Kamil Brabenec: The Czech scoring machine

The roster of future stars coming from the 1970 junior EuroBasket in Athens was not bad at all. Several great players came from several teams. Aleksandar Belov and Valery Miloserdov from the USSR, Carlos Santillana and Rafa Rullan from Spain, Pierluigi Marzorati and Fabrizio della Fiori from Italy, Srecko Jaric and Goran Rakocevic (by the way, the fathers of Marko Jaric and Igor Rakocevic) in Yugoslavia and Kamil Brabenec (Brno, December 4, 1951) from Czechoslovakia.

There, in Athens, Brabenec averaged 16 points per game in starting what would be a brilliant international career. He was a natural scorer who, at the start of the 21st century, was chosen as the second best Czech player of all time, behind only Jiri Zidek Sr., about whom I have written already in this series dedicated to basketball legends. After Brabenec, the list of Czech basketball greats also includes Ivan Mrazek, Jiri Zednicek and Frantisek Konvicka.

Just a year later after his breakout in Athens, Brabenec was already playing with the senior national team at EuroBasket in Essen, Germany. In 1972 he competed in the Munich Olympics, in 1973 was EuroBasket in Barcelona and in 1974 he made his debut at the World championships. Brabenec was at the forefront of international basketball for nearly two full decades until EuroBasket 1987 in Athens, the same city that saw him take his first international steps. But that was only the end of his career with the national team. He played at the club level until 1995, when he hung up his shoes at age 45. He left behind a record 11,029 points in the national league, a record 403 games with the national team, A EuroBasket silver medal from 1985 and a pair of bronze medals from 1977 and 1981.

Brabenec was selected league player of the year after the 1975-76 season and chosen to the best five some 11 times. He also won six titles. And all of this happened due to a childhood medical prognosis that resulted in doctors not allowing him to play his favorite sport, ice hockey. Luck would have it that he then chose basketball.

Behind the numbers and the biographical data there’s the person and in this case, a great player.A natural scorer.A shooting guard by the book, even if a little short by today’s standards at 1.90 meters. But in his time, he was tall enough. Plus, with his technique, speed and shot, he never had problems to overcome taller defenders. He was a great player and I agree with his very own words: “If I had played basketball today, I would be playing in the NBA.”

In fact, he was not even far from that in his time as the Detroit Pistons took an interest in him. He even visited the club’s headquarters, but then he preferred to go back to his native country because, during the 1970s, signing for an NBA team meant renouncing your spot on the national team and that was a high price he did not want to pay.

If I am not mistaken, I saw Brabenec for the first time on TV, during the 1972 Olympics in Munich when Yugoslavia defeated Czechoslovakia 66-63. The player I remember the most was Zidek, who with his 18 points, drove Kresimir Cosic, Vinko Jelovac, Zarko Knezevic and Milun Marovic crazy around the court. Brabenec scored 4 points. One year later, at the Barcelona EuroBasket, Yugoslavia defeated Czechoslovakia on its way to the title, 91-76. Zidek (22 points), Jiri Posspisil (20) and a still young Brabenec (14) were the resistance. In the 1974 World Championships of San Juan, his averages had already gone up to 17.7, only 0.3 points less than Zidek. Against Argentina he scored 41 points.

A lost final

In the 1973-74 seasson, Zbrojovka Brno reached the Cup Champions Cup final. In quarterfinals Group B (even though the groups were formed by just three teams), Brno defeated Estudiantes Madrid 117-93 led by his 28 points at home and also Steaua Bucarest. In the semifinals, the team overcame Torino. Crvena Zvezda Belgrade would become the second finalist, featuring its golden generation that had won the league title two years before. The final was played on April 2, 1974, at Primo Carnera arena named after the famous boxing champ. Professor Aleksandar Nikolic was Zvezda’s coach after some great years in Italy, and on the other side was Frantsek Konvicka, who had been the star of Spartak Brno for many years and played the 1964 European Cup final against Real Madrid.

Zvezda won 86-75 behind 23 points from Dragan Kapicic, 20 from Zoran Slavnic and 19 from Ljubodrag Simonovic. Jan Bobrovski led Zbrojovka with 20 points, while Brabenec added 14. It was his only European final at the club level. Brabenec left empty handed and had to make up for it with successes with the national team and individual accolades.

At the 1975 EuroBasket in Belgrade, I saw Brabenec live. He was not a superstar yet, but he was on the right path. Aside from his indisputable technical qualities, he had what sets the good players from great ones: character. You could feel his self-confidence and he was willing to take responsibility, he would never hide. Yugoslavia, which won its second gold medal, defeated Czechoslovakia 84-68, but Brabenec’s 18 points hinted at him being a future star.

At the Montreal Olympics, Brabenec was the fifth best scorer of the tourney with 18.7 points, only 0.1 less than USA’s Adrian Dantley, but still far from Australia’s Eddie Palubinskas (31.3 ppg.) and Mexico’s Arturo Guerrero (27.8 ppg.). Against Italy, Brabenec scored 35 and then netted 24 against the eventual champs from America.

He returned to Belgrade as a star in the autumn of 1976 to play with Zbeojovka Brno against Partizan, which months before had won its first national championship and was making its debut in the European Cup. Brabenec, with 22 points, in addition to Jaroslav Beranek (24 points) and Bobrovski (18) made that debut sour as Zbrojovka won 85-96. I also remember the game because Partizan fielded the first foreigner on a Yugoslavian team, an American named Butch Taylor, who was a mediocre player and had been signed just for European competition because the national league didn’t allow foreign players. Zbrojovka also won at home, 100-93 after overtime and made it to the group stage, though it finished 0-10 there.

