Reaching back to the beginning
Veteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. For the new 2010-11 season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!
Thursday night featured a duel between AJ Milano and Union Olimpija for a piece of first place in Group D. The Slovenian team took the victory 72-76 to ruin what has otherwise been a perfect start to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague by its three Italian teams, who now have a combined 5-1 record. But the reason this game is my main topic is, of course, history. Both Milano and Olimpija took part in the first edition of the old Champions Cup, created in December of 1957 and started on February 22, 1958 with the now-famous game between Royal IV of Brussels and BBC Etztela of Luxembourg, won by the Belgians, 82-43.
Milano's name back then was Simenthal Olimpia Milano, while with one letter of difference, Olimpija never changed its name, even if sometimes it had to add a sponsor's name here and there. In the first round, Olimpija defeated Fenerbahce of Turkey, another team that has become a staple again in the Euroleague, while Milano ran over Honved of Hungary in a tournament played in Milano. However, both teams met again in the quarterfinals where Milano won the first game 80-72 at home, but back in Hungary, Honved won by 10 points, 85-75, and advanced.
The first two Final Fours
Going through the history of the competition one can also find out that Simenthal Milano and Olimpija Ljubljana took part in the Final Four of 1967 in Madrid, Spain. Many believe that the history of the Final Four of European basketball started in 1988 in Ghent, Belgium, where Milano won the title under the name of Philips. That team featured legendary captain Dino Meneghin and coach Dan Peterson, still a commentator of Euroleague games on Italian TV.
But that 1988 edition was not the first Final Four. In the mid-sixties - 1966 and 1967, to be exact - FIBA organized the first two Final Fours, the first in Bolonia, Italy and the second in Madrid. On March 30 and April 1 of 1966, Slavia Prague and AEK Athens met in one semifinal (103-73) and CSKA Moscow and Simenthal Milano (57-68) met in the other. In the title game, coached by the great Cesare Rubini, Milano outlasted Slavia by 77-72 and became the first Italian team to win the European club title after six years of domination by Soviet teams (ASK Riga with 3 titles, CSKA Moscow 2 and Dynamo Tbilisi with one) and two triumphs by Real Madrid. Now, an Italian team got the glory. Behind a great duo of Americans formed by Skip Torens (21 points) and Bill Bradley (14), and helped by Gabriele Vianello (21 points), Milano outlasted a Slavia team led by Jiri Zidek, the father of Euroleague.net collaborator Jiri Zidek junior, who later became a European champ with Zalgiris in 1999.
One year later, the Final Four took place in Madrid and in the semifinals, played on March 30, Real Madrid defeated Olimpija by 88-86 while the other semifinal was a repeat of the previous year's final, with the same outcome as Milano beat Slavia by 103-97. Ivo Daneu, the great leader of Olimpija - whose son Jaka, by the way, was sitting on the bench on Thursday as Olimpija's technical director - talked to me about that semifinal game in Madrid.
Puskas, Basin and Stankovic
"We had played really well and I thought we would win unless our point guard Borut Basin got injured," Daneu said this week. "In fact, he shined and - until he indeed got injured - he had scored 30 points. The funny thing about it is that he was taken to the hospital personally by the legendary soccer player from Hungary, Ferenc Puskas, who was then playing in Real Madrid."
In the title game Real Madrid was better and it defeated Simenthal by 91-83 with a great Emiliano Rodriguez, today an honorary president of the club, who scored 28 points. The Americans Miles Aiken added 24 points, Clifford Luyk (already a Spanish passport holder) had 17 and Bob McIntire posted 14. On the other side, Steve Cubin blasted away for 32 points, Massimo Masini added 14 and Gabriele Vianello had 12.
Long-time FIBA general secretary Borislav Stankovic, who was already a collaborator of FIBA general secretary William Jones, was still coaching during those two Final Fours. In fact, he won the Italian League title in 1968 as that country's first foreign coach. He remembers those two first Final Fours and the decision in 1988 to make the format permantent.
"It was an experiment, an attempt to find a new formula, more simple and more attractive than the two-game rounds," Stankovic said. "I don't think the NCAA tournaments influenced our decision. I travelled to the United States after 1970 as a FIBA employee, and then I started thinking about this format that we finally applied starting from 1988."
VLADIMIR STANKOVIC - BARCELONA, SPAIN
Saturday, October 30, 2010