As the 2019 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four heads to Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain for the first time this spring, fans all over Europe already have a crystal clear idea of what makes the city so important to European basketball.
Players and coaches come and go, but the city's flagship team, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz, can always boast of leaving its heart on the floor in every game. The club's trademark, never-say-die attitude goes by a well-known name: Baskonia Character.
But where does that character come from? Is it the management, the kind of players that the club brings in – or is it something else?
EuroLeague.net went to find out the answer by speaking to five players – a mix of Spanish, American and Argentinean players – who embodied Baskonia Character at times over the last three decades: Pablo Prigioni, Fernando San Emeterio, Joe Arlauckas, Pete Mickeal, and Sergi Vidal.
Arlauckas was the first of these five players to play for Baskonia. He joined the team in 1990 and wore Baskonia's jersey for three seasons, until 1993. Some people claim that Baskonia Character started in the 2000s, but Arlauckas knows otherwise.
"I think it all comes from the fans and what that team means for them and the town," Arlauckas says. "You get into that arena and feel a responsibility for the fans, the team, and the club. Character is definitely an internal thing. Not all players have it and Baskonia is good at finding players like that. Guys like myself, Ramon Rivas, Larry Micheaux, (Ralph) McPherson, guys like that, players who had that attitude. You can go back to the Spanish guys, too. Pablo Laso had a lot of character when he played and now as a coach. You don't know about Baskonia Character when you get there, but once you get there, you just kind of feel it - it is the whole town and the atmosphere – and you can feed into.
"They do a good job on finding the people that they need, sign them and get them in there. I think that every time you sign a player, you need to know where they are coming from, what they are about, what kind of person they are. In any team, it is really important to have that team camaraderie. Everybody must buy into the same system, and I think they do a good job of finding those players. Sometimes they make mistakes but that's anybody; you are not going to avoid that! Overall, I think they are doing a great job with what they have there and the size of the city. They continue to be at the top year after year, and that is difficult."
Vidal holds the Baskonia record with 168 EuroLeague games played for the club between 2000 and 2009. He points to club president Josean Querejeta as the originator of Baskonia Character and to former head coach Dusko Ivanovic as the person who took it to new heights with an influx of hard-charging Argentinian players as key collaborators.
"I think it all starts with Josean (Querejeta). When Josean found Dusko (Ivanovic), it was the perfect fit, but the team already had a lot of character before Dusko's arrival. But in Dusko, Josean found the perfect person to execute things the way he saw them. This is why Dusko stayed so long and they had such a good relationship. The club's character is always there and starts from the top management. Some good coaches, with great basketball knowledge, didn't match the club's character and didn't stay long. The management known which the right direction is, and everyone has to follow it.
"Playing with character belongs to the club's DNA, and if you don't have it, it will be very difficult for you to succeed at Baskonia. If you look back, there have been players who have been able to adjust and matched the club's identity despite arriving with a different mentality, and others who didn't manage to do that and only stayed in the club for a shorter time. In that sense, Argentinians have competitiveness in their genes. They are warriors who always fight, and that's added to the talent that most of the Argentinian players who played with us had. It is a perfect combination. Those were great years and I learned a lot from them."
Prigioni is not only of the many Argentinians to wear Baskonia's jersey in the club's glory years, but he did so for longer – eight seasons in three stints – than any of his compatriots. From 2003 to 2009, Prigioni helped Baskonia reach four consecutive Final Fours, win a Spanish League crown and lift the Spanish Cup trophy three times. He explains what Baskonia Character means to him.
"Well, it has a lot to do with not making excuses, to compete and try to beat the best teams out there. It doesn't matter if the opponent has a bigger budget or more potential than you; you put everything aside when the game starts and just compete. It is the desire to win, the will to win and do better. It is a number of things – the fighting spirit, too. All of these things are related and have a lot of doing with the way we Argentinian players are, especially those who came a long time ago. We left everything behind to reach as high as we could.
"I believe that it meant a lot for us to leave our country at a very young age. Probably our character, the way that we are, and Baskonia are in the same direction. We all fit well in the club and played at a very good level, giving a lot to the club. Maybe that is the association, because our character and competitive nature fit so well into this club."
Mickeal was in Vitoria-Gasteiz for just a couple of seasons, but he left his mark as one of the toughest players to wear the Baskonia jersey. He, too, looks to club president Josean Querejeta as the source of Baskonia Character.
"I think you have to start with the boss, Josean Querejeta, and the way he runs his organization. He runs it top-notch. He is a businessman and everything is a business for him, and he treats his players the same way. He has probably bought and sold more players and made more profit off players than any other CEO in the business, so I think it all starts with his character and the tough mentality that he has: hard-working, two practices every day. And most of the times you are in the weight room, he is in the weight room, also. That kind of tells you it starts with the boss, and this is where the character comes from. When I was there in 2008, 2009, he was in the weight room almost every day I went in there.
"A perfect example of Baskonia Character in a player is Pablo Prigioni. In my first year there, with Neven Spahija as head coach, I learned first-hand about Argentinian basketball and how tough those guys are. Pablo's mentality fit with mine, so it was like a perfect marriage, being there with those guys, Querejeta and the fans. When you are in Vitoria and play for those guys, it is straight concentration and focus. There is not much to do there, so that is a big advantage for the players, because it helps you focus on the sport. That is kind of a big advantage that we had there. You have the president, the fans and a whole city always behind you. It really helps you focus on just basketball."
Fernando San Emeterio
San Emeterio played 143 EuroLeague games for Baskonia from 2008 to 2015, making the All-EuroLeague First Team in 2011. He will always be remembered, too, for the series-winning three-point play when Baskonia won the 2010 Spanish League title. Asked about Baskonia Character, he points to the club's scouting boss, Alfredo Salazar, who brought players Luis Scola, Arvydas Macijauskas, Andres "Chapu" Nocioni, Mirza Teletovic, Tiago Splitter, and many others to Vitoria-Gasteiz.
"Alfredo Salazar found a lot of great players. Probably Nocioni is the most significant, the perfect example of Baskonia Character. He said it in his biography. When they signed Chapu, Guilherme Giovannoni was the club's first option, a player who everyone in European basketball wanted then, a very talented player and at first, more talented than Chapu. But Alfredo saw something different in Chapu – his character and personality. In the end, against all odds, he decided to sign Nocioni, and time has told that both players had very different careers. Chapu was a very, very talented player, but if you add his hard-working mentality, things had to go well.
"Argentinians had to do a lot with it, too. They were self-made and worked their way all the way from the bottom. Probably no one except Baskonia thought that they would become superstars, but hard work and effort allowed them to reach that level. Maybe that shows the Baskonia Character – and these players are the perfect example of that."