By Jon Ingram
As a former President of the Danish Basketball Federation, Peter Melbye has a wealth of experience in European basketball. In many ways, he is a pioneer of the game in Europe, or if not a pioneer, one of the links to those who spread basketball from the USA to over the Atlantic and beyond. Like many in Denmark, Melbye was a handball player and a pretty good one too by all accounts. He appeared for the Danish national team 18 times, in an era where international games did not take place with nearly the same regularity that they do today. "18 was quite a lot because we had many years when we would only have 2 international games," said Melbye. Denmark’s national team handball programme was already far more advanced than basketball and they could count themselves as one of the top teams in the world, finishing 6th at the 1955 World Championships in Sweden.
Despite excelling in handball, Melbye’s true love was basketball, which had been introduced to Denmark in 1946 by American soldiers in Copenhagen. "We saw them playing and we thought that we were so good at handball, there couldn’t be such a big difference with basketball," said Melbye, before confessing, "Well, there we were wrong!"
The Danish Basketball Federation was formed in 1946 and the fledgling organisation was given the chance to test itself at the highest level in 1951 at the European Championship for Men in Paris, France. At that time, the European Championship was an invitational event open to any of the national federations who wished to participate. A total of 18 countries expressed their willingness to compete, a record number for a European Championship.
Accommodation and lodging costs were covered by the organisers, in this case the French Basketball Federation. This was a deciding factor for Melbye who in 1951 was a young lawyer. After managing to persuade his father to finance his trip, he was off to Paris with the Danish national basketball team. In 1951 travel was not a simple matter of hopping onto a aeroplane such it is today. "We had to go to Paris and half a century ago a trip from Copenhagen to Paris was a fantastic journey," explained Melbye. "There were no luxuries like now where you could go and take a plane wherever you wanted to go. No, this was by train, 3rd class wooden seats, the hard way."
Before reaching Paris the team held weekly training sessions in order to learn how to play the game at a high enough level to be able to compete. The task fell to Estonian coach Peepu whose job it was to teach the handball players all he knew about basketball and to prepare them for the upcoming European Championship. His task was not as easy one as Melbye said, "We soon realised that to get the ball near to the basket was easy enough for handball players, but to put the ball in the basket, that was not so easy!"
It was a lesson that the Danes would learn the hard way in one their first game in the European Championship against the formidable Soviet Union. The Soviets had won the European Championship in 1947 but did not play in 1949. At the time, FIBA rules dictated that the European Champion had to host the next event, a responsibility that the Soviets were not willing to undertake. As a result the 1949 European Championship took place in Cairo, Egypt which, for basketball purposes, was a part of Europe. However difficulties in travelling to Egypt meant that a total of just 7 teams participated, of which the Soviet Union was not one. The Soviets suffered no obvious ill effects from their sabbatical from international competition, which the Danes found out to their cost. "The Soviets were like nothing we had ever encountered before with their combination of size and skills," said Melbye. His statement is backed up in the scoreline, which finished 109-13 in favour of the 1949 champions.
Games were hosted next to the famous Parc des Princes with a capacity of 12,000 spectators. The schedule was more than hectic with 70 games tabled to take place in 10 days. Crowds for the Championship were generally good and whenever the French or Soviets played a full house was recorded. This of course added to the pressure felt by Melbye and his colleagues who went from learning how to play basketball to playing the best team in Europe in front of 12,000 people in such a short time.
Despite their rocky start, the Danes certainly did not disgrace themselves in the rest of the tournament and ended in 14th position and a 3-7 record. Many of the scores were low such as Denmark’s 26-33 loss to Austria, but it is hard to compare the game 50 years ago to the game now and not only because of the different rules (for example the shot clock was first introduced in 1956) as Melbye commented. "The game in 1951 was totally different to what you see nowadays on the basketball court. The jump shot didn’t exist and players shot their free throws under-handed."
Undoubtedly the most exciting point of the championship for the Danes was after the preliminary round. Although 18 teams had registered, Romania pulled out at the last minute to leaving 17 teams and causing problems with the competition system. As a result the organisers decided to hold an elimination game between Denmark and Luxembourg. The winner would remain in the tournament while the loser would have to return home. The high stakes being played for were reflected in the game itself which was tense throughout.
The game’s deciding moment came in the final seconds. Denmark's chances looked slim as their top player Knud Lundberg picked up a fourth disqualifying foul. Lundberg was perhaps the most remarkable athlete at the tournament and was a full senior international player in football, handball and basketball. With Lundberg on the bench, Denmark's rested on Peter Tatalls, who, with time winding down, had a chance to put his team up by one point from the free-throw line. He swished the attempt and Luxembourg had 6 seconds left to try to win the game. "there were 5 or 6 seconds left," recalled Melbye. "And in the middle of the field their best player took a shot and he was nervous. The ball hit the rim on both sides but it didn’t go in. We had another 8 days in Paris with all meals and wine paid for. I will never forget it."
While Denmark lived to fight another day the battle for the medals was unfolding and the Soviets, Czechoslovakia and France were the honours favourites. France, coached by future FIBA President Robert Busnel (1984-1990) had the backing of the home crowd, although this seemed to hinder their progress. Qualification to the latter stages of the competition looked almost impossible, but a fortuitous set of results in other games plus a vital victory over Bulgaria saw the French scrape through. They faced Czechoslovakia in the semi-final and lost leaving a bronze medal matchup again with Bulgaria which they duly won.
Czechoslovokia and the Soviet Union were undoubtedly the 2 outstanding teams in the competition. The two teams faced each other in the quarter-final round and the Soviets inflicted a 53-37 defeat on the Czechs. Nonetheless, Czechoslovakia advanced to the final game and another shot at the Soviets. The arena was full to capacity and the French fans gave their full support to the underdog Czech team. This time the game would be far closer than in the quarter-finals and would not be without controversy.
Similarly to the Denmark Luxembourg matchup, the game would be decided at the free throw line. Leading tournament scorer and Soviet star Stiapas Butautas was fouled with one second on the clock and the game tied at 44. The crowd did their best to put Butuatas off, but his nerve held and he made the game winning free throw to the delight of his teammates.
However, confusion reigned in the aftermath as one referee claimed the free throw invalid due to the fact that Butautas had stepped on the line, while the second referee indicated that the shot should stand. The Soviets complained and after 20 minutes of discussion the basket was declared valid and victory awarded to the Soviet Union. Both the crowd and the Czech team expressed their unhappiness with the call and the referees ran to the safety of the dressing room.
The medal ceremony was marred by the continued jeering from the crowd, but nothing could alter the fact that the Soviet Union were the 1951 European Champions for the second time in their history.