The European Cup For Men's Champion Clubs - The Early Years

L'Equipe is widely credited for birthing the idea of European club competition. In 1954, Gabriel Hanot, a journalist for the French sports newspaper saw a friendly football game between England's Wolverhampton and Hungarian side Honved and was inspired.

He rushed back to France to attempt to persuade his boss that a competition for Europe's best clubs should be organised. L'Equipe invited the Presidents of Europe's elite sides to Paris for a meeting and the European Cup was born.

Basketball was soon to latch onto the quickly successful idea and the idea was discussed by FIBA during the 1957 European Championship in Bulgaria. FIBA Secretary General William Jones set up a Commission consisting of Borislav Stankovic (YUG), Raimundo Saporta (ESP), Robert Busnel (FRA), Miloslav Kriz (CZE) and Nikolai Semasko (RUS) to come up with a proposal.

The Commission invited Europe's national federations to send their domestic champions, L'Equipe donated a trophy and in 1958 the European Cup For Men's Champion Clubs started.

Clubs from Eastern Europe (not to say from the former Sovietic block) dominated the early years. They not only won the first six editions of the competition three times ASK Riga, twice CSKA Moscow and once Dynamo Tbilissi), but also managed to reach the final four times in the first six years (twice Akademik Sofia, once Dynamo Tbilissi and ASK Riga).

Soviet Latvian player, Janis Krumins (2,18 m) was the man in the middle for ASK Riga’s initial threepeat, as he was an unmatched dominant force inside.

In 1961, things began to change. The main Western European basketball club, Real Madrid, started to show signs of ambition, and was eliminated only in semi-final by Riga.

The two following years, the Spanish champions found their way to the final game, but lost both times versus Tbilissi and CSKA. Eventually, Real won the first of its eight european crowns in 1964, beating the Czechs of Spartak Brno.

However, that season, the USSR  champions did not participate because the national team (made of 90% of players from CSKA) was preparing for the Olympics. Anyway, this season was a big twist for European basketball as it marked the beginning of the domination of the “wealthy” Western European clubs.

Then, until 1969, Real Madrid and Olimpia Milan, then called Simenthal, shared the title of the best European team. Madrid could rely on players like Clifford Luyk, the first naturalized American player with such a big role, Emiliano Rodriguez, Miles Aiken, Bob Burges and later Wayne Brabender.

Meanwhile, Milan, in 1966, was led by a young and smart American forward: Bill Bradley, who would later become an NBA Champion with the 1970 and 1973 New York Knicks. Even later, Bradley eventually became a candidate for the United States presidency race. Bradley, who was studying in Oxford, took advantage of his year in Europe to give decisive help to Milan.

 In 1969, CSKA, inspired by the talented Serguei Belov, managed to beat Real Madrid in Barcelona. The young Belov had 19 points that night, but his fellow teammate, big center Andreev (2.15 m), exploded for 37...

After the Sovietic and the Real dynasties, the 70’s were, without any doubt, the decade of Varese.

And what a dynasty that was! The Italian champs found a way, year after year, to reach the final game of the competition. Indeed, Varese played the 10 finals in the 70’s, winning five of them. Real, CSKA, the enthusiastic Bosna Sarajevo and the upand- coming Maccabi Tel-Aviv were the other champions of the decade.

At the time, Varese was led by the legendary center, Dino Meneghin, surrounded by players such as one of the best scorers of Lega history, Bob Morse, Mexican shooter Manuel Raga, Ottorino Flaborea, John Fultz, Ivan Bisson, etc.

In 1971, CSKA won its last European title beating Varese, thanks to Serguei Belov’s 24 points. After a tough win against Split in 1972, Ignis Varese won one more time against CSKA in spite of Serguei Belov. He was once again the dominant scorer with 36 points in the championship game.

In the 1974 final, Varese, after almost securing the win, was upset by Real Madrid on an unbelievable late surge led by Brabender and Cabrera.

