Wow! Days after it ended in a crescendo of thrills, color and noise, the 2009 Final Four was still being talked about as likely the greatest ever played in European basketball. "Incredible" was the word heard in late-night parties following the trophy celebration by Panathinaikos, in hotel lobbies filled with world basketball VIPs, and from fans overheard raving about the weekend in Berlin's airport on Monday afternoon. "The best ever," said veterans of the event: players, coaches, guests and fans. By any and all measures, both on the court and off, the 2009 Final Four will be remembered as a celebration of European basketball that has set new standards of excellence.
On the court, the last seconds in a season full of talent and effort by hundreds of players and dozens of coaches came with one shot floating through the air to decide the champion. If that shot had fallen, it would have completed the greatest comeback in finals history. Since it did not, Panathianikos climbed higher on the list of all-time great clubs. Its coach, Zeljko Obradovic, added another to the longest list of European titles in his profession. Team leader Sarunas Jasikevicius pushed his total of Euroleague trophies to four, becoming the first player to win one with three different teams, having never lost a Final Four game. A veteran who watched most of the season but was nonetheless on the Panathinaikos roster, Fragiskos Alvertis, lifted his fifth continental trophy.
But those milestones capture only a slice of the excitement enjoyed all weekend by fans at jam-packed o2 World in Berlin and watching around the world.
It suffices to continue with the simple fact that in the 22-year history of Final Fours, this year's edition had the lowest combined score difference in the semifinals and title game, 8 points. That was half of the next-closest Final Fours, in 1988 and in 1993, as measured by lowest scoring differences. Those numbers might prove what many experts were saying coming into Berlin: that any of the four teams could win. Within the closeness of the three survival games, it is worth noting that never before did a champion survive the sight of two opponents taking - and missing - the last shots of both a semifinal and a final. In this case, defense really did win at the end for Panathinaikos, twice.
Still on the court, the Nike International Junior Tournament was no slouch in the amazing department, either. That title game, at o2 World earlier on Sunday, saw a 40-minute final score of 123-110 as FMP of Serbia defeated Lietuvos Rytas of Lithuania. The repeat MVP of the tournament, FMP forward Dejan Musli, kept his star trajectory, and was joined by another on the rise, combo guard Nenad Miljenovic, who just turned 16, but almost had a triple-double in the final.
Off the court, the weather even cooperated as players took bike rides through the parks to relax and fans took in the sights, sounds and nightlife of Berlin. Parallel events like a visit to NikeTown Berlin proved tons of fun for visitors who got to design sneakers and enter a drawing for free tickets to Sunday's final.
One side event was downright moving: the visit by almost a dozen Final Four players and local legends to the Children's Cancer Station at the local Virchow Hospital. Most of the young patients were chairbound and accompanied by at least one parent. They all were thankful for a boost in spirits, which the big visitors - at least two players from each of the Final Four teams, plus local legends like Alba Berlin center Patrick Femerling - were more than happy to provide during an hour-long visit full of gifts, handshakes, conversation, autographs and picture-taking.
Another of those handing out basketballs and smiles to the youngsters at Virchow Hospital was Ademola Okulaja, a native of Berlin and himself a recent cancer patient. Okulaja was also enrolled in the Euroleague Basketball Masters in Sports Marketing and Communication, whose students all studied and observed the Final Four as part of their coursework. Another educational element to the Final Four was a symposium on ticket sales held on Saturday at o2 World.
Later on Saturday night, o2 World was transformed into a concert stage for what was certainly the most colorful Euroleague Official Awards Dinner yet. The arena scoreboard was lowered to the floor to form a massive stage backdrop. Three scoreboard panels showed an audience of 1,500 all the best plays and players of the season, who were then chosen into the All-Euroleague first team, second team and MVP.
The awards show included performances by Naturally 7, the same group that had performed the previous evening at the semifinals and needs only voices - no instruments - to sound like a full-scale band. Naturally 7 members could be found hours later shooting jumpshots on the o2 World floor, so you know they were basketball lovers.
From the show, the scene moved to the post-awards party, where a who's who of basketball celebrities stayed for a few hours in the splendid confines of the o2 World restaurants and bars to enjoy a great night of socializing. To walk from one end to the other and hear the many languages talking basketball was to know that the awards ceremony truly was a world party.
It was clear in the end that if the teams were certainly the stars at the Final Four, there was a fifth one, too, the arena itself, o2 World, a jewel set into the crown of Berlin's hosting hospitality. Shining like a space ship next to some of the last remnants of the old Berlin Wall, the arena was a beacon for basketball lovers all weekend long, making those within its walls feel extremely lucky to be there and left the bigger audience outside those walls wishing they could have been inside.
From one great city to another - Bologna, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Prague, Athens, Madrid and, now, Berlin - the Euroleague has been criss-crossing the continent all decade to bring the best possible basketball to a fan base that, with each stop on the list, grows in size and variety. Last weekend, the devotion for this special brand of basketball was on display in all its color and commitment for fans to see in 175 or more countries where the Final Four was shown live. By the time the final buzzer sounded, few could doubt that they had seen something unique, the beautiful game of basketball as played in one special setting only: the Euroleague!