Superstars of European basketball from two distinct championships met in Madrid on Thursday morning for a very special exchange in which they found common ground talking and playing together the sport they love. The meeting of two players from each of the 2008 Final Four teams with their counterparts in the European wheelchair basketball championship for clubs, also being held in the Spanish capital this weekend, proved a heartening experience for everyone involved. The collaborative effort between the Euroleague Basketball Social Responsibility Program and UNICEF included the Euroleague stars not only chatting and signing autographs, but putting themselves literally in wheelchairs themselves to shoot. "It is important for Euroleague Basketball to be here with our players," Euroleague Basketball CEO Jordi Bertomeu said, "because we recognize that the same values of strong individual effort for the sake of a team is at the heart of the sport we share with the disabled athletes here today."
Thursday morning's event also continued the ongoing cooperation between Euroleague Basketball and UNICEF to support the efforts to help children with AIDS all over the world. "It's a pleasure for UNICEF to be here and sharing this experience," Paloma Escudero, UNICEF Executive President in Spain, said. "Our agreement with Euroleague Basketball is very important to us for a lot of reasons, but two of them in the covenant of children's rights that UNICEF has promoted on a global level. That covenant has two important parts I want to mention. One guarantees the right to play for children wherever they may be in any circumstances as an important aspect of their development on both a physical and mental level. The second, and also something that UNICEF holds dear, is the right of disabled children to enjoy sports, again no matter where they are in the world . Basketball at high levels such as Euroleague Basketball is one of the sports helping UNICEF most in our campaign to give children with AIDS more access to treatment. And with this effort, basketball as a sport is showing that it is concerned about development and progress in our society."
The exchange took place on the court at San Agustin School, where members of the Fundosa Once Sports Club of Madrid spent an hour before their practice for the European club wheelchair championships with the following Final Four players: Rimantas Kaukenas and Shaun Stonerook of Montepaschi Siena, Tomas Van den Spiegel and Nikos Zisis of CSKA Moscow, Tal Burstein and Derrick Sharp of Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv, as well as Sergi Vidal and Zoran Planinic of Tau Ceramica. After some conversation and an exchange of gifts and autographs, Stonerook and Kaukenas were the first to try their shots from wheelchairs with the players from Fundosa Once. Before long, several Euroleague stars were trying their luck from the chairs or rebounding and passing to the others.
"It seems to be easy watching from the side, but actually sitting in a wheelchair and taking a few shots, you can have an airball from inside the paint," Kaukenas said. "It's amazing not only what they do with a basketball, but that they can actually play sports in a wheelchair. I just tried to take a few three-point shots from the wheelchair, and it's very difficult. It's not something everyone can do. I only have admiration and sympathy for these guys, for what they have done and achieved in their lives. They are amazing."
"It's very good to see basketball from their perspective: how they feel about playing basketball and talking basketball with them," Planinic said. "I can tell right away, that the only thing that matters to them is winning, too. You can see it in their eyes"
For the wheelchair stars, the chance to talk basketball with Euroleague stars was a source of motivation for their championship tournament this weekend.
"This has been very interesting and entertaining for us," Fundosa Once player Jorge Iglesias said. "What was interesting is that, after talking to most of the Euroleague guys for half an hour, I can say that no one asked me about why I'm in a wheelchair or why I am disabled. We had a normal conversation between basketball players: whom they play this weekend, whom we play in our games, how much practice they do each week, things like that. They were interested to hear how we have to move in our chairs at top speed for fastbreaks and so on. And when they shot around, they had trouble reaching the rim at first from the wheelchairs, because they are not used to the extra distance.
"This means a lot to us. We are in the elite of basketball, and for us the super-elite is the Euroleague. My dream is playing the Euroleague, but I can't do that, so I play in my Euroleague. It means a lot to have players from that level come here to support us and to tell us that what we do deserves a lot of credit. To get that kind of support gives me double energy. I am so energized by this that when I play this weekend, I'll be making shots backwards."