A Top 16 without Russians
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!
Well, what a surprise! The Top 16 will feature no Russian teams. If someone had placed a bet on this possibility at the start of the season, he or she would be a millionaire by now. But I highly doubt someone would have been able to predict it. CSKA Moscow had not missed a single Final Four since 2003 in Barcelona. They had eight appearances in a row with two titles and two more finals but now they will miss the Top 16 and will be out before the two Christmases: the December 25 one celebrated by most of the Christian community and the January 7 one, celebrated by some Orthodox Christians (Russians, Serbians, Montenegrins, etc.). On the other hand, the other Russian team, BC Khimki, could not repeat its success of last year, when it was among the best 16 teams in its debut season. How will the Euroleague be without Russian teams? The most logical answer is: "Just the same as it would be with them." That means: just as exciting, just as dramatic... But something WILL be different. Some will be happy about it because they will avoid a long and difficult trip, a little uncomfortable because of the visas or the long lines at the Sheremetyevo airport. Some others because you can avoid playing at a difficult gym where few have won or because you will avoid the Russian powerhouses in the playoffs and the Final Four.
Tactical and political absences
However, during the 53 years of European basketball history, with the love/hate relationship between the former USSR and FIBA, we can find many years without Russian representatives. The reasons were rather different than bad results like this season, and they ranged from political to tactical reasons. After they had won six straight European Cups in the first six years of the competition (three for ASK Riga, two for CSKA Moscow and one for Dinamo Tbilisi), there was no Russian team at all registered for the 1963-64 season! The reasons were never revealed, but one theory is that in the Tokyo Olympics year they wanted to hide their tactics. The USSR national team was formed almost exclusively by CSKA players. The fear of losing to a European team caused them not to be in the competition. Real Madrid took its opportunity, and used that absence to win its first title by defeating Spartak Brno in both final games.
The following season, 1964-65, CSKA was back in the competition and FIBA treated it as the champion: it advanced directly to the quarterfinals where it got rid of Wilsa Krakow of Poland. In semifinals it defeated Ignis Varese, but in the final the mighty CSKA fell to Real Madrid, the defending champ, by 7 points. In Moscow, the Lenin football stadium filled with 14,000 fans who saw CSKA win the first game by 88-81, but the Spaniards celebrated in Madrid with a 76-62 win. In 1956-66, CSKA fell in the semifinals to Simenthal Milano by 68-57 in the first Final Four, played in Bologna. The following season, CSKA did not participate again. Some say it was because some internal law had changed that said players older than 25 could not play for CSKA while in the military service, which weakened the Russian champs. CSKA was also out in 1967-68. The reason? Again, the Mexico Olympics and the need to guard tactical secrets to catch rivals by surprise.
CSKA was back for the 1968-69 season, which ended with an unforgettable final played in Barcelona against Real Madrid. The game was famous because of its two overtimes. CSKA won by 103-99 after regulation time ended 81-81 and the first overtime 93-93. The following season CSKA was back in the final but could not repeat the success, losing to Ignis Varese by 74-79 in a game played in Sarajevo. Revenge was served the following year, as CSKA defeated Varese in the Antwerp final by 67-53. In 1972, another Olympic year, in Munich, the Russians skipped the competition one more time. They were back in 1972-73 to reach the final, of course, with Ignis Varese. The game was played in Liege, where the Italians won by 71-66. Another self-exclusion by CSKA occurred in 1973-74, probably due to the World Championships in Puerto Rico.
In 1974-75 it was all political. FIBA sent CSKA directly to the quarterfinals, but the Soviet champs refused to play against Maccabi in Tel Aviv and FIBA punished the team with losses in all the games by 0-2 and a one-year suspension for the following season. After honoring the sanction, CSKA was back for 1976-77 but the Moscow government wouldn't allow Maccabi into the country, so CSKA lost by 0-2 while the second game was played in Brussels. With that disadvantage, CSKA was third while Mobilgirgi Varese and Maccabi advanced to the final. Another CSKA absence occurred in 1977-78, probably because of the Manila World Championships. For the 1978-79 absence of CSKA, I can find no logical explanation. CSKA didn't play in 1979-80 either, this time with the excuse of preparing the Olympics at home. After playing the following three editions without much success, CSKA skipped 1984 again, the Olympic year in Los Angeles. That was the year of an Eastern block boycott (except for Romania) as payback for the USA boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. That was the last voluntary absence of CSKA in Europe's top competition. In 1984-85 CSKA was back and played two games against Maccabi in Belgium, but ended up fifth in the six-team standings.
Years of crisis and success
In the 1985-86 season, Zalgiris Kaunas broke the dominance of CSKA among USSR teams in the Euroleague by reaching the final, where the team of Sabonis, Kurtinaitis, Homicius and Iovaysha fell to a Cibona team led by Drazen Petrovic. Zalgiris was back the following year but in 1988-89 CSKA returned, although it finished seventh in the final group of eight teams. In the 1989-90 season, the USSR representative was Stroitelj Kyiv, without much success. In 1990-91 it was CSKA again, but the team suffered humilliation against Kingston London by 93-77 in London and 74-72 in Moscow in the eighthfinals.
In the 1991-92 season, because of the USSR breakup, the only "soviet" team that was in the competition was Kalev Tallin of Estonia. Starting from 1992-93, CSKA was back but it was going through a severe crisis, both at a sports and economic level, even though in 1994-95 it suffered one of the darkest stories in the competition. In Athens, just before a game against Olympiakos, the CSKA players suffered poisoning through drinking water. They played in inhumane conditions, finishing the game with three players. But that is another story altogether.
CSKA Moscow was back to the Final Four in Paris in 1996, and finished third. However, despite the good results like eliminating Barcelona in 1998 by 2-1 in the playoffs or making the Suproleague Final Four in 2000-01, the big successes of CSKA were back in full force with the 2003 Final Four appearance in Barcelona. After eight consecutive Final Four appearances, CSKA won't be back to Barcelona in 2011, but I am sure they will be back to European basketball elite soon. That's where the club belongs because of its history, old and recent, despite this surprising early elimination.
Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net
Saturday, December 18, 2010