Juan Antonio Corbalan: A doctor among baskets

If someone, in a country with a long basketball tradition like Spain, is known as the best point guard of all time and the most laureate player he has a guaranteed spot among the legends. Those two definitions apply to Juan Antonio Corbalan (Madrid, August 3, 1954) since at least 1991, more than 20 years ago, when he retired wearing the jersey of Valladolid to put an end to a brilliant career. In his last active season, already at 36 years old, he played 15 games averaging 25 minutes with 6.5 points and 2.8 assists. The strange thing is that Corbalan got top lay again after a two-year pause. He was retired after 17 years on the courts (1971-1988) with the club of his life, Real Madrid, but then came an interesting call from Gonzalo Gonzalo the president of the club from Valladolid, the team that had signed Lithuanian giant Arvydas Sabonis, who was affected by injuries but who still had a will to show that, at 27 years old, he still had some good things to offer to basketball. Sabonis was having a hard time to adapt to this new chapter of his life while on the basketball side of things he needed a great point guard by his side, especially experienced, and the personal bet of Gonzalo stroke gold getting Corbalan back from retirement.

That was the end of the great career of the, effectively, the best Spanish point guard of all time, but how were the beginnings? In the book “The King of Europe” by Luis Miguel Gonzalez Lopez, dedicated to the basketball section of Real Madrid, Corbalan himself as a junior talked about his future: “I am not a future genius of basketball. Those are things that have to be proved by facts and I still haven’t even started. The only thing on my mind now is playing. I hear people talking about me and they say that I took a big step forward, but I have still many things to do.”

Yes, besides his game, if something was characteristic to Corbalan was his modesty. He was an exemplary sportsman in everything: his behavior on and off the court, his fair play, the respect for his teammates and opponents and referees. On top of that, he was a brilliant medicine student, a very complicated degree for an elite sportsman but he got his MD on both fronts: the school and the court. In fact, after retiring he became a very prestigious cardiologist with many ideas that linked his two passions: sports and health. He founded and directs the Institute of Functional Rehabilitation and Applied Science to Sports La Salle, which is located in Aravaca. However, we are here to talk about Corbalan the Player.

Free throws in Nantes

When Real Madrid reached the title game of the European Cup in Nantes in 1973-74, Corbalan already had two Spanish League titles from the two previous seasons, even though his contribution to the team, due to his age, was not that important. But little by little he was getting more play time and more confidence from his coach, Lolo Sainz. For instance, on the way to the final against Sandro Gamba’s Ignis Varese, Corbalan scored 23 points against Heidelberg of Germany even though he went scoreless against Radnicki, Wienerberger or Berc. But then, the final against the archrival of Real Madrid in that era came. After a close game, Real Madrid was in trouble when, with 78-74, Carmelo Cabrera, who scored 16 points and was directing the game perfectly, fouled out. Lolo Sainz looked at the bench and threw young Juan Antonio Corbalan to the lions. The kid made good use of his minutes on court to score four free throws for 4 golden points. Real Madrid won by 84-82 and lifted its fifth crown six years after the fourth.

In the years 1978 and 1980, Real Madrid would win a couple more crowns, the first against Ignis Varese in Munich (75-67) and the second against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Berlin (89-85) but, in a conversation I had with him this same week, Corbalan admitted that, of the three titles he won with Real Madrid the one he remembers with the most joy is the one from 1974 in Nantes.

That April day of 1974 was the start of the brilliant international career of Juan Antonio Corbalan. At the end of the 1987-88 season, his last with Real Madrid, his titles amounted to: 12 Spanish Leagues, 7 Spanish Cups, 1 Spanish Supercup, three European Cups, one Cup Champions Cup (1984 against Olimpia Milano, 82-81), one Korac Cup (against Cibona 102-89 and 93-94 with 47 points br Drazen Petrovic in Zagreb), 3 Intercontinental Cups (1976 and 1977 against Varese in the final and 1978 against Brazil’s Obras Sanitarias), a club World Championship (1981), a European Supercup and chosen seven times as member of the Europe player selection.

