European Club Basketball turns 60

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It was the mother of all opening games. Exactly 60 years ago tonight, at 20:45 CET to be exact, the first-ever official tipoff in a European club competition took place in Brussels, where Belgian champion Royal IV SC Anderlechtois defeated Luxembourg champion BBC Etzella 82-43 in the preliminary round of the new “European Cup of Club Champions”. Thus began a unique and unmatched tradition of international club competition that endures and keeps growing to this day, 60 years later. The many contributions made in the ensuing six decades, which were recognized during the 50 Years of European Club Basketball celebration Euroleague Basketball led in 2008, all date to that Saturday night in Palais du Midi, a facility still dedicated to sports in the Belgian and European Community capital. Much has changed since that historic event, but the essential spirit behind the start of international club competition lives on. Since that first game, 60 years ago tonight, the best teams from across the continent – and sometimes beyond – have met every winter and spring to decide a new annual champion, with tens of millions of fans enjoying the ride.

That first game was played just two months after a FIBA commission met in Gauting, a small town in the Federal Republic of Germany. The idea was born in the summer of 1957, following in the footsteps of the football Champions Cup, which was off to a successful start thanks to a brilliant initiative by French sports newspaper L’Equipe. The idea of having a similar competition in basketball was officially presented at FIBA’s permanent conference in Budapest, Hungary, in the spring of 1957. FIBA secretary general William Jones ordered the Czechoslovakian federation to write the new competition’s first draft. During EuroBasket 1957 in June in Sofia, Bulgaria, a Commission for International Organizations was created, with Raimundo Saporta of Spain as its president. The other members were Nikolai Semashko of the Soviet Union, Borislav Stankovic of Yugoslavia, Miloslav Kriz of Czechoslovakia and Robert Busnel of France. Jones, a great diplomat, put together a commission with a great balance of Eastern and Western Countries, with Stankovic as a neutral man. Their duty was to put together the competition between those countries’ national champions and to get it going that very same season.

After contacting all the national federations with a letter, the commission held a meeting in Vienna, Austria, to plan the start of the competition in early 1958. Just as it did with the football Champions Cup, L’Equipe donated a beautiful trophy. Kriz was charged with the responsibility of bringing the project to life, but his proposal to play the first edition with just six teams didn’t please Jones or the other members of the commission. Jones asked Saporta for a helping hand because he was an important executive at Real Madrid who actively took part in creating football’s Champions Cup. Saporta answered back with an idea for a competition with 23 league champions and a direct elimination system. In the end, once Lebanon withdrew (Northern Africa belonged to FIBA Europe back then), 22 teams were left. All players registered at least three months before the start of the competition had the right to play, and it was not possible to sign new players during the tournament.

In order to save a bit of money, the first knockout rounds were played according to geographical restrictions. The Northern countries were in the first group: Soviet Union, Poland, Finland and the German Democratic Republic. Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland and Hungary were in the second group. There was an Eastern group featuring Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Israel, Lebanon and Syria, while the Middle-South group had teams from France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. All four geographical groups had different sizes and structures, each sending teams through to the semifinals. ASK Riga needed to play only six games to win the championship, while runner-up Academik Sofia played 10. And due to the political and financial climate of the time, a number of games that season were forfeited as well.

The first game was played on February 22, 1958, between Royal IV CSA of Belgium and BBC Etzella of Ettelbruck, Luxembourg. The scores were 82-43 in the first leg and 36-63 in the second. Belgian newspaper Le Soir titled the first leg’s game report “succes populaire”, as it was the opening game of the European Cup. It spoke about the game being a “formality” for Royal IV against a weaker Etzelle Ettelbruck, and the second headline talked about the Belgian champion being practically qualified into the second round.

Royal IV vs. BBC Etzella, 82-43 (halftime score 35-22)
Brussels, February 22, 1958, refereed by De Beer and d’Hont of Belgium. Emile Keets (Royal IV) and Albert Meyers (BBC Etzella) fouled out.
Royal IV: Jules Demarey, Antoine Tre, Jean Bolis 6, Jacques Brichant 10 (2-4), Francois Depauw 23 (5-7), Emile Keets, Roger Rosiers, Max Cyngiser, Maurice, Geens, Henri-Jean Cric 23 (3-7), Albert Nicodeme 20 (4-4), Francois Rombouts. Coach: Henri Servaes.
BBC Etzella: Albert Meyers 15 (3-4), Jean Kieffer 14 (4-7), Roger Fezpel (0-1), Pierre Steinmetz 8 (6-6), Marcel Orth 2, Paul Stein 2, Armand Posing 2, Jean Britz, Willz Putz, Fernand Lanniers, Pierre Giorgetti, Paul Agnes. Coach: Pierre Kraus.
Free throws: Royal IV 14-of-22, Etzella 13-of-18. Fouls: Royal IV 17, Etzella 22.

The other pioneer teams, which deserve to be mentioned, were:
Jonction BC (Geneva, Switzerland)
BK Slovan Orbis (Prague, Czechoslovakia)
Union Babenberg (Vienna, Austria)
Honved SE (Budapest, Hungary)
The Wolves (Amsterdam, Holland)
BK Akademik (Sofia, Bulgaria)
CJS Aleppo (Syria)
ASK Olimpia (Ljubljana, Yugoslavia)
Fenerbahce SK (Istanbul, Turkey)
Panellinios GS (Athens, Greece) CCA Bucurest (Bucharest, Rumania)
Basket Villeurbanne (Villeurbanne, France)
ASK Riga (Riga, URSS)
HSG Wissenschaft HU (Berlin, Democratic Republic of Germany)
Pantterit (Helsinki, Finland)
CWKS Legia (Warsaw, Poland)
Simmenthal Olimpia (Milan, Italia)
Maccabi (Tel Aviv, Israel)
FC Barreirense (Barreiro, Portugal)
Real Madrid (Madrid, Spain)

There were problems of all kind, from travel to politics. ASK Riga eliminated Real Madrid in the semifinals without stepping on court, as Real Madrid did not have permission from its Francoist Spain government to travel to the Soviet Union. Saporta and Nikolai Semashko, who had power in the Soviet Union, tried to play those games, but it was impossible to fight the politics. Saporta managed to avoid Real Madrid getting punished by FIBA for its no-show; FIBA classified it as a force majeure issue. According to unofficial reports published in the excellent book “Historia de la Copa de Europa” by Carlos Jimenez and Susy Calvon, around 125,000 fans were present in those 39 historical games in the competition’s first season – a notable average of 3,200 per game.

Looking at the original scoresheet, it is not possible to learn who scored the first basket in competition history, but we do know everything else: the rosters, dates, time, referees… even though there were no stats. According to the scoresheets, the top scorer in one game was Viktor Rade of Bulgaria, who had 38 points to help Akademik beat Honved 87-89. Antonis Christeas of Greece had 37 points in Panellinios’s 75-72 road loss in Bucharest and Wladislaw Pawlak of Legia scored 35 points against Pantterit in his team’s 64-62 defeat. Albert Nicodime of Belgium had 33 against Villeurbanne in a 51-80 road win.

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And so, the ball started bouncing on February 22, 1958 – and has not stopped since. Today’s Turkish Airlines EuroLeague is its legitimate heir, 60 years later. Not all the participants are league champions, but the idea is the same – it is a competition between the best European teams. Thanks to the pioneers and the hard work by FIBA, Euroleague Basketball and the clubs, the competition has grown to be as hugely popular as it is right now.

Read more stories at euroleague.net

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