The 20201 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four at Lanxess Arena will mark the first EuroLeague game in Cologne, Germany, since January 2007. Those who had a chance to experience the passion around RheinEnergie Cologne during its heyday recall well how the city feels about the game.
Anadolu Efes Istanbul center Tibor Pleiss will play his second Final Four in a city he calls home. He was born in nearby Bergisch Gladbach and grew up in Cologne, where he also started playing basketball and spent his first professional seasons. Despite the many world-class organizations Pleiss has since been a part of, the atmosphere in Cologne still stands out for him.
"Cologne is my favorite city in Germany, of course, because it is my hometown. It is a city with a lot of things to see. Most of the people know our Cathedral, which is very famous, but it is a city with many different faces." Pleiss said.
"Our fans were incredible... The atmosphere was always amazing."
Even though Pleiss was just a teenager in the years he played for Cologne, he will never forget what it felt like to play big games in the team's jampacked arena.
"Our fans were incredible. The gym was just for 3,000 people, but the atmosphere was always amazing. The fans were always very emotional. We had drummers around the court who helped create a great atmosphere. It was always full! It was something special, like a place where people came together and had a good time. It was kind of like a big family."
Even after the local club fell on hard times, Pleiss was impressed by the support the team gets: "I am still following the team, which is playing in the fourth league in Germany right now," Pleiss said last year. "But the fans are still there. They are still behind the team, which is incredible. No other team in this league has these kinds of fans."
Pleiss is joined by others who played or coached in Cologne in remembering what a great basketball city it was at its peak.
"This is a special story," Svetislav Pesic, a EuroLegaue champion as a player and a coach, said when asked about his time as the head of the RheinEnergie Cologne bench for the 2001-02 season. "The city of Cologne had a big basketball tradition. When I was the German national team coach, Saturn Cologne, was the best team in the country.
"I always say that this German state, North Rhine-Westphalia, where Cologne is, has a big basketball tradition in German history. In this region, you have Bayer Leverkusen, a long-time German champion that won 14 championships. We talked about Saturn Cologne and Telekom Bonn, too. There are many other teams in the German League from that region."
Pesic started to understand just how great that passion was a few years before he was approached to coach in Cologne: "I was coaching ALBA Berlin and we played against Telekom Bonn in Koeln Arena. Telekom Bonn had a small gym and the game against ALBA was the most important one in the regular season. It was a very interesting game, and Telekom Bonn decided to play in the big gym in Cologne, where the Final Four will be played this season. We broke a European record at the time: 20,000 people watched the game."
Sasa Obradovic joined RheinEnergie Cologne under Pesic and played the final four seasons of his career there. He was then appointed head coach and took the club to new heights.
"Cologne is definitely a really good spot to host the Final Four."
"Those years were really the best years of my life because as a player, I lived in a nice city and was able to see my kids grow up in a clean, good condition, in a great country like Germany. That was essential for me," said Obradovic. "Cologne is definitely a really good spot to host the Final Four and maybe promote basketball again in the city. While I was there, Cologne was a very good basketball city. I feel sorry because it is a big city that deserves a team that could at least play in the German League.
"The city has a sports soul, with football, hockey, handball... Basketball is missing in an era in which the sport is growing all over Germany, and you need such a city as one of its basketball centers."
At a time when we are hoping to bring sports and society back to the normalcy remembered before the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps the crowning of a new EuroLeague champion in the city will be just the spark needed to help Cologne regain its status as a German basketball center.