A View From The Sidelines - Noah Klieger

By Jon Ingram

There are few people in Europe who can claim to have watched basketball evolve over the past 50 years from a front-row seat.

One of those people is Israeli journalist Noah Klieger. Klieger, who works for newspaper Yedioth Arhonot and is a correspondent for L’Equipe, has been covering basketball since attending his first European Championship in 1953.

He has been involved with FIBA for nearly as long, and is currently the President of the FIBA Media Council as well as the Chairman of the  AIPS (International Sportswriters Association) Commission to basketball.

From games played in the open air, to the debut of Arvydas Sabonis, Klieger has literally seen it all. We sat down with him to get his perspective on the game.

FIBA Europe: How did you start getting involved in basketball and when?

Klieger: 1951. I was the first Israeli journalist to go abroad. It was the European Championship in Paris.

At that time, basketball was more a family game. In other words, there were no eliminations or promotion cups. Everybody could enter the European Championship and there were 19 teams playing at Vel d’Hiver in Paris, at an old venue that doesn’t exist anymore. And they played form eight in the morning until 11 at night because it was the same venue for all the games. There were maybe a dozen journalists. The journalists, coaches and players were like one family. We were together the whole day and part of the night and we all became friends. This is how this all started.

This is where I met Bora Stankovic and Robert Busnel. We became friends, because like I said, it was one family.

1951 European Championship action: France vs. Czechoslovakia
Klieger's first ever European Championship experience was in 1951

One of the colleagues I met there was Pierre Tessier from L’Equipe. They had a correspondent in Israel, but then this man in left Israel in 1952. He emigrated to the USA and then I figured if he was not coming back I would try to take over. I wrote a letter to L'Equipe where I proposed my services and they accepted. This happened in 1953. I've been with the L'Equipe since then.

I was forced to speak French. I was born in France so it is my mother tongue.

A few year ago they had a reception and party for me, to honour me as the only person in history who’d ever been with the paper for 50 years.

FIBA Europe: What was L'Equipe’s role in the creation of the first European club competitions for both basketball and football?

Klieger: L’Equipe made the football European competition. It was their idea and their suggestion. Basketball is an imitation of the football cup. But Jones and Stankovic were very quick. They realised that this was a very good idea and you see basketball began in Europe in one room.

FIBA started with two rooms in Munich. Secretary General William Jones was a representative of UNESCO in Europe. He was a rich man and he had a simple three storey house. His offices were on the ground floor. FIBA had two rooms on the first floor and he lived on the rest of it and the second floor.

Ursula Frank, she was with FIBA for some years. She did everything. It was of course not the same organisation as it is today. Meetings were held by an executive on weekends. And from Saturday afternoon to Sunday night, it was a drinking and eating contest. The people involved were all outstanding drinkers. But they were also outstanding basketball men.

Jones himself was very heavy drinking man, as were Robert Busnel and Dr. Hepp. I was always invited already because I was one of the first journalists to cover FIBA so I was a friend. I was not a member of the executive. But I was a friend and I was involved. so whenever I was around and they knew I was around, Ursula used to call me and say Noah, we are having a meeting in a couple of weeks if you can make it come over.

I came over and sat in the meetings, I made some suggestions and they asked my opinion as a journalist, and the rest was drinking and eating. I could go very well and I was much younger than they were.

Little by little it grew and then Bora (Stankovic) came in. Bora was a coach after he ended his career. He was an international and after that he ended his career and became a coach. He coached first in Yugoslavia and then Italy with Cantu. Jones had noticed him and decided to coach him, to train him and this is how he took over, little by little. Jones gave more of the job to Bora. The rest is history.

I was involved, and then I was made the chairman of the Media Council, which I still am. They always consulted me on media issues, because I was and I am a journalist. First of all I had the experience of being involved.

I have been to 29 European Championships and if I make it to next year, its my 30th European Champs. No one has been to 29, not event Bora Stankovic. World Championships, Olympic Games etc. I must have seen thousands of games in my life, so I have known players by the ten thousands, coaches by the thousands, journalists by the thousands.

