The 2019 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four will bring the ultimate basketball celebration to Vitoria-Gasteiz, a city of 250,000 that is the capital of the Basque Region in Spain.
Vitoria-Gasteiz is also home to very special fans who have come together over decades to assure that their city punches well above its weight on the European stage. Basketball has deep roots in Vitoria, where it seems that everybody, young and old, loves the sport. Their passion is not only passed on from generation to generation, but gets stronger as it goes. It's not uncommon to see toddlers, grandparents and everyone in between at a game of the city's flagship team, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz.
"Baskonia and the EuroLeague have grown together, like old friends"
Those on whom the basketball-crazy city's fans have left the biggest impression are Baskonia's players. EuroLeague.net to four of those former players covering three decades of Baskonia basketball – Joe Arlauckas, Fernando San Emeterio, Pablo Prigioni and Sergi Vidal – and asked them about what makes the fans of Vitoria-Gasteiz so special.
"It is a little bit of everything," said San Emeterio, who grew up in nearby Santander and played his first seven EuroLeague seasons with Baskonia. "In the end, Baskonia fans know about basketball, but above all, they want their players to give everything. You can be talented or not, but fans give a lot of credit to those players who give everything they have for their jersey. They know that in the club, and this is why they try to sign that kind of players who will be on the same page with the fans. Putting it all together, that is one of the biggest keys to Baskonia's success."
One such fan, Zuriñe Eguiluz, has been following the club for a quarter-century. She was present in the 2001 EuroLeague Finals and started to attend the Final Four when Baskonia reached the event for four seasons consecutively between 2005 and 2008. Even though Baskonia did not return to the Final Four until 2016, Zuriñe kept attending the event almost every year.
"You just have a different outlook when you put on that uniform and play for those fans."
"I started to attend Baskonia games 25 years ago and it was because of my family," she says. "A cousin of mine convinced me to watch Baskonia and we went to see the team together, when Fernando Buesa Arena was still Araba Arena. I like football, but it cannot compare with how dynamic basketball is. If you are distracted for a minute, you can miss a lot! As for Baskonia, it is my city's team and the one that represents me the most. It is a part of me."
Prigioni, who played eight seasons and reached four Final Fours with Baskonia, feels he has a special connection with the city and its fans.
"In the end, every player feels more identified with that certain club that meant something more to you than others, and mine is Baskonia," he says. "This is where I played better and where I felt better. A lot of personal stuff happened to me in Vitoria and I have a great bond with the club. First of all, they put their confidence in me at this age to carry on playing, and they also allowed me to leave wearing Baskonia's jersey. I don't have enough words to thank the club, its fans and the city the way they treated me over the years."
Vidal holds the Baskonia record with 168 EuroLeague games played for the club between 2000 and 2009.
"I always said that playing in Vitoria is really easy. Why? Because it doesn't matter if you hit a lot of shots or not, if you are having a good day or not. It depends on you leaving everything on the floor, giving 100%," Vidal says. "The fans have to see that character that everybody likes so much reflected on the court. The feeling they have about the team is what they want to see on the court. They want to feel proud of the players who represent their colors and logo. You have to fight and give your best, and if you do, the fans will be thankful."
One of the measures of great basketball fans is when they can appreciate an opponent's performance on their own floor, as Baskonia's crowds have been known to do.
"Baskonia and the EuroLeague have grown together, like old friends who know each other since they were kids," Zuriñe said. "It may sound strange, but Baskonia fans know about basketball. A lot. And that basketball knowledge makes you understand and respect when a team has played a good game. We are big fans of our team but know exactly when a team has played better than ours, without excuses. Basketball has been in Vitoria for many years and people breathe basketball. For many years, it has been the number one sport in the city. There is great basketball knowledge in this city and that helps Baskonia fans talk about it, criticize or praise this or that team, this or that player."
"On a game night in Vitoria, the whole town moves based around that game."
The club's management, the type of players signed, certain coaches and players who took the club to the next level certainly helped Baskonia become what it is right now. But at the end of the day, everyone agrees that the core of 'Baskonia Character' – the place where all that intensity, willingness, and heart comes from – is Baskonia's fans, who know when to push for their team in good and, especially, bad moments.
"You can almost put the fans before the team sometimes because there is such a following for the team," said Arlauckas, who spent three seasons from 1990 to 1993 with the team, then called Taugres. "There is so much energy around town and I think it kind of transmits sometimes over to the players. You can feel that energy. On a game night in Vitoria, the whole town moves based around that game. You almost feel that you are committed not only to playing basketball for the club, but also to the city and to the fans. I think that is why people who go there you just have a different outlook when you put on that uniform and play for those fans and for that team."
Asked about what a player needs to play for Baskonia, "commitment" is the first word that comes to Zuriñe's mind.
"Your team can win or lose, it can play in the EuroLeague or in the Spanish fourth division, but if your team leaves everything on the floor, you cannot say anything wrong even if you lose," she says. "Maybe the opponent is better, or the shots don't fall in, but if everyone leaves it all on the court, people will not say anything wrong to you. On the other hand, if you see a player walking on the court or laughing on the bench while the team is losing, that cannot be tolerated."
"Vitoria will breathe basketball during the Final Four, and the whole city will be involved."
The 2019 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four will be the ultimate basketball celebration in Vitoria-Gasteiz, and Baskonia will fight with everything they have to be one of the four teams challenging for the continental crown. Knowing her city better than most, Zuriñe guarantees it will be a Final Four to remember.
"People can expect a warm welcome, guaranteed," she said. "Vitoria is a nice city to visit; everyone I know who comes to visit says that. You can expect a great basketball atmosphere. Vitoria will breathe basketball during the Final Four, and the whole city will be involved. A lot of people from Vitoria bought tickets and we will be there no matter what, even if Baskonia is not there.
"We are really looking forward to showing what a great city Vitoria is. A lot of people will come for the first time, and I hope it won't be the last."