EuroBasket History - The 80’s

A new generation of stars

The 1980’s saw basketball’s talent pool replenished with players who would go on to become legends of the game. Drazen Petrovic, Arvydas Sabonis, Nikos Galis, Detlef Schrempf, Fernando Martin were just some of the names who emerged during the 80’s and brought basketball roaring into the modern era as we know it.

With European players improving at breakneck speed, it was not long before the NBA began to reach out its feelers for international talent. The 1985 European Championship in Germany was the first time that NBA scouts were present en masse to assess Europe’s best players.

They were obviously impressed with what they saw and following the championship Rik Smits (NED), Detlef Schrempf (GER), Fernando Martin (ESP), Georgi Glouchov (BUL) and Uwe Blab (GER) all went to the USA to pursue NBA careers.

Western breakthrough

The slow rise of Western Europe as a haven for basketball’s best teams continued in the 80’s. While the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia still dominated the top of the podium, Italy and Spain made the breakthrough to the top echelon in Europe while Greece, led by Nikos Galis and Panagiotis Yiannakis spearheaded a golden era in Greek basketball.

2 legends of the international game, Drazen Petrovic (Croatia - left) and Spains Juan San Epifanio
2 legends of the international game, Drazen Petrovic (Croatia - left) and Spains Juan San Epifanio

Italy, Olympic silver medallists in 1980, followed that up with European Championship gold in 1983 in France. Led by Dino Meneghin, Riva, Pierluigi Marzorati and Villalta, Italy defeated Yugoslavia in group action before beating Spain in the final.

Although Spain were not able to win gold, their defeat of the Soviet Union in the semi-finals marked them as a legitimate power. Spain’s generation of stars was blossoming at the right time and Juan Antionio San Epifianio, Juan Antonio Corbalan were both selected to the All-Tournament team.

Italy would make the podium again at the 1985 European Championship, winning a bronze medal, but the other new player in European hoops in the 80’s was Greece.

Greece’s pedigree in European basketball up until 1987 was not overly impressive. In fact, their only previous European Championship participation in the decade was in 1981, where they finished in an unheralded 10th position.

But all that changed with the arrival of Nikos Galis into the Greek national side and the fact that the 1987 championship would be hosted on Greek soil. Galis, who was arguably the top scorer in the history of European basketball, came together with fellow guard Panagiotis Yiannakis, center Panagiotis Fassoulas and power forward Fanis Christodolou in a formidable line-up.

After an inauspicious start, which included two preliminary round losses, the Greeks clicked into gear beating Italy in the quarter-finals (90-78), Yugoslavia in the semis (81-77) and faced the Soviet Union in the final.

The gold medal game was played in front of 17,000 Greek fans, and it proved to be a thriller. Galis scored 40 points for Greece, but it was forward Argyris Kambouris was the hero. His two last second free throws gave Greece a last-gasp overtime victory and the finest hour in the country’s basketball history.

Last stand

The Soviet Union produced some of basketball’s top talents in the 1980’s. as well as the old heads like Vladimir Tkachenko, Stanislav Eremin and Sergey Belostenny, new faces in emerged in the form of Valdis Valters, Sarunas Marcuilionis, Arvydas Sabonis, Alexander Volkov and Rimas Kurtiniatis.

But despite the injection of fresh blood, the Soviets' grip on the basketball world was gradually slipping away.

Nick Galisn (GRE) at the 1987 European Championship for Men
Nick Galis led Greece to unprecedented heights in the 80's

Before politics put a final end to the Soviet 'sindelible mark on the European basketball map, there was time for a final flexing of muscle.

It came in the 1985 European Championship in Germany when the stars aligned for the Soviet side and all competition was contemptuously smashed aside. Maybe the 1984 Olympic snub served as motivation, but whatever the reason the Soviets marched to their 14th, and final, European Championship trophy.

To be fair to the opposition, the Soviets did not have matters all their own way, as illustrated by their preliminary round loss to Spain.

But as of the quarter-final stage, the Soviets were in imperious form, brushing aside Bulgaria in the quarter-finals (104-86), Italy in the semis (112-96) and Czechoslovakia in the finals (120-89).

MVP of the tournament was Arvydas Sabonis. The 220 cm, 21 year old was at the height of his powers before knee injuries robbed him of most of his athletic ability. Also on the All-Tournament team was Drazen Petrovic (YUG), Detlef Schrempf (GER), Fernando Martin (ESP) and Valdis Valters (USSR).

In a sign of future times, 4 of those 5 players would go onto play in the NBA, while on a far more tragic note, Petrovic and Martin would both die tragically young in car accidents.

Introducing the three-point shot

The 1985 European Championship saw the debut of the three-point shot in international competition. The new rule was introduced after the 1984 Olympics, along with the one-and-one foul shot rule. In previous years, foul shooters were given 3 attempts to make 2 free throws. The new one-and-one rule was a trickier proposition for players as a second free throw would only be earned if the first one was made.

But the three-point line was the big innovation. The shot was first introduced by the ABA in 1967 and was adopted by the NBA in 1981.

Its appearance at the 1985 Championship had a dramatic effect on scoring. Although the shot itself was not employed as a consistent weapon, its presence opened up the floor and created far more scoring opportunities. In the 1983 Championship, teams combined for an average 165 points. In 1985 this went up a whopping 24 ppg to 189 ppg.

In 1983, the Soviet Union were the championship’s top scoring side, averaging 97.2 ppg. They repeated that feat in 1985, but upped their average to 109 ppg. Yugoslavia (99 ppg), Spain (97.4 ppg), France (92 ppg) and West Germany (90 ppg) also flourished in what was the highest scoring championship to date.

As for the shot itself, it was certainly not too much of a challenge for the players. Players shot 38% in 1985 from long distance compared to 34.7% at EuroBasket 2003. On average, just over 22 three-pointers were attempted per game whereas in 2003 it was 41.3.

The top long distance side was Bulgaria as they made 44/98 three-point attempts. T. Izenov and G. Mladenov both shot 50% from the three-point line.

The Real Dream Team?

Just as the Soviet Union were able to put together their best players in 1985, the Yugoslavs achieved the same feat in 1989, assembling all of their “golden generation” in what would turn into a 3-year dominance of world basketball (European titles in 1989 and 1991 and a World Championship in 1990).

Alexander Volkov
Alexander Volkov spearheaded the USSR's dominance at the 1985 European Championship

Coached by Dusan Ivkovic and led on the court by Drazen Petrovic, Yugoslavia also counted on Predrag Danilovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Stojan Vrankovic, Zoran Radovic, Juri Zdovc, Zarko Paspalj, Zoran Cutura and Mario Primorac in what was an embarrassment of basketball riches.

The championship was reduced from 12 to 8 teams, but as Drazen Petrovic predicted before the championship, the only team that could beat Yugoslavia was themselves.
 
Yugoslavia had little trouble progressing to the semi-final stage and in fact the interesting action came from the other group. Champions Greece were under pressure to show that they could perform outside their home country and they did so in style in the semi-finals. As in 1987, the Soviet Union stood in their way and once again, they beat the by 1 point, 81-80.

Galis was still at the height of his powers and scorched the USSR for 43 points. But it was Fanis Christodolou’s three-pointer which gave Greece the win and a second consecutive shot at European glory.

There was really only one way the final could go and that was victory for Yugoslavia. The home side had little trouble beating Greece and the 98-76 scoreline reflected their dominance. Petrovic finished the game with 28 points and was also elected tournament MVP.


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