The Final Four returns to Madrid, Spain for the first time since 2008, when an event that is one-of-a-kind every year became truly unique for a historic milestone that was celebrated. One of the highlights of that Final Four took place on Friday, between the two semifinal games, when 50 legends of the first 50 years of European club basketball were honored at center court. A season-long 50 Years of European Club Basketball celebration culminated with 50 most important contributors to the game in Europe honored before a sold-out crowd at the Comunidad de Madrid Sports Palace, now renamed BarclayCard Center. A total of 38 honorees were able to attend the event, and were welcomed to the court one by one as photos and videos of their great exploits played on the arena screens. It marked a high point of a memorable season in which Euroleague Basketball looked back in time to give proper credit to players, coaches, referees and others who had helped European basketball grow in stature and reputation over five exciting decades.
One of the players honored in 2008 was Walter Szczerbiak, who had built his legacy in the Spanish capital while leading Real Madrid to three of its record eight Euroleague titles. Szczerbiak remembers the event as one of his personal highlights in basketball. "I thought it was wonderful. Many times, as a player, you don't appreciate things while you are playing, so it was such a wonderful thing to have such a celebration when it means something," Szczerbiak recalled. "As a player, you just think about the next game and the only time you really, really celebrate is when you win a championship. This was like being put into the hall of fame."
The entired 2007-08 season had been dedicated to remembering those who had built basketball's future since the first year of European competition 50 years earlier, in 1958. Legends were honored all around the continent as Euroleague Basketball travelled to places like Moscow, Riga, Athens, Zagreb, Madrid, Barcelona, Bologna, Milan, Zagreb, Piraeus, Belgrade and Rome to hold pre-game ceremonies that put the spotlight on local legends. Euroleague President and CEO Jordi Bertomeu presented the honors and held a press conference to highlight the legends in every city he visited along the way. None of the pre-game ceremonies was more special that the one in Riga, the Latvian capital. ASK Riga and Lukoil Academic faced each other for the first time since they had met in the first two continental finals, in 1958 and 1959. All surviving players and coaches from both rosters were invited to the game in what proved to be a very emotional moment for everyone at Riga Arena.
Euroleague.net joined the celebration and celebrated 50 Years of European club basketball in style, with exclusive pictures from former champions, special interviews with former Euroleague winners and one-of-a-kind documents, such as the scoresheets of the first-ever Euroleague game played in 1958 between Royal IV SC Anderlechtois and BBC Eztella, or that of the game between OKK Belgrade and Alvik in which the late Radivoj Korac scored 99 points. Special video content was produced for the event, interviewing each of the legends who attended the celebration in Madrid.
In the end, the list of top contributors featured 35 players, 10 coaches and 5 referees. They were chosen from a list of nominees by a panel of experts headed by FIBA Secretary General Emeritus Borislav Stankovic and ULEB president Eduardo Portela. They were joined by legendary players Dino Meneghin and the late Sergey Belov, former Euroleague-winning coaches Lolo Sainz and Dan Peterson, Maccabi Tel Aviv president Shimon Mizrahi, Euroleague refereeing director Costas Rigas and L'Equipe journalist Jean-Luc Thomas.
The players joining Szczerbiak were: Radivoj Korac, Vlade Divac, Sasha Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic and Dejan Bodiroga of Serbia; Aldo Ossola, Dino Meneghin, Pierluigi Marzorati and Antonello Riva of Italy; Emiliano Rodriguez, Clifford Luyk, Wayne Brabender, Juan Antonio Corbalan and Juan Antonio San Epifanio "Epi" of Spain; Kresimir Cosic, Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc of Croatia; Nikos Galis, Panagiotis Giannakis, Fragiskos Alvertis and Theo Papaloukas of Greece; Bob Morse, Bob McAdoo, Mike D'Antoni and Anthony Parker of the United States of America; Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Jasikevicius of Lithuania; Mirza Delibasic and Drazen Dalipagic of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Sergei Belov of Russia; Mickey Berkowitz of Israel; Manu Ginobili of Argentina; and Manuel Raga of Mexico.
The 10 coaches chosen were: Aca Nikolic, Dusan Ivkovic, Bozidar Maljkovic and Zeljko Obradovic of Serbia; Pedro Ferrandiz and Lolo Sainz of Spain; Alexander Gomelskiy of Russia; Dan Peterson of USA; Ettore Messina of Italy; and Pini Gershon of Israel.
And the five referees were: Artenik Arabadjian of Bulgaria, Mikhail Davidov of Russia, Lubomir Kotleba of Slovakia, Yvan Mainini of France and Costas Rigas of Greece.
"Being on the court with all those legends was a very proud moment," Szczerbiak remembered. "Just to see, look out at all the people, and look at the company that I was in, with those great players! It was a real honor."
It was also a one-of-a-kind opportunity to be recognized in front of many Real Madrid fans who were present at the 2008 Final Four. Among other highlights, Euroleague Basketball chose Szczerbiak to hand out the 2008 Final Four MVP trophy to its winner, Trajan Langdon, right after CSKA won the title.
"It was fun to get in front of all the people in Madrid because the way I left Madrid, I never had a chance to say goodbye to everybody in some way, so it is always a good feeling to get in front of the public there and hopefully people will remember who I am," Szczerbiak said.
Once the Final Four arrived, the atmosphere was extraordinary. The Euroleague headquarters hotel filled with legends, teammates and rivals who had not seen each other in many years. A 50 Years of European Basketball photo exhibition was held in the hotel lobby, showing more than 200 pictures from the past, some of which the legends posed beside. Several others handed out trophies at the Euroleague Awards Ceremony. History was in the air, and it made a world-class basketball event even more special.
"I felt so proud to be part of that group!" Szczerbiak said. "Many times, basketball in the old days is forgotten. Back then, the organization of the league didn't think of events like this - choosing the 50 most prominent people in European basketball. Sometimes you are forgotten and it was great to be remembered. It was also great to see players like Drazen Dalipagic, to be with Arvydas Sabonis, to talk to Aldo Ossola and the players that were there and you only knew as an adversary. It was nice to share some special feeling with that type of group."
Asked for his best moment of that weekend, Szczerbiak couldn't choose. "Wow... I would have to take the memory of the whole event because I was in heaven!"