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A home of first-time champions
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!
Barcelona's Palau Sant Jordi, built for the 1992 Olympic Games, this week hosts the Euroleague Final Four for the third time. The previous two will always remain in the memories of Kinder Bologna, F.C. Barcelona and their fans because Palau Sant Jordi is where both teams won their first titles in Europe’s premier competition.
The 1997-98 Euroleague season consisted of 24 teams from 12 countries. Spain, Italy, Greece and France had three teams each; Germany, Russia, Turkey and Croatia two each; and Belgium, Slovenia, Israel and Yugoslavia one each. In the first phase, the teams were divided into four groups of six teams. All teams advanced to the second phase forming new groups matching the first three teams of a group with the last three from another. The teams that finished last in the new groups would lose a berth for their country in the next season's competition. After the first two phases and before the playoffs, the biggest surprise was to be found in Group G, where Limoges (6-10) and Real Madrid (7-9), the European champs of 1993 and 1995 respectively, were eliminated. Benetton Treviso (12-4), CSKA Moscow and PAOK Thessaloniki (12-7 each) and Estudiantes Madrid (8-8) were ahead of them. There were no major surprises in the other three groups.
In the three-game series of the eighthfinals, CSKA eliminated FC Barcelona 2-1. Barça lost its chance in Game 1, which it led by 9 with five minutes to go before CSKA won 81-79. After losing in Barcelona 75-63, CSKA won the third duel at home without problems 88-76. In other series, Partizan surprised Olympiacos 2-0 and Teamsystem Bologna eliminated Maccabi Tel Aviv 2-1. In the quarterfinals, Partizan had the home court advantage for having beaten group leader Olympiacos in the previous round and surprised CSKA, too, by 2-1. In the Bologna derby, Kinder defeated Teamsystem 2-0. Benetton would need three games to defeat Efes Pilsen and AEK Athens eliminated Alba Berlin in a sweep. Partizan, the 1992 champion, qualified for its third Final Four, Benetton its second, while Kinder and AEK would be making their debuts.
The big event in Barcelona took place from April 21 to 23, 1998. Coming in, only Partizan was thought to be an underdog, despite having a solid team with Dejan Tomasevic, Predrag Drobnjak, Dragan Lukovski and Ratko Varda (the last of whom was still playing in the Euroleague this season for Asseco Prokom Gdynia). The head coach was Milan-Kime Bogojevic, who was best known in the basketball world for having discovered Vlade Divac. On the Benetton bench sat head coach Zeljko Obradovic, a three-time Euroleague winner already with Partizan, Joventut and Real Madrid. On the court, his team had Ricky Pittis, Zeljko Rebraca, Stefano Rusconi, Henry Williams, Denis Marconato, Andrea Cracis and Andrea Niccolai. AEK had managed to break the dominance of the big Athens big teams (Panathinaikos and Olympiacos) and also the ones from Thessaloniki (Aris and PAOK). The team was coached by Giannis Ioannidis while the players featured myriad nationalities: Claudio Coldebella of Italy, Branislav Prelevic of Serbian and Greek origin, Michael Andersen and Mikel Larsen from Denmark, Jose Lasa from Spain, Willie Anderson and Victor Alexander from the United States, Michalis Kakiouzis from Greece, Russian-Greek Jake Tsakalidis... Finally, Kinder Bologna had Ettore Messina on the bench leading a great team formed by Predrag Danilovic, Antoine Rigaudeau, Alessandro Abbio, Zoran Savic, Rasho Nesterovic (who still is active with Olympiacos), Hugo Sconochini, Claudio Crippa, Alessandro Frosini and Riccardo Morandotti.
In the semifinal games, Kinder had no problems beating Partizan, 81-63, with Savic scoring 23 points, while AEK Athens defeated Benetton by 69-66 behind Anderson's 21 points. In the final, with a smothering defense, Kinder only allowed AEK to score 44 points, 20 in the first half. Kinder won by 58-44 as seven players shared the points, led by Rigaudeau with 14 and Danilovic with 13. Savic was named MVP of the Final Four.
