“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Antoine Rigaudeau – “Le Roi”
The 1990 European Championship for Junior Men, which was played in Groningen, the Netherlands, was quite a harvest of talent. On the Italian team, which won the trophy, there were Gregor Fucka and Flavio Portaluppi; the runner-up Soviet Union team had Vasily Karasev and Igor Kudelin; fourth-placed Romania featured Gheorghe Muresan and Constantin Popa; while fifth-placed Yugoslavia included Dejan Bodiroga, Zeljko Rebraca, Veljko Mrsic and Nikola Loncar; and seventh-placed France’s squad was highlighted by Yann Bonato (the team’s top scorer with 19.4 points per game), Stephane Risacher and Antoine Rigaudeau, who was not yet 19 years old, having been born on December 17, 1971, in Cholet. But Rigaudeau was already considered the biggest talent in French basketball.
Rigaudeau had debuted for Cholet’s professional team shortly after turning 16, in the 1987-88 season. He played only four games averaging less than a point that season, moving up to six games and 1.8 points in the next one. But by the 1989-90 season, he was a regular, playing 33 games and averaging 11.5 points. By 1991, he was already on the senior national team for EuroBasket in Rome, on a solid squad with names like Richard Dacoury, Frederic Forte, Philippe Szanyiel, Stephane Ostrowski, Hugues Occansey, Didier Gadou and Jim Bilba. France finished fourth despite a record of 1-4! That’s because only eight teams participated, and France took advantage of a better point difference against Czechoslovakia and Greece to reach the semifinals with a 1-2 record. Antoine Rigaudeau was by then a recognized scorer, putting up 10 points against Czechoslovakia and 18 against Greece. In the semis against eventual champion Yugoslavia, he scored 5 points, and in a 101-83 bronze-medal game loss to Spain, he had 18.
I believe that is when I first saw Rigaudeau play, against Yugoslavia and Spain. He had an unusual style: when he rose to shoot, Rigaudeau seemed not to have good balance, but his shot was impeccable nonetheless. By his height, 2.00 meters, he was more of a small forward than a shooting guard, but for most of his career, he played point guard. In other words, he was an all-around player, an insurance policy for his coaches, able to score but also to play for the team.
After eight seasons in Cholet, Rigaudeau signed in 1995 for Pau-Orthez. In the summer of that year, he played for France at the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens, where the team finished eighth and he averaged 13.3 points. At the end of the 1995-96 season, he achieved his first important title as Pau-Orthez was proclaimed French League champion. Rigaudeau put up 18.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. After one more season averaging 14.1 points in the French League and 20.1 points in the EuroLeague for Pau-Orthez, Rigaudeau signed in 1997 with Kinder Bologna, coached by Ettore Messina. Behind him he left 218 games and 3,259 points, 14.9 points per game, in the French League, where he was named MVP five times: in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1996.
Two-time champion of Europe
Messina had sought a final piece to complete the mosaic of a team that could, finally, win the EuroLeague, and Rigaudeau had the same goal – to play on a team that was capable of winning Europe’s top prize. Combined with the return of Predrag Danilovic from the NBA, Messina had formed a potent team that included Alessandro Abbio, Augusto Binelli, Alessandro Frosini, Hugo Sconochini, Zoran Savic and Radoslav Nesterovic. They lost just three of 16 games in the EuroLeague’s first two phases. In the eighth-finals, Kinder eliminated Estudiantes of Spain 2-0 and in the quarterfinals topped its archrival Teamsystem Bologna 2-0, as well. As such, Kinder arrived at the 1998 Final Four in Barcelona as the favorite. And it met those expectations. In the semifinal, Kinder beat Partizan Belgrade 83-61 with Rigaudeau scoring 12 points. In the final, Kinder topped AEK Athens 58-44. Rigaudeau had 14 points, not only the most in the game but double anyone on the losing team. Two dreams had come true, Rigaudeau’s and Kinder Bologna’s.
The team went on to win the Italian League in 1998 and the Italian Cup the next year. Rigaudeau averaged 15.5 points in the 1999 EuroBasket in Paris and in 2000 he won the Italian league-cup double before contributing 12.2 points per game to the French silver-medal team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
In those years, the best of his career, Rigaudeau was nicknamed “Le Roi” (The King), much like the soccer legend Pele was called “O Rei” in his day. In sports, there are lots of nicknames for great stars, but few are called kings. Antoine Rigaudeau was one of them. And in 2000, he received the highest recognition from his country, the Legion of Honour.
