The 2003-04 season started with a bang as five of the 12 games in Round 1 were decided by a single basket and the drama never let up. Defending champion FC Barcelona had the regular season's best record at 12-2 to win Group A and CSKA Moscow and Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv led Group B at 11-3. Efes Pilsen Istanbul and Benetton Treviso finished atop Group C with 10-4 records. Barcelona stumbled in the Top 16, while CSKA, Skipper Bologna, Montepaschi Siena and Maccabi clinched Final Four berths.
It was part luck, part skill, part destiny. No person in his right mind though Maccabi would play in the Final Four when Zalgiris guard Giedrius Gustas went to the foul line with 2 seconds left and leading by 3 in their winner-take-all Top 16 Round 6 showdown in Tel Aviv. However, Gustas, who had made 17 in a row before this game, missed both and the referees called a line violation. Then Gur Shelef aired out a pass to Derrick Sharp, who caught the ball, turned around and took one dribble before launching a shot that tied the game at 94-94 on the buzzer to force overtime. When the arena calmed down, Maccabi dismantled Zalgiris in the extra session to clinch the Final Four berth. Sarunas Jasikevicius scored a career-high 37 before fouling out for Maccabi.
Skipper needed overtime before getting past Italian league rival Montepaschi in the first semifinal in Tel Aviv. Carlos Delfino led six Skipper scorers in double figures with 27 points. Maccabi outlasted CSKA 93-85 in the nightcap with Anthony Parker shining with 27. In Saturday night's championship game, Maccabi produced a record-setting spectacle in routing Skipper 118-74. Maccabi set or tied 11 records, including the most points scored in a EuroLeague championship game, best shooting and largest margin of victory. Anthony Parker was named Final Four MVP after scoring 21, David Blu netted 20 and Tal Burstein shined with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists.
"I am a believer, and if this is not a miracle, I don't know what is a miracle," Maccabi coach Pini Gershon said of Derrick Sharp's "Hand of God" shot to beat Zalgiris. "This season for us, there have been three times when we were down and we won the game in the last second. And these were hard games: against Skipper in Bologna, against CSKA in Moscow and then Derrick Sharp's shot to top them all against Zalgiris. That is part of believing, I think, even though you have to be good in order to put yourself in the situation."
The legendary Arvydas Sabonis returned to boyhood club Zalgiris for a final season and played like he was still a young pup as he claimed MVP honors for both the EuroLeague Regular Season and Top 16. At age 39, he averaged 15.9 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the regular season for an average performance index rating of 26.4 before raising those numbers to 18.2 points, 11.5 boards, 1.2 blocks and a PIR of 26.0 in the Top 16. Sabonis had double-doubles in half of his 18 appearances.
The All-EuroLeague First Team was made up by some of the all-time greats. Alongside Sabonis were guards Sarunas Jasikevicius of Maccabi and Marcus Brown of CSKA and forwards Dejan Bodiroga of FC Barcelona and Mirsad Turkcan of CSKA. The Second Team featured Milos Vujanic of Skipper, Lynn Greer of Slask Wroclaw, David Vanterpool of Montepaschi, Andres Nocioni of Tau Ceramica Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Nikola Vujcic of Maccabi. Greer led the league in scoring with 25.1 points per game and Sabonis topped the rebounding charts with 10.7 per game.
Other stars of the season
Horace Jenkins was the league runner-up in scoring with 20.1 points for AEK Athens. Arvydas Macijauskas made his EuroLeague debut for Baskonia and peppered the nets across the continent with a career-best 19.4 points per game. Big man Dejan Tomasevic flirted with a triple-double several times for Valencia Basket. Partizan's Fred House averaged 3.38 steals per game, which remains the most ever in a single season for a player with more than 10 games played. He was also close to a triple-double when he had 12 points, 7 rebounds and what was at the time a EuroLeague-record 9 steals in a road win at Barcelona.
Sabonis was the unquestioned star for Zalgiris, but when he sat in Round 10 Tanoka Beard took advantage of the extra playing time to put together one of the greatest games in EuroLeague history. Beard scored 35 points on 11-of-14 shooting and grabbed 19 rebounds for a performance index rating of 63 in a 117-107 loss at Skipper. He drew 11 fouls and was perfect in 13 trips to the foul line. It remains the highest PIR in EuroLeague history.
Rising stars debut
Erazem Lorbek, who would become the EuroLeague Rising Star the following season, made his EuroLeague debut with Skipper Bologna. Tiago Splitter became a key role player for Baskonia. Marc Gasol came off the bench nine times as a teenager with Barcelona and Darjus Lavrinovic and Paulius Jankunas got their first taste of the EuroLeague with Zalgiris.
Thanks for the memories
There were a few European greats who played their final EuroLeague seasons in 2003-04. In addition to Sabonis, Petar Naumoski averaged 11.7 points and 3.4 assists in his final season with Ulker, Victor Alexander helped CSKA reach the Final Four with 9.3 points per game, Ricardo Pittis started 14 games for Benetton and Rashard Griffith posted 7.4 points and 7.2 rebounds for Lottomatica Roma, though he would play in the EuroCup a few years later.