Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv
Basketball fever swept through Tel Aviv in the spring of 2004 as Maccabi Elite set 11 records in a memorable display in the title game as it won its fourth European title in front of a sea of yellow fans at Nokia Arena. Maccabi's 118-74 win crowned the club as the best in Europe and ended another exciting season of Euroleague Basketball. The April 29-May 1 games were a smashing success, with each game standing on its own merit, perhaps because all four teams – Maccabi, Skipper Bologna, Montepaschi Siena and CSKA Moscow – faced each other twice during the regular season. CSKA, Maccabi, Skipper and Montepaschi finished in that order in Group B of the regular season, but once split up in the Top 16, they each dominated in their own right. While CSKA and Skipped each went 5-1 to win their groups, Montepaschi eliminated the previous season's finalists, Barcelona and Benetton Treviso, and the 2002 champs, Panathinaikos, on the way to taking the ticket to Tel Aviv from Group F. Meanwhile, perhaps the most memorable game of the season saw Maccabi captain Derrick Sharp hit a buzzer-beater to force overtime and eventually beat Arvydas Sabonis's Zalgiris Kaunas in a direct battle for a spot at the Final Four in the Group G finale. The games at Nokia Arena got off to a blistering start as Skipper outlasted Siena 102-103 in overtime in a classic semifinal performance. Carlos Delfino scored 27 – including a free throw with 11.6 seconds left in overtime to break yet another tie – as Skipper advanced to its first Euroleague final. Bootsy Thornton led Montepaschi with 26 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. In the second semifinal, CSKA stunned the local fans by taking an early double-digit lead, but Maccabi, led by Anthony Parker and Sarunas Jasikevicius stormed back and took control in the second half for a 93-85 win. Parker finished with a game-high 27 and Saras added 18 and 6 assists for the winners. Marcus Brown posted 23 for CSKA. Following a pair of semifinals – not to mention the third-place game in which CSKA overcame Montepaschi 94-97 behind Brown's 27 – Maccabi blew Skipper out of the water early with a 31-13 first quarter and continued piling it on for a record-setting 44-point victory. The big win was a surprise to may, since the young Skipper side recorded a rare win over Maccabi in Tel Aviv just three months earlier, but on this night nothing could stop the yellow-and-blue. Parker was named Final Four MVP after scoring 21, David Bluthenthal came off the bench for 20, Saras added 18 and Tal Burstein amassed 17 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists for the yellow-and-blue. Milos Vujanic was the lone bright spot for Bologna with 21 points in 21 minutes. The celebrations continued deep into the night as the crowd saluted coach Pini Gershon and his high scoring squad for bring Euroleague glory back to Tel Aviv.
Interview: Sarunas Jasikevicius of Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv
Sarunas Jasikevicius arrived at Maccabi Tel Aviv for the 2003-04 season as a reigning Euroleague and European champion, who was supposed to put the Israeli champs over the top as the Final Four returned to Tel Aviv in the first time in a decade. Saras's talent and leadership proved critical for the yellow-and-blue, as he took a key role beside the team's other stars, Anthony Parker and Nikola Vujcic, to make Maccabi one of the most exciting and fun-to-watch teams in the history of European basketball. However, just as everything seemed to be going so right, it almost came derailed at the worst and last possible moment – with him on the bench. After Saras had fouled out in the last minute of Maccabi's head-to-head clash with Arvydas Sabonis's Zalgiris Kaunas in the Top 16 finale for the last Final Four spot, Zalgiris took a seemingly insurmountable three-point lead with the ball and seconds to go. But fate stepped in and a few missed free throws, a line violation and Derrick Sharp's miracle buzzer-beating three-pointer forced overtime and allowed Maccabi to go on to become the first dynasty of the new millennium.
You accomplished something rare, winning titles twice in a row with different teams. I know it's impossible to compare, but having gone through that, can you say anything about what teams who win Euroleague titles have in common in terms of attitude or psychology or togetherness in this era of what many people consider the best European basketball ever?
"I think normally it all comes under the category of organization. I was lucky enough to play for two amazing organizations, Barcelona and Maccabi. If you look at them, both have great presidents, great coaches, talented players and very nice chemistry. All those are obvious ingredients for me."
Even years from now, there will be no looking back on the 2003-04 season, without talking about Derrick Sharp's shot, the one that saved Maccabi's season? Do you still think about that from time to time? Nikola Vujcic said he thought about it every day.
"I wouldn't say every day. I do think about it a lot, when the conversation comes around. I think that shot that will stay with us the rest of our lives. I am glad I was on the right side of the shot, though."
That year was also the season of Sabonis, of his return to European basketball. Will you remember his presence as making the season itself extra special for you, not to mention all the younger players who were on court with him for the first time?
"Playing with him is very special. I was fortunate enough to play a couple times with him, and to watch him playing all my life. He's one of those guys who don't come along often. Talent like that, you don't know when you're going to have it again, not just Lithuania, but Europe in general. It was just real nice playing with him and against him, It was not so nice at the time, because it was difficult to win playing against him, but at the same time, that's something I'll remember the rest of my life. I'm just happy I got to compete with him and against him and watch him his whole career. As a Lithuanian, he was a huge, huge inspiration."
People may have thought you had it easy playing at home in the Final Four, but beating CSKA in the semis was no picnic, was it?
"The Final Four is always two tough games. We were fortunate to beat CSKA in a difficult game. At the end, I think we just came through with big plays in the third quarter to take control of the game. And then we managed to finish it."
The final was of course a record-breaking blowout against Skipper Bologna. What do you remember most about being on the court during that game, when it seemed like everything went perfectly right for your team?
"Against Skipper, it was a situation of two teams that were both very good and at a similar level, but one played out of its mind and another was not having such a great night. We had so much respect for them. We respected them like crazy, knowing they had beat us in our own gym a few weeks before. It was a final where everything went right for one team, and not so much of anything for the other. The emotions? Our crowd and our city were amazing. It was really a perfect game for Maccabi. We got off to a very big lead right away, then continued fighting, not losing concentration, not letting them back in the game, and we succeeded at that also. At the end of the third quarter, it was obvious we would win, so we were playing the last 10 minutes with no pressure, hoping time would run out sooner so we could go celebrate with our families and teammates. It doesn't happen so often like that in such a big game."
Finally, you have played in many exciting places, but when the arena in Tel Aviv is full of yellow shirts, is there anything that compares to that in basketball that you know of? What does that do for a player?
"I'm not sure that anything can compare to that. I don't think anything does. When I think of basketball fans all over world, I don't think anything compares to Maccabi. I was lucky to be there and experience it. I was in the ACC Tournament in college in America, which was special, too. But Maccabi is a whole 'nother level, with the fans singing songs all 40 minutes, and the whole country watching on Thursday nights. It was just amazing, really, to walk in there, see the shirts, hear them sing the songs. It made you want to do something special.