|It was the 16th of October, 2000, and in the now-defunct Raimundo Saporta Pavillion, the hosts from Real Madrid and guests from Olympiacos Piraeus made a dream come true by playing the very first game of the just-born Euroleague. From that day until this one, there have been 1,994 games organized by the Union of European Basketball Leagues (ULEB), 1,260 in the Euroleague and 734 in the ULEB Cup. That makes today a historic one, as the mark of 2,000 games since that first one will be passed when eight Euroleague games tip off on Thursday. Already, a total of 313,341 points have fallen through the nets in both competitions, 6,000 referees and 2,000 commissioners have been assigned and thousands more reports made in the international press. All of which makes it a good opportunity to catch up with Eduardo Portela, the ULEB president, who not only lived through all the stages of birth of the Euroleague and ULEB Cup, but was a protagonist of them and is a big part of what the ULEB and Euroleague are today. "It was a lengthy process, nothing happened overnight," Mr. Portela told Euroleague.net. "Everything that happened was the result of an amalgam of experiences through which many of the clubs had passed, leaving only one option: To manage their own competition. Since then, much has taken place, but the results are evident and very positive. We have a great competition and a bright future."
We are on the verge today of the 2000th game organized by ULEB. How do you feel six years on?
"I am very proud of everything we have accomplished and achieved in these six years. Now, I can safely say that during that fateful afternoon when the Euroleague was created, during the meeting in Sitges, there were still clubs and leagues that had their doubts and were glued to their phones in search of advice until the very last minute, but in the end we managed to put it in motion because the majority clearly understood that we were on the cusp of making a historical step and that it had to be done."
The founding of the Euroleague did not arise spontaneously?
"One must first recall the circumstances in which the Euroleague was created six years ago. Amongst the clubs and the leagues there was a general sense that a radical change must be made, and after the meetings in Milan and Barcelona, the time had come. It was a lengthy process, nothing happened overnight. Everything that happened was the result of an amalgam of experiences through which many of the clubs had passed, leaving only one option: To manage their own competition, and they were not greeted with open arms within FIBA. Since then, much has taken place, but the results are evident and very positive. We have a great competition and a bright future."
Now there are two stable competitions, but certainly there is much to improve upon. What is left to be done?
"I would say that, first and foremost, we need tradition and this can only happen over time. We are in the sixth season with the Euroleague and in the fourth with the ULEB Cup, and this is a very short time in which to establish them as a brand. But this will certainly come with time and the people will associate these two competitions with the most important in Europe. Secondly, and closely related to the first point, is to penetrate the terrestrial television market and thus bring our product to as many fans as possible. It is a monumental task for us and one in which we have already made significant strides, evident in the fact that this is the first year in which we are managing our television rights in-house.
"Another important point in terms of the development of our competitions is the professionalism of our clubs. The Euroleague ranks—in many respects, but above all at the organizational level—a '10' but the clubs must do so as well. It is not enough anymore to simply make money and sign good players or good coaches. Today it is imperative to have skilled professionals in all areas, especially in communications and marketing. The results of their work are not immediate, but are guaranteed.
"The same thing goes for the national leagues. The more demanding and professional they are, the more advanced will be their standing and that of the Euroleague as well, because the clubs will then be more prepared and accustomed to meeting the regulations. I'll give you an example: back when we at the ACB established the strict regulations regarding statistics, it seemed a little strange to some people. But since then, this has been indispensable for us, and there have even been companies and departments created to commercialize them."
What is the current relationship between the ULEB and FIBA?
"In terms of FIBA, it must be stated clearly and unequivocally that we want, and have always wanted, to be a part of FIBA, because we both form a part of the greater basketball family, we both walk under the same umbrella because we all live basketball. But, each one has different goals. From our point of view, FIBA must organize the global and continental championships in all categories, they must participate in the Olympic games and promote basketball on the world stage. But when you talk about professional basketball, the clubs are the ones who must decide what kind of competition they want, the calendar that must be established, the objectives that must be met. I think that FIBA in the end has understood this and the result was a signed agreement over a year-and-a-half ago."
Everyday there are more requests to participate in the Euroleague or the ULEB Cup, but according to the agreement with FIBA, ULEB is limited to 48 clubs for the two competitions.
"I think that in the future, the ULEB has to organize all of the club competitions. FIBA and ULEB must not be competitors in this regard. Furthermore, I don't think that all of the clubs should have the right to participate in an international cup. You have to meet a certain level of competition and organization, with conditions worthy of an international competition."
Any regrets over the past six years?
"In general no, more or less. As I have already said, we all should be very proud of what we have created here and what we have accomplished. What I do regret to this day is that the true victims of the conflict with FIBA were the referees, completely defenseless. They suffered moral and corporeal damage because they were excluded from some national leagues and all of the international competitions."
And relations with the NBA? From time to time we read about the NBA setting up shop in Europe or that some European clubs would form a part of the NBA?
"Our relationship with the NBA is very good, especially between the Euroleague and the NBA, as it should be between two organizations with the same philosophy. The NBA in Europe? It seems to me like a lot of people talk about this with no regard for the truth, without getting to the bottom of the issue and without explaining the true significance of it all. To set up an NBA team costs some 300 million euros, in addition to the cost of the staff, the arena, etc. Are there television stations in Europe that could pay the enormous sums that stations in the U.S. pay? These types of comments always surprise me. Not to mention the fact that the culture of our society is very different from that of the NBA."
Are there any memories from the past six years that are especially significant?
"The presentation of the trophy to the Kinder Bologna captain during the first season's final. And not because it was our first 'final', but for one simple reason: the Kinder fans, celebrating the victory, created such a spectacle, inundating the court in a chaotic jubilee. At one point, it was difficult to breathe! Luckily, nothing happened."