"Looking at my titles at the club level, this one holds a special place, probably only behind the 1991 title with Jugoplastika in Paris, when I scored 27 points against Barcelona," Zoran Savic told me recently. "The one with Kinder in Barcelona was my third title. The first two arrived at the very beginning of my career and this one was almost at the end. The win was very important for Kinder because it was the club's first title. The celebration was very nice, very spontaneous, with the 7,000 fans who had travelled all the way from Bologna to help us and they celebrated also big time. I still remember the cigars with which we celebrated the title."
The year 2000 marked a new revolution in European basketball competitions: the new Euroleague was born, to be designed and managed by the participating clubs. After the first edition with a playoff final series, the Euroleague accepted again for the second season, 2001-02, the Final Four as the perfect format to decide the champion. Since then, this has become the most important three days of the season and a must-see event for anyone in the basketball world.
At the beginning of the 2001-02 season, the Euroleague announced the host cities for the three subsequent Final Fours: Bologna 2002, Barcelona 2003 and Tel Aviv 2004. As it turned out, each of the Euroleague teams from those cities made it to their respective Final Fours. Kinder lost to Panathinaikos in the 2002 title game and two years later, after a miracle shot to qualify, Maccabi dominated the Final Four in Tel Aviv. In the middle season, 2001-02, FC Barcelona faced the pressure of a Final Four in its city and a history of having played and lost in five finals in the previous 20 years. Barcelona had shown its ambition to end decades of frustration by signing the recent World Champion head coach, Svetislav Pesic, and by renovating its roster with the blockbuster additions of Dejan Bodiroga and Gregor Fucka.
In the regular season, Barça was second in Group A with an 11-3 record, just like Benetton, now coached by Messina. They split their games 1-1. Barcelona won at home 86-85, but Benetton did the same in Treviso 94-82. In the Top 16, Benetton confirmed its great form with a perfect record to roll into the Final Four by defeating Maccabi, Tau Ceramica and Virtus Bologna. Barcelona didn't make the Final Four until the very last Top 16 game, at home against Olympiacos, to advance with a 5-1 record. CSKA Moscow also went to Barcelona with a 5-1 record, while Montepaschi Siena made its first Final Four ever with a 4-2 mark after having beaten defending champion Panathinaikos and Skipper Bologna.
In the semis on May 9, Barcelona defeated CSKA 76-71. Its rival in the final would be Benetton, which was better in the Italian duel against Montepaschi, 65-62. On May 11, in a completely packed Palau Sant Jordi, backed by a noisy crowd of 16,670, the dream finally came true for Barça: it was European champion for the first time. After 40 minutes the score was 76-65. Dejan Bodiroga, MVP of the tournament, scored 20 points including a very important three-pointer in the decisive moments. He also grabbed 8 rebounds. Gregor Fucka added 17 points, Rodrigo de la Fuente 11, Patrick Femerling 9, Saras Jasikevicius 8, Juan Carlos Navarro 5, Roberto Dueñas 3, Nacho Rodriguez 2 and Anderson Varejao 1. On the other side, Tyus Edney led the way with 16 points, Massimo Bulleri scored 11, Denis Marconato 10, Jorge Garbajosa 9, Trajan Langdon 8, Marcelo Nicola 5, Ricky Pittis 4 and Manuchar Marskoishvili 2.
Bodiroga, who had back-to-back titles and Final Four MVP awards with Panathinaikos in 2002 and Barcelona in 2003, remembered those glory days recently for this Euroleague.net blog: "Those two titles, even if I always repeat that basketball is a team sport, have a special place in my memory. They were the recognition of all my efforts throughout my career, but especially in the finals, when my team needed me the most. Pressure? Yes, you could definitely feel it. Both at a personal and collective level, but I think that perhaps I was eager to look for this kind of pressure as a new challenge. I could have stayed in Panathinaikos, but winning the title with Barcelona was a big challenge for me. We managed to do that thanks to a great team and the great atmosphere that our coach Svetislav Pesic created. That season we won the Triple Crown. It was unforgettable."
Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net
Saturday, April 30, 2011
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