“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!
Atanas Golomeev – Bulgarian legend
In the second edition of the U18 European Championship, 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 become the 1970 world champion; Zdenek Dousa of Czechoslovakia and Aleksandar Boloshev of Russia. However, the top scorer of the competition was from Bulgaria. His name was Atanas Golomeev, who was born in Sofia on July 5, 1947. He averaged 17.6 points, including 34 points 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 5.5-point average didn’t hint at a future scoring champ. However, at the 1971 EuroBasket in Germany, Golomeev was already averaging 18.6 points. And by the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona, he was the top scorer, with 22.3 points per game, above Wayne Brabender, Sergei Belov, Tal Brody, Jiri Zidek, Kresimir Cosic and 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 also became the top scorer at the 1975 EuroBasket in Belgrade, with 23.1 points, again ahead of many superstars. In 1977, at EuroBasket in Belgium, Golomeev again scored a high average (20.1) in what was his last big competition.
I was lucky to follow him live in Belgrade and Belgium and I have no doubts that he was one of the finest centers of his era. And, mind you, he was playing against Cosic, Meneghin, Zidek, Clifford Luyk, Vladimir Andreev, Vinko Jelovac, Vladimir Tkachenko, Alexander Belostenny and others. It’s funny that Golomeev was shorter, standing at 2.02 meters, more of a power forward than a center. But thanks to his physique and especially the needs of his teams, he normally played at the center position. He had good rebounding skills and a sixth sense of knowing where the ball would fall, making up for his lack of centimeters.
This was a brief history of the appearances in EuroBasket 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 World University Summer Games played in 1961 in Sofia. Atanas Golomeev, “Nasko” to his friends, received by chance some free tickets to go see the basketball tournament. 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 Viktor 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 on 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 Golomeev to the Spartak school and then he signed for CSKA Sofia at 18 years old, while in the military service.
Explosion in … Canada
At 20 years old, Golomeev 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 a few years ago 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 professional basketball player never, ever crossed Golomeev’s mind. Interestingly, another Bulgarian, Georgi Glouchkov, became the first European player ever in the NBA, in 1986. But that’s another story. It was almost impossible for Golomeev due to the nature of his father’s job and because of the rules back then. The Bulgarian federation would never have granted him permission to play in the NBA 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 the 1969-70 EuroLeague season, the Spanish giants Real Madrid saw his potential in their quarterfinals duel. Madrid won at home, 97-83, and Golomeev scored 19 points, but lost the duel against Luyk (34). However, one week later, his revenge was complete as Akademik won 101-86 and 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, told me once. “He scored when and how he wanted. He beat us by himself. He was a false five, he lacked height, but he had great technique and great shooting. Yes, he was a great player.”
After six years with Akademik, from 1970 to 1976, Golomeev signed for Levski-Spartak, where he played until 1981. In a game against Slavia Sofia, 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 of his constant replies to referees on the court, and he was called for many technical fouls. But outside the court Golomeev was kind and well-mannered. At 34 years old, he entered 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 teams like Efes Pilsen, Fenerbahce and Besiktas lost in Adana that season. There is no reliable data about his averages, but Golomeev says that he hardly ever 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 club. But life isn’t always fair.
After his great performance at the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona, rumor had it that Golomeev 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”. Many years later, with a smile on his lips, he confirmed everything:
“Yes, Barcelona had new directors and they wanted to sign me, but it was impossible,” he said. “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 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 farewell 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 a recognition for 25 years of a brilliant career that could have been even better if not for political circumstances. Golomeev was a Bulgarian club champion 12 times, 10 as a player and two as a coach. From 1991 to 1993, he was president of the Bulgarian federation. He was also a member of several FIBA committees, but his passion eventually changed from the “big ball” to the smaller one of 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 has this opinion about Golomeev:
“I cannot categorically say that Golomeev was the best Bulgarian player ever, but with Ilia Mirchev, Viktor Radev and Georgi Glouchkov, he was definitely among the best four big men ever in Bulgaria. He could score with impressive ease.”