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.

Monday, May 09, 2005

EuroLeague Final Four Feature for LA Times

Los Angeles Times

May 9, 2005 Monday

HEADLINE: Continental Dividends

Europe has become fertile ground for NBA talent scouts, and the EuroLeague final four is the prime destination point

BYLINE: Greg Abel, Special to The Times


For NBA scouts, general managers, coaches and agents, a few events every year qualify as unofficial conventions, when those in the business convene to evaluate players, talk deals and swap stories. This weekend, the EuroLeague final four here became just such a "must-attend" event, confirming the increasing respect and attention paid to European basketball.

"It's about talent," Clipper Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "We're here to see players."

Dunleavy and many others came to take in this growing basketball showcase, which also featured an eight-team junior tournament with top players 18 and under representing clubs from all over Europe.

The brotherhood of NBA talent evaluators spent the weekend at the Olympiysky Sport Complex scribbling in notebooks, analyzing stat sheets and monitoring the progress of potential draft picks as well as a few established European veterans who might be ready to make the jump to the NBA.

"There are so many key people here from the NBA and the European teams, it's a great chance to build relationships. It's almost like an All-Star weekend," said John Nash, general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Said David Griffin, the Phoenix Suns' director of player personnel: "This is where we get together and we all lie to each other about how good guys are or aren't."

The final four competition featured teams from host CSKA Moscow, Tau Ceramica of Vitoria, Spain, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Panathinaikos of Athens. Led by Lithuanian national team star Sarunas Jasikevicius and inspired by more than 6,000 yellow-clad Maccabi fans whose wildly enthusiastic encouragement deafened the arena, Maccabi captured its second consecutive championship Sunday night with a 90-78 victory over Tau, which had upset Moscow in the semifinals Friday night.

Count Jasikevicius, the final four MVP, and sharp-shooting countryman Arvydas Macijauskas of Tau Ceramica as players whose multisyllabic names might become more familiar to NBA fans as soon as next season. The 29-year-old Jasikevicius, a 6-foot-4 guard who played at Maryland, has been on the last three EuroLeague championship teams (2003 with Barcelona and '04 and '05 with Tel Aviv) and also led Lithuania to a European title. His steady floor game and fiery leadership have made him perhaps Europe's top player.

"I thought [he] should have been in the NBA three years ago," said Arturas Karnisovas, who starred at Seton Hall in the early 1990s before going on to a successful European career. Karnisovas now works for the NBA's international division; part of his job is helping European players adjust to life in America and the NBA. Judging from NBA interest in Moscow, Karnisovas should be a busy man for the foreseeable future.

The Trail Blazers have demonstrated a recent penchant for foreign players. After selecting high school player Sebastian Telfair with the 13th overall pick last June, the team went the European route, grabbing 6-8 Russian forward Sergei Monya with the 23rd pick and trading for 6-9 Russian forward Viktor Khryapa in a deal with the New Jersey Nets. Monya is expected to join the Trail Blazers next season, and Coach Kevin Pritchard and team President Steve Patterson joined Nash in Moscow to look for more talent.

In explaining why NBA teams have become so enamored of European players, Nash said it comes down to fundamentals.

"The Europeans are playing sound, fundamental basketball and that's why we'll see more and more in the NBA," he said.

Dunleavy pointed to the addition of zone defenses in the NBA as a reason why European players have found a larger niche in recent years.

"Our young players focus on one-on-one skills, beating people off the dribble for lay-ups and dunks," he said. "When you play against a zone, there are not as many opportunities off the dribble; you need to focus more on passing and shooting."

San Antonio Spur General Manager R.C. Buford, whose team has benefited immensely from such imported players as Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina), made the trip to visit with Luis Scola, a bruising power forward for Tau who was drafted by the Spurs in 2003. The Spurs also hold the rights to Russian forward Sergei Karaulov, a 7-1 center they selected in the second round last year.

"We wanted to see Luis of course, but there's also a chance to evaluate players in the junior tournament, who are the next generation of EuroLeague players," Buford said.

NBA teams may not simply draft and take European players away, however. Often, as in the case of Scola, they have contracts with their European clubs and must negotiate a buyout or wait until their contract expires. That's why European players often don't show up in an NBA box score until a year or two after they are drafted, if at all.

The EuroLeague, of course, wants to keep its best players at home, though league officials do say that interest from the NBA typically increases exposure and hype. The NBA and EuroLeague have a cooperative relationship. NBA TV, for example, broadcasts one EuroLeague game a week and carries the semifinals and finals live. More and more, top European players aren't a secret because satellite TV and international scouting have opened the game to a truly global scale.

With many NBA teams employing scouts overseas and so many talent evaluators attending events like the final four, is it still possible to find a hidden gem?

"It's all beauty in the eye of the beholder," Dunleavy said. "The test is to recognize them first and get to them first. And sometimes, it just comes down to where you pick."

Tony Ronzone, a globetrotting scout for the Detroit Pistons who has coached in the U.S. and overseas with clubs in places as diverse as Saudi Arabia and New Zealand, enjoys the challenge of trying to find players in places where others haven't even tried to look. He has recruited in Australia, Africa, even North Korea.

"Sleepers?" Ronzone said, a smile crossing his face, "You can still pull one out."