Decade by Decade: The Fifties

Mar 01, 2002 by Print
Decade to decade
The Fifties: When it all began!!

Aleksandar GomelskyAfter the success of the Champions Cup in soccer, born in 1955, FIBA decided to create a similar competition. It began in 1958, when 22 teams started to write history. After 39 games of competition, the European Cup of basketball knew its first champion, ASK Riga, after a 2-0 winning series against Akademik Sofia of Bulgaria. Among the curiosities that first year was that a European championship included some non-European teams, such as Union Basket Beirut of Lebanon or Jeunesse Sportivo Alep of Syria. Moreover, these two teams were to have had the honor to open the competition in a classification round, but those games didn't take place in the end as the Lebanon dropped out and the first winning team in the European Cup history was Jeuness, by a pair of 2-0 forfeits.

Among the pioneers that year we find the teams that have written basketball history pages in gold throughout the decades, both in their countries and all along the continent; names like Simenthal Milan, Olimpija Ljubljana, Maccabi Tel Aviv or Real Madrid. The competition also had to go through political problems, specifically in the semifinals. The two matchups were Honved Budapest vs. Akademik Sophia and ASK Riga vs. Real Madrid. In the second matchup, only the first game took place, as Real Madrid wasn't allowed to play in the USSR on the orders of Franciso Franco himself, and FIBA gave the win to the Soviets 2-0.

In the final, ASK Riga won two times, 86-81 at home and 71-84 on the road. The supremacy of the Soviet team lasted for two more seasons and it proved the only time in history, together with the three straight titles by Jugoplastika Split from 1989 to 1991, that a team managed to win the title in such a dominant manner.

In the second edition, a team from Egypt took part in the competition and in Yugoslav champion OKK of Belgrade, a new young star started to take his first steps. His name was Radivoj Korac, and he was to become the best scorer in European basketball. Real Madrid was surprisingly eliminated by Etoile Charleville of France. In the round of 16, Simenthal Milan beat Gezira of Cairo 72-47 but was later eliminated by FIBA as the Italians rejected playing on an outdoor court in Cairo. The Egyptians were given a 2-0 victory, but for its part, Gezira didn't appear in Sofia in the quarterfinals after having lost 65-69 at home in the first game. In the final, ASK Riga and Akademik were re-matched and the Soviet team took two wins again. In the first game, ASK won 79-58 at home before a crowd of 20,000. European basketball had won its first battle for acceptance.

In the third edition there were unplayed games as well, but the competition advanced, overcoming obstacles and winning more and more space in the media. FIBA allowed a second Soviet team, Dinamo of Tbilisi, in modern-day Georgia, to take part in the competition as its country's champ, and it made the final together with ASK again. ASK won the two games of the final, and the key player on those games was a giant of European basketball, Yannis Kruminsh, a 218 center. He was slow, but so tall that almost every single ball that he got in his hands ended in the basket. His usual numbers were 25 to 30 points per game and 12 to 14 boards. Gomelsky used his height to perfection.

Two Russian teams also appeared in the 1961 final, but ASK didn't get the title. The best team at the time was CSKA Moscow, the team of the Army, led by a virtuoso at that time, guard Armenak Atatchachan, and a modern forward Genadiy Volnov. Prior to reaching the final, ASK Riga played Real Madrid in semifinals again, but both games were played in neutral ground. In Paris, Real won 78-75, but ASK stroke back in Prague, 66-45. It was the first time also that FIBA applied the rule of a neutral court for games complicated by politics.

In the 1961-62 season, the final was also played in a neutral court for the first time in a single game. The reason for that was no other than politics. Real Madrid reached its first final after getting rid of Olimpija Ljubljana in the semis, but Franco again deprived the team of playing in communist territory. In order not to lose the game by 2-0, Real Madrid "convinced" Dinamo Tbisili with 200,000 dollars to play the final game in Geneva, Switzerland. The Soviet team not only got 200,000 dollars out of that game, but also the title winning by 90-83. Technically good and physically well prepared, the Soviets dominated during the 40 minutes, with a half-court game and good numbers in long-range shooting.


Aleksandar Gomelsky never went further than colonel in the Russian Army, but then again his true battlefield was not a military ground: It was a basketball court. There, he was promoted to general with the Olympic gold won at Seoul in 1988 against a strong Yugoslav team which would come to dominate the sport in the ensuing years. Almost a half a century ago, Gomeslky was an unknown coach outside of the USSR, but his fame began to grow with the titles he won with ASK Riga. "I have very fond memories of my time in Riga," Gomselsky told recently. "ASK was a great team and it was a pleasure working with those talented players, who were always willing to learn."

What was the most outstanding thing about that team?

"It's curious but true that all the players were native of Latvia, from home. All of them were childhood friends, they grew up together and that had a major influence on the results. They understood each other perfectly. Of course, without talent they would have not got that far."

It is commonly said that Kruminsh was the first dominant European player, maybe Tkatchenko's predecessor?

"Yanis was a very useful player. Due to his 218 centimeters, he was a bit slow, but we learned to adapt our game to his pace. We had very intelligent players like Lipso, the Muznieks brothers or Valdmanis, who always found the way to pass the ball to Kruminsh, and that was a basket for sure."

Which was the main feature of European basketball then?

"Basketball in Europe was living its first decade after World War II, but it wasn't a very well-known sport yet. The eastern countries clearly dominated the scene, the USSR national team didn't have any serious rival in Europe, and in ASK Riga I had most of the Russian NT at that time. Yugoslavia was far behind us, Spain and Italy started developing by signing the first good American players in Europe... All of us tried to learn by copying the best things of our rivals. In many things we were self-taught because there were few books at that time. Clinics for coaches were unimaginable things. TV had just been born, and so on. But we were willing to learn and we progressed quickly. The birth of the European Cup was a great issue because it allowed the teams to travel, learn and gain experience. Without those years of pioneers, we wouldn't be where we are today."

OK Colonel, and thanks for your contribution to European basketball!