|10 May 2013|
EUROLEAGUE FINAL FOUR
by Dimitris Kontos
French writer Jules Verne chose an Englishman, Phileas Fogg, as the hero of his classic Around the World in Eighty Days, that was published in 1873.
People of any nationality can undertake a trip around the globe of course, but the daring - or preposterous, depending on the point of view - wager on which the premise of the story is based could only be utterly believable in an English setting, where the very concept of such a challenge formed part of everyday life.
Exactly 140 years later, quite fittingly in London, each of the parties involved in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four are also taking a bet of shorts, each one in their own way.
The organisers have chosen the O2 Arena in the British capital as the venue for their flagship event, to the background sound of media around Europe rubbing their hands in anticipation of failure in a 'non-traditional basketball country'.
A century ago, the vast majority of Europeans had never even heard of the game of basketball and by the same logic, Americans should never have bothered with introducing it here.
In the wake of the Great Britain basketball federation's successful plea to reverse a damning policy and secure funding for the coming years, what the young people in the United Kingdom who love the sport need is more exposure to it, and a chance to introduce their friends to it.
British media will still file basketball news under 'US sports' on Monday, and the Euroleague Final Four will raise nowhere near the same level of awareness among Londoners as the upcoming UEFA Champions League final at Wembley, but that is far from the point.
There is no stake to be lost in the bet of choosing London as the 2013 and 2014 venue of the Final Four, only potential gains for basketball.
The same is true for the four title contenders, in a year that there is no clear favourite for the trophy.
|Sasha Kaun and CSKA Moscow can't wait to take revenge for last year's final loss|
A year ago, CSKA Moscow reached the Euroleague final as the undisputed favourite, only to suffer a shock defeat to Olympiacos.
This season, they have the chance to partly redeem themselves already on Friday, by beating the Greek side in a first semi-final that is the replay of that memorable final.
If they succeed, they will have already secured - at worst- the same runners-up position as last year and on Sunday they will have the chance to make history as the club that completes Russia's clean sweep of European competitions this season (after the EuroCup Women, EuroLeague Women, Eurocup and EuroChallenge).
By winning in London, CSKA will also take their title tally to seven and edge within one of Real Madrid at the top.
CSKA head coach Ettore Messina meanwhile has a shot at collecting a fifth Euroleague title (second behind Željko Obradović, with eight) and claiming a huge personal triumph after his return from the NBA.
|Rising star trophy winner Kostas Papanikolaou and Olympiacos can make it back-to-back titles|
It is unusual for the reigning champions to arrive at a Final Four as the outsiders but that actually puts Olympiacos in a position where it's impossible to fail.
"For us and for every team, when you win the trophy, the next year is the most difficult," their captain Vassilis Spanoulis said on the eve of the semi-final.
"That we are here again is a big thing for us, we proved that we didn't win last year by luck, we proved we are a very good team that can achieve a lot of things."
In short, by reaching London Olympiacos have already proved that last year's win was not a fluke.
A second consecutive success would lift their entire roster to the top of mount Olympus, while if they fall, they will always have the Istanbul triumph to point to.
Greek coaches meanwhile have led team to titles in every European competition, except the Euroleague; Olympiacos 48-year-old head coach Georgios Bartzokas has the chance to become the first.
|Nikola Mirotic's Real Madrid are craving for their first Euroleague title in 18 years|
While no other club has won as many Euroleague titles as Real Madrid, the last one of those came in 1995.
Head coach Pablo Laso has only reached a Final Four as a player and none of his players has ever played in a final.
If they raise the trophy in London, they will end an almost two-decade long drought and be mentioned in the same breath as Obradovic, Arvydas Sabonis, Joe Arlauckas and the rest of the mighty 1995 side.
If they defeat FC Barcelona Regal in the semi-final, they will avenge their loss in the recent Copa del Rey and regain the pshycological advantage over their arch-rivals.
If they do none of the above, they will still return home safe in the knowledge that they have secured home-court advantage in the Liga Endesa play-offs and concentrate on reclaiming that title.
The core of their roster is still young and no matter what happens this weekend, they will have another shot at the Euroleague title sooner rather than later.
FC BARCELONA REGAL
|Erazem Lorbek and Regal FC Barcelona seem to have found their rhythm and head to London full of confidence|
The Catalan giants started off the season as favourites, as per usual, but have been dogged by problems along the way that have made their participation at the Final Four a considerable achievement in itself.
The sudden illness of small forward Pete Mickael, who has put his career on hold while on treatment, dealt a major blow to the balance of the side.
Captain Juan Carlos Navarro has been struggling for fitness all year and missed a number of games domestically and in the Euroleague, while center Nate Jawai suffered a foot injury last weekend and will most likely not feature in the semi-final.
If Barcelona win in the final, or simply prevail in the semi-final over their bitter rivals Real Madrid, they will add a third Euroleague title to the trophy case of the club and the first to tell a story of triumph in the face of adversity.
If they don't, nobody will ask for explanations or recriminate them.
Head coach Xavi Pascual will still be the youngest tactician to have conquered a Euroleague title (2010 in Paris) and players like Navarro, Sarunas Jasikevicius or Erazem Lorbek have nothing left to prove to anyone.