|Irina Osipova, along with Sue Bird, have been the two constants in the Sparta&K European success equation|
By Jeff Taylor
If there has been one truth more than any other this season in the EuroLeague Women, it's that champions remain champions until the title is taken away.
Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje, winners of the last four EuroLeague Women crowns, were ripe to be beaten this season but so far, so good for a club that has a certain swagger even without some of the prominent faces that have been at the club since that very first win against Ros Casares in 2007.
Gone but not forgotten is the late Shabtai Von Kalmanovic, who brought big-time basketball to Vidnoje but tragically died in late 2009 when he was shot and killed in Moscow.
Diana Taurasi, the MVP of the last two Final Fours, along with Janel McCarville and Sylvia Fowles, didn't return for 2011.
Marina Karpunina has been hurt and hasn't played, Lauren Jackson went down with a season-ending injury in December and Anete Jekabsone-Zogota left the team in January for Fenerbahce.
It hasn't mattered so far.
Sparta&K have not only survived, but thrived.
Pokey Chatman has been coaching her heart out while on the playing front, Sue Bird and Irina Osipova - players that have been in every single one of the teams that won the four Sparta&K titles - have been playing well when it counts.
Working diligently has been the wife of the late Von Kalmanovic, Anna Arkhipova, the former Russia national team point guard who is the executive director of the club.
There has also been one hugely important constant in the club's successful stretch of title-winning seasons and that is the bundle of energy from Greece that goes by the name of Steve Costalas, the general manager who lives and breathes Sparta&K.
When it comes to the EuroLeague Women, Costalas has a lot of opinions.
His greatest conviction may be that Sparta&K is a great basketball institution, one that has given young Russian players a chance to develop while at the same time established a reputation as the best women's team ever to play in Europe.
Sparta&K have stumbled this season, falling in a season-opener at VICI Aistes and losing at ZVVZ USK Prague two weeks later.
|No Lauren Jackson, no problem. 40-year-old Taj Mc Williams joined and made sure the Sparta&K frontcourt would not weaken without the sidelined Australian|
There were defeats at Galatasaray and Halcon Avenida in the Qualifying Round and a two-point loss at Beretta-Famila Schio in the Eighth-Finals.
Yet here they are, ready to play in another Final Four.
Nothing that has happened to Sparta&K, Costalas says, has surprised him.
"Actually, I really have enjoyed this season because once more, Sparta&K surprised its critics," he said to Basketball World News.
"Somehow every season Sparta&K succeeds, especially at the end of the season, to have its enemies and critics eating their words."
Costalas did not name names, but there are many that wrote off Sparta&K's chances.
"We have been, are and hopefully always will be more than a team," he said.
"We are a family which together overcomes any and all adversities.
"And the fact that we qualified to this year's EuroLeague Women Final Four has a lot to do with this feeling."
This question was put to Costalas: What was harder, figuring out how to construct the team after last season when Sparta&K knew that Taurasi, Fowles and McCarville would not be returning, or clearing the hurdles that unexpectedly appeared, like the injuries to Jackson and Karpunina?
"Actually, my hardest task this past summer was building the team without Shabtai," Costalas said.
"But sitting down with Anna Arkhipova Von Kalmanovic and Pokey Chatman, we used his philosophy and way of thinking to create a competitive roster.
"Even though I have been in professional basketball management over 20 years, what I learned from Shabtai is what guides me now in my every basketball decision."
Costalas, who clearly likes the drama of the EuroLeague, used Hollywood to reveal what he learned from Shabtai.
"Just like Clint Eastwood said in Heartbreak Ridge, ‘Adopt and improvise' and that is exactly what we did," Costalas said.
"The basic moves were to re-sign Pokey and the rest of the coaching staff, bring back the remaining core of the team and especially Sue, and convince Lauren to return to the ‘family'.
|Costalas credits executive director Anna Arkhipova Von Kalmanovic and head coach Pokey Chatman for keeping the club on track|
"On the other hand, the two moves which were made during the Christmas break and which to a great extent helped us reach this year's Final Four was signing Taj (McWilliams), a great experienced player on and off the court and trading Jekabsone, which in reality was an addition by subtraction. She was not happy here and anybody not happy in our ‘family' is free to go."
Success No Matter What
Sparta&K may not win it all this season, but the season will be remembered as a sweet one.
"Getting to all five Final Fours was very special but this time it was exceptionally special because we were ranked number eight, we were playing against the only undefeated EuroLeague Women team (Fenerbahce in the Quarter-Finals) which was number one in scoring (86 points per game) and everybody had us for dead," Costalas said.
