From YMCA to the Towers: London clubs in European competitions

Feb 12, 2013 by Javier Gancedo, Print
Fernando Martin of Real Madrid against Greg McCray of Sutton & Crystal Palace in 1981While England is not viewed as a basketball country, nor London considered a hot spot for hoops, at least until the 2012 Olympic Games, the fact is that basketball arrived in Europe via England. In fact, within a year after the sport was invented, basketball was brought to England in 1892 by C. J. Proctor, the president of the Birkenhead YMCA, who had seen the game during a business trip to Canada. As such, basketball started to be played at YMCAs around the country and grew in popularity. Eventually, War World I caused English basketball lose its initial impetus, but the arrival of many Americans in the late 1910s helped it to bounce back. When basketball was included as an exhibition game at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, Great Britain was represented by a team from the London Central YMCA, which won all of its games. Teams like Sutton & Crystal Palace, Kingston BC, London Towers and most recently London Lions have followed its those footsteps over the years, with big wins and impressive efforts in European competitions.

The first London-based club to take part in European competitions was in fact Central YMCA, which joined the 1964-65 European Cup, but did not go past the first round; Central lost to Asvel Basket of France. Three years later, Vauxhall Motors BC tried to access the European Cup, but AZS-AWF Warszawa of Poland stood in its way, sweeping the two-game, first-round series. London clubs did not come back to European competitions until the 1970s, when Epping Avenue made its European Cup debut in 1972-73. Epping, led by Len Roy and coached by Ken Clarke, managed to advance past the first round by downing BBC Etzella of Luxembourg on point differential, but mighty Real Madrid stopped its run in the next series. Epping returned for the European Cup qualifying rounds in 1973-74, but was unable to get past Solna IF of Sweden. That season, two other London clubs, Embassy All-Stars and Sutton & Crystal Palace BC, played in the Cup Winners' Cup and the Korac Cup, respectively. The following season, in 1974-75, Embassy defeated TuS 04 Leverkusen of West Germany, but fell to French side SC Moderne in the eighthfinals and in 1975-76, Embassy lost in the European Cup's first qualifying round against BV Transol RZ of the Netherlands.

Sutton & Crystal Palace was the first English side to make some serious noise in European club competitions. In 1971-72 and still as BC Sutton, the club beat Gladsaxe BK of Denmark in the Cup Winners' Cup to become the first London-based club to survive an elimination round in European competition. By 1975-76, the team was ready for bigger heights. Sutton & Crystal Palace swept BUS Fruit Lier BBC of Belgium to get to the Cup Winners' Cup's second qualifying round. Galatasaray won the first leg 91-77, but Sutton & Crystal Palace was not done. In front of 5,000 fans, the team thrashed Galatasaray 83-60 behind 31 points from Jim Guymon to break through to the group stage. Sutton & Crystal Palace managed to defeat mighty Cinzano Olimpia Milano on the road, picked up another win against SSV Hagen of West Germany and a tie against Estudiantes Madrid of Spain. The club remained the flag bearer of British basketball for years as it went on to play in the European Cup group stage for five consecutive seasons, from 1976 to 1981, as well as in the 1981-82 Cup Winners' Cup.

Kingston vs Manchester Giants at the Royal Albert Hall en 1989In 1982-83, Sutton & Crystal Palace registered a huge win that echoed all around the continent. Coached by Dan Palmer, Crystal Palace survived the first elimination round against German powerhouse Saturn Cologne after a thrilling two-game series that needed two overtimes and saw Palmer's team ultimately win by an aggregate score of 173-171. Sutton & Crystal Palace was led by scoring ace John Johnson and Greg McCray. Awaiting in the second round was Real Madrid. The Spanish superpower had signed scoring machine Drazen Dalipagic to play alongside basketball genius Mirza Delibasic. Due to foreign restrictions, Dalipagic would only be allowed to play in the Euroleague. The first leg of the two-game series took place at London's National Sports Centre on November 4, 1982. Against all odds, Crystal Palace downed Madrid 89-81 behind 32 points from Johnson and 16 from McCray. Dalipagic led Madrid with 18 points. A week later, Crystal Palace tried to defend its 8-point lead in the Spanish capital. Johnson had 27 points and Pete Jeremich added 20, but Madrid used an 111-81 win to qualify to the group stage. Crystal Palace could not complete the upset, but took pride in a win for the ages that still is considered one of the biggest in British basketball history. Also of note, in 1977-78, Embassy Milton Keynes played FC Barcelona to an 88-88 tie.

The next big London-based team was Kingston BC, which started to compete in European competition in 1985-86. Two seasons later, Kingston defeated Direktbank Den Helder of the Nethelands and Galatasaray to reach the Cup Winners' Cup's group stage, where it Yugoslavian side IMT twice and registered a 106-108 home loss against Limoges. By 1990-91, Kingston put together a competitive team for the European Cup led by Alton Byrd, Alan Cunningham and Martin Clark and coached by Kevin Cadle. The club advanced past Commodore Den Helder of the Netherlands in the first round to face CSKA Moscow for a ticket to the group stage. Kingston pulled out a 93-77 victory at home in the first leg. In the Russian capital, Cadle’s charges managed a 74-72 loss that was in essence a true victory. Clark scored 32 points as Kingston made history. "They don't even play British basketball, not even European, but a typically American playing style," CSKA coach Ivan Edeshko said after the game. "They are very aggressive and execute all their coach's orders on the court."

One in the group stage, Kingston played like it belonged. Pop 84 Split needed overtime and 28 points from superstar Toni Kukoc to beat Kingston in London, 87-89. Kingston lost twice against FC Barcelona by a narrow margin and registered prestigious wins against Aris Thessaloniki, Maccabi Elite, Limoges and Scavolini Pesaro to finish the stage with a 4-10 record and put British basketball in the Euroleague map.

Randy Duck of the London Towers against a young Juan Carlos Navarro in the EuroleagueLondon Towers was the last team in the city to reach for success in European competition. The Towers made an outstanding European debut in 1995-96 when they downed PSG Racing Basket in the Korac Cup behind strong performances from Tony Windless and Steve Bucknall. The club was eliminated by Turkish powerhouse Tofas Bursa in the second qualifying round despite an 83-74 win in the first leg. The Towers went on to play the Saporta Cup's group stage for three seasons from 1996 to 2000. The Towers never got past the group stage, but registered many prestigious wins against the likes of Turk Telekom Ankara, Buducnost Pogdorica, Olimpia Milano and Darussafaka, among others –with scoring guard Danny Lewis as its main reference on offense. The Towers were invited to the original Euroleague season when the competition started in 2000-01. With Randy Duck, Kendrick Warren and Bucknall as its best players, Haribo London Towers registered a 25-point win against Open Skyliners in its first-ever Euroleague game, but went on to lose the next nine. The Towers returned to the Euroleague in 2001-02, but did not go past the regular season. Duck later played for the Brighton Bears; his 49 points in a Eurocup game against Cholet Basket remains that competition's all-time record.

The city's new signature team is London Lions, which arrived in the British capital last summer. Over the years, the club had been based in Hemel Hempstead, Watford and Milton Keynes prior to its re-location to London for the 2012–13 season. The team plays at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, home of Crystal Palace and London Towers in the past, but will move to the impressive 7,000-seat Copper Box, a venue from the London Olympic Games, for the 2013-14 season. The club also operates the Milton Keynes College Lions Basketball Academy in partnership with Milton Keynes College. Its main goal is to build a big basketball community in London – and the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four could be the definitive step needed for London basketball to rise up and again challenge for great goals.