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50 Years interview: Valdis Muiznieks, ASK Riga
It is special enough to have been part of the first team ever called European club champions. To have been so as a star player for the first three continental titles proves that Valdis Muiznieks and his ASK Riga teammates deserve to be considered among the greatest teams ever assembled in Europe. They made history in 1958 as the first champs, then repeated in 1959 and three-peated in 1960. No team has bettered their streak in the next 50 years and only one other has been able to match it. Euroleague Basketball's season-long celebration of 50 Years of European Club Basketball makes an extra-special stop in Riga, Latvia on Monday, where the ULEB Cup opening game will replay the 1958 and 1959 finals between ASK and Lukoil Academic of Bulgaria. Valdis Muiznieks will be among the surviving members of ASK Riga who will be honored on-court before the tipoff. "I am proud of the fact that at that time, we really were the best team on the continent," Muiznieks told ULEBcup.com in a recent interview. "I am so happy that our glory days coincided with the same years that the Euroleague started on its way and kept growing. So good luck and keep it that way!"
Hello, Mr. Muiznieks. First of all, what do you think about the initiative to honor 50 years of European Club Basketball and open the ULEB Cup with the rematch of the first-ever final, ASK Riga-Lukoil Academic Sofia?
"It is a great pleasure to see the European Cup competition thriving after 50 years. It is even more satisfactory to see the rematch of the first European club final here in Riga. I have to admit that the level of competition has risen ever since we started, as well as the level of the players. Back then there were only few teams taking part in the competition, mainly from the former USSR, such as ASK Riga, CSKA Moscow, Dynamo Tbilisi and Academic Sofia, and of course Real Madrid. Now we see so many different teams, from different countries. It is nice."
Riga won the first three Euroleague titles from 1958 to 1960. As many as 16,000 fans were there in the second game of the 1958 final in Riga, played outdoors. What was the feeling to lift the first-ever European club trophy?
"It is a wonderful feeling! The political situation at that time did not allow us to represent Latvia, but, nevertheless, we felt that we were doing exactly so, because except for Alexander Gomelskiy, the rest of us were Latvians on the 1958 team. Also I would want to give a huge credit to the L'Equipe newspaper for being one of the founders of the Eurocups."
You played a decisive role in the second game of the 1959 final, scoring two critical baskets in the final seconds in front of 20,000 fans in Sofia. Which are your memories of those games and how was European basketball back then?
"Well, to tell the truth the memories are very blurred from those days (laughing)...I remember for sure that since I was one of the leaders of the team, I was one of a few who usually were deciding the games in the end, so yes, I believe the emotions were running high, but, honestly, well it was 50 years ago, after all...What I do remember was that we had great team chemistry and we knew that we could beat everybody as a team first."
Of course, you played with Janis Krumins, the first great European player, a dominant force in the paint. How special was it to play with him and how would you describe him as a player?
"About Janis Krumins, I can say that off the court he was my best friend. I still from time to time visit his wife and his family. He was the most honest man, true to his heart, he never did anything to heart anybody's feelings. A true gentlemen, I would say. On the court, of course, he was known for his size advantage over his opponents, but his most unique talent was his unselfishness and his unique sense for the game. You could always count on him passing to teammates if he saw they had better position than he did. In fact, we had superb chemistry on the court, as well. We were running a lot of pick-and-rolls and, for myself, I can say that I scored very many points thanks to him. Of course, if you compare him to the centers like Sabonis or the dominant centers of todays' game, now they have more strength and power, but very few can match his intelligence on the court."
Alexander Gomelskiy coached Riga to its three Euroleague titles and went on to be one of the best European coaches of all-time. How was the young Gomeslkiy and how did he help you to be a better player?
"As for Alexander Gomelskiy, I would describe him as a young, ambitious person when he arrived in Riga, in 1954. He was an army lieutenant and he was on his way from Leningrad to Kaliningrad, but somehow the situation changed and there he was, appointed as head coach of ASK. I would describe him as an exceptional manager and a great motivator. He was the one who managed to bring the best players from the four best Latvian clubs together at ASK Riga. He was excellent in psychology, he created the individual approach for every player, every team member, and that is why all of his teams were so successful.
He knew how to get the best out of me. We had various conversations - yes, at times, shouting - but he always knew how to reach his goal. He was the one who discovered Janis Krumins and brought him in. Honestly, in the beginning, there were better basketball coaches around, but he was the one who embodied everything - from coaching to managing and scouting, and that was the key to success."
As one of the pioneers in European club competitions, and seeing this year's celebration plans, how proud are you to have helped start something so special, now known all around the world?
"Yes, I am really proud of the fact that we were the ones who started the Euroleague and, especially, I am proud of the fact that at that time, we really were the best team on the continent. I am so happy that our glory days coincided with the same years that the Euroleague started on its way and kept growing. So good luck and keep it that way!"
Friday, November 02, 2007