I don’t know about anyone else, but Buducnost VOLI Podgorica – which hosts league-leading Fenerbahce BEKO Istanbul in the Round 14 Game of the Week tonight – is starting to remind me a bit of other Balkan underdogs that we’ve seen before in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague.
I am thinking of those memorable Partizan NIS Belgrade teams that started knocking off superpowers at home at the end of last decade and ended up playing two overtime games at the 2010 Final Four in Paris. And I am thinking of the Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade teams that followed the same route more recently, going from EuroLeague newcomer to the playoffs in just three seasons on the strength of their home-court excellence.
Podgorica is not Belgrade, of course, but it shares some of the great traits of basketball in that region, mainly a love for the game that expresses itself in fighting until the finish no matter what the score and – most importantly – what the other team’s jersey says.
It’s true that Buducnost returned to the EuroLeague this season for the first time since 2003 and promptly dropped its first six games. It’s also true that less than 48 hours ago it lost by 38 points to Anadolu Efes Istanbul on the road.
But at home in Moraca Sports Center over the last month, Buducnost has been a world-beater. All of the team’s frustrations were released in a Round 7 explosion of joy that ended as a 99-84 victory over visiting KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz, which changed coaches a day later. Buducnost had not won a EuroLeague game in 15 years, but when that victory came, it came in record fashion. Six players shared an incredible 21 triples, breaking the EuroLeague record for three-pointers in a game.
Believe it or not, that might have been less impressive than Buducnost’s next home game. Unbeaten CSKA Moscow came to town and, as everyone expected, rolled up a 13-point lead midway through the third quarter. What no one expected was Buducnost rallying from there to win 93-92 on Danilo Nikolic’s put-back just before the buzzer. CSKA did not leave town unbeaten and you could hear the shock-waves from Moraca all the way to Moscow.
The last visitor to the Montenegrin capital was FC Barcelona Lassa, whose resurgence was on everyone’s lips at the time following its early-season five-game winning streak. But Buducnost proved it could win with defense instead of three-pointers, sending its superpower guest to a 67-64 loss from which Barcelona has not recovered yet.
Now, however, Buducnost faces the most relentlessly strong team in the EuroLeague this season, Fenerbahce. The visitors arrive 48 hours after having beaten CSKA despite having fallen behind by 15 points at home. Coincidentally enough, the two players who are not letting Fenerbahce lose lately forged their EuroLeague careers on those aforementioned Partizan and Zvezda teams. Jan Vesely was already made of sterner stuff when he was with Partizan, but he’s turning into a man of steel before our eyes lately. And Marko Guduric is about the quietest killer to come along in some time, something he only hinted at when he started his EuroLeague career with Zvezda.
They and their coach, the great Zeljko Obradovic, are unlikely to be surprised by Buducnost like the other teams were, and not just because they are well aware of the three-game home winning streak of the hosts. It’s also because their EuroLeague careers were forged in similar Balkan gyms, where it’s may always be clear by their jerseys which team is the favorite, but all favorites – no matter how huge – must also prove their status on the court, in front of the local fans. Anything less than making superpowers earn their name would disrespect the game, and that just does not happen in places like Podgorica.
To make Fenerbahce prove itself, Buducnost will likely have to roll its good defense against Barcelona and its three-point insanity against Baskonia into one 40-minute tour de force. But don’t think that to be impossible, and don’t ever think that Buducnost will not try.
On a winter night in the Balkans, a EuroLeague game means that anything can happen, and often does, as we know from experience.