Atanas Golomeev: Bulgarian legend

In the second edition of the junior EuroBasket, played in Italy in 1966, a lot of future stars emerged: Dino Meneghin, Marino Zanatta and Giulio Iellini of Italy; Kresimir Cosic, Damir Solman, Ljubodrag Simonovic and Aljosa Zorga of Yugoslavia, who would be 1970 World champs; Zdenek Dousa of Czechoslovakia and Aleksandar Boloshev of Russia. However, the top scorer of the competition was from Bulgaria. His name was Atanas Golomeev, born in Sophia on July 5, 1947).His averaged 17.6 points, with 34 against France and 32 against Spain. Only two years later, at 19 years old, he made his debut in the senior EuroBasket in Naples and his numbers of 5.5 points didn’t hint at a future scoring champ. However, at the 1971 EuroBasket in Germany he was already averaging 18.6 points while by Barcelona in 1973 he was the top scorer, with 22.3, on top of Wayne Brabender, Sergei Belov, Tal Brody, Jiri Zidek, Kresimir Cosic, Modestas Paulauskas…

Golomeev also made the all-tournament team with Nino Buscató and Brabender of Spain, Belov of the USSR and Cosic of Yugoslavia. As a man of habit, Golomeev was also the top scorer in Belgrade in 1975, with 23.1 points, again ahead of many superstars. In 1977, at the Belgium EuroBasket, he again had high averages (20.1) and it was his last big competition. I was lucky to follow him live in Belgrade and Belgium and I have no doubts: he was one of the finest centers of his era. And, mind you, he was playing against Cosic, Meneghin, Zidek, Luyk, Andreev, Jelovac, Tkachenko, Belosteny… It’s funny that he was shorter, standing at 2.02 meters, more a power forward than a center. But thanks to his physique and especially the needs of his national team and his teams, he normally played at the ‘5’ poistion. He had good rebounding skills and a sixth sense to know where the ball would fall made up for his lack of centimeters.

This was a brief history of the appearances in EuroBaskets of one of the best Bulgarian players ever. However, his complete story, both personal and professional, qualify him to belong in this series dedicated to the best players of the past.

It all started with the Universiada played in 1961 in Sophia. Atanas Golomeev, Nasko for his friends, received some free tickets to go see the basketball tourney by chance. And as he said, he fell in love with the game by watching the attractive Brazilian players and the better Bulgarian players like Ljubomir Panov and Victor Radev. The man who discovered Golomeev’s talent in 1964 at the Todro Minkov school was Ventsi Yanev. Nasko was a natural born talent for many sports. He was a goalkeeper in the school football team, in athletics he did the high jump and discus. He was also a good swimmer but Yanev saw clearly that Golomeev had been born for basketball. He took him to the Spartak school and then he signed for CSKA Sophia at 18 years old, while in the military service.

Explosion in… Canada

At 20 years old he already stood out, but who knows how his career would have evolved if his father had not been sent to Montreal, Canada as a representative of the Chamber of Commerce of Bulgaria. Golomeev studied at the prestigious McGill College, founded in 1821, and he quickly earned a reputation as the best player on the basketball team:

“They called me last year,” Golomeev recalled this week from Torremolinos, Spain, where he spends his winters playing golf. “On April 12, they wanted to celebrate something because some of my records are still standing after 35 years! My average of 37.5 points is still untouchable, as well as the 57 points I scored in a game that we played as visitors. Such a shame I couldn’t make it, but I am happy that they still remember me.”

His games at McGill caught the attention of several NBA teams, specifically New York, who was seriously interested in signing the Bulgarian player, but the idea of becoming a pro player never, ever crossed Golomeev’s mind. It’s funny that another Bulgarian, Gheorghi Glushkov became, in 1986, the first European player ever in the NBA, but that’s another story. It was almost impossible due to the nature of his father’s job and also because of the rules back then. The Bulgarian federation would never have granted him permission because that would have meant that Golomeev could no longer participate in the national team.

