“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!
Christian Welp – A double Euro-champ
Every player dreams of an important game with a close score being decided by his basket in the last seconds. Many dream about it, but few can say they actually lived that kind of experience. Christian Welp – who was born on January 2, 1964, in Delmenhorst, Germany and passed away on March 1, 2015, in Seattle, Washington – was one of them. He scored the most important points of his career during EuroBasket 1993 in his native Germany.
The opponent in the title game was Russia, the big favorite against a German team that had already made a surprise run by reaching that final. However, the hosts wanted more. Down the stretch, the Russians led 63-68, but soon the score was tied at 68-68. A foul by Michael Jackel over Sergei Babkov allowed the Russians to jump ahead again, 68-70. German coach Svetislav Pesic called for a play for Welp. Kai Nurnberger crossed the halfcourt line, held on to the ball for a few more seconds and passed to Welp. He was rather far away from the rim for a player of his size, 2.13 meters, but Welp was one of those big men who could connect from anywhere. He hit a perfect shot worth two points, but it came with a bonus as Mikhail Mikhailov fouled him. It was a possible three-point play, but the free throw had to go in first. More than 12,000 fans who packed the Olympic Pavillion in Munich – which had been the stage of the infamous three final seconds of the 1972 Olympics final between the USA and the USSR – were on the brink of a nervous breakdown two decades later. The score was now 70-70 and three seconds were left in this game, as well, and their best player was on the foul line. Keeping a cool head, Welp downed the shot that made Germany the European champ.
It was one of the biggest upsets ever at EuroBasket. Pesic, the German national head coach then, told me a few stories about Welp.
“He was, without a doubt, one of the best centers I ever coached in my career”, Pesic said. “He had everything a big man should have: a steady hand, rebounds, good passing, a sense for the game. He was the complete package and I am sure he was among the best pure centers in the world.”
About that famous last play against Russia:
“You don’t have to be a great coach to know that the decisive shot must be taken by your best man. And our best man was Christian, a game winner. The plan was simple: getting the ball to the other side and wait for the right moment to give him the ball. The rest is history…”
That wasn’t the only masterpiece by Welp at that tournament. In the quarterfinals against Spain, with a few minutes to go, the Spaniards were dominating 64-70, but the hosts came back to tie 72-72 on a bucket by Welp. When overtime was almost over, the score showed 77-77, but Welp buried Spain’s hopes with a basket at the buzzer that sent Germany into euphoria – and the semifinals.
Sabonis, Petrovic, Welp…
Most biographies about Christian Welp start with his studies in the United States. First at East Bremerton high school and later at Washington University, but it is also true that when Welp landed in the States at 17 years old, most of his talent was already in plain sight. At the European Championship for Cadets in Greece in 1981, he was already part of a great generation of 1964 which would give so much to the game of basketball, with names like Arvydas Sabonis and Valery Tikhonenko (USSR); Drazen Petrovic, Stojko Vrankovic and Velimir Perasovic (Yugoslavia); Jose Montero (Spain)… A great year.
In the final, the USSR defeated Italy by 72-57 while in the bronze medal game, Germany topped Finland 78-64. One Christian Welp scored 32 points. Against Turkey, he bagged 28; against Sweden 24. His average was 18.4 plus many rebounds, even if there is no data about that number. Drazen Petrovic led the tourney with 32.4 points per game, but Yugoslavia finished fifth, while Germany, who until then never had any success in youth categories, won the bronze.
One year later, at the 1982 European Championships for Junior Men in Bulgaria, Germany managed to have together three of its diamonds: Detlef Schrempf, Gunther Behnke and Welp. Germany finished fifth, but the three of them had main roles. Schrempf averaged 18.3 points, followed by Behnke (14.3) and Welp (13.9).
During the autumn of 1982, Welp took an important step in his career and moved to the United States. After high school, he went to Washington University, where he coincided with Schrempf. The two Germans started writing history in the country that invented basketball. Welp finished his studies as the top scorer ever in the college, with 2,073 points (average of 16.1) and 995 rebounds (7.7). In 1986 he the player of the year in the Pacific 10 conference of the NCAA. Nobody was surprised when he was chosen number 16 in the 1987 draft by Philadelphia. He was to be the complement to Charles Barkley.
However, that December, after only 10 games, he suffered a serious knee injury when his NBA career was just starting. He slipped on the wet floor, which was over an ice rink. He was back for the 1988-89 season, as a bench player, and averaged 3.4 points and 2.7 rebounds. Pesic is convinced that Welp never fully recovered from that injury, despite having accomplished good things after that.
After two years with the 76ers, he played one season with the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors. After 109 games in the NBA averaging 3.3 points and 2.4 rebounds, he decided to travel back to Europe. He signed for Bayer Leverkusen of his native Germany, and by then, the best team in the country. He stayed there for six seasons winning as many league titles.
Triumph in Rome
For the 1996-97 season, Dusan Ivkovic was the head coach at Olympiacos Piraeus and was looking for a tall player who could help Panagiotis Fasoulas and Dragan Tarlac. He signed Welp, who met expectations. When Olympiacos reached the Rome Final Four, Welp was 33 years old. He only played 17.8 minutes per game but contributed what was expected of him: experience plus 6.2 points and 3.5 rebounds. In semis, the Reds defeated Olimpija Ljubljana by 74-65, and in the title game, they beat FC Barcelona by 73-58 behind the great David Rivers, who scored 26 points.
With his mission accomplished in Greece – where he won the triple crown with the Euroleague, the Greek League and the Greek Cup – Welp returned to Germany, but this time to ALBA Berlin, where coach Pesic awaited him with open arms. In the 1997-98 season, ALBA reached the quarterfinals of the EuroLeague but fell to AEK Athens. For German basketball, however, being among the best eight teams was quite a feat. His seventh German League title was a consolation prize. He tried to play one more season, signing for Reggio Calabria in Italy, but after 12 games, and being aware that he could not deliver at the level he wanted, he decided to put an end to his career.
I was fortunate to see Welp many times, the first time at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and the last at the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens. In January of 1996, I interviewed him before a game between FC Barcelona and Bayer Leverkusen. A photo of that interview, published in El Mundo Deportivo newspaper, is the souvenir I had from that interview with a great player. He was not your typical center. He was tall alright, and he looked the part also, but for technique, shot and sense of the game, he was an all-around player.
The sad news reached us on March 1, 2015, from Seattle, the city where he lived: Christian Welp had dead. A heart attack put an end to his life at just 51 years old. However, we could be able to hear the Welp name on the basketball courts again, as Collin, one of his sons, is a young player now, too. Welp, a name to remember.