A New Event
Just two years after its creation in 1932, the young International Basketball Federation reached a landmark achievement in having basketball included as an Olympic sport for the 1936 Games in Berlin. Preparation for the Olympics were key and in 1933 it was decided that a European Championship would be held as a test event.
FIBA at the time was based in Geneva, Switzerland and Secretary General William Jones scheduled the event to take place in Geneva in May 1935.
The First Championship
10 teams registered and the only pre-tournament game was a qualification match between Spain and Portugal which took place in Madrid. Interestingly enough, the game was refereed by Mariano Manent who was also one of the Spanish coaches. Spain went on to win the game 33-12, but any suggestion of foul play was unlikely, since Manent was congratulated by both teams following the final whistle.
|In the early days, basketball was mostly played outside|
The 10 competitors travelled to Geneva by train, with Greece a notable exception from the participants due to financial problems. Spain faced a similar situation and nearly did not make it. However, a last minute interjection from Spanish Basketball Federation President Gonzalo Aguirre guaranteed the necessary funds.
The competition system proved to be something of a problem. All teams played each other, leaving five teams to play in the semi-finals. It seems that a decision was made that Switzerland would play Italy and the winner would advance to the semi-finals.
In any case, Switzerland won, joining Spain, Czechoslovakia and Latvia in the semi-finals. But it was Latvia who emerged as champions. Latvia had benefitted from the arrival of YMCA instructors to the country and they had passed along their knowledge of basketball. The Latvians met Spain in the final and triumphed 24-18.
Interestingly, medals were not given to the winners. This tradition only began later.
At the time, FIBA rules dictated that the winner of the European Championship would host the next event. Therefore the 1937 Championship was held in Riga. In preparation for the prestigious tournament in Riga, an abandoned factory was turned into a modern sports centre with seats for 3,000 people.
As well as the champions, 1937 saw the entrance of neighbouring country Lithuania to a European Championship. Their impact would be immediate and this rookie side would win gold in both 1937 and 1939.
An interesting side-note to the 1937 event was the participation of Egypt. This was not due to any geographical misunderstanding by FIBA, but the simple reason that Egypt had no opponents on their own continent. As a result, they were granted permission to play.
One of the main issues facing FIBA during the 30’s was the participation of Americans under the guise of a European side. The most famous, but not the only case, was that of Pranas Lubinas.
Lubinas, a 195 cm center was a member of the Lithuanian national team, but had also represented the gold medal winning USA side at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In that tournament, he had been registered as Frank Lubin.
In 1939 FIBA requested a document to prove his nationality. A birth certificate was produced by the Lithuanians which showed that Lubin had been born in Kaunas. Still, there was some suspicion and a cable was sent to the AAU in America. The answer came and another birth certificate showed the same date as the Lithuanian document, the only problem was that the birth place was slightly different - Los Angeles.
In any case, by the time the real document arrived the championship was long finished. The Second World War put all thoughts of sanctions to the side and the matter was dropped for good.
System of Competition
There were different systems of competition adopted in the 30’s. The least successful was in 1939 in Kaunas, Lithuania. All teams played each other in a league system and there were no knockout games. Unfortunately, that meant that the first game of the tournament, between Latvia and Lithuania, was effectively the final as they were the tournament’s two strongest teams.
Lithuania won the contest and went undefeated to secure a successive European title.