Memories of a Vitoria-Gasteiz basketball pioneer

Feb 25, 2019 by Natxo Mendaza - Vitoria-Gasteiz Print
Memories of a Vitoria-Gasteiz basketball pioneer

If you wish to understand what basketball means to Vitoria-Gasteiz and to know the sport's more than half a century history in the city, 83-year-old Xabier Añua is the person to talk to. Añua has been one of the most influential characters of the sport's development in Vitoria and one of the main actors who made basketball an essential component of the city's DNA.

From the day a rim and a board were placed in the courtyard of the school that he attended – he tried playing for the first time with "a ball that was bigger than the hoop, so we looked even worse than we really were" – Añua fell in love with the sport. Basketball, alongside jazz music – his brother Iñaki has been the director of the Jazz Festival of Vitoria-Gasteiz since 1979 – became the greatest passions in Añua's life.

Añua has been a prophet in his own land, but his impact and relevance go beyond his native Vitoria. He was one of the first Spanish coaches to travel to the United States in the 1960s, which led him to attend practices of the New York Knicks and with the U.S. national team, as well as to hang out with legends such as Dave Cowens and Pete Maravich. He was chosen to lead the rebuilding process of the basketball section at FC Barcelona in 1968, and in so doing ws responsible for the arrival of legendary coach Aito Garcia Reneses, whom he saw "not only as a player for the team, but also a helpful hand to assist me as a coach."

"In the 1950s, you barely found even referees; it was a photographer who ended up becoming the official at the games we played."

He also tested the waters of French basketball in Antibes from 1973 and 1976, and his frequent trips to Latin America allowed him to know Salvador Allende – who tempted Añua to stay in Chile and take charge of the Chilean national team. He also influenced the "import process" that Baskonia started in Argentina in the late 1980s with the signing of Marecelo Nicola. "They asked me to write a letter to Leon Najnudel to try to convince Marcelo to come," Añua recalls, referring to the founder of the first Argentinian professional league.

Self-taught in so many aspects, Añua relives the origins of basketball in Vitoria with strong affection: "When we started playing, we were just a small group of crazy people that didn't even know how the game had to be played. In three or four years, we just learned the basics. At that time in the 1950s, you barely found even referees; it was a photographer who ended up becoming the official at the games we played. I became a coach very soon, because I knew I could not play and as there were not many more coaches around. I thought, 'OK, I think nobody will challenge me in this," he confesses, laughing.

Añua and basketball already existed in Vitoria before the arrival and success of Baskonia. In fact, the first team of Vitoria that showed up in European basketball competitions was not the club currently chaired by Josean Querejeta, but rather KAS Vitoria. That team became Spanish Cup runner-up in 1967, which allowed it to participate in the European Cup Winners' Cup the next season, KAS was eliminated by eventual champion AEK Athens, led by Georgios Amerikanos: "He was like Nikos Galis, he was able to score in so many ways," Añua says.

The coach of that KAS team was, indeed, Xabier Añua, and he better than anyone remembers how basketball ended up earning a privileged position in a city like Vitoria:

"The Fronton Vitoriano – the court where the games were played – was always fully packed. It was such a big thing that we were named the host organization of the Spanish Cup final, and we came very close to winning it. We could have done so if Clifford Luyk hadn't made like 40 points that day and we didn't lose Jesus Iradier in the final minutes. But also, before that, basketball was a big event for the city as the games were played between schools. And even if it sounds trivial, those games brought a lot of girls to the stands because they were able to see boys their age. That court brought a lot of people together, and it was something that remained over the years. Vitoria is a city where it rains, it snows, but that court's was roof covered. It was very good and also very comfortable, because it was in the center of the city."

KAS Vitoria ended up moving to Bilbao in 1968, which opened the doors for other basketball clubs in Vitoria to step up.