He chose to go back home, but this time he signed for Akademik. In 1969-70, in the former Champions Cup, the Spaniards could see his potential in the quarterfinals duel. Real Madrid won at home, 97-83 and Golomeev scored 19 points but lost the duel against Luyk (34). However, one week later revenge was complete as Akademik won 101-86 as Golomeev nailed 38 points!

“The only thing I remember from that game was the helplessness of my players in trying to stop Golomeev,” Pedro Ferrandiz, the legendary Real Madrid coach who is now retired, explained from Alicante, Spain. “He scored when and how he wanted. He beat us by himself. He was a false five, he lacked the height but he had great technique and great shooting. Yes, he was a great player.”

After six years in Akademik, from 1970 to 1976, Golomeev signed for Levski-Spartak, where he played until 1981. In a game Levski vs. Slavia Sophia he scored 63 points, the standing record in Bulgaria. He was a fighter willing to battle against anybody to win. He had the reputation of having a bad attitude because his constant replies to referees on the court and he was called for many technical fouls, but outside the court he was kind and well-mannered. At 34 years old, he enetered the Bulgarian history books as the first player ever with legal permission to play abroad. He signed for Adana of Turkey, who had just won the second division. Of course, he was the best scorer in the league, and in Adana that season, teams like Efes Pilsen, Fenerbahce and Besiktas lost. There are no reliable data about his averages, but he says that he hardly scored less than 30 points. It was just not fair that such a great player as Golomeev never had the chance to play for a great European player instead of a humble Turkish team, but life isn’t always fair.

After his great performance at the Barcelona EuroBasket in 1973, rumor had it that he had an offer to play in Spain. In an interview published in “Rebote” magazine in Barcelona after the tourney, Golomeev himself said that “two Spanish teams wanted to sign me”. He said he could not reveal the names, but that “one was from Catalonia”. This week, with a smile on his lips, confirmed everything:

“Yes, Barcelona had a new direction staff and they wanted to sign me, but it was impossible. I was 26 years old and I wasn’t allowed to play abroad until I was 34…”

In the FIBA Hall of Fame

When he returned home back from Turkey, Golomeev played two more years for Levski-Spartak and put an end to his career in 1985, at 38 years old. After the 1987 EuroBasket in Greece, a homage game for Atanas Golomeev was played on June 21 between Bulgaria and an all-European team with Drazen Petrovic and Stojan Vrankovic (Yugoslavia), Nikos Galis and Panagiotis Giannakis (Greece), Antonello Riva and Walter Magnifico (Italy), Mickey Berkowitz and Doron Jamchi (Israel), Richard Dacoury (France), Stanislav Kropilak (Czechoslovakia) and Rik Smits (Netherlands). The coach was Pavel Petera (Czechoslovakia) and Europe won 129-82. It was the last game of the great Atanas Golomeev.

He remembers his great rivals, especially Kreso Cosic who, aside from being tall, was smart and with great court vision and great assists.

When FIBA, on occasion of the basketball centennial, chose the 50 best players ever, it could not forget about Golomeev. It was the recognition for 25 years of a brilliant career that could have been even better, but impossible due to political circumstances. Golomeev was Bulgarian champ 12 times, 10 as a player and twice as a coach. From 1991 to 1993, he was president of the Bulgarian basketball federation. He was also a member of several FIBA committees, but now his passion is not the “big ball” anymore, but the smaller one for golf.

Mihail-Misha Delev, a prestigious Bulgarian journalist together with Lilia Yankova and Hari Latifyan, wrote two volumes on the history of Bulgarian basketball and also has an opinion:

“I cannot categorize and say that Golomeev was the best Bulgarian player ever, but with Ilia Mirchev, Viktor Radev and Gheorghi Glushkov, he was definitely among the best four big men ever in Bulgaria. He could score with impressive easiness.”

(January, 2015)