I’m still around, 4 or 5 generations have passed and I am still there. I don’t take it as a compliment, it’s a fact. I’ve lived a long life which means I managed to make it. There is nothing in basketball I've not known or seen. I’m friendly with everyone so I’m always informed.

FIBA Europe: Egypt took part in the 1949 European Championship. Why was that?

Iran, the last non-European team to participate at a European Championship, at the opening ceremony of the 1959 event in Istanbul
Iran competed in the 1959 European Championship

Klieger: The only team that was taking part was Egypt and Iran from Asia. FIBA called this championship at the beginning, the championship of Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Syria and Egypt are closer to Europe than to Asia or Africa. This was not because of Israel because Israel did not yet exist.

This is why Egypt organised the European Championship but this was only normal because they belonged to this Mediterranean basin. Israel was created in 1948 and in 1950 we started to play basketball. So we had to be admitted into the same pattern, because we are also in the Mediterranean.

The Arabs did not like it, but then Jones said, if you can play, they can play. So little by little they dropped out. Not because of us but because they were too weak, they did not have teams. The only country that did remain was Israel. Then later Egypt came back a little bit and Syria and Iran also, but not at a high level, anyway.

FIBA Europe: Which European Championships stick out in your memory?

Klieger: Two in fact. Two and a half. The first was in Belgrade, I don’t remember the year, when we saw a man called Radijov Korac for the first time. He was not a star, he was a superstar.

He was an unusual basketball player, he was not even tall, but he outplayed everybody. He could shoot, he could rebound, he could do everything. He was going to beat the Soviets single-handed. When the Soviets blocked him under the basket, because he was a relatively small man, he went to shoot from the outside and they couldn’t do anything. He was going to win the championship single-handed, but of course they lost to the Soviets.

The next one was Croatia, Zagreb, we saw the best basketball team in history, I’ve never seen a basketball team like this, including the American Dream Team. This was the team with everybody, Petrovic, Kukoc. This was a great team. They played the most fantastic, the most attractive, the most beautiful team I have ever seen. This was an attraction, they should have been in a movie.

In Germany in 1985, in Stuttgart, the first appearance in Europe of a man called Arvydas Sabonis. He played the most fantastic game ever played by a basketball player. This man was 19 years old I think at the time, a giant of 2.20. the passes, behind his back, he tried to do everything and he could do everything. His legs were still ok then and there were no problems. When you watch teams like this, players like this. This is something you don’t forget. They were all big events, but for me these were the outstanding events.

FIBA Europe: What do you remember about games played outside?

Klieger: Sometimes it was quite funny, because sometimes a shot was taken to the basket and the ball would go a metre away! But then FIBA decided that every championship to be played indoors. This was not so easy because not all countries had facilities to play indoors.

In 1967, when I was chairman of Maccabi Tel Aviv, we played the final of the Cup Winners Cup against Ignis Varese in Tel Aviv in an open air stadium, 5,000. But then in Tel Aviv it doesn’t rain from May to October, so there was no problem.

This same stadium was turned into what it is today, Yad Eliyahu. It had 5,000 seats. We played Real Madrid in the same arena and we could have sold 25,000 seats. Real Madrid at the time, Wayne Brabender and Cliff Luyk. They had a few Spanish outstanding players, Corbalan. This was a team out of this world.

I’ve seen generations of referees and I must confess that most of the referees were better than today's.

One of the most unusual events was of course in 1972, the USA v. Soviet Union. William Jones who had no role whatsoever in this game, he was not a referee, commissioner or anything, he was secretary general of FIBA. That doesn’t give him a position in the game. When he decided he should add 3 seconds, the USA had won the game, in my book they still had won the game.

FIBA Europe: Jones had a reputation as a dominant character. Was that the case?

