Every season tells a story, not only for the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague as a whole, but for each of its teams, and especially for those who will try to crown their efforts at the Final Four in Cologne, Germany, starting on Friday, May 28.
The lure of winning a EuroLeague title with back-to-back victories over 48 hours next weekend is strong as can be. It means joining the roster of champions and taking a place in the history of European basketball.
While some players already know that feeling, others have just missed clutching the trophy, and still others have come this far for the first time. As teams, though, their stories for the season are still unfinished. Like all great dramas, each team has a back story that led to this moment and now aspires to a resounding conclusion.
Anadolu Efes Istanbul
In its journey from the bottom of the standings three seasons ago to a runner-up finish at the last Final Four, a stranglehold on first place before last season ended prematurely, and a return shot at the title now, Efes has fascinated fans well beyond Istanbul.
A joyful and unselfish style of play has served Efes well in many big games during that span and will have to serve as the experience needed to reach the mountaintop now. That's because, alone among the Final Four clubs, not only has Efes never won the title as a club, but neither has its head coach nor any of his players.
The last time a club, its coach and the full roster of players have become first-time European club champions at the same time was in 1999, when Zalgiris Kaunas made a similarly joyful noise on the basketball court. Efes is united in that singular motivation to finish the stellar work it has done over three long seasons and spread the ultimate joy to its dedicated fans in Istanbul.
AX Armani Exchange Milan
Milan has not been there – the Final Four – since 1992 and has not done that – win the title – since 1988. But make no mistake: this club's pedigree runs deep. The same can now be said about its team leaders on the bench and off.
With a head coach who is going to his 15th Final Four and 11 thirtysomethings on the roster, Milan has invested heavily in experience. That investment came with risk during a long season when injuries, which can happen to any athlete, often require more recovery time for older players. In a single game of vital importance at season's end, however, the cool-headedness that comes with age becomes a definite plus.
Remember, this is a team that only survived the playoffs by refusing to lose its concentration or composure despite the most trying of circumstances. Milan's hope is that lessons learned by its several former champions rub off on the roster's younger heavy lifters, a process that is clearly underway. If completed at the Final Four, Milan could bring home Italy's first EuroLeague trophy in two decades.
After winning four titles in the last 15 years and reaching 17 of the last 18 Final Fours, CSKA's story of success would seem to be repeating itself. But this time is different. Perhaps no team in elite basketball history has lost two MVP candidates in mid-season, for the remainder of the season, and still made it this far.
CSKA has not only survived, but will arrive in Cologne as the last champion, too, owning the trophy until another team takes it away. CSKA has certainly played like it has no intention of seeing that trophy change hands. Not merely the top-scoring team this season, CSKA also leads the EuroLeague in hustle categories like offensive rebounds and fouls drawn. To a man, its players seem to be competing with knives clenched between their teeth.
CSKA acts more like a starving team than a complacent champion, and in fact, six of its most-used players in the playoffs – as compared to five still there from the title team of two years ago – are seeking their first taste of EuroLeague glory. They might not be aware that victory in Cologne would tie CSKA with Panathinaikos Athens for the most EuroLeague titles this century, but they know clearly why they moved to Moscow – to rise to this occasion.
Take parts of the other three Final Four team stories, shake or stir, and you have Barca's rich and intriguing plotline. It returned from the wilderness to the Final Four after seven long years, a lifetime for such a proud club. It stocked the roster with talents hungry for the same crowning glory. And, to make sure that no stone has been left unturned, it kept adding championship mettle until the last possible moment.
Leadership is surely present and accounted for in all the other teams at the Final Four, but Barca has unquestionable guiding lights on the bench, on the court, and in the locker room, each as bright as the other. Most groups seek a leader in difficult moments; Barca comes to Cologne with plenty to choose from.
All that moving big pieces into place in recent years was to have the precise opportunity that presents itself now. A superstar raised by the archrival flipped more than one narrative to become the team's anchor. The coach who conquered his and Barca's first EuroLeague title in uniform now leads several of his playing contemporaries. And a club icon has returned from long ago and far away to join the final push. Barca's story has all the elements of a classic, but just like the others, this ending still needs to be written.