The end of an era
The beginning of the 1990’s saw major political upheaval across Europe, as communist regimes began to collapse and the iron curtain gradually disintegrated.
The effect of this change on the basketball landscape was profound, as it led to the collapse of the two basketball superpowers, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia were the first to feel the effects of the new political reality at the 1991 European Championship in Rome.
Yugoslavia did not have their full complement of stars as Drazen Petrovic and Stojko Vrankovic were not on the team. But, with Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja at the height of their powers, there was no other team that could challenge them on the court.
|Splits Toni Kukoc at the final of the 1989 Mcdonalds Open in Barcelona. The New York Knicks defeated Split 111-101.|
Off the court, however, Yugoslavia faced other problems. The war that would go on to split the country had started and its effects were already being felt.
Juri Zdovc was the first casualty.
Slovenia declared independence 2 days into the tournament, and although he had played in both games, Zdovc was ordered not to play any more. Not only that, but he was forced to stay in his hotel room for the remainder of the competition and not speak to any of his teammates.
The Soviets, on the other hand, succumbed to on-the-court problems, before the collapse of communism saw the country’s break up.
The Soviets entered the qualification phase of the 1991 European Championship in a group with Czechoslovakia, France and Israel, neither of which were particularly strong at the time, and certainly were not on the same level as the 13-time European champions.
Nonetheless, the Soviets came unstuck, losing to Czechoslovakia and Israel away. On the last day of the qualification tournament, the Soviets took on France and needed a home win to go to the final round. Having already completed an away victory against the French, the Soviets were confident of victory.
But that confidence proved to be misplaced.
They lost 84-85 and missed out on the championship. What they didn’t know at the time, was that it would be their last chance ever to play in a European Championship under the Soviet flag.
A German Surprise
The biggest upset of the 90’s came at the 1993 European Championship, held in Germany. The German side, led by a young Yugoslav coach called Svetislav Pesic, were not favoured going into the championship, despite holding the homecourt advantage.
Yugoslavia were banned from the competition due to UN sanctions, but Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia & Herzegovina all qualified for the event through a special additional qualification tournament staged to accommodate 15 of Europe’s new countries.
|German captain Hansi Gnad lifts the 1993 European Championship trophy|
Germany had a host of experienced players on their roster, led by guards Michael Koch and Henrik Rödl, forward Henning Harnisch and center Christian Welp. They were, however, without NBA star Detlef Schrempf who did not take part in the tournament.
After preliminary round action, the Germans finished second in their group and faced a strong Spanish team in the quarter-finals. Despite leading by 6 points with a minute and a half remaining, some costly Spanish errors allowed Germany back into the game and some clutch play from Welp saw the Germans tie the game at the end of regulation, and go on to win in overtime.
The Germans took an Greece in the semis, a team that had won European gold just 6 years previously, but whose stars (such as Yiannakis, Fassoulas, Christodolou and Galis) were approaching the end of their careers.
Germany’s inside players held Fassoulas to just 1 point and the home team held on for a 76-73 win.
The final matched up Russia and the now confident Germans. It would go down as one of the best finals of all-time, if not for the quality of play, then for its thrilling climax.
After a closely fought 39 minutes, 2 free throws from Sergey Babkov gave Russia a 70-68 point lead with 15 seconds remaining. After a Pesic timeout, Christian Welp got the ball, drove baseline for a dunk and was fouled. The ensuing free throw gave Germany the gold medal and Welp was selected tournament MVP.
A Classic Final
The 1995 European Championship final in Athens will go down as one of the greatest ever. It had everything, an electric atmosphere, an outstanding individual performance and plenty of controversy.
The final featured two teams that had not even played two years previously. Lithuania were back at the event, led by their triumvirate of stars, Sarunas Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Arvydas Sabonis. Yugoslavia, meanwhile, were reinstated after the politically enforced ban.
|Sarunas Marciulionis (USSR) at the 1987 European Championship in Greece|
The Yugoslavs were hungry to take off from where they left world basketball in 1991, and with the likes of Aleksander Djordjevic, Zarko Paspalj, Predrag Danilovic, Zoran Savic, Dejan Bodiroga and Zeljko Rebraca, they had the personnel for the job.
The game was marked by a remarkable performance from Djordjevic, perhaps the finest in any European Championship final. The 188 cm guard torched Lithuania for 41 points on 9/12 three-point shooting. Marciulionis was almost as spectacular, tallying 32 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds, but it was not enough to stop Yugoslavia from winning, 96-90.
As well as Djordevic’s performance, the game gave us one of the most spectacular individual plays in European Championship history, courtesy of Danilovic. It was the final possession of the first half, when Danilovic produced a stunning drive and dunk right over Lithuanian giant Arvydas Sabonis.
The game was marked by controversy in the second half when the players exchanges with the referees became more and more heated. When Sabonis was called for a foul on what had seemed an innocuous enough post-up situation (which was exploited expertly by Zoran Savic), that was the last straw for the Lithuanians.
They all went to the bench and looked as though they would refuse to continue. It took the intervention of several Yugoslav players, led by Divac and Djordjevic, who went over to the Lithuania bench to talk to their opponents, before common sense prevailed and the Lithuanians took to the court once again.
But psychologically, the Lithuanians had defeated themselves, and Yugoslavia went on to win and cap a triumphant return to European Championship action.