Klieger: Oh yes, he was the one who created FIBA. It was created by others, but he was the man who made FIBA what it is, an international federation. Of course, he was a dominant person. He was a nice man, very clever and intelligent, a very learned and studied man, half British and Italian. But this was another era. I don’t know if Jones would have the success today that he had in the 1950‘s. It's not the same planet any more, everything has changed. Like the internet. When you want some information, they say go to my web site. I don’t want to go to the web site, I want you to tell me!!

FIBA Europe: What about the Soviets?

Klieger: The Soviets came together from 35 or 40 different countries so it was no big deal. They were 250 million. At least 35 countries, officially 15 republics and 4 autonomous regions. But within the republics there were 4 or 5 different nations as we know today.

Action from the 1959 European Championship in Istanbul
Games played in the open air were a common occurence in the 1950's
Like Krumminch the first giant in Europe. I think that when he started to play international basketball, he was past 30. Nobody ever knew how old Krumminch was. They did not train him, they drilled him like a bear or a tiger in a circus, this is how he was drilled. Then they sent him out. He was a Latvian, they found him somewhere, he was a woodcutter. And they said you’re going to be a basketball player, he didn’t even know what they were talking about. They turned him into a basketball player so its no big deal.

The national team of Soviet Union was Lithuanians, Latvians, Russians, Ukrainians and Mongols, there was everything. Alachatchan was an Armenian, great basketball player, they had everything you can put together. They don’t have a bad team today but its not the same level it used to be because today it is just Russia and the others are the others.

The Yugoslavs is the same story, now they have 4 good teams.

FIBA Europe: Yugoslavia gradually caught up with Soviet dominance and won their first European Championship medal in 1961. Was that the key to them becoming a world power?

Klieger: Yes, they didn’t win it (in 1961), but you could already tell that the Yugoslavs were coming. They were there already. And then it all started to turn bad for the USSR, because they still won championships with Krumminch and then Tchachenko, a replica of Krumminch. But then it was over, because they were too slow and too heavy and they out-jumped and out-ran them.

The one time I felt sorry for the Soviets was at the 1960 Olymics in Rome, when they didn’t even play Krumminch because the US team, maybe this was an event better team than the Yugoslavs in 1989.

The American team played with Oscar, Lucas, West, Bellamy, Dischinger, you cannot imagine a team like this. They made fun of the Soviet Union. They played them twice. Once on the way to the final when they won by 35 points. Then they played Krumminch and then they met again in the final. In the final they won by 20 or something points.

But then Oscar, he passed behind the back and between his legs, but they didn’t play Krumminch any more because he was no match, poor fellow. He was 220 cm, but he could hardly move and fellows like Bellamy and Lucas, they were 212 cm but they could run and jump.

They were athletes so it was no match. Really, it was pathetic to look at him so they didn’t play him any more. I remember my Soviet colleagues, they were so angry with the Americans. The Americans didn’t try to ridicule them , they were just so much better. They started to shout at the Americans, I remember one guy calling Oscar Robertson a Chicago Gangster.

The Big O was some basketball player.

In the 1950's and 60's basketball was a different story. The game was slower and they were not athletes like today. And they couldn’t shoot the way they shoot today. But they were clever. Basketball was a game of patterns.

The game was set up in order to bring a man under the basket, to bring him free under the basket. They didn’t shoot from the outside, they had a drills and all of a sudden one guy was standing under the basket.

Today, all this is lost. They have drills, but nobody is interested in the drills because when they take a shot, they take a shot without a drill. Sometimes they have a few basic drills, but it is the basketball player himself who decides what to do, not so much the coach. The coach can only change the defense, the coach cannot tell him don’t shoot or shoot. When he feels like taking a shot he takes a shot. Which maybe, by the way, is preferable to doing exactly what you were supposed to.

But everything has changed, the game is a revolution today, they’re faster and stronger than they were. But the old ones were much more clever, without any doubt. Basketball, then by the way, was a sport for so called intelligent people, usually students played basketball. Today you don’t have to be a student to play basketball. You need a good jump shot.

