The upcoming 2012 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul marks a special anniversary for the most exciting weekend of basketball in the world. This spring’s edition marks 25 years since the Final Four era arrived in Europe to stay. A Final Four has been played continually in Europe since 1988, but the truth is that the concept was tried previously. The European Champions Cup, precursor to the Euroleague, experimented with the format in the 1960s. The first European Final Four was in 1966, with Italian cities Milan and Bologna sharing the hosting duties. A year later, the Final Four was held in Madrid, Spain, but the format was then discontinued for two decades. Its return came in 1988 in Ghent, Belgium, which has not hosted the event again, but nonetheless launched the new era, which continues with the 25th edition at Sinan Erdem Arena in Istanbul from May 11 to 13. The silver anniversary marks a great moment to remember the extraordinary basketball games, players and teams that have taken part in this great modern European basketball tradition, the Final Four!
The first modern Final Four
In April of 1988, the city of Ghent, Belgium, hosted a memorable European Champions Cup finals between four all-time superpowers: Phillips Milan, Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv, Partizan Belgrade and Aris Thessaloniki. Not only was it the first time that Ghent hosted European basketball’s signature event, but those teams included eight future selections to the Euroleague’s Greatest Contributors List: Miki Berkowitz, Mike D'Antoni, Vlade Divac, Sasha Djordjevic, Nikos Galis, Bob McAdoo, Dino Meneghin and Zeljko Obradovic. Meneghin's victory with Milano in Ghent made made him the most-crowned player in European history to date, with seven titles. Obradovic went on to win eight as a head coach, making him the most-crowned person ever in European competition. Of course, Ghent's lasting legacy was starting the new Final Four era in European basketball. Following those games, the Final Four was adopted as the ideal way to crown a European basketball champion.
Paris, Barcelona lead the list of Final Four hosts
Over a quarter-century of elite basketball games have featured nearly 1,000 of Europe’s best basketball players showcasing their talents in 15 cities throughout 10 different countries. This season Istanbul joins a select list of basketball capitals to host the Euroleague Final Four multiple times. The "Queen of Cities" first welcomed the Final Four in 1992, when Partizan edged Joventut Badalona on Sasha Djordjevic’s game-winning three-pointer – to date the latest shot to decide a Euroleague title game. The king of Final Fours, however, is Paris, which has featured the event four times (1991, 1996, 2001 and 2010). The second-most Final Fours have been in Barcelona, Spain (1998, 2003 and 2011), while Munich, Germany; Athens, Greece; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Saragossa, Spain have all welcomed the games of the Final Four twice. Spain is the country that has seen the most Final Four games with Barcelona, Saragossa and Madrid combining to host the event six times.
Only three teams have won it at home!
Although the Final Four is at a preselected venue, it doesn’t necessarily always mean it is at a neutral one. Over the years, 10 different teams have advanced to Final Fours in their countries. For some, like FC Barcelona in 2003, Maccabi in 2004 and Panathinaikos in 2007, the result has been among the team’s all-time highlights by lifting the Euroleague title and celebrating at home with its own fans. For others, the level of disappointment was only compounded, such as the record-setting CSKA Moscow squad, which in 2005 lost to Tau Ceramica in the semifinal in the Russian capital. Other teams saw their dreams of playing the Final Four at home dashed at different stages. One that stands out was Maccabi, which was one of the super powers of the 1980s and early 1990s, but after Tel Aviv was awarded the 1994 Final Four, Maccabi stumbled at home, lost the 1993 Israeli League title and missed out on the 1993-94 European League altogether.
The stars have come from far and wide
The Final Four era has taken the Euroleague title games all over the continent from Madrid in the west to Moscow in the north and Tel Aviv in the south. However the stars of the games have come from a much greater area. Euroleague champs over the years have come from Australia to Alaska to Argentina and almost everywhere in between. The players that have had the biggest impact on the games have been from the former Yugoslavia, which has accounted for 10 Final Four MVP trophies to date – Six from Serbian players (Predrag Danilovic 1992; Zarko Paspalj 1994; Zoran Savic 1998; Zeljko Rebraca 2000; Dejan Bodiroga 2002, ’03) and four from Croatians (Dino Radja 1989; Toni Kukoc 1990, ’91, ‘93).
The greatest winners
No person has had a greater collective impact on Euroleague Final Fours than Zeljko Obradovic. A player for Partizan in the first modern Final Four in 1988, Obradovic since smashed the record by celebrating eight Euroleague titles with four teams as a head coach: Partizan in 1992, Joventut Badalona in 1994, Real Madrid in 1995, and Panathinaikos in 2000, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2011. The winningest team of the Final Four era is Panathinaikos, which has tasted sweet success six times since 1996. Maccabi and Split, with three each, are the only other teams to win more than twice since 1998. (Maccabi's total includes its FIBA SuproLeague title at the only Final Four played in 2001). Interestingly, Europe’s all-time winningest team, Real Madrid, has only lifted one of its eight Euroleague crowns in the Final Four era. Not coincidentally, former Panathinaikos captain Fragiskos Alvertis is the player with the most Final Four titles – five.
The heroes and their shining moments
Every Final Four has its own story and its own heroes. In some years, those heroes may have authored the defining moment, such as Djordjevic’s Euroleague-winning triple in 1992, Corny Thompson of Joventut’s go-ahead triple with 15 seconds to go in the 1994 final or Stojko Vrankovic’s game-saving block in 1996 to secure Panathinaikos’s first Euroleague title. Other years, the stage was set for different players to etch their names into history only to see last-second shots bounce out. Many legends of the game have graced the Final Four courts with brilliant individual performances to spur their teams to victory. Bob McAdoo still holds the Final Four record for his 39-point performance in a 1988 semifinal win over Aris Thessaloniki. Nikos Galis, who scored 28 for Aris that night, is the Final Four career record-holder in scoring with 231 points – no one is within 50 points of him – even though Galis never won the title. When looking for record-setting performances, the game to go to is the 2004 final in Tel Aviv, where Maccabi mauled Skipper Bologna 118-74.
The great streakers
The 25 years of the Final Four era have only produced two repeat winners. The great Jugoplastika Split dynasty led by Toni Kukoc reeled off three straight championships between 1989 and 1991. Maccabi threatened that distinction when it won in 2004 and ’05 and then reached the 2006 final, but lost to CSKA in Prague. CSKA owns a streak that is equally as impressive. The Russian giants set a Euroleague record with eight consecutive Final Four appearances between 2003 and 2010. In that time, CSKA reached four title games and lifted the trophy twice – in 2006 and ’08. J.R. Holden was the only player to play with CSKA throughout that streak, although former Euroleague and Final Four MVP Theo Papaloukas, who reached six Final Fours with CSKA, also appeared in eight in a row between CSKA and Olympiacos. The other great streakers of the modern era include Tau Ceramica, which played four straight Final Fours between 2004 and ’08. Maccabi has twice been to three consecutive Final Fours, once reached six in a span of seven seasons and played in 11 altogether.