"But our team showed that it has character and that all players are proud of wearing the Sparta&K jersey with its four gold stars."
There have been many to contribute to the success, including local officials.
"Now we are able to thank the Governor of Moscow Region Boris Gromov, who saved the club when we lost Shabtai and constantly believed in us," Costalas said, and "the Head of Leninskiy Region Sergey Koshman and our local administration for their support, our fans for being next to us at all times, the whole Sparta&K organization for working 24 hours a day and our enemies who made us work harder to prove them wrong."
There is the issue of the Fenerbahce that Sparta&K beat, however.
First of all, Laszlo Ratgeber, the Fenerbahce coach who had led Sparta&K to their third EuroLeague Women title, called his former club the team to beat before the very first game.
Some believe the shine was taken off Sparta&K's triumph over Fener in the last eight because the Turkish giants had their own problems, which included letting Taurasi and Penny Taylor go.
Taurasi had her contract terminated after she tested positive for a banned substance and Taylor soon after decided to go.
Taurasi was later cleared by the Turkish Basketball's Federation.
What does Sparta&K have to say to those who say they beat a weakened Fenerbahce?
"Before I answer let me emphasize that very few people know how overall important is the presence of Taurasi in a team," Costalas said.
"After all, let's not forget Sparta&K has already retired her number. Having said that, the answer is - Please sit down, look at the facts and let's be honest for a minute.
"It is true that Fenerbahce lost Taurasi and Penny but they immediately added Angel McCoughtry (the number two EuroLeague Women scorer at the time), the 2007 European Player of the Year Anete Jekabsone and they brought back a future WNBA Hall of Famer Tammy Sutton Brown.
"On the other hand, from the moment we completed our roster, we lost one of our starters and our best defenders, Marina Karpunina, Lauren Jackson who played less the two months and suffered a season ending injury. And we traded the 2007 European Player of the Year Anete Jekabsone, while signing only Taj McWilliams.
"Considering all of this, as well as the depth of our respective rosters, I think the correct question is: ‘If Sparta&K's roster had stayed intact, would there even have ever been a Sparta&K - Fenerbache series, except maybe in the ELW Final Four Championship match?"
Sparta&K spent big money during the early years of their success to load the roster with many of the best players in the game, like Taurasi.
|There is a sense of deja-vu as Sparta&K face Maria Stepanova and UMMC Ekaterinburg once again in a mouth-watering EuroLeague Women semi-final|
If spending this season was half of what it was in 2009-10, yet the club still made it to a fifth Final Four in a row, did Sparta&K overspend last season?
"No way," Costalas said.
"First of all since our first championship season Shabtai had been gradually reducing Sparta&K's budget and had called for a salary cap to be imposed to EuroLeague Women player salaries and budgets
"On the other hand, the continuing world financial crisis has overall affected the budgets of most teams as well as the players' salary requests.
"Finally, the jury is still out for us because last year, we won the EuroLeague title undefeated and this year we have lost five European games which equals the total games we lost the four prior EuroLeague Women seasons.
"You can never say you overspend when you achieve your targets.
"If we overspend, what can one say about other teams which have spent crazy amounts of money the last five years and are still trying to make the Final Four or even reach the Championship game?
"I am happy to say that as of next year, we will be promoting players from our basketball school which will first help us keep our budget at logical levels while making Shabtai's and Anna's dream a reality."
Another UMMC Showdown
For the players and coaches, the only thing that matters right now is the game on the floor and what a game that promises to be!
Sparta&K's Semi-Final, for the fourth straight year, will be against UMMC Ekaterinburg, a team that has also had some turmoil to overcome with the departures of Ann Wauters and Agnieszka Bibrzycka.
Costalas isn't willing to give an inch.
"What turmoil?" he said.
"Since early in the signing period, UMMC knew they would not have Ann (who is expecting a baby) but chose not to replace her and recently when they lost Biba, they immediately replaced her with Zirkova, one of the best European shooting guards, and also brought back one of the top players in the game, Candace Parker."
It's been a crazy, crazy year for Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje, one with many ups and downs.
Would there be anything crazier than seeing Sparta&K upset UMMC in the last four because that's what it would be in the eyes of most, especially if the event is held in Ekaterinburg.
Then again, maybe UMMC should really be considered the underdogs because they have suffered three straight defeats to Sparta&K at Final Fours.
UMMC may have a psychological hurdle to overcome.
Costalas laughed off the suggestion.
"If UMMC has a psychological hurdle to overcome," he said, "then we probably have to find a way to escape from the Oregon State Mental Institution from (the movie) One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."