FIBA Europe: On the club side, Varese was dominant in the 70's reaching the final of the European Cup of Champions Clubs 10 times. What do you remember about those teams?

Klieger: Little town not far from Milano. Everybody worked for the factory, Ignis. Refrigerators and car parts. They had their own country club for the members of their sports teams, all the facilities.

I visited them a few times.

The Italian teams of the 60‘s and 70s were all first class teams for the very simple reason they had the money, at that time already to play players and give them the facilities. So the Italian teams in Europe were dominant at that time.

They had all the facilities. Everybody paid players but not much, they paid more.

FIBA Europe: Who were the first Americans to have an impact in Europe and what was the reaction to their arrival?

Klieger: At the beginning of the American players was welcome because it added to the game. They lifted the standards of the teams.

Obviously they were better players, but then it became an invasion. Because teams then signed players that were not better than the locals, but were paid much more, which created problems. In the end it created the downfall of many teams because they could not afford it any more. Only the very rich teams or teams with a sponsor, and then came the era of teams with sponsors because at first there were no sponsors.

This was a boomerang effect. In the 60‘s what was for the benefit of basketball, became in the 70‘s and 80‘s negative for basketball. Then they were naturalised, they married someone, so you could have one more player. Many young players didn’t see a future and stopped practising. On the other hand, the game became more spectacular, so it goes both ways.

The first impact was made by the players in Spain. Brabender was one of the first, but there were others. Italy had the first non-European coach, even in the 50‘s a fellow called Elliott Van Zandt.

In fact, it began even earlier. Spain imported 2 Puerto Ricans of Spanish origin. For some years they were Spain, all the success of the Spanish national team and Real Madrid was due to 2 Puerto Ricans.

FIBA Europe: You come from Israel and in 1979 the national team shocked Europe by winning silver at the European Championships in Italy.

They (Israel) had a few naturalised Americans, we had Mekin, Liebowitz, Tal Brody was not there, his career was over. Tal Brody played in the early 70‘s. it was before the time of Mickey Berkowitz. Considered to be the best player in Israeli history, not for me, but for most people. Although he was a great basketball player. He was a no.3, he could drive, shoot, he could win games.

We had a fellow called Starkmann, a guard, playmaker. Today people are enthusiastic when they see a watch a pass by Sarunas Jakeseiviucus. Starkamm used to do a pass like this every 2 seconds! He used to do the passes where he didn’t look!

It was incredible and he had a great shot. He was a much better player than Jasekivicus, but you know, he played at the wrong time. Too early. Should have played 10 years later, he would have been a multimillionaire. He was unstoppable. He stopped his career at the age of 29. He was afraid he had a problem with his heart, but he didn’t have anything and he stopped playing anyway.

The Belgians, once had a fellow they called the Kaiser Willi? You cannot imagine the player he was, you can't event explain it.

Every country has produced great basketball players, like the Greeks. The Greeks had a few period. The first was the period of Panellinios with Stefannides, Banis, Maleas, Papadimas. That was the starting five and they were the best team in Europe in the late 50‘s.

Then they produced a center Mateo, you don’t find many like him any more. He also went on to coach the Greek national team. Then they collapsed and disappeared and came back thanks to a little fellow called Nikos Galis, who was an American by the way. I mean, he was Greek but he grew up in America when his family went there. He was a Greek, there’s no doubt about it.

Nikos Galis made the Greeks into a great team, because he found Giannakis and Fassoulas and they were a team again.

The Egyptians produced a players Monpasa, a fantastic basketball player.

You see every country had great basketball players. The only countries who had many of them were the former Yugoslavia. In Italy Stefanini and his partner, nobody could match them. His partner was Cesare Rubini who at the same time was the captain of the Italian water polo team.

You should have seen him, it was a pleasure to watch him play. He was strong as an ox on the court. Stefanini was the clever player, he was the strong player. But they were a pair, Italy was almost unbeatable with them. At the same time he captained the water polo team, I think they won at least silver, if not gold at the Olympics (Rubini won gold in 1948 and bronze in 1952).



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