The role of the commissioner
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!
For almost half a century, it has been impossible to imagine some basketball game without the table commissioner. Their presence is mandatory to guarantee the fairness of the game and game conditions. Possible fines or problem solutions depend on their game report. But at the beginning of the European Cup, in 1958, the table commissioner as we all know it didn't exist. It took FIBA, with no experience in club competitions, seven years to introduce this neutral figure as a means to accomplish fairness. Until then, the commissioner duties were carried by local men, many of them fans of the club of their city. In some games, the home teams didn't hesitate to do anything in their hands to obtain the desired result. After a growing number of complaints from visiting teams, FIBA decided to send a neutral delegate.
Despite all the complaints and protests, some specific games influenced the FIBA decision directly. For instance, in 1962-63 the Yugoslav champ, Olimpija Ljubljana, lost in the eighthfinals against Alsace Bagnolet of France in the first game by 19 points, 61-80. However, in the second game Olimpija won by 128-94. Those 222 points combined established a new record in the competition beating the old one of 204 between Antwerpen and Celtic in the previous season. Also the game established the biggest comeback until then, 19 points, in a two-game all-points series. Up to that point, the biggest had been Honved Budapest coming back in 1961-62 from 16 points down (74-90) in its series with Iskra Svitavy, by beating the Czechoslovachian team at home by 75-58.
Busnel, the first delegate
In the Olimpija Ljubljana-Alsace Bagnolet case, the French team presented to FIBA an appeal pointing to several irregularities: the game had started almost two hours late for no apparent reason; it was played with a leather ball even if thought was mandatory then to play with a rubber ball of the Pennsylvania brand; the dimensions of the ball were smaller - 72 centimeters instead of the 75 to 78 as established by the regulations; and the fans having "ambushed" the referees with incredible pressure. The newspaper Sport in Belgrade talked about 4,500 fans at the game and highlighted Jelnikar with his 27 points and Eiselt with his 26 as the heroes of the game, but doesn't mention any irregularities at all in its report. It quotes both coaches, and Ogist Taraveille of Alsace Bagnolet just says that Olimpija played "suprisingly well" while he talked about "mistakes on both sides" when referring to the referees. But his club sent a tough complaint to FIBA, which only resulted in a fine for Olimpija of about 90,000 dinars, some 60€ today. However, for the following Olimpija game against Spartak Brno in the quarterfinals, the commissioner from FIBA in Ljubljana was Robert Busnel of France, the future president of FIBA.
In the 1964-65 season something similar happened in Moscow. Ignis Varese had lost at home against CSKA by 57-58, but travelled to Moscow with the intention of becoming the first European team to win in the USSR capital. According to the Italian press, the team was really close to its goal and only unfair circumstances avoided the miracle. First, the game was played on a wooden floor placed over an ice rink, which made it much too cold for the Italians. Second, it was played with a Chinese ball that was not authorized by FIBA. Third, the Italian press talked about the Swiss referee, Cazeneve as having been "CSKA's best man". He was so biased for CSKA that not even the work of the other referee, Kassai from Hungary, could compensate. Ignis protested to FIBA but to no avail. In that same season, the second game between OKK Belgrade and Real Madrid in their semifinal lasted for 113 minutes of effective game play, but this story deserves its own blog entry.
Jones and his famous three seconds
Starting on season 1965-66, the neutral commissioners became a must. Borislav Stankovic, FIBA general secretary emeritus, told me this week that for many years, FIBA had a technical committee formed by three people that controlled the progression of the tournament. The members were a FIBA representative, a man from the local federation and another from the organization committee. They had their own table separate from the assistant referees. With time, due to practical reasons, the power was given to a sole individual. Possibly the most talked about intervention ever in basketball history was that of William Jones, general secretary of FIBA, in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. It was his decision to repeat the last three seconds of the title game between the USA and the USSR. The Americans were celebrating the 50-49 win when Jones, due to some irregularities on the table and the confusion about the timeout called by the Soviets, forced the last three seconds to be replayed and then the USSR scored a basket. Ivan Yedeshko, with a full-court pass, found Aleksandar Belov for a basket that is still talked about today.
Stankovic, who attended the game, sheds some light on a rather unknown detail: "Jones was not the commissioner; it was Edmond Bigot of France. But Jones, as president of the technical committee, was his superior and made his decision. Maybe not even he believed that something could change in so little time, but the Americans lowered their guard and allowed for a basket that was worth a gold medal."
Sergei Belov offered me his version in Madrid 2007: "Jones's decision was fair and correct in my opinion. Look, when Doug Collins scored to make it 50-49, there were three seconds left, the clock showed 19:57. Yedeshko put the ball in bounds and I was close to halfcourt, and the official table was behind my back. I got the ball and then the buzzer of the table stopped the game. But it was not the end of the game because the clock was now at 19:59. There was one second left and we protested a lot because it was an evident mistake: the time had to start running when I touched the ball, not when Yedeshko made the pass. After some time on the court, which seemed to never end for us, Jones raised his three fingers and said we had to repeat those last seconds. The rest, as they say, is history. This time, Yedeshko made a long pass to Aleksandar Belov who faked against two Americans and when they almost clashed in the air, he scored the basket that made us Olympic champions."
While the Soviets took their gold medals, the Americans, angry with FIBA, who overruled all their protests, didn't accept the silver medals and did not step on the podium. For many years now, those medals of huge historical value have been in the vaults of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. About five years ago, some players of that American team, regretting their decision, asked to have their prizes, but the IOC asked for all the members of the team to request the medals in writing: everybody or nobody. And since there was no agreement among the protagonists of the most famous three seconds ever, the medals are still in Lausanne, 39 years later.
Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net
Saturday, February 19, 2011