Career-long devotion to making a club and a city part of the continental elite will be rewarded when Unicaja sports director Juan Manuel Rodríguez is honored as Euroleague Basketball's Club Executive of the Year later this month at the ULEB Summer League in Jesolo, Italy. Rodriguez was voted the award winner after Unicaja, the team he built, reached the 2007 Final Four for the first time in club history. Despite being a newcomer to the Final Four, Unicaja played a strong role in Athens, challenging more experienced teams to pull out third place in dramatic fashion. Unicaja's proud showing in Athens marks a high point in European competition for the club to which Rodriguez has belonged to since boyhood, when he was a player with one of the two Malaga, Spain teams that later merged to form Unicaja. He also had been a youth head coach, team delegate and assistant coach with the club before taking over as sports director in 1994, the position he still holds 13 years later. In recognition of his efforts last season, Rodriguez was voted the Club Executive of the Year by his peers, the 24 general managers of Euroleague clubs at the end of the 2006-07 season.
Under Rodriguez, Unicaja has enjoyed a string of successes, on and off the court, on a seemingly continual upward path year by year. His very first season as sports director finished with a three-point shot in the air in the last game of the 1995 Spanish League finals that gave Unicaja the chance to become just the fourth team in 40 years to win that country's title. That shot missed, but it also helped let loose basketball fever like never before in Malaga. A love affair between fans and Unicaja saw a solid decade's worth of home games sell out even as the team's arena capacity grew to 10,000 seats in order to accommodate the overflow ticket demand. The on-court rewards started coming this decade, as Unicaja made the Korac Cup final in 2000 and came back the next season to win it, putting a first trophy in the club's case. Unicaja returned to the Spanish League finals in 2001-02, but waited until 2004-05 to win its first national trophy, the King's Cup. The second one didn't take long to follow, however, as Unicaja realized the dream of winning the Spanish League in 2005-06, setting the stage for its historic Final Four run last season in the Euroleague. Throughout the process, Rodriguez made homegrown talent a big part of Unicaja's success. Led by two local players who are still in Malaga, Carlos Cabezas and Berni Rodriguez, Unicaja had more representatives on the current world champion Spanish national team than any other club.
Unicaja's ascension to the continental elite came after years of dedicated effort. Just a season earlier, Unicaja had shared the Euroleague's best regular season mark, but tripped up in the Top 16 and was eliminated. Its 2006-07 season very much ran the opposite course. Unicaja started out handicapped by injury and lost its first three Euroleague games the hard way - two in overtime and the third at the buzzer. Soon, its luck changed enough that Unicaja was the team deciding two late regular season games in the closing moments and thus reaching the Top 16. After that, Unicaja made a fortress of its home court, Martin Carpena Sports Palace, winning all three games of the Top 16. Then, despite an injury to its top scorer until then, Unicaja held serve at home in the Quarterfinal Playoffs to outlast mighty Winterthur FC Barcelona. Another dream, the Final Four, had been reached. Once in Athens, Unicaja acquitted itself admirably, taking a fourth-quarter lead in the semifinals against defending champion CSKA Moscow before the star of that game was injured, too. Despite its semis defeat, Unicaja came back two days later to top Tau Ceramica in a thriller that gave its devoted fans plenty to cheer. Among those they cheered most was the architect of the club's remarkable rise to prominence, Juanma Rodríguez.