As a big part of the winningest tradition in European club basketball, Walter Szczerbiak put his name high on the list of the best scorers ever to make their mark on the old continent. In his seven seasons with Real Madrid, Szczerbiak helped the team to win European Cup titles in 1974, 1978 and 1980, as well as to reach two other finals, in 1975 and 1976. Szczerbiak had incredible scoring battles against Bob Morse of Varese, helping to build one of biggest rivalries in European club history. He still holds the Spanish League's single game scoring record with 65 points. His son, Wally Szczerbiak, was born in Madrid and carried on his father's scoring tradition to a career in the NBA. Recently voted one of the to 35 players in the first 50 Years of European Club Basketball competition, Walter spoke to Euroleague.net about his glory days in Madrid - and the pride that came with them. "The reputation that Madrid had those days gave it absolute respect worldwide," Szczerbiak told Euroleague.net. "Players were gentlemen, known for their great sportsmanship and were famous for being great competitors. It was an honor, too, because Real Madrid had everyone's respect, no matter if you went to Israel, Argentina or anywhere. I am proud to have been a member of that family."
Hello, Walter, and congratulations for being chosen one of the 50 greatest contributors in European Club Basketball. What does that honor mean to you?
"I am very happy about it and proud to be honoured by the Euroleague. It gives a lot of value to the years I spent in European basketball. I am also very excited because the Final Four is in Madrid, so it is a great opportunity to meet many of my friends and former teammates. I am thrilled and so is my son Wally. If he was still playing in Seattle, he told me he would have shared the honour with me and come to the Final Four. Now he is playing in Cleveland and I hope he will be busy those days in the NBA playoffs."
You arrived to Real Madrid in late 1973 and soon surprised everyone with your shooting skills and elegance on and off the court. Real Madrid won its fifth European Cup title in 1974. What do you remember about that season?
"I arrived in Madrid for a tryout. I was negotiating with an NBA team, Buffalo, that offered me a one-year guaranteed contract. I wanted to sign for two years so I opted for take this tryout with Real Madrid against Indiana University, Bobby Knight's team. I convinced Pedro Ferrandiz in this game and signed a five-year guaranteed deal, but I had a week to give a final decision. I was tough to say goodbye to my NBA dreams, but I accepted the offer with an NBA escape clause at the end of each season. I got along so well with my teammates and was quite impressed with the team we had. I was a perfect fit in the team. We beat Barcelona by 60 points in my first Spanish League game and I scored 47. Joventut also lost that day and everyone said that the league was decided. I couldn't understand that, coming from more competitive leagues, but we finished the league unbeaten. We also won the European Cup and had the luxury to have a player like Carmelo Cabrera, who gave us an extra gear when he was on court. His up-tempo game, court sense, fastbreak passes and his understanding with me and Wayne Brabender meant a great advantage to us. We had a good European season and made it to the final against Ignis Varese in Nantes, France. Something happened to me at halftime, and suddenly all my strength was gone. I had to take the decision either to continue shooting despite weak legs or to play for the team, which is what I did in the second half. Players like Cabrera or Juanito Corbalan hit decisive free throws in the final minutes to win the title. I was criticized after the game, but I made the right decision."
The rivalry between Real Madrid and Varese was legendary, and also the battles between you and Bob Morse. How difficult was to beat Varese and how were those shootouts against Morse?
"Very tough. Bob was taller than me and he came off screens all the time. I had to follow him around and he was 10 centimeters taller than me, which helped him to shoot despite my good defense. I remember that in the game in Nantes, I did a good job even when he had 24 points, but on 12-for-26 shooting. Morse was a 70 to 80% field goal shooter and I was proud to limit him that way. In 1975, both teams made it to the final in Antwerp, Belgium and we didn't feel comfortable on that court. Varese beat us easily. We also made it to the 1976 European Cup final in Geneva, Switzerland, very close to Varese. We played very well in the first 30 minutes and I was doing very well, hitting one shot after another. I had 24 points with 8 minutes to go but I didn't get many options to shoot in the last 5 minutes. I was on fire and felt frustrated for not being able to help my team to win. Morse kept hitting shots, just as usual, moving around and using screens from Dino Meneghin, Marino Zanatta or Ivan Bisson. They beat us again and that was very frustrating."
You won your second European Cup title in 1978, scoring 26 points in the title game against Varese. Wayne Brabender and Carmelo Cabrera also had good games. What memories do you get from the final in Munich?
