No doubt here, it's Pionir

Oct 18, 2012 by Print
Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.netImagine that you could attend in person only one more basketball game in your lifetime. How would you choose?

A single-game championship final? That's certainly a good bet. But I would probably reserve that choice for 2032 in Istanbul, considering that city's title-game history of last-second title-winning shots 20 years apart. (See: Sasha Djordjevic, Partizan 1992 and Giorgos Printezis, Olympiacos 2012

If the choice was a whole day of basketball, and not just one game, I would go to a semifinals double-header of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four, the Olympic Games, the World Championships or the NCAA tournament - in that order of preference. For a true basketball junkie, there is nothing like the electricity and tension of back-to-back semifinals, with four teams playing for the chance to become champions.

But we are talking about one game only. Your last one in person, packed in with other fans, feeling the drama as you can only with thousands of like-minded basketball lovers shoulder-to-shoulder with you.

You might argue for a playoffs final series, but what game would you choose? Game 7s are not something you can put on your schedule, nor Game 5s or 6s. Game 4 of a sweep? There's no drama in a sweep. And since the potential for drama is a major factor in choosing your last basketball ticket, let's not even talk about something like all-star games.

But even if you decided to choose a playoff game or single-game final as your last, where would it be? Also difficult.

I have been to games at most of the cathedrals of basketball on both sides of the Atlantic. It's great to see a game in any of them. Nowhere, however, will you be assured beforehand of a great game.

Now, imagine if there was one place where you could be guaranteed a great basketball experience, whether or not the game fulfilled the drama criteria.

The place that guarantees a great basketball experience is Pionir Arena in Belgrade. And the circumstance that could make it unforgettable is a visit to Pionir by one of the Euroleague superpowers. On those game nights, hours before tipoff, Belgrade buzzes with anticipation. The singing starts on the way to the game and builds until the choir is 7,000 strong, raising their voices as one. Everybody wears black and white. Nobody sits down. Everybody waves something to show their team pride. And the serenade continues until long after the game ends, win or lose. The Pionior home team, Partizan mt:s Belgrade, has a knack for knocking off the biggest clubs.

Of the 59 games that Partizan has won over the last six Euroleague seasons, 18 have been against teams named Maccabi (5 times), Panathinaikos (4 times), Barcelona, Real Madrid and Caja Laboral (2 times each), Montepaschi, Olympiacos and CSKA (once each).

For three seasons between 2007-08 and 2009-10, Partizan beat two of the eventual Final Four teams from each season!

Without even mentioning that its two Final Four games in 2010 went to overtime with Olympiacos and CSKA, you get the idea that Partizan likes to play the big boys.

Just like there's no guarantee of a Game 7 when a playoff series starts, there is no guarantee that Week 9 of the current regular season, when Barcelona visits Pionir, is going to arrive with dramatic tension. Yes, the great basketball experience is guaranteed. The singing never stops. But not even Partizan fans would expect their team, most of whose players were born in the 1990s, to be a contender every season. Hope so, yes, but expect so, no.

Which is why you would want to catch a big team visiting Pionir now, early in the season, when anything is possible. And if you had to pick an opponent, tonight's Game of the Week visitor, CSKA, is a good one. It has been 10 years since CSKA lost at Pionir, back in 2002-03, on its way to the first of eight Final Fours in a row. CSKA fits the description of the kind of team Pionir loves to beat. And it's been awhile.

And if you had to choose one night, wouldn't it be the night that the pride of Pionir, the coach who orchestrated most of those upsets, Dule Vujosevic, returns to the head of the bench for the Euroleague home opener? Vujosevic more than anyone has gifted Partizan and its fans with the belief that no matter how young the roster, with dedication to basketball and 7,000 sixth men called the grobari, magic can happen under the Pionir roof.

At the start of the season, when anything is possible, where every fan believes in upsets and every seat is great, for a David-and-Goliath matchup like tonight's Game of the Week between Partizan and CSKA... They can take my last ticket at Hala Pionir.