In the 2000-01 season, Kinder was a protagonist in the new EuroLeague, organized by the clubs themselves. Kinder finished the first phase with a 9-1 record and in the eighth-finals again eliminated Estudiantes 2-0. In the quarterfinals, the victim was Union Olimpija, also with a 2-0 sweep. In the semifinals, another best-of-three series, Kinder again beat its archrival Teamsystem 2-0. As such, Kinder qualified for the first final of the new era of the EuroLeague. Its opponent was Tau Ceramica of Vitoria, Spain. In this first year of the new EuroLeague, there was no Final Four, but rather a best-of-five final series played in Bologna and Vitoria.
In Game 1, Kinder lost at home 78-65 to Tau. Rigaudeau, who was held to just 4 points, stayed in the shadow of Tau’s own Frenchman, Laurent Foirest, who scored 20. In the second game, the tables were turned: Kinder won 94-73 at home with 23 from Rigaudeau, while Foirest had 2 points. In Game 3 in Vitoria, Kinder showed all its potential, winning 80-60 with Manu Ginobili as its star (27 points), while Rigaudeau (15), Matjaz Smodis (13), Abbio (11 points) and Marko Jaric (7 points, 7 rebounds) all made solid contributions. Tau tied the series at two wins each with a 96-79 victory in Game 4, with Rigaudeau scoring 14 points. So the series returned to Bologna for a fifth game to decide the title. Kinder won 82-74 behind 18 points from Rigaudeau. The MVP was Ginobili, but Rigaudeau was a major part of the championship victory after leading Kinder that season with 56% shooting from the three-point line and 88.1% on free throws.
Ettore Messina, his coach at Kinder, once described his ex-student to me this way:
“Antoine was a very serious person about his work, with a maniacal attention to detail and a strong sense of team. At the same time, he gave importance to the need for all players to win their individual duels with their direct rivals so that the team could win the game. The year we won the EuroLeague, Italian League and Italian Cup with Kinder, in 2001, he was very intelligent, because while we left the role of starting point guard to Jaric, so that he would gain confidence, at the same time Rigaudeau played ‘point forward’ – which is to say that from his small forward spot, he helped with his wisdom to mature Ginobili, Jaric, Smodis and David Andersen, who at that time were all very young.”
And, Messina concluded about Rigaudeau: “He was a gentleman both on and off the court.”
Medal in Belgrade
Before the 2001 EuroBasket in Turkey, Rigaudeau announced his retirement from the national team. He stayed two more seasons with Kinder and after 181 games in the Italian league, averaging 13.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists, he decided to go to the NBA. He was 32 years old then and it was a last chance to try his luck. He signed with Dallas but didn’t find his place. After playing in just 11 games and scoring 17 points with Dallas and Golden State, he decided to return to Europe.
Rigaudeau’s next stop was Valencia, where he signed for three seasons. He returned to the EuroLeague in 2003-04 because the previous season, Valencia had won the Eurocup. In 19 games, Rigaudeau contributed as always: 14.8 points, 2.3 assists, 1.8 rebounds. In the regular season against ALBA Berlin, he scored 25 points. In the Top 16 against Zalgiris, he scored 21. Over two years in the Spanish League, his average through 49 games was 13.4 points. 2.6 assists and 1.8 rebounds. Rigaudeau surprised everyone by deciding to return to the French national team for the 2005 EuroBasket in Belgrade, Serbia.
I was in Novi Sad for what was the biggest upset of the tournament: Serbia & Montenegro 71, France 74. Zeljko Obradovic’s “Dream Team” – with Bodiroga, Darko Milicic, Vladimir Radmanovic, Igor Rakocevic, Marko Jaric, Zeljko Rebraca, Nenad Krstic, Dejan Tomasevic, Milan Gurovic, Dejan Milojevic and Vule Avdalovic – crashed out against the French team with Rigaudeau (14 points), Tony Parker (13), Mickael Gelabale (12), Boris Diaw (10), Mickael Pietrus (8), Cyril Julian (6), Florent Pietrus (5) and Frederic Weis (4). Rigaudeau’s average for the tournament was 7.9 points, just the fifth-best scorer for France. But in that decisive battle in Novi Sad, he played brilliantly, with good shooting as well as 5 rebounds and 2 assists in 28 minutes. Later in the tournament, France beat Spain for the bronze medal, taking its first place on a EuroBasket podium in 46 years.
On October 30, 2005, despite having a year left on his contract with Valencia, Rigaudeau announced his retirement. “Voices inside me advised me that I should stop,” Rigaudeau said. A decade later, in 2015, he was recognized for his great career with induction into the FIBA Hall of Fame. Later that year, after a short stint of coaching at Paris Levallois, Rigaudeau decided that the bench was not for him. As such, European basketball still awaits the return of “Le Roi”.