Cliff Luyk - Europe's First Influential American

03 March 2005
By Dan Peterson

Compiling a list of the "most influential Americans" ever to play in Europe is no small task, as opinions vary from country to country. 

One of the first Americans to make an impact in Europe -Real Madrids Clifford Luyk
Cliff Luyk displays his deadly hook shot

Mention must be made of the Olympic Games at this point. The 1948 Games were played in London, England, and the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

The Americans were so far ahead of Europe, still digging out from the rubble of World War II, that any single lesson by any one player would be impossible  to pinpoint. Plus, most attributed the USA's success to its extremely tall players.

It was the 1960 Olympics in Rome that had a real impact on people in Europe.  They saw consummate ball-handling technique from Oscar Robertson, sublime shooting skill from Jerry West and superb all-around pivot play from Jerry Lucas.

People still speak of these athletes as though they were from another planet, the first real 'Dream Team' to be studied up-close by coaches, players and executives.

Yes, there were some American players on the continent before 1960. In Italy, there was 202 cm center George Bon Salle of Illinois, whose fundamentals in the pivot awed people when he played for Simmenthal of Milan, Italy. Also, Tony Vlastelica, a 192 cm forward from Oregon State, showed how to execute the hook shot. But most  'foreign' players were from other European countries, like Yugoslavia or Greece.

Perhaps the first truly influential American was 202 cm Clifford Luyk of Florida. The transplanted New Yorker came to play for Real Madrid in the early 1960s. This is significant as Real is the European club with the highest level of visibility in the Old World in football and basketball, both of which they simply dominated in the early years of European Cup play.

There is another significance of Cliff Luyk's arrival to Spain: he became a 'naturalised' Spanish citizen and played not only for Real as a Spanish player after a waiting period, but also for the Spanish national team. This did not happen right upon his arrival but after the normal, lengthy bureaucratic process. And, he was most  sincere: He still lives and coaches in Madrid, where he is married to a former Miss Spain. 

So, we have a player that was not only a superb talent but that was also seen by the entire continent. Understand, these were the days when the NBA had only eight or nine teams and a player the caliber of Cliff Luyk had to look elsewhere for playing time.

It's enough to say that John Havlicek was the last player drafted in the first round in 1962, the year Luyk came to Spain. So, making the NBA back then was difficult. 

Cliff Luyk was able to help Real Madrid immediately, first as a 'foreign' player, then as a 'naturalised' Spanish player. He would win five European club titles in the mighty Cup of Champions, in which each nation would send its national champion from the previous season.

So, he most definitely 'made a difference,' and certainly started, or accelerated, the idea on 'nationalising' a star American player in some way.

Once he was considered a Spanish player by FIBA, he could play for Spain as a native. It must be said that Spain's national team, before the arrival of Cliff Luyk, was still a work in progress. They DNQ, Did Not Qualify, for many events, or even DNC, Did Not Compete, total no-shows for others. When they did come and play, their final placements read like 14th, 11th, 15th, etc. 

Cliff Luyk changed all of that. By 1973, when he was nearing the end of his great career, along with another 'naturalised' American, 195 cm Wayne Brabender of Gustavus-Adolphus, Luyk led Spain, playing on home soil, to its first international medal of any sort: a silver in the 1973 Europeans, upsetting the  USSR, who a year earlier won the 1972 Olympic gold medal.

So, Europe had a perfect close-up of Cliff Luyk. What did they see? One, they saw flawless shooting technique, especially on his driving hook shot. No one could guard it. Hall of Fame inductee Dino Meneghin said he never guarded one shot that was so difficult to defend. On top of that, he could catch it, pass it from the high or low post and hit cutters or pivot men as he wished.

There was more. He was a tremendous rebounder and a hard-nosed defender. So, with what he showed on the floor to all observers and with what he showed in practice to his teammates and coaches, Clifford Luyk, among many important American players to hit Europe in the 1960s (including Bill Bradley), had the biggest audience and put on the best show. He will never be forgotten.

Dan Peterson was born in Evanston, Illinois, USA on 9th January 1936. At age 30, he became head coach at the University of Delaware. His first international experience came in 1971 as the head coach of Chile's national team and in 1973 he came to Italy to coach Virtus Bologna.

Peterson coached Virtus for 5 seasons and follwed that with a nine-year stint at Olympia Milano. Peterson set every Italian coaching play-off record in his 11 appearances - 11 final fours, nine finals and four titles. He was selected Italian Coach of the Year in 1979 and 1987. In 1987 he won the Italian Cup as well as the Italian League and European Cup of Champions. He was also selected European Coach of the Year.

Since his retirement, Peterson has been a television commentator and journalist in Italy.



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