The last "autobasket"

Jan 22, 2011 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!

Nearly half a century ago this week, on January 18, 1962, a game between host Ignis Varese and Real Madrid entered the history books because of a decision by visiting head coach Pedro Ferrandiz. For some, it was an unsportsmanlike decision, for others a totally legal possibility because it didn't violate any rule of the game at the time. Everyone admitted that there was something not too close to fair play, but at the same time recognized the genius of the Spanish coach's move. Older readers will know the story, I am sure, but if you are young, it might be your first time hearing about the most famous own-basket ever.

The draw for the eighthfinals of the Eurocup that season matched the Italian champ, Ignis Varese, with the Spanish champ, Real Madrid. The eighthfinals were two-game series between pairs of the best 16 teams in the competition until then; one game on each team's court, with the total score of both games deciding the winner.

The first game was played on January 18 in Varese. Real Madrid was dominating the game and at the break had an eight-point edge, 36-44. With 2 minutes to go, Madrid was leading by 68-78. However, the support of the 2,000 local fans helped Varese trim the deficit down to 75-80. By that time, Real Madrid had lost Carlos Sevillano and Stanley Morrison, both fouled out, while the team's other American star, Wayne Hightower, was injured. Only 27 seconds were left when Lajos Toth, the Hungarian star for Varese, scored 5 points in a row to tie the game, 80-80.

A well-thought decision

With 2 seconds to go in the game (according to the media at that time, 3 seconds according to the Madrid coach), Pedro Ferrandiz called for a timeout and gave clear orders to his players: score one for Varese! So was his reasoning clear: it was better for Madrid to lose the first game by 2 points and have a good chance to win by more in the second game at home than to play overtime now, a full 5 minutes, without three key players (and two others, Emiliano Rodriguez and Lolo Sainz, with 4 fouls each). Said and done. After the timeout, guard Jose Luis inbounded the ball to Lorenzo Alocen. The Madrid center, with a clean and uncontested shot, gave Ignis the win, 82-80.

Before the timeout was over, however, Ferrandiz had given one last order to his players: after scoring the basket, run to the lockerroom. Ferrandiz, of course, was expecting an angry crowd in the stands, but the fact is that everyone needed a while to figure out what had just happened. Ferrandiz himself, in an interview for a few days ago, talked about the infamous incident:

"The first one to realize what we had done was Toth," Ferrandiz recalled. "He started to jump around the court yelling. The fans, who exploded with joy at first after our 'mistake', started to figure out what was going on and the boos and whistling lasted for a long time. We left the arena really late, escorted by the police."

Ferrandiz explains that the idea for the "auto-basket" didn't just occur to him during that last timeout: "It was something I had in my head for some time already, but it was only a theorical possibility. Curiously enough, the day of the game, I had the idea of mentioning this tactical idea to my players in the talk before the game, but I had no idea that we would, indeed, put it into practice that very same night." 

No images

The game was broadcast live by Italian TV, but no image survived of Alocen's infamous basket. Ferrandiz explains: "There were not a lot of cameras that day like there are nowadays. Games were broadcast through two cameras, maybe three. Since I had called for the timeout, the Ignis players were in the position of defending their basket and the cameras were pointing at our offensive part of the court, and when we shot towards our own basket the cameras were surprised as everyone else and those watching on TV had no idea of what had just happened. The TV announcer had to explain it all."

Ignis Varese protested the basket to FIBA, but since the game rules made no mention to scoring a basket for the other team, there was really no reason for punishing Real Madrid, so FIBA validated the final score. Ferrandiz, a basketball legend, doesn't believe, almost 50 years after the play, that he did something unsportsmanlike: "I only took advantage of what the rules allowed me to do. Honestly, I think I did basketball a favor because FIBA, immediately after what happened in Varese, changed the rules and punished with automatic ejection from the competition any team who scored an autobasket on purpose."

In the second game, played in Madrid on February 7, the media turned the heat up a notch or two talking about the autobasket non-stop. The game was played in front of 5,000 fans at the Fiesta Alegre pavillion. Most of the crowd was a football crowd, but this time they were interested in basketball. In the hot atmosphere, Real Madrid won by a clear 83-62 margin, justifying Ferrandiz's decision. Hightower scored 24 points, Sevillano and Emiliano had 23 apiece. Real Madrid made it to the quarterfinals, where it defeated Legia Warsaw, and in the semis it got past Olimpija Ljubljana. However, in the title game played in Geneva on June 29, 1962, the Spanish team fell by 90-83 to Dynamo Tbilisi, the fifth straight title for a team from the USSR. The following title would be won, again, by a Soviet team, CSKA Moscow. Real Madrid would have to wait until 1964, with its first title, to break the Soviet dominance.