Veteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost any journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. Once again this season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even as history keeps being made!
In the long and successful history of a great club like Real Madrid, with so many stars and historic players, it's impossible to choose one over the others to say who was the best. However, if we were to limit ourselves to choosing just Spanish players, I think that most – with long enough memories that is – would probably choose Emiliano Rodriguez as the best. After a brilliant career as a player for Real Madrid from 1960 to 1973, he remains tied to the club, to this day, as the president of the association of former players. His service to Real Madrid has lasted for more than half a century. He is an icon at the club and one of the biggest legends at a legendary club.
Born on June 10, 1938, in San Feliz, Leon, he started playing in the humble Escolarios Bilbao, but his first pro team was Aismalibar Barcelona from 1958 to 1960. Rodriguez was already an international player (he made his debut with the national team in 1958) when he signed for Real Madrid. He immediately became the new hero for the Madrid fans. He had a great ability to score. He had an extensive repertoire: a good jump shot - something he learned at the start of his career; good penetration; and, especially, the fastbreak. He was superfast and always the first in line to convert a pass from a teammate into an easy basket. Above everything, he displayed charming character, was very animated and always optimistic, which are all valuable traits on any sports team.
On January 18, 1961, Emiliano made his debut in the Europe Cup against EK Engelmann of Vienna and in two big Real Madrid wins he contributed 20 and 24 points. The next victim was Antwerp of Belgium, against whom he nailed 37 and 15 points. Madrid’s path was stopped at neutral courts in Paris and Prague, against the dominant ASK Riga, the team that took the first three European titles in a row.
Historic win in 1964
His second attempt at the European crown was cut short also in 1962 in the title game against Dynamo Tbilisi in Geneva (83-90) with 21 points by Emiliano. The following year Madrid was in the title game once more, but this time lost to CSKA Moscow in the tiebreaking game, played in Moscow like the second one. In three finals, Emiliano scored 24, 18 and 21 points. Eventually, in 1964, Real Madrid became the first from western Europe to win the title and broke the dominion of Soviet teams. Spartak Brno won in Prague 110-99 despite Emiliano's 31 points, but in Madrid, Real won 84-64 and Emiliano shined again with 28 points.
I think I saw Emiliano Rodriguez for the first time in Belgrade in March 1965. In a never-ending game against OKK Belgrade (you can read the story about that game here). Real Madrid won at home 84-61 (18 for Emiliano), but the Yugoslavian champ thought that it would be able to come back in the second game. To do so, they used all the tricks in the book, especially the manipulated clock which made a minute last for two full minutes. Radivoj Korac scored 56 points, but it was not enough. After 113 minutes (47 the first half, 66 the second), OKK Belgrade had to admit it was an impossible mission, despite winning 113-96. The best man for the Whites was Emiliano, of course, with 25 points.
Rivalry and friendship with Korac
That wasn't his first duel with Korac, who by then was the best scorer in Europe. They met for the first time at the 1959 EuroBasket in Istanbul, and after that at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the 1961 EuroBasket in Belgrade and the 1963 EuroBasket in Wroclaw. There, in Poland, Korac was again the best scorer of the tourney with 26.6 points, but Emiliano (20.3 ppg.) was chosen as the first MVP of the European tournament. He received 132 votes from the journalists, 26 more than Aleksandar Petrov of the USSR, who was second. Emiliano himself acknowledged Korac as a great player; while focusing on Spain, he liked Clifford Luyk and Nino Buscato. And at the Rome Olympics he had the chance to see players like Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Jerry West. The latter was his favorite.
At the 1965 and 1967 EuroBaskets, Emiliano also had high scoring averages (21.6 and 21.8) but his problem was a mediocre Spain team that finished 11th and 10th, respectively, among 16 participants. At Real Madrid, Emiliano had the help of great players who made it easier to win four European crowns and take part in several more finals. In 1965, Real Madrid defended the title against old rival CSKA Moscow: 81-88 (Emiliano had 11 points) in Moscow and 84-64 at home (24 points for him). The third title arrived in 1967 at home against Simental Milano, 91-83, as a great Emiliano scored 29. The fourth title came the following year in Lyon against Spartak Brno, 98-95, in which Emiliano only scored 6 points, but was an important figure for the team. In 1969, in Barcelona, one of the most dramatic finals of the European Cup took place. Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow played for 50 minutes and CSKA won thanks to big man Vladimir Andreev, who played the game of a lifetime with 37 points. Emiliano scored 18, Brabender and Luyk had 20 apiece and Aiken 24, but it was not enough to stop Andreev and Sergei Belov (19 points), who played all 50 minutes.
Emiliano Rodriguez played the 1971 EuroBasket in Germany (7.4 ppg.), one more season in Real Madrid and in 1973, on the eve of the Barcelona EuroBasket, where Spain finally won the silver medal after losing to Yugoslavia in the final, he put an end to his career as a player. Justice would have been served if Emiliano would have taken part in this tournament to finish his great career with a deserved medal, but even without the trophy, he has a privileged spot in the history of basketball in Spain and Europe.
In a brilliant career, he won 12 Spanish Leagues, nine Spanish Cups, four European Cups, two titles as the Spanish League’s best scorer (1963, 1966) and two EuroBasket MVP titles (1963, 1969). He was also honored six times on the European selection of players and scored more than 20,000 points in the Real Madrid jersey. For the Spanish national team, Emiliano played 175games and scored 2,834 points. In September of 2007 he was among the first players inducted to the FIBA Hall of Fame.
Hats off to Emiliano Rodriguez, the Great Captain.