Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Sporting News - May Madness in Europe

The Sporting News

May 18, 2005

HEADLINE: May Madness in Europe

BYLINE: Greg Abel, For Sporting News


In 1980, during the height of the Cold War, the United States famously boycotted the Summer Olympics as a protest against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Games went on, of course -- in part at the Olympiysky Arena, built for the occasion near the center of Moscow.

Twenty-five years later on an early May weekend, Americans could be found all over Moscow and particularly at the Olympiysky Arena as they took in the Euroleague Final Four, the showcase event of Europe's most prominent basketball league.

Americans in attendance came in the form of NBA coaches, general managers, scouts and agents, there to take a look at European free agents interested in making the jump to the NBA and to unearth some young talent -- the event also included a tournament of 18-and-under teams from throughout Europe.

"It's an opportunity to see very good players as well as your colleagues and friends from around the world," says Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, whose roster includes players from Argentina (Manu Ginobili), France (Tony Parker), and Slovenia (Beno Udrih and Rasho Nesterovic).

"This event is becoming like our Final Four," says Joe Ash, director of scouting for the Pacers, referring to the dozens of NBA executives in town. The Euroleague has grown into the most highly regarded basketball league in Europe. It brings together 24 teams from 13 countries for weekly competitions culminating in the Final Four, which alternates host cities each year.

The environment at the aging Olympiysky Arena, partitioned to allow for a 13,500-seat championship stage as well as two smaller courts and media facilities, even felt like the NCAA Final Four during the single-elimination games held on a Friday and Sunday. All games were sold out as thousands of fans of host CSKA Moscow, Tau Ceramica of Vittoria, Spain, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Panathinaikos (Athens) sang songs, waved flags, danced, jeered and cheered with passion and energy.

Maccabi, led by Lithuanian point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, MVP of the tournament, and former Bradley standout Anthony Parker, MVP of the regular season, captured the title with a 90-78 victory over Tau Ceramica in the final. NBA fans might remember Jasikevicius, who played at Maryland, as the hotshot who led Lithuania past Team USA at the Athens Olympics. After three exceptional years overseas, he likely will be in the NBA next season. He is 29 and no longer draft-eligible but should attract considerable interest as a free agent from clubs looking for a good combo No. 3 guard.

Maccabi's fans, in their trademark yellow jerseys, overwhelmed the arena, occupying perhaps half of the seats and making both of their team's contests feel like home games. Israelis from as far as New York and San Francisco made the trip to see their team win its second consecutive Euroleague title. "Maccabi gives the people of Israel something to be happy about," said one fan before the championship game. "They are our heart."

Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu told reporters that Maccabi has become a model franchise for the league because of its rabid fan base, regularly sold-out 10,000-seat arena and polished operations extending from sales and marketing to media relations. The challenge for the league, Bertomeu conceded, is bringing together a group of teams from so many countries, not all of which are a part of the European Union, to meet equal standards in areas such as attendance and TV distribution. With new television, licensing and marketing deals expected next year, Bertomeu anticipates continued growth.

The league announced in Moscow that the 2006 Final Four will be held in Prague at the 18,000-seat Sazka Arena, considered one of Europe's top venues, complete with American-style private suites and club seats.

The success of the Euroleague and its players creates a sometimes uneasy partnership with the NBA. Though the Euroleague welcomes the NBA staff to its events and broadcasts a game of the week on NBA TV, the league has a long-term interest in keeping its best players at home -- especially with increasing speculation regarding NBA expansion to Europe in the next decade.

"If the NBA wants to come, they have to know that the Euroleague has a culture of strong clubs," Bertomeu says.

In the meantime, the growing presence of NBA executives at events such as the Euroleague Final Four guarantees NBA fans likely will see more and more international players on their favorite teams' rosters.

Things sure have changed in 25 years.

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