BASKETBALL IN EUROPE
Spain's economy has been facing turmoil and basketball in the country, which includes Europe's top national league, is not by any means immune to the wider social crisis.
Budgets all around are tighter, a club (Alicante) was forced to sell its ACB licence, several others have dissolved altogether and attendances in traditional basketball bastions like the home courts of FC Barcelona or Unicaja Malaga are among the lowest in the last decade.
The ACB decided in the summer to sell the Liga Endesa TV rights to the state broadcaster in exchange only for air time for the league's sponsors' ads, while at the start of the century a subscription channel had paid in excess of 10 million euros for the privilege to broadcast the exact same league.
Even so, TV ratings this season have been lower than anticipated and the televised game of the week has now been pushed outside prime time.
|Waiting for four days of basketball craze: the state-of-the-art Buesa Arena in Vitoria-Gasteiz |
Starting on Thursday evening though, and until the late hours of Sunday, none of this will matter.
Since the moment the first quarter-final of the Copa del Rey (King's Cup) tips off, until the final buzzer sounds in the big final, basketball will reign in Spain, much like the monarch himself - or the country's world-famous football BBVA league.
The atmosphere in the state-of-the-art Buesa Arena in Vitoria, the host of this season's Copa del Rey, which can hold a 15,059-strong crowd, will be the closest any national event can ever come to the unparalleled experience of a EuroBasket.
Fans that have saved for months just to be there will be in the stands, TV crews will work frantically to produce the images that will be broadcast in 100 countries around the world (according to data published by the ACB) and to millions glued to their screens, and some of Europe's greatest stars will take to the court.
Every Spanish international that was on the team that took on the USA in the London Olympics final and is not currently playing in the NBA, will be in action in Vitoria.
A EUROPEAN-STAR-LADEN CUP
The Copa del Rey tips off with a bang, as the first quarter-final is a replay of the last three finals, or last edition's winner against the champion of the Copa in the year before last.
Real Madrid against Barcelona. The 'clásico'. It doesn't get any bigger than this.
If this clash of titans is not enough to whet the appetite, there are plenty of additional reasons for fans in several other European countries to watch every single game in Vitoria, as a host of great European players will fight for the coveted trophy.
Fans watching in Lithuania will have their eyes fixed on Sarunas Jasikevicius of Barcelona and Martynas Pocius of Real.
Jasikevicius is the player with the most domestic cup titles than any other in this edition of Copa del Rey, having won nine in total, in Slovenia, Israel, Greece and in Spain of course, during his previous stint at FC Barcelona.
In Croatia, all eyes will be on Ante Tomic, perhaps the most in-form player offensively in the Liga Endesa.
In nearby Slovenia meanwhile there is again a player to cheer on either side, as Erazem Lorbek plays for Barcelona and Mirza Begic for their arch-rivals.
The Catalan giants' captain and living legend of the Spanish national team, Juan Carlos Navarro, confirmed on Wednesday that he will be present in the clásico in spite of his injury woes, effectively playing through the pain.
Navarro has won five Copa del Rey titles with Barcelona but surprisingly, has never been named the MVP.
On the side of league leaders Real, there is the trio of current Spanish internationals Rudy Fernandez,
|Rudy Fernandez chose his native Spain over the NBA|
Sergio Llull and Sergio Rodriguez alongside veteran Felipe Reyes, who recently announced his retirement from international duty and will make a record-breaking 14th appearance in a Copa del Rey.
Reyes, who has conquered 11 medals with Spain, is the most decorated player in history along with Pau Gasol and just ahead of Navarro, who has 10.
Another instrumental player in the Madrid side of coach Pablo Laso is Nikola Mirotic, the MVP of the U20 European Championship in 2011 and twice Euroleague Rising Star winner.
In the second quarter-final, that sees hosts Caja Laboral Baskonia taking on CAI Zaragoza, Tibor Pleiss of Germany will get his first taste of a Copa del Rey, in his team's home arena.
Among those defending the interests of the hosts, with prior experience of a Copa del Rey will be Polish star Maciej Lampe, an old hand in this competition, as well as Serbia international Nemanja Bjelica, Milko Bjelica of Montenegro and Spanish international Fernando San Emeterio.
Frenchman Fabien Causeur will get his first taste while his 23-year-old compatriot Thomas Heurtel and 22-year-old Czech international David Jelinek have participated once before, albeit under different circumstances and had limited time on the floor.
The hosts will have to overcome a gutsy team, with a strong European core.
Belgian point guard Sam Van Rossom is the conductor of the Zaragoza orchestra, which relies greatly on Dutch big man Henk Norel and Iceland's sharp shooter, Jon Stefansson.
BEYOND THE CLASICO
|Star on the rise: Montenegro international Bojan Dubljevic |
The last two quarter-finals are on Friday and see Valencia Basket take on Asefa Estudiantes and Herbalife Canaria facing off with Uxue Bilbao Basket.
Valencia have Croatian Zeljiko Perasovic at their helm, who was part of the legendary national team in the beginning of the nineties and today, as a coach, he has under his orders Montenegrin rising star Bojan Dubljevic, Ukrainian international Serhiy Lishchuk, Serbian international Stefan Markovic, French international Florent Pietrus and Poland's Thomas Kelati.
The captain of the team meanwhile, Rafa Martinez, as well as Pau Ribas have both been on the podium with Spain in European Championships at U20 level and are always in consideration for the senior national team.
Great Britain international Daniel Clark joined Asefa Estudiantes as a teenager and is now the captain of the Madrid team, which also has Spanish U18 international and rising star Jaime Fernandez on its books.
Bilbao meanwhile has a strong Greek contingent, including coach Fotis Katsikaris who is the new coach of the Russian national team and backcourt duo Nikos Zisis, the captain of the Greek national team, and sharpshooter Kostas Vasileiadis.
Belgian star Axel Hervelle and Serbian Milovan Rakovic are the main men in the paint for Bilbao while former Spanish internationals Alex Mumbru and Raul Lopez, that were on the side that conquered the world championship title in 2006 in Japan, are the leaders of the Basque team.
The winner of the clásico will take on the winner of the clash between the hosts and Zaragoza in the first semi-final, while the winners of the two Friday quarter-finals will meet each other in the second.
Both semi-finals will take place on Saturday, with the big final tipping off Sunday at 19:00 CET.