikos returned to the Final Four in 2005, but missed the final in a loss to defending champion Maccabi. When Athens was chosen as the host city for the 2007 Final Four, the Greens came back in style to take the trophy again in one of the greatest finals in basketball history, a thrilling 2-point win over defending champion CSKA Moscow. The Greens went on to complete their first triple crown - Euroleague, Greek League and Greek Cup titles - later that season.
Two years later, in 2009, Panathinaikos took its title-game rematch with CSKA at the Final Four in Berlin by holding off a wild rally to win 73-71. To reach the 2011 Final Four, Obradovic and the Greens had to knock off defending champion and would-be host Regal FC Barcelona in the playoffs before handling Montepaschi Siena and Maccabi in the Final Four. It was their fifth and last Euroleague title together, as this year their bid for a repeat ended in the semifinals with a 2-point loss to CSKA.
Outside the Euroleague, Obradovic led Panathinaikos to 11 Greek League titles, including 10 in a row until this season, and seven Greek Cup trophies. Overall, they won 23 national titles in 13 years.
Letter from Zeljko Obradovic to Panathinaikos Athens fans:
When I came in June 1999 to Athens to join Panathinaikos, I could not have imagined that this would be my team, my family, my home for 13 years. In these 13 years, we had many beautiful moments, many celebrations, but also difficulties. We were always together as a great and true family. From the principles I learned from my family, I always remember that the most important thing is to respect people, especially if you want to be respected. This is something I would like to stress at this time.
I have great respect for the Giannakopoulos family, which made it possible with all its power, to be together all these years. I would like to thank and salute respectfully, the people working at Panathinaikos, all the members of the coaching staff with whom I had a great partnership over the years. Also a big thank you to all Panathinaikos fans, who were always, always, always with us, because without their help we never would have succeeded. And of course a big thank you to all the players with whom I worked these 13 years. Together, the Giannakopoulos family, the Panathinaikos employees, the coaching staff, players and fans managed to make Panathinaikos a great club that is respected throughout Europe.
Now I have had a very difficult decision to take, that the collaboration of all these years is over. I think that what happens in a family should stay in a family. Because, as the wise Greek people say, "Whatever happens in a family, should never go public." I feel at this time that my decision is the best for everyone.
Panathinaikos was my team and my home for 13 years and will always remain part of my heart. I would also like to thank all the representatives of the media for their cooperation. Last but not least, I would like to say a great thank you to my best man, my closest partner and friend Dimitris Itoudis, for our great and magnificent cooperation.