The elite of European basketball clubs and players are all eager to get to London next month. The eight clubs and dozens of players engaged in the ongoing Turkish Airlines Euroleague Playoffs dream of the opportunity to take the floor at the O2 for the Final Four. For some, the idea of competing in London is akin to playing in an unknown land. But for a growing number, perhaps more than you might expect, London has already been a stop on their basketball journeys.
Imagine that you had every player in front of you from all eight of the Euroleague quarterfinalists. You ask a simple question to everyone. “Hands up if you have ever played a game in England before. Keep your hands raised if you have ever bounced a ball in anger in London itself.”
There would be a large number of players who would sit there with hands by their sides, but the Olympians would be your obvious choice straight away. Rudy Fernandez, Victor Sada, Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez, Fernando San Emeterio, Juan Carlos Navarro and Felipe Reyes all played in the Olympic Final for Spain at the North Greenwich Arena (the O2 Arena on every other day of the year), whereas Anton Ponkrashov, Viktor Khryapa and Sasha Kaun all won bronze medals with Russia, with Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach, David Blatt, at the helm. Others who played in London a year ago include Joe Ingles (Australia), Marcelinho Huertas (Brazil), Fabien Causeur (France), Jonas Maciulis, Martynas Pocius and Sarunas Jasikevicius (Lithuania) and Andres Nocioni (Argentina).
The huge injection of money into basketball in the buildup to the Olympics meant that the Great Britain basketball program was well funded. The funding led to a six-year development plan that allowed for Great Britain to play a number of international home games, although the capital was chosen as the venue on only three occasions. Players, such as Ante Tomic (Croatia), Kerem Gonlum and Sinan Guler (Turkey), Maciej Lampe (Poland), Milos Teodosic, Dusko Savanovic and Nenad Krstic (Serbia) have all played internationals against Great Britain in London over the past three years, although not all have played at the O2.
When you move over into the realms of club basketball, the ‘London Club’ becomes a little more exclusive, as the number of players to have played in or close to the capital dive bombs into single figures – six to be exact. Jasikevicius and Navarro (Barcelona), Kostas Tsartsaris and Coach Agiris Pedoulakis (Peristeri) and Kerem Gonlum (Ulker) all played Euroleague games at the National Sports Centre (NSC) at Crystal Palace back in the 2001-02 season as part of the attempt by the London Towers at a European conquest. Add to this the fact that Rudy Fernandez played for Juventut Badalona against the Guildford Heat in the ULEB Cup back in 2007, and you have the five players and one coach who have gone into battle for their clubs in ‘ye olde’ London town.
Looking at the club scene, some of the greats graced the hardwood of the Crystal Palace NSC dating back to the early 1980s. Real Madrid played three clubs in England in the 1980s and 90s: Manchester United, Sheffield Sharks and incurred their only loss on English soil in London against Crystal Palace in 1982. Panathinaikos also came unstuck in the European Cup in London in 1981, as the pre-Nikos Gallis era had not yet rejuvenated Greek basketball.
Maccabi Tel Aviv was a perennial visitor to London as the World Invitational Club Basketball Championships (WICB) invited some huge teams from around the world to compete against each other every year from 1978 through to the mid 90s. Huge television audiences would tune in to watch “the fastest growing sport in England,” and the lure of luxury shopping and the pubs of London proved to be very attractive for basketball clubs looking for a chance to get way during the festive period. Maccabi Tel Aviv players such as Mickey Berkowitz, Aulcie Perry, Earl Williams and Lou Silver became household names for the avid basketball junkie. Maccabi never lost a game to an English team in London, but Crystal Palace and the Kingston Kings came very close to turning over one of the best teams in Europe in two WICB finals in the 80s.
The WICB tournament also proved enticing for the CSKA Moscow team back in 1993, but without the funding that they receive today and without any import players (American or European), they succumbed to a Thames Valley Tigers team in the final. That proved to be a special moment for me personally. Though as a Crystal Palace player I won a runners-up medal in 1983 after losing to Maccabi in the final, a decade later I was the head coach of that Thames Valley side that won the tournament.
When the fans come to London for the Final Four, their teams will likely arrive for their very first games ever in London. But the awareness and enthusiasm that the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four weekend is sure to generate will mean that we will get to see these teams come back again in the future… hopefully soon.