McAdoo, Montecchi, D'Antoni of Phillips
After 30 years with the classic formula of home and away games, and since 1966 a single-game final on neutral ground, FIBA decided to change the competition format in 1988. At that time, only one team, the champion per country, the domestic champion, was eligible to play. After two eliminatory rounds and an eight-team third round, the top qualifiers advanced to the first Final Four, played from April 5 to 7 in Ghent, Belgium. Partizan Belgrade, with a very young Dusan Vujosevic on the bench directing Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Aleksandar Djordjevic, Goran Grbovic, Ivo Nakic, even Zeljko Obradovic, arrived with the top record, 10-4, ahead of the Aris Thessaloniki (9-5) of Nikos Gallis, Panagiotis Yannakis and Slobodan Subotic. Philips Milan was also third (9-5) with Franco Casalini on the bench leading players like Mike D'Antoni, Mike Brown, Dino Meneghin and Bob McAdoo. In fourth place was Maccabi Tel Aviv (8-6) with Doron Jamchy, Mickey Berkowitz, Kevin Magee, Motti Aroesti and Kenny Barlow. Barcelona (7-7), Saturn Cologne (5-9), Pau-Orthez (4-10) and Nashua Den Bosch (4-10) were the teams left out of the Final Four. In the final tournament, the experience of Milan's veterans prevailed over Maccabi's quality, Partizan's talent and Aris's individuality.
Interview: Mike D'Antoni of Milan
D'Antoni with trophy
Among the first American point guards to come to Europe to make his career was Mike D'Antoni. He landed in Milan for the 1977-78 season and stayed 12 years until he retired. The highlight, no doubt, came with back-to-back European club titles in 1987 and 1988. The second of those started the Final Four era in Ghent, Belgium, where D'Antoni teamed with legends such as Dino Meneghin and Bob McAdoo to bring the trophy home to Milan. Last season, D'Antoni returned to the Final Four as coach of Benetton Treviso. D'Antoni talked with Euroleague.net from Arizona, where he is now an assistant coach with the NBA's Phoenix Suns. "Having been at the first one, I can say that last year's Final Four in Bologna was unbelievable," D'Antoni said. "It really showed how far European basketball has come."
What sticks out in your memories about that first Final Four?
"The big thing was it being the first Final Four. There was a lot of excitement. We played the Greeks from Aris in the first game, and they had been our rivals for a long time. That was an exciting game, as was the final with Maccabi. The new format made it exciting and a good atmosphere. The kinks still had to be worked out. The floor was bad, the dressing rooms horrible. But they had it in Belgium, as I recall, because they wanted to promote basketball there. Of course, a lot has changed since then. Having been at the first one, I can say that last year's Final Four in Bologna was unbelievable. It really showed how far European basketball has come."
At the time, what was the importance of the shift to a Final Four format?
"It was mostly a question of adding excitement. It was a long weekend, with more teams involved and more of an opportunity to make money and promote basketball. It was in tune, also, with the huge popularity of the NCAA Final Four. As a player, too, getting to the Final Four was easier than getting to the final. We had tried a lot of years to make the final and I can tell you it was really tough. Now, four teams were there and the atmosphere was great. And in terms of competition, I really do think you get the best team winning at the end of the weekend, too."
Great names are all over the rosters from those four teams. Nikos Galis, a young Vlade Divac, Doran Jamchy, from your team Dino Meneghin and Bob McAdoo, who had 39 in the semis against Aris: Was that something exceptional to see even for you guys who played with him?
"It's funny, but that was not real exception for Bob. He did that all the time. He was so good to begin with, and when it came down to big gmaes, he always stepped it up. Hitting 39 was kind of normal for someone like him. Bob was one of the most competitive guys I ever played with. When the money was on the line, he was going down shooting. One of the other great things in that Final Four was the defensive job Dino Meneghin did in the semifinal. We had three centers that year: McAdoo, Meneghin and Ricky Brown. One of them had to guard a small forward, and we put Dino on Slobodan Subotic, who was very dangerous. But Dino did a great job on him, and that was a key, because we were vulnerable there."
You scored 2 points in the semifinal, but 17 in 40 minutes against Maccabi in the final. What was the difference from one game to the next?
"Well, to be honest, I was always the kind of player who was more comfortable in the setting of a series. I liked getting used to who I was playing against. I wasn't very good in the first games of a series, for instance, but from the second one forward I had no problems. My whole thing was confidence, so from one game to the next I got more confidence."
What happened in the title game?
"I hate to say it, but probably the biggest memory I have of the final against Maccabi was the 5,000 or 6,000 Greeks who went to Belgium. Aris didn't make the final, but they came and all 6,000 of them turned their backs to the court and sang for two hours without watching the game. They weren't complaining about the officiating in the semifinals or anything, if I remember right. They just wanted to show they didn't care who won if it wasn't their team."
Your team defended its title under a different format, with a different head coach, even a different sponsor. Was it as hard to do as that sounds?
"It was hard, but winning a European title is always hard. I remember we had early struggles that year, especially trying to get the three centers working together on the floor. We sputtered, but in the end Franciso Casalini did a great job making it work, and we were able to win the title. But it was tough."
The team you coached last year, Benetton, is a win away from returning to the Final Four. How does that make you feel?
"It makes me feel great, no doubt about. I think they are probably the best team in Europe. Ettore Messina is doing a great job. It's a tribute to Maurizio Gherardini and the Benetton group that they understood where basketball was going. They knew how to manage money and set up an organization that has been able to adapt to the new look of European basketball. I was lucky to be put in a situation to be able to succeed with them. It's a good organization with super players who can go all the way this season."