Like all opening nights, this one comes with a wealth of anticipation. The dress rehearsals are over. The warmup tours have finished. The protagonist are waiting in the wings, itching to get on stage. And this, as basketball lovers know beyond a doubt, is the big stage, the real deal. Now, it's sink or swim.
But before survival instincts take over, there is still sweet anticipation, in particular tonight for the season's first Game of the Week, being held in the Spanish capital, Real Madrid vs. Darussafaka Tekfen Istanbul.
Fans of both teams celebrated the ultimate satisfaction last spring, with their teams lifting the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and 7DAYS EuroCup trophies, respectively.
Tonight, the home fans will rejoice in that memory again as head coach Pablo Laso – the conductor of many symphonic basketball moments, but perhaps none so majestic as last spring's championship game in Belgrade – is presented his award as the Alexander Gomelskiy Coach of the Year for his team's inspiring triumph in the face of injury after injury.
But if all the basketball world is a stage on opening night, it seems that Madrid is starring in a revival while Darussafaka is debuting a new work by a first-time composer.
The EuroLeague champs brings back no less than 12 players from last year's roster, only one of whom was still injured when Madrid seized the trophy from defending champion Fenerbahce Istanbul. One missing link is Luka Doncic, the MVP of that campaign, but in his place slides another MVP, Sergio Llull, who missed almost all of last season with injury. That makes for a lot of confidence in and around this team.
Darussafaka, on the other hand, brings back just five players from the one that swept Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar for the EuroCup title, and two of those five averaged less than 4 minutes per game in the Finals. Darussafaka also has a new head coach, Ahmet Caki, making his EuroLeague debut.
But what that means for Darussafaka is: no pressure. The visitors not only arrive at Wizink Arena in Madrid without pressure tonight, but they confront the entire EuroLeague season in the same way. Nobody expects a title, and each victory will be an accomplishment. Darussafaka's roster is a mix now of proven champs and a well-chosen collection of arrivals who are eager to prove themselves, too. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain each time they step on the floor – and that will make Darussafaka dangerous to at least one bigger-name opponent this season.
But if you think about it, Madrid is without pressure, too. Having won two titles in four seasons now, Madrid can maintain its calm while aiming for its first back-to-back since 1968. Before winning it all in 2015 for the first time in 20 years, Madrid owned eight European crowns. That was more than any other club, yes, but it also had CSKA Moscow (7) and Panathinaikos Athens (6) nipping at its heels. All that seems like ancient history now with Madrid three trophies clear of its nearest pursuer.
Madrid's title run last season was unpredictable due to its many injuries – except in one way. It was precisely those injuries that let Madrid walk into the Final Four with less pressure than most major clubs. Indeed, Madrid could honestly claim happiness just to have made it so far despite the obstacles. With a whole team together for the first time all season, Laso could pull all his coaching strings for the first time. And as soon as he did so, it was abundantly clear that Madrid had built an incredible roster many months before that was only getting its chance to shine now, on the biggest stage of all, the Final Four.
Almost the exact same roster is back for Madrid and with it the team's patented commitment to fast-paced, fun-to-watch basketball. That's never going to change under Laso, not to mention Llull, Rudy Fernandez, Jaycee Carroll, Walter Tavares, Anthony Randolph and their teammates. For the foreseeable future, whenever the ball goes up for tipoff in Madrid, the fireworks start.
So lower the stage lights and turn up the spotlights. The pressure is coming, there's no doubt about that. But first, let's just revel in opening night.