In May of 1977, Brabenec was chosen to play with the European selection against Jugoplastika for a farewell to its captain, Rato Tvrdic. The coach was the late Antonio Diaz Miguel from Spain. The team also featured the likes of Pierluigi Marzorati, Fabrizio Della Fiori and Gianni Bartolotti from Italy, Juna Antonio Corbalan, Rafa Rullan and Manolo Flores from Spain and Atanas Golomeev from Bulgaria… Team Europe won 116-108. My next appointment with Brabenec was at EuroBasket 1977 in Belgium. In the last group stage game in Ostend, Czechoslovakia beat Yugoslavia 111-103 with Brabenec shining to the tune of 32 points – and only 2 of them from the free-throw line. Despite the loss, Yugoslavia managed to win its third straight title, but Czechoslovakia won another medal eight years later after taking bronze in Naples. The key player was Brabenec, who scored 29 points in the third-place game. He was also the top scorer for his team with 23.7 points and finished second in the tournament, behind only Kees Akerboom of Holland (26.4 ppg,).

Again in the European selection

In July of 1978, Brabenec received another great recognition in being selected for the European team that would face Real Madrid in the farewell game for Clifford Luyk. For many years, until the late 1990s, FIBA had this nice custom of paying homage to great stars when they retired with a European team of great players. But of course, there were more available dates, less trips and more centralized power. Diaz Miguel, the Spain coach for many years, coached Team Europe again and called upon Luis Miguel Santillana, Dino Meneghin, Renzo Bariviera, Tal Brody, Micky Berkowitz, Brabenec, Drazen Delipagic, Kicanovic, Mirza Delibasic and Zelnko Jerkov. On the other side, a great Real Madrid coached by Lolo Sainz featured Wayne Brabender, Carmelo Cabrera, Vicente Ramos, Walter Szczerbiak, Corbalan, Rullan, John Coughran and Luyk. Madrid won, 119-102, and the game was officiated by Obrad Belosevic (father of Ilija, by the way, who is one of the best referees in Europe right now) and Piter Leegwater. Luyk scored his last 2 points, but Brabender (32) and Szczerbiak (28) shined against the European team; Brabenec only scored 2 points.

During the autumn of that year, most of those players would participate in the World Championships in the Philippines, where Brabenec (26.9 ppg.) was the top scorer. Against Puerto Rico he scored 44, against China, 41. The championship was a festival of great scorers: Oscar Schmidt, Dalipagic, Kicanovic, Marcel de Souza… Czechoslovakia placed fourth at the 1979 EuroBasket in Italy and lost the bronze to Yugoslavia despite Brabenec’s 28 points. The following year, at the Moscow Olympics, he averaged 17.6 points, but only good enough to share 10th place among top scorers. The second bronze medal came at home in Prague, at the EuroBasket. In the third place game against Spain, Brabenec netted 28 points and Kropilak helped with 25 for the win. Against Italy earlier in the tourney, Brabenec had scored 40.

Silver in Stuttgart

At 34 years of age, Brabenec, then playing for BC Brno, didn’t even think about retiring. Despite being the oldest player in the team (14 years older than Leos Krejci and 12 more than Otto Maticky) he was the best player and top scorer on the team (17.9 ppg.). Yugoslavia went to the 1985 EuroBasket with the idea of regaining the supremacy lost in Nantes two years before, but in the quarterfinals the team clashed against a great Czechoslovakia and a great Brabenec, who netted 32 of the 102 points for his team. Aside from being the top scorer, Brabenec was key in defense. Drazen Petrovic, already a star, scored 25 points, but in the first half, when Czechoslovakia managed to run away, 51-34, he had only 6. The winners were congratulated by the Spaniards, as they thought they would defeat Czechoslovakia easier than Yugoslavia, but Brabenec and company also defeated Spain, 98-95.

A super powerful USSR was waiting in the title game and it was just too strong. Valdis Valters scored 27 27 points, Rimas Kurtinaitis had 24, Arvydas Sabonis 23 and Aleksandr Volkov 18 to lead USSA to a convincing 120-89 victory. In that game, Brabenec scored 21 points. That silver medal was a great prize for his career.

It wasn’t his last EuroBasket as, at 36 years old, he also played the following one in Athens and averaged 11.5 points. He also demonstrated that there are no old and young players, but excellent, good, mediocre and bad ones. He was one of the first. That was not the end of his career either. At 38 he finally left his country, but he didn’t go too far as he joined Debreceni of Hungary and played there for two seasons. At age 40 he went back home to play for humble Zdar nad Sazovu first, and then to spend his last two active years until 1995 at Usti nad Latem, his boyhood club.

If that was not enough, the Brabenec name is still a reference in Czech sports. His own son is a very famous ice hockey player, his daughter Andrea was an international player in basketball.The daughter of a basketball scoring machine.

Jiri Zidek senior, the best Czech player of the 20th century, and a teammate of Brabenec’s in the national team, said the following about Brabenec:

“The greatest skill Kamil had was his shooting ability. His trademark scoring skill was the jump shot after the dribble, he could create his own shots in one-on-one situations, played small forward, used screens well to get open, receive the ball and play one-on-one.” Zidek recalled. “We played together for a couple of years in the national team and I can say that he was for sure one of top players in Czech history, a very dedicated player to practice back in his days. He worked on his game tirelessly. He was a gifted player athletically for his days.”

(November, 2014)