It is more than true that basketball is a collective sport and it’s impossible for single player to win a game or a trophy by himself. That’s why it is an exaggeration to say that Limoges won the 1993 Euroleague only thanks to Michael Young. However, it’s nothing but the truth that the French champ would never have gotten the club’s biggest success without him. That year in Athens, one of the biggest miracles in the competition took place. There had been many surprises in one game, even in the finals, but never before did a humble team that everybody discarded as a contender for the crown manage to surprise game after game all the way to the trophy ceremony.
This story has a pre-story, as Boza Maljkovic, the technical master and a four-time Euroleague champ with three teams – Jugoplastika, Limoges and Panathinaikos- told me last week in Belgrade:
“I think it was the summer of 1989. Jugoplastika, already the European champ, played several tourneys in Spain. In Cuenca we faced Valladolid. There was a left-handed shooting guard that hurt us badly throughout the game. There was no stopping him. I tried with big men and small men. They all played hard against him, but he was just unstoppable. He finished the game with something like 35 points. It was the first time I ever saw Michael Young and his great game was imprinted on my mind. Since then, I followed his career and when, in the summer of 1992, he became a free agent I asked the Limoges directors, the team I had been coaching since January 1 of that year, to sign him no matter the cost.”
From Manila to the top of Europe
Said and done. Michael Young (January 2, 1961 in Houston) arrived to Limoges at 30 years old after having lived many different experiences in basketball. After having played at Houston University (19.8 points), and missing the NCAA title on a buzzer-beater, he was drafted in 1984 by the Boston Celtics but immediately traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. The following two years, Young hardly touched an NBA floor, but played lot in the Continental Basketball Association with the Detroit Spirits, averaging an amazing 26.8 points. Tired of waiting for a real chance, he moved to Manila in the Philippines. From Manila he landed on Spain for Valladolid, where he also shined with 23.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Midway through the season he was signed by Udine in Italy where, in 21 games, he put up 24 points per game. For the 1989-90 season he was back to the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers with a slightly more important role and 4.9 points on average. But he returned to Europe to played two season in Italy with Panasonic Reggio Calabria for impressive figures: 34 and 27.4 points. That’s when Boza Maljkovic came in.
After a traumatic departure from Barcelona and several offers, Coach Maljkovic decided to choose Limoges midway through the 1991-92 season. He won the French League and started to prepare the team for the Euroleague. First of all, he did some major ‘clean-up’, leaving only Richard Dacoury – who, in fact, had retirement in mind – on the roster. Young arrived to the team, together with Jure Zdovc, Frederic Forte, Jimmy Verove, Willie Redden, Jim Bilba… Despite this refurbishment of the team, nobody bet on Limoges for the title, especially after the team’s discreet start in a preliminary round.
The French champ was unable to beat the Guildford Kings of England in their first game that ended, which ended in a 72-72 tie, but at home Limoges was better (71-57) and advanced to the eighthfinals group. There, the team finished second at 7-5 behind PAOK Thessaloniki (8-4), but ahead of Scavolini Pesaro (also 7-5), Knorr Bologna and Joventut Badalona (6-6), Cibona Zagreb (5-7) and Maccabi Tel Aviv (3-9). In the quarterfinals, in three close games, Limoges got rid of Olympiacos. After losing 70-67 in Greece, Limoges won at home, 59-53 and 60-58. Michael Young shined: 35 points against Maccabi, 31 and 30 against Joventut, 27 against Cibona, 26 against Scavolini… But in the first game against Olympiacos, he only scored 8 points, his worst mark of the season and his only one below 10 points. However, at home, he returned it to the Reds with interest: 20 points in Game 2 and 30 in decisive Game 3.
Two miracles in Athens
Limoges had a ticket to Athens, home of the Final Four that year, but competing against Real Madrid, Benetton Treviso and PAOK, its chances of success were completely discarded. In the semifinals, Limoges surprised Benetton 59-55 with brilliant defense plus 18 points and 7 boards by Young. Toni Kukoc was playing his fourth Final Four but it was the first time he lost a game in the tournament. Terry Teagle, an NBA alum, scored 19 points for Benetton, but his shooting was not perfect. Despite that victory, Limoges was an outsider also against Real Madrid in the title game. Arvydas Sabonis, Chechu Biriukov, Antonio Martin, Ismael Santos, Jose Lasa, Jose Miguel Antunez, Ricky Brown… But the final result was 62-52 for the “miners”, as Maljkovic used to call his players, for the biggest upset ever in the Euroleague title game. Many reproached the Limoges playing style, with its slow tempo and basket-control, but Maljkovic simply applied one of the basic theories of this sport: you have to adapt the system to the players you have at your disposal. His team was not made to score 100 points, to run or to score on fastbreaks. They were a team made for defense, for working for each and every point, and for giving the ball to Michael Young. In the title game, he scored 20 of his team’s 62 points and pulled down 7 rebounds. That was more than enough to be chosen MVP of the 1993 Final Four in Athens. After so much suffering and being underestimated, Young had his recognition at the highest level.
“He was a great player who devoted 100 percent of his attention to three things: family, basketball and fishing,” remembers Maljkovic. “When he set his foot in the opponent’s half court he was already a threat. He was a great shooter, but also a rebounder. One of the best players and men I ever coached in my career. He is the only player to whom, when our collaboration ended, I bought him a gold coin. He still keeps it and showed it to me this year when we went to Limoges to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the title we won. I was happy to hear that his son is now one of the best players at Houston University, the same one where his father played.”
Young stayed in Limoges two more seasons and also played in the 1995 Final Four in Zaragoza, but his moment came in 1993 in Athens. His French League averages in 1994 and 1995 were really good (23.5 and 20.1 points, respectively) with almost 5 rebounds per game. In the Euroleague, his record is the 47 points he poured in against Benetton on December 9, 1994. After Limoges, he played one season in Lyon (27.4 points) and was back to Italy, but to the second division (Fabriano, 22.8 points) and in 1998 he put an end to his great career in Maccabi Givat Shmuel of Israel, scoring 25.8 points at 37 years old! In Italy, his overall average was 27.4 points, in Spain 23.5, in France he also had averages over 20 points but his golden season, 1992-93, he averaged 20.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists in the Euroleague.
A one-man team: if it could be said about anybody, it’s Michael Young.