Euroleague.net's editorial director, Frank Lawlor, has spent most of his career as a basketball journalist in Europe and his native United States, writing about and interviewing the top players in the world on both continents for more than two decades. In terms of practical basketball experience, he was a head coach in the Spanish second division for one fortuitous season in the late 1990s. Frank's new blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
Quite apart from the wins, losses, chills and thrills, Week 1 of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Regular Season was heart-warming, as well, due to the return to action of two players whose absence due to injury left more than a little hole in the competition last season. It just so happens that both players were from the same team, FC Barcelona Regal, which had started last season as defending champion.
When we last saw Pete Mickeal, he was leading Barcelona to a preseason win over the Los Angeles Lakers in October of 2010, taking pride in defending his team's turf at Palau Sant Jordi as the defending NBA champions kept their starters on the floor during most of the final quarter trying to pull out the win. Was there any doubt after that victory that Mickeal was ready to will his team to a Euroleague title repeat on the same Palau Sant Jordi floor seven months later?
Unfortunately, Mickeal went down with leg injury early in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Regular Season. When he was due back near the Top 16, he was discovered to have developed a potentially catastrophic embolism, or blood clot. Mickeal didn't play another Euroleague game all season, and he was sorely missed by his team when Panathinaikos won three playoff games in a row to eliminate Barcelona from the Final Four in its own city.
Because he does so much well, particularly on defense, it's hard to single out one thing Mickeal did to make Barcelona a champion the previous season. One fact hints at an explanation, however: of 98 players who have averaged 5 rebounds in their Euroleague careers this century, three are under 2 meters tall. The shortest of them all, at 1.97, is Pete Mickeal. His contribution on the court can be summed up in one word: desire.
The other player missing in action for Barcelona last season was Gianluca Basile, the all-time Euroleague leader in three-pointers made since 2000. Basile missed the entire season with recurring foot problems. As close and tense as the playoff series with Panathinaikos was, with the first three games decided by seven total points, Barcelona could have used Basile's experience and sharp-shooting.
Perhaps because he's such a prolific shooter – in fact, almost 60% of his scoring has come from beyond the three-point line – it's easy to forget that Basile is a master defender, too, and owns the third-most steals, 259, in Euroleague play this century.
When players their ages lose entire seasons to injury – Gianluca turned 36 and Pete 33 this year – you can only hope for the best in their recoveries. That hope was rewarded last week when both not only returned, but were instrumental in their teams opening the season with a victory.
Mickeal came off the bench for Barcelona late in the first quarter, seemed to bide his time for a few minutes, but was soon on his way to 15 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals while playing the second-most minutes for his team.
Basile also came off the bench, then played the third-most minutes in victorious return of Cantu to Europe's top competition after 19 years. He had a team-high 6 assists and 9 points, including a pair of triples that gave him 385 for his career. It was his 200th game, making Basile just the fourth Euroleague player to reach that mark.
This season, Mickeal is back as a key piece in the middle of Barcelona team aiming for the highest goals possible in the Euroleague. Basile is back home in Italy, using his vast experience to lead a young team flying the flag of two-time champion Cantu in the Euroleague for the first time in two decades.
Although their roles are different from each other, the satisfaction is the same at seeing a couple of winners back in the saddle, doing what they do best.
Nothing like the first time
If you have any question about what being in the Euroleague means to a player, you have only to listen to some of the newcomers speaking before and after their regular season, Week 1 debuts.
One, the kinetic playmaker Janis Blums of Bizkaia Bilbao Basket, had this to say before his team also debuted on Friday: "I have been working 13 years for this moment." His work and wait were rewarded when Bilbao, before 9,000 frenzied home fans, manhandled traditional power Olympiacos with a more-than-solid 76-61 victory. Blums had a remarkable season last year, in which he missed no practices or games at all for Bilbao, working non-stop between August 16 and June 20. Is it any wonder his team made the Euroleague for the first time? Alas, Blums will miss Bilbao’s second game in Nancy tonight due to illness. He was unable to travel with the team. All the more reason to be happy for him in his debut last week.
Another, 25-year-old guard Andrea Cinciarini of Cantu, captured the feelings surrounding his debut in a Euroleague.net blog: "This first game was very emotional for me, because since I was a child, my dream was to play even just one minute in the most important European competition...The days before the game were very tough, as if the clock never moved ahead, and I was just waiting for the moment to take the court. I would close my eyes and imagine how the game would be, my first shot, my first pass, maybe my first win. I repeated to myself to stay calm and to keep the energy for the game, but I was so excited to go out that I often looked at my watch and counted down the hours left to tipoff, to the start of a new adventure."
Cinciarini, too, didn't have to wait for his first victory. And with that kind of devotion, he's sure to enjoy more.
Thursday, October 27, 2011