Perhaps even more amazing than the unconventional route Maciej Lampe took to Euroleague stardom is that another future Euroleague big man joined him along the way. The Caja Laboral Vitoria center was born in Poland to an athletic family, but did not discover basketball until he and his family moved to Sweden. There Lampe became fast friends with Damir Markota, today with Besiktas JK Istanbul. And together they marched to incredible heights.
When Lampe was born, there was little doubt that little Maciej would be an athlete. After all, his grandfather was an Olympic-caliber discus-thrower and decathlete. Both his parents played volleyball. And it was ultimately that sport the brought his father, a volleyball coach, to Stockholm when Maciej was five.
As a boy, he dabbled in hockey, soccer and crew, but due to his size, Lampe was destined for basketball. “More and more Serbian people, or people from the former Yugoslavia region now, were moving into my neighborhood, and basketball started to become a big sport,” Lampe recalled.
Damir Markota’s family escaped war-torn Sarajevo and wound up down the block from the Lampes. At age seven, Maciej and Damir had already become the best of friends. “Oh it was 24 hours. All the time we were together,” Damir said.
As Lampe and Markota showed interest in basketball, Lampe’s father guided them in the right direction. “Damir was my height, and it's not very often that you see someone so young being so tall,” Lampe said. “So my dad decided to put me in a basketball team in Sweden. Then I spoke to Damir and Damir's father, and he joined the team as well.
“I think we would have been friends even if we didn't play basketball, because we got along so well at that age. But I think basketball was the biggest thing for us at that time,” Lampe explained.
“We lived like one minute away from each other and we just played basketball every day,” Markota remembered. “And it's funny, because in that moment in Sweden it was not a big basketball school.”
Lampe and Markota blossomed nicely under Coach Joakim Samuelsson and their team, Stockholm Polisen, started to dominate. “We were undefeated in Sweden for a certain period of time and one of the best teams in Scandinavia in our age class, so it was very important for both of us, I think,” Lampe said. “We both had dreams of making it, to be able to play professionally.”
Polisen played in tournaments throughout the area and the two players impressed. “We played in a lot of tournaments with Zalgiris, Lietuvos Rytas and teams like that,” Markota said. “Good schools. We did really well.”
Their play opened doors for the two outside of Sweden. “Damir was the first one who turned professional,” Lampe said. “He left Sweden in order to play for Cibona Zagreb, when he was like 14. And I went later to Real Madrid when I was 15 years old, from Sweden as well.”
Even after the two went on their separate paths, their journeys remained quite similar. Just one week apart in 2002, Lampe and Markota made their Euroleague debuts at just 16 years old. They would go on to play professionally in several countries, with each suiting up in the NBA, Spain and Russia. Only there, when Lampe played for BC Khimki Moscow Region and Markota for Spartak St Petersburg, did they even meet on the court before this season’s Top 16.
Looking back, their respective success does not surprise Lampe. “I always thought that from our team, we would be the ones that played professionally,” he said. “So it's not a big surprise for me. I hope that our careers will continue to get better and better, and we will be more and more successful.”
This season Lampe and his Caja Laboral side have gotten the better of Markota and Besiktas. Vitoria beat Besiktas twice in the Top 16, with Lampe posting a double-double in one of those games. Now that they grew up together, reached the highest levels of the sport and have faced off in the Euroleague, what’s left for Lampe and Markota to do together?
“We're still young… I'm 26 and he is too. We still have things to do in the Euroleague,” Markota summed up. “We'll just keep on working like this, hope on luck and one day maybe we can play together.”