"This is one of the few games I have on video. I checked and saw that Carmelo was punished because of the assists system in that era. I counted on video and he had around 15 assists to me and Brabender, so we must credit Carmelo for that. He officially finished the game with one or two assists. Only passes that were completed with a layup were counted as assists then. I remember that I fouled out with 11 minutes to go but my team did a great defensive job on Morse and Charlie Yelverton. Luis Maria Prada managed to stop Morse while Johnny Coughran slowed Yelverton and did a very good job. Yelverton took too many off-balanced shots and that did not allow Morse to get his game rhythm. Brabender hit a couple of key shots and we managed to keep our lead for good. It was a contract season for me and that game allowed me to extend the deal for two more years."
You still lifted a third Euroleague trophy against Maccabi Elite in 1980, surviving a semifinal group stage against defending champion Bosna and Mirza Delibasic. Rafa Rullan was the hero with 27 points and you had 16 to beat Maccabi 89-85 in West Berlin. What comes to mind about that season and the final?
"I really had 18 points! Every time I played a European Cup final, I always finished with fewer points in the scoresheet that the ones I scored, I don't know why. I have the video and checked it out. If I wasn't called for a three-second violation on a fastbreak, I would have finished the game with 20 and everyone would have been happier. I was criticized for not scoring 30 points in the European Cup final. Now basketball has changed, defenses have improved and those numbers are hard to reach. I wanted to play solid that game. People were already talking about releasing me and I only played European Cup games. It wasn't easy, as I had to practice on my own when the team played on the road in the Spanish League. It was tough to stay in good shape. I offered good things in that game, finding the big men around the basket. Rullan had 27 points and Randy Meister had a good game, too. In Maccabi, Jim Boatwright was shooting very well, Aulcie Perry was solid but Lou Silver did not have a good game. Wayne and I played for the team. The team was changing and Rullan was in the prime of his career, hitting turnaround jumpers. We had to take advantage of that."
In your seven seasons in Madrid, you won three European Cup titles and six Spanish League trophies. Looking back and now that we honour Real Madrid this week, how important has been for you to play for Real Madrid?
"It has been the chance to play in a gentlemen's club. The reputation that Madrid had those days gave it absolute respect worldwide. Players were gentlemen, known for their great sportsmanship and were famous for being great competitors. The club, led by Santiago Bernabeu, was seen as a class act. I am proud of having been part of Real Madrid. It was an honour, too, because Real Madrid had everyone's respect no matter if you went to Israel, Argentina or anywhere. I am proud to have been a member of that family."
Has the recent worldwide recognition of European basketball excellence surprised you after spending so much time playing, scouting and seeing the sport grow in Europe?
"Not really. I wish I could have played against NBA teams while I was in Real Madrid, and I think we could have chances to beat them. Maccabi had beaten Washington and New Jersey in Israel, so I am not surprised that European teams are beating NBA teams now. There are three major factors. First, NBA games have 48 minutes and that's too long: like I told Corbalan on the phone recently, I believe that playing 40 minutes doesn't give that much importance to bench depth. A team with six or seven very talented players can afford 40 minutes of action. Second, the three-point shot in Europe is not as difficult as in the NBA. A lot of players like Manu Ginobili or Sarunas Jasikevicius can take that shot easily. That compensates the athletic superiority that the U.S. can have. Third, zone defenses don't allow NBA teams to play inside-out. Players like Tim Duncan have it difficult against zones, as it is not easy to find him in the low post. These are three factors that will give European teams chances against U.S. teams despite their physical disadvantage and eventually win more games."
The European Club competitions turns 50 this year. As a global personality in world basketball, what do you think about the initiative the Euroleague had to honour its legends in the last half-century?
"Well, I am so happy about it. This is the kind of thing I was missing. Here in the United States, you have things like the Hall of Fame and they honor their legends more often. When the NBA turned 50, it also had a great on-court ceremony at an All-Star Game in Cleveland. I had the chance to speak to some of the players and they were quite happy to meet each other and have a good time with former teammates and rivals. So I am very happy and proud to be part of this, in my opinion, great event. The whole project was a great idea by the Euroleague. It is a great invention. Here in the United States, I am a nobody - or just Wally's father. They don't know what I did in European basketball and the impact I had there. It is a great way to recognize what I did and meet the basketball that was a big part of my life in my 20s and 30s. It is fantastic and I have to thank the Euroleague for that!"