I perfectly remember the first time I saw Corbalan playing. It was February 7 of 1974 (of course, I had to check for the exact date). I remember the game well at the old Hala Sportova in New Belgrade, the Serbian basketball temple of that time. Radnicki Belgrade, the surprising champ of the strong Yugoslav League the previous season with a great generation of players led by coach Slobodan Piva Ivkovic, defeated Real Madrid by 95-87. Corbalan didn’t play much, he didn’t score any points (Real Madrid was well covered in that area with Wayne Brabender (37), Walter Sczerbiak (29) and Carmelo Cabrera (25)), but he could not hide his talent despite the few playing minutes.On the contrary.

Silver in Nantes and Los Angeles

Corbalan made his debut with the Spanish National Team in an international competition at the 1972 Qualifying Tournament for the Munich Olympics in the Netherlands. His average of 8.8 points was a highlight for the team. He also helped the team go through another filter, the World Qualifying Tournament for the same Olympiacs in Munich, but he didn’t manag to earn his place in the team for the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona. He was back to the team for the Puerto Rico’s World Championships of 1974 and he would never leave the team until his last big international competition, the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1984.

Nantes is probably Corbalan’s favorite city because nine years after his first big triumph there with Real Madrid, Spain took a silver medal in the 1983 EuroBasket. It was held, of course, in Nantes. That was a great team Spain: Juan Antonio San Epifanio “Epi” averaged 20.0 points, Chicho Sibilio (17.1), Fernando Martin (13.8), Corbalan (11.3), Andres Jimenez (10.7)… In the semifinals against the USSR (95-94) Corbalan was the third best scorer of his team with 16 points after Sibilio (26) and Epi (25). The title game was against Italy, where Spain fell by 95-106. One year later, at the Los Angeles Olympics, this great generation in Spain defeated Yugoslavia in the semis by 74-61 while it lost in the final against a “Students Dream Team” of the United States with Jordan, Ewing, Perkins, Mullin, Alford or Klein by 65-96.

“Those are two medals that have a special place in my memories. At that time, the USSR and Yugoslavia had better teams than us, but we managed to eliminate them in semiso f two big competitions. People following basketball nowadays must know that in those years, the first three spots were almost exclusive property of Yugoslavia, the USSR and the USA. If the goal today is getting through the group stage and finish among the first 6 or 8 teams, for us the dream was getting to the semifinals and even more, the finals. Luckily for us, we did that, twice.” Corbalan told me, as we go through the memories of those two competitions, since I was in Nantes and Los Angeles and could witness live the exploits of the great Spanish team.

And now… also a writer!

For some years already, Corbalan has only been a doctor. From time to time he writes interesting columns in Madrid’s sports media, but not so long ago he caught my attention with the title of his book: “Conversations with Mirza”. Thefirst association is that Corbalan transcribes some of the talks he had with his great friend and teammate in Real Madrid between 1980 and 1982, Mirza Delibasic. However, the book is a novel.A metaphor about Mirza and his Sarajevo, like his sad fate. Every word uttered by Corbalan about Delibasic gives off respect and deep love, a deep feeling. About his basketball and his enormous talent he simply says “He was a genius.” and I totally agree.

They first met at the EuroBasket for cadets in Gorizia, Italy, in 1971. Mirza Delibasic was the best player for Yugoslavia, the eventual champ. They also coincided at the 1972 junior EuroBasket in Zadar with the same protagonist role for Mirza. After that, the crossed each other’s path several times in big competitions and even were together twice in the European selection. In the 1979-80 season, during the two games between Bosna Sarajevo, defending champion and Real Madrid, future champion, Delibasic showed to the fans in Madrid what Corbalan had known since 1971.

In Sarajevo, Bosna defeated Real Madrid by 98-96 without a big contribution from Delibasic, but in the second game in Madrid, played on February 21 of 1980, Delibasic drove the hosts defense crazy with his 44 points despite Madrid’s win by 95-93. Fortunately for the Spanish team, Real Madrid signed Delibasic at the end of that season and then the relationship between two great players and great people became bigger than firendship. That relationship ended due to the early death of Delibasic on December 8 of 2001. Now, thanks to his friend, Doctor Juan Antonio Corbalan, Delibasic is somehow among us again and in the hearts of the readers of the book “Converastions with Mirza”.

(December, 2012)