Roots of the Euroleague

Dec 11, 2010 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir Stankovic Veteran sportswriter and collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. For the new 2010-11 season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!

In just a few days, on December 13 and 14, the European Cup will turn 53. Around this time in 1957, FIBA executives held a meeting in the small town of Gauting, West Germany to create a new club competition. The idea was born that previous summer, following the great success of the football Champions Cup created in 1955 thanks to the genius idea of French sports newspaper L'Equipe. The first official mention of the idea about a continental basketball competition happened at the FIBA Permanent Conference during the spring of 1957 in Budapest. William Jones, general secretary of FIBA at that point, gave the task of designing the new competition to the Czechoslovakian Federation. During the Eurobasket national tournament played in Sofia, Bulgaria, in June of that same year, the Comission for the International Organizations was formed under president Raimundo Saporta of Spain. The members of that commission were Nikolai Semashko of Russia, Borislav Stankovic of Yugoslavia, Miroslav Kriz of Czechoslovachia and Robert Busnel of France. Their task was to build the competition among the clubs that were champs of their respective national leagues for that same season.

The role of Saporta

After checking things out with the federations through a letter, the commission got together in Wien with the idea to start the competition during the first months of 1958. The newspaper L'Equipe, just like it had done with the football competition, presented them with a beautiful trophy. Kriz was the one in charge of making proposals feasible, but his first suggestion, with only six teams, wasn't well received by William Jones nor by the other commission members. It was then that Jones asked for the help of Saporta, a man from Real Madrid who had also taken active part in the creation of the football competition. Saporta responded with an idea to include 23 champions and a system with direct elimination. Eventually, with the withdrawal of Lebanon (areas of North Africa and the Middle East belonged to FIBA Europe at the time) 22 teams were left. We must not forget that we are talking 1957 here, only 13 years after World War II. It was not easy to travel among countries, there were few arenas and they were humble. A telephone conversation from one country to another could mean hours waiting at the hotel or some office. Fax machines didn't even exist in the minds of their eventual creators. The calendar was also a major problem since some teams wanted to play on the weekend and others midway through the week. There were also technical problems - the ball possession was limited to 30 seconds, but the players made themselves aware of that by yelling on court or in other cases the table whistled when there were only 10 seconds left. There was a system of five light bulbs that turned off one by one in five-second intervals, but this new invention was too expensive for many clubs, so FIBA took care of it, buying the system for all the pioneers who took part in the 1958 edition. 

The 22 pioneers

To save some money, the first rounds were played according to geographical situation. The first group was formed by northern countries - USSR, Poland, Finland and East Germany. The second group was formed by Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovachia, the Netherlands and Hungary. The eastern block had Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia plus the teams from Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Finally, the middle-south group featured teams from Spain, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Portugal.The first game, which we talked about here a few weeks ago, took place on February 22, 1958 between Royal IV CSA of Belgium and BBC Etzella of Luxembourg. The final score was 82-43 in the first game and 63-36 in the second. However, the other pioneers also deserve mention: Jonction BC (Geneva, Switzerland), BK Slovan Orbis (Prague, Czechoslovakia), Union Babenberg (Wien, Austria), Honved SE (Budapest, Hungary), The Wolves (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), BK Akademik (Sofia, Bulgaria), CJS Aleppo (Syria), ASK Olimpia (Ljubljana, Yugoslavia), Fenerbahce SK (Istanbul, Turkey), Panellinios GS (Athens, Greece), CCA Bucarest (Romania), Basket Villeurbanne (France), ASK (Riga, USSR), HSG Wissenschshaft HU (Berlin, East Germany), Pantterit (Helsinki, Finland), CWKS Legia (Warsaw, Poland), Simenthal Olimpia (Milano, Italia), Maccabi (Tel Aviv, Israel), FC Barreirense (Barreiro, Portugal) and Real Madrid (Spain).

Curiously enough, Simenthal Milano set up a three-way tourney at home for the eighthfinals, marking the first and last time ever in European competition that three teams played together. The last team, Slovan Orbis, was eliminated while the duel between Simenthal and Honved (80-72) was used as the first game of the series in eighthfinals. the Hungarians won by 10 points, 95-85, at home in the second game played 40(!) days later, and advanced to semis where they fell to Akademik of Bulgaria.

Finalist without playing

In the other semifinal, ASK Riga got rid of Real Madrid without even playing because Real Madrid was not granted permission by the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, to travel to the USSR. Saporta, as well as USSR's strong man Nikolai Semasko, wanted to play but it was no use against politics. Saporta managed to avoid his club being punished for not being at the game because FIBA considered it a force majeure. The two games of the final between ASK Riga and Akademik were played outdoors in June. Some 17,300 fans attended the Sofia game while 16,000 saw the one in Riga. Brothers Valdis and Gundars Muiznieks and Maigonis Valdmanis were the best scorers, but the key man of the first European champ, coached by Aleksandar Gomelskiy, was the first giant in European basketball, Janis Krumins. It was never known exactly how tall was he. In Spain, some media said 2.30 meters, in Italy 2.22, in France 2.18... I saw Krumins for the first time at the 1961 Eurobasket in Belgrade, playing for the USSR ,and I think he was about 2.20. In any case, he was huge for the time. According to non-official data published in Carlos Jimenez's excellent book "History of the European Cup", edited by the Pedro Ferrandiz Foundation, over a total 39 games of that first season, 125,000 fans attended the games, an average of 3,200 per game.

That's how history started. Today's Turkish Airlines Euroleague is making sure to write some new episodes in the book year after year.