“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!
Clifford Luyk – The first great naturalized player
Among the many good things that Pedro Ferrandiz did for Real Madrid, one of the best was signing Clifford Luyk. It happened in the summer of 1962, when having American players was still something rare among European teams and far before it turned into something normal and later, even, almost mandatory. After losing the EuroLeague final in 1962 against Dinamo Tbilisi of the USSR 90-83 in Geneva, Ferrandiz decided to leave the bench to Joaquin Hernandez, while he became what later would be known as the general manager or sports director. To make the dream of the Real Madrid fans finally a reality and make the basketball section of the club a European champ – something that the football players had already achieved five times between 1955 and 1960 – Ferrandiz knew he needed a couple of excellent American players. In his tour of the United States, in a preseason game between the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics, he set his eyes on a not-so-tall center (2.02 meters), but a big man with a strong body, solid scoring ability and almost perfect technique. In 3 minutes he scored 8 points for the Knicks. Ferrandiz asked for his name and the answer was: Clifford Luyk, born in Syracuse on June 28, 1941, and a student at the University of Florida. Led by his instinct, Ferrandiz decided to sign Luyk, and he managed to also sign center Bob Burgess, as well. That’s how the great duo, just what the team needed for the 1962-63 season, was born. The roster was completed with Emiliano Rodriguez, Carlos Sevillano, Lolo Sainz, Lorenzo Alocen and others. Luyk and Burgess weren’t the first American players at Real Madrid, but they were definitely the best to that point.
Red Army in Madrid
At the end of the season, July 23, 1963, was a date that made the history books as the one on which “the Red Army entered Madrid”. To everyone’s surprise, Spain’s General Franco allowed the CSKA Moscow team into Spain and Real Madrid to travel to Moscow. In previous years, these games were played on neutral ground or Real Madrid simply refused to play. In the first game, Madrid won 86-69 with 26 points by Sevillano, 24 by Emiliano, 21 by Burgess and 14 by Luyk. The second game, played seven days later at Lenin football stadium in front of 20,000 people, was won by CSKA 91-74 despite 22 points by Luyk.
The aggregate score after the two games was tied and according to the rules at the time, a third game was forced to be played in the same place. On August 1, CSKA won 99-80. The dream of Real Madrid would have to wait another year. The Spanish team won its first EuroLeague crown in 1964 by beating Spartak Brno in the final behind 18 points by Luyk. However, the title didn’t feel complete somehow because that year CSKA Moscow didn’t play because it wanted to concentrate on the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Finally, in 1965, Real Madrid got its revenge. After losing by 7 points in Moscow, 88-81, with Luyk’s 30 points, the Whites won 76-62 in Madrid. Emiliano scored 24 and Luyk and Burgess had 18 and 16 points, respectively.
Little by little, Luyk won over everybody’s heart in Madrid. Apart from his great performances on the court, his personality was liked by everyone around him. He adapted to the Madrid life quite easily to the point in which, during a trip, he told club president Raimundo Saporta, that he wouldn’t mind at all getting a Spanish passport. Luyk’s wish was really convenient for Saporta, especially since the Spanish League, in 1965, decided to play with no foreigners. Saporta’s famous sentence was, “If Luyk and Burgess cannot play as foreigners, they will play as Spaniards.” He didn’t fulfill his word to the letter because Burgess refused a Spanish passport, but Luyk was more than enough. The following year, in a non-official world championship in Chile, Luyk made his debut with the Spanish national team against the United States.
Real Madrid’s long domination in the Spanish League is owed a lot to Luyk. From his arrival in 1962 until his retirement in 1978, Real Madrid won 14 league titles, 10 national cups, six EuroLeague titles and three Intercontinental Cups. He also played with the Spanish national team until 1975 and won a silver medal at the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona, where he averaged 9.3 points. His best numbers with the national team were in the 1968 Mexico Olympics (20.2 ppg.), the 1969 EuroBasket in Italy (17.9 ppg.), the 1971 EuroBasket in West Germany (17.6 ppg.) and the 1972 Olympics in Munich (16.0 ppg.).
The man of the finals
From childhood, Luyk was a natural sportsman. At eight years old he played tennis, basketball and swam. But most of all, his favorite sport was baseball. At 12 years old, and already quite tall, he finally chose basketball. After a fine high school career, Luyk received many offers from prestigious colleges. His choice surprised everyone: Florida. He said that he wanted to go as far away from home as possible to become independent. Also, he liked the life in the South, which was a much more laid-back lifestyle. Later in Madrid, he would say that a big factor in his quick adaptation to the new country was the time he spent in Florida.
Luyk had that feature that only the true greats have: stability. It seemed impossible that he would ever play a bad game. On his worst days, he always helped the team. If he didn’t score his usual amount of points, he would grab more rebounds or he would draw more fouls to eliminate rivals. Simply put, his mere presence on the court gave more security to the coach, his teammates and the fans.
Luyk’s special shot was the hook. The shot that was perfected by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was something few in Europe could execute as well as Luyk. He had an almost perfect mid-range shot, a great nose for rebounding and the instinct to play even better in important games. In the years when Real Madrid won the EuroLeague, his contribution was always paramount. He scored 18 points in 1964, 30 and 18 in 1965, 17 in 1967, 24 in 1968, 20 in 1969 and 14 in 1974. Luyk didn’t play the 1978 final, but during that season he had played several games. The word “pressure” simply did not exist for him, and even less the word “fear”. He was a tough player, rocky and aggressive. He liked contact because his speed and technique were always an advantage over his rivals, even if they were taller and/or bigger.
In 1967, Real Madrid signed Wayne Brabender, who was four years younger than Luyk, and who had followed in the footsteps of his fellow countryman. Brabender picked up a Spanish passport and played 190 times for the Spanish national team. He also stayed in Real Madrid until 1983. Brabender won 13 Spanish Leagues titles, seven cups, four EuroLeagues and three Intercontinental Cups. The two naturalized Americans formed a great duo and set an example for everyone.
Luyk’s performance in Europe caught the attention of several teams in the NBA and the ABA, especially after a friendly game in 1968. Luyk scored 26 points against the Cincinnati Royals, but the attempts to take him back to the States always clashed with Luyk’s desire to stay in Madrid. Apart from all the privileges he had as a superstar, he had an even greater reason to stay: Paquita Torres, Miss Spain of 1968. Their marriage was on the cover of many newspapers and raised a lot of interest back in the day.
After his great career as a player, Luyk would start another as a coach. He worked from 1978 to 1981 with the Real Madrid junior team and during that stint, his team never lost a game. After that, he was an assistant coach for Lolo Sainz during six seasons (1983 to 1989) and for another year with George Karl (1989-90). Luyk left Real Madrid to be the coach of Atletico Madrid Villalba in 1990-91 and Murcia in 1991-92. He came back to Real Madrid as head coach and won two Spanish Leagues, a national cup and a Saporta Cup. What he had won so many times as a player, the European crown, he would lose in 1993 to Limoges in Athens, in a game marked by low scoring (59-55). Points that, on a good day, Luyk would have scored by himself as a player.