In 1977, the Israelians of Maccabi Tel-Aviv, whose leaders Jim Boatwright and Micky Berkowitz combined for 43 points against Varese, won the first of its two European crowns. A big surprise to the little world of European basketball. At last, in 1979, the Yugoslavian school of basketball began to dazzle Europe. The Bosna Sarajevo, led by a young coach (28 years old) named Boscia Tanjevic, beat Varese in Grenoble, France. The great performances of its shooters, Zarko Varajic (47 points) and Mirza Delibasic (30 points), offered its first European crown to Yugoslavia.

What could have been the decade of the Maccabi (six finals but only one win), eventually became a triumph for Italian basketball (seven finals and five wins).

Italy managed to generate three different European champions (Cantu, Roma and Milan) in only seven years. These ten years were also marked by the definitive emergence of the elegant and inspired Yugoslavian basketball. First, Cibona Zagreb, led by the phenomenal Drazen Petrovic, won two times in a row (1985 and 86). Then, the up-and-coming Jugoplastika Split, won three consecutive titles (1989, 90 and 91), revealing the talent of players such as Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc and others (Savic, Naumoski,Tabak...).

In 1982 and 1983, Cantu, traditionnal runner-up of the mighty Varese in the Italian League, won its two European titles, thanks to the young and talented Antonello Riva (16, then 18 points). The former Varese star, Dino Meneghin, who had joined Olimpia Milan, imported his winning tradition to Lombardia to play in his eleventh European final (in 1983). But he eventually lost what seemed like a wrestling match, against Wallace Bryant of Cantu, in one of the most physical and “ugliest” finals of all time.

After Cantu’s back to back wins, Banco di Roma took over for one year. Its American players, Larry Wright and Clarence Kea, dominated the final, scoring respectively, 27 and 17 points. Then began the reign of the Cibona Zagreb and the marvelous Drazen Petrovic.

“Little Mozart” scored 36 points against Real in the 1985 championship game and added 22 against Arvydas Sabonis and Zalgiris Kaunas a year later. Italy got back to its back-to-back tradition in 1987 and 88, as the Tracer Milan beat Maccabi Tel- Aviv twice. Then, in 1989, the wonderful generation of Jugoplastika Split (Kukoc, Radja, Savic etc.) took over and dominated European basketball for three years...

The 90's saw two of the most exciting and controversial endings in the history of the competition, which in 1996 became the FIBA EuroLeague.

In 1992 Partizan Belgrade's young duo of Sasha Djordevic and Predrag Danilovic led the underdogs to a title, the fourth consecutive for a Yugoslav club. Danilovic was the Final Four MVP, but it was Djordevic's last second, coast-to-coast three-pointer which lifted Partizan to a 71-70 victory against Joventut Badalona.

The following year saw another underdog take the title as French side Limoges stunned the Toni Kukoc-led Benneton Treviso in the final.

In 1994, Badalona made up for their last second defeat against Partizan two years earlier. This time was it was the Spanish club's turn to stage a late rally. Against an Olympiakos side with the regular season's best record, Badalona forward Corny Thompson hit a three-pointer (his fifth of the entire competition) to put his side up by 2-points with 19 seconds remaining.

Olympiakos had a chance to tie the game at the free throw line, but Yugoslav star Zarko Paspalj made one of two and Badalona held on for the win.

The title stayed in Spain in 1995, but this time with Real Madrid. Arvydas Sabonis led Real to victory over Olympiakos in the final, and won the only European club honour that had eluded him before going to the NBA.

1996 proved to be one of the most controversial finals to any European club competition. Greek side Panathinaikos pulled off the coup of the season by signing former NBA star Dominique Wilkins, but it was Croatian center Stojan Vrankovic who decided the Final Four.

The 218 cm ran the length of the court to block Barcelona's Jose Montero's lay-up attempt in the last second to seal the win for Panathinaikos. Although the block looked like a possible goal-tend, no call was made and Panthinaikos were the first ever Greek champions.

Olympiakos continued Greek supremacy over the EuroLeague in 1997. Having lost in the final in 1994 and 1995, new signing David Rivers proved to be the difference in 1997. Rivers scored 55 points in the Final Four and Olympiakos beat Barcelona in the final to win their first ever EuroLeague title.

In the ten years since the Final Four format was introduced, the club with the best regular season record had never won the title. That changed in 1998 when Kinder Bologna romped through the competition


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