“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!
Emiliano Rodriguez – The Great Captain
In the long and successful history of a great club like Real Madrid, with so many stars and historic players, it’s impossible to choose one over the others to say who was the best. However, if we were to limit ourselves to choosing just Spanish players, I think that most observers – those with long enough memories, that is – would probably choose Emiliano Rodriguez as the best. After a brilliant career as a player for Real Madrid from 1960 to 1973, he remains part of the club as the president of the association of former players and the honorific president of the basketball section. His service to Real Madrid has lasted for more than half a century. He is one of the biggest legends at a legendary club.
Born on June 10, 1938, in San Feliz, Leon, Rodriguez started playing in the humble Escolarios Bilbao, and his first pro team was Aismalibar Barcelona from 1958 to 1960. Rodriguez was already an international player (he made his debut with the national team in 1958) when he signed for Real Madrid. He immediately became the new hero for the Madrid fans. He had a great ability to score thanks to an extensive repertoire: a good jump shot; something he learned at the start of his career; good ability to penetrate; and his specialty, running fastbreaks. Rodriguez was super fast and always the first in line to convert a pass from a teammate into an easy basket. Above all, he displayed a charming character. He was very enthusiastic and always optimistic, which are all valuable traits on any sports team.
On January 18, 1961, Emiliano made his debut in the EuroLeague against EK Engelmann of Vienna and in two sizeable Real Madrid wins he contributed 20 and 24 points. The next victim was Antwerp of Belgium, against whom he nailed 37 and 15 points. Madrid’s path was stopped at neutral courts in Paris and Prague, in the semifinals against the dominant ASK Riga, the team that took the first three European titles in a row.
Historic win in 1964
Rodriguez’s second attempt at the European crown, in 1962, was also cut short, this time in the title game against Dynamo Tbilisi in Geneva, a 90-83 defeat in which Emiliano scored 21 points. The following year Madrid was in the title game once again, but this time lost to CSKA Moscow in the tiebreaking game, played in Moscow like the second one. In three those three games, Rodriguez scored 24, 18 and 21 points, respectively. Eventually, in 1964, Real Madrid became the first team from western Europe to win the title and break the domination of the Soviet teams. Spartak Brno won in Prague 110-99 despite Rodriguez’s 31 points, but at home, Madrid won handily, 84-64, and Rodriguez shined again with 28 points.
I believe that I saw Emiliano Rodriguez for the first time in Belgrade in March 1965, in a never-ending game against OKK Belgrade. Madrid had won the first game at home 84-61 with 18 points from Rodriguez, but the Yugoslav champ thought that it would be able to come back in the second game. To do so, they used all the tricks in the book, especially manipulating the clock to make each minute last for two full minutes. Radivoj Korac scored 56 points, but it was not enough. After 113 minutes – 47 minutes in the first half and 66 in the second – OKK Belgrade had to admit it was an impossible mission, despite winning 113-96. The best man for the Whites was Rodriguez, of course, with 25 points.
Rivalry and friendship with Korac
That wasn’t his first duel with Korac, who by then was the best scorer in Europe. Rodriguez and Korac met for the first time at the 1959 EuroBasket in Istanbul, and after that at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the 1961 EuroBasket in Belgrade and the 1963 EuroBasket in Wroclaw, Poland. In that 1963 edition in
Poland, Korac was again the best scorer of the tournament, with 26.