"That's when Baskonia took over, and I think we must give big credit to their people and the club itself because they had to go through a very long and difficult journey," Añua says. "The team wasn't very strong in the beginning, but had a good base. They had many players born and raised in Vitoria, people loved them very much, they were well-known people in the city and they were very good guys. The club managed to endure during the 1970s and the 1980s thanks to some great coaches such as Pepe Laso, Iñaki Iriarte and others who were able to run the team with very little money, and thanks to presidents like Jose Luis 'Santxon' Sanchez Erauskin or Jose Antonio Santamaria, who did a very good job, too, in that, let's say, intermediate level of basketball, which is the most difficult in my opinion. Coach Pepe Laso was also a great contributor, as he brought some important players from Gipuzkoa, like Josean Querejeta and others, and they raised the level of the team joining local guys like Carlos Luquero, who was their franchise player. All those things were important to leave a solid legacy behind and throughout the years. Those were very intense and beautiful years."

The first national title of Baskonia would arrive in 1985 (Association Cup), a title that allowed the club to play in its first international competition, the Korac Cup, the following season. Again, the coach was Añua, who agreed to get back to coaching after nearly a decade for that occasion: "I wanted to try and see if I could combine my work as a lawyer with coaching, but I realized very soon then that it was almost impossible".

After his definitive retirement from the bench, Añua also witnessed the arrival of Josean Querejeta to the presidency of the club very closely, at the end of the 80s, as a member of his first managing staff: "Josean had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do from the very beginning, and he surrounded himself with people he trusted. I joined them, and later many of us became shareholders, but in the end I decided to step aside because I don't have a managerial mentality; I never did. Right now I am just a basketball fan, I have no relationship with the club beyond the friendship that I keep with many of those who still remain."

For Añua, Querejeta is the key cornerstone in the club's development b from those days to these: "Many of us think now that this is what we wanted when we started, that it could be our dream; to be among the top eight teams in Europe for several years. And the one who has brought the sport of basketball in Vitoria up to the position where we see it is now. I do not know what will happen the day that Josean leaves. He pulls all the strings and knows how to pull them."

"I do not know what will happen the day that Josean leaves. He pulls all the strings and knows how to pull them."

Añua also took a deeper lesson, beyond coaching techniques and tactics, from the times he spend in the States – the importance of an adequate management structure:

"Management is fundamental in a club that wants to move forward and grow up. You need structure. It's like when Herb Brown came to Vitoria and said, 'Where is my office?' Josean did not know what to answer at first. That kind of things became common and Josean was one of the first ones in understand that. In Vitoria, there was a good legacy regarding management, because even if it was a humble club and not a very big one, previous presidents were able to instill good managing practices. Everything Santxon, Santamaria, etc., did had a purpose, so the idea that clubs need to be managed wasn't brand new here. A club is not a group of friends who hang out together. You can see the effect of what Baskonia has accomplished just by comparing the number of people who are working in the club right now with the number they were a few years ago."

But for Añua, one of Baskonia's greatest assets, and the one he considers has changed less throughout this growing process, is the social mass that lies behind the club:

"It remains the same; the fans support the team unconditionally. And they have learned to give credit for what they have, and to feel permanently excited about it. They identify themselves with the team; Baskonia is their team and for them it is the maximum, the best one, even if they lose. People are always behind the team. It is an identity, and it's like that not only for the fans, but also for the institutions, whoever is in charge at any specific moment. Thanks to the support of many politicians throughout the years it has been possible to accomplish all the things the city and the club have accomplished, because they have seen that it is good for the city's development and exposure. Vitoria is known abroad, or overseas, many times because of basketball or soccer."

About the fans of Vitoria and the fans of Baskonia, Añua has only good words:

"Fans in Vitoria have always been very good ones. I always felt basketball as a very close, familiar and friendly sport. That's why, in my opinion and as compared to some other sports, you can see a lot of parents bringing their children with them to the arena, because they know they can watch the game calmly and safely, that they can enjoy the experience without worrying that anything dangerous could happen."