Expectations are always high when the season progresses and attention turns to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four. And this year those expectations are even higher thanks to a new format and a tradition of great finishes whenever a season has ended in Istanbul, where it will do so once again on the weekend of May 19 to 21. The 2017 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four at Istanbul's Sinan Erdem Dome will mark the third time a continental champion is crowned in the city, and the first two such occasions are etched in the annals of history among the most exciting championship games ever played in the sport of basketball.
The 1991-92 EuroLeague season was destined to be a special one and Partizan Belgrade was at the center of it. The club handed the coaching reins to Zeljko Obradovic prior to the season and then was directed by FIBA to play its home games outside of its home region. Partizan ultimately settled on Fuenlabrada, outside of Madrid, as its home court for international games. Despite these difficulties, Partizan placed fourth in Group B before knocking out Knorr Bologna in the playoffs to reach the Final Four in Istanbul.
The Abdi Ipekci Arena was the venue of that Final Four, which in addition to Partizan, would also be contested by Olimpia Milan, Estudiantes Madrid and Joventut Badalona. In the semifinals, on April 14, Partizan got a combined 43 points from Predrag Danilovic and Sasa Djordjevic to beat Milan 82-75, while Joventut blasted Estudiantes 91-69 thanks to 28 points from Jordi Villacampa. Two days later, Partizan and Joventut met for what would be the victor's first EuroLeague crown.
The championship game was a wild contest. Partizan led by as many as 8 points early in the fourth quarter, but Joventut roared back with a 9-0 run capped by Harold Pressley’s three-pointer. The lead changed hands on each of the next two baskets. Djordjevic tied the game at 68-68 with a three-pointer with 1:15 remaining and Joventut held the ball for the next 55 seconds, through some missed foul shots and offensive rebounds, before Tomas Jofresa drove into the paint and scored with 10 seconds left. Immediately, Djordjevic took the ball, raced downcourt and fired in an off-balance triple with about 4 seconds left that put his team up 70-71. After Pressley’s desperation shot at the buzzer missed, Partizan had its first EuroLeague crown. Djordjevic was immediately mobbed by his teammates for sinking one of the greatest shots in Final Four history.
In many ways, the Miracle in Istanbul serving as a launching pads for several great careers. Danilovic, who finished the game with 25 points and was named Final Four MVP, would win another EuroLeague in 1998 with Virtus Bologna and finished his career with four EuroBasket gold medals and one Olympic silver medal. Djordjevic, who finished the game with 23 points on 5-of-7 three-point shooting, is today the head coach of FC Bayern Munich. He helped Yugoslavia win the 1998 FIBA World Championship and also collected three EuroBasket gold and one Olympic silver medal as a player. In addition, he recently won silver at both the World Cup and Olympics as Serbia's head coach. Obradovic, now Fenerbahce Istanbul's head coach, continues to rewrite history. He is the winningest coach in EuroLeague history, having won eight crowns with four different clubs in addition to countless more accolades. Danilovic, Djordjevic and Obradovic were named among the 50 greatest contributors in the first half-century of European club competitions at the 2008 Final Four in Madrid.
Two decades would pass before the European basketball's signature event returned to Istanbul for the 2012 EuroLeague Final Four at Sinan Erdem Arena. All four participating teams were traditional powers with star-studded rosters headlined by true legends. FC Barcelona Lassa was led by scoring king Juan Carlos Navarro. Panathinaikos Athens featured the great Dimitris Diamantidis. And CSKA Moscow's Andrey Kirilenko was named EuroLeague MVP that season. If any team was considered the underdog, it was Olympiacos Piraeus, which landed in Istanbul with the fewest victories of any team in the Final Four that season.
Both semifinals on May 11 were instant classics that went to the wire. CSKA trailed by 14 after 10 minutes in the first semifinal against Panathinaikos, but held the Greens to just 5 second-quarter points to come back. Milos Teodosic hit the go-ahead jumper with 38.1 seconds left and the CSKA defense stifled Panathinaikos on the final possessions to clinch a ticket to the championship game. The second semifinal between Olympiacos and Barcelona was similarly dramatic. The Reds led for much of the game, but it wasn’t until Vassilis Spanoulis set up Joey Dorsey for a layup with 16.1 seconds to go that Olympiacos went up by two possessions and managed to hold onto the victory.
After such drama in the semifinals, the championship game two days later seemed anticlimactic – at first. CSKA simply dominated on defense to lead by 14 at halftime and 53-34 late in the third quarter. The result seemed a forgone conclusion to almost everyone in the arena, except for the players wearing Olympiacos jerseys. Head coach Dusan Ivkovic's men continued to believe and scored 13 straight points to get back in the game. Now CSKA needed to battle, but remained ahead by 1 when Ramunas Siskauskas went to the foul line with 9.7 seconds on the clock. However, the former MVP missed twice. Spanoulis took charge of the final possession, penetrated inside and, after drawing a crowd, dished to Georgios Printezis, whose one-handed baseline shot with 0.7 seconds left capped a championship-winning comeback. Delirious Olympiacos players and fans celebrated a classic 61-62 victory and the club's first EuroLeague title in 15 years.
That shot launched a dynasty. Olympiacos came back a year later with much of the same squad to win the EuroLeague again in London. Spanoulis claimed MVP honors each time. Four players from that squad (Spanoulis, Printezis, Vangelis Mantzaris and Kostas Papanikolaou) are on the current Olympiacos roster and hoping to win it all again in Istanbul, as are their former teammates Kostas Sloukas and Pero Antic, now with Fenerbahce, and Kyle Hines of CSKA. As such, there is a good chance that some of the stars from that historic game just five years ago will continue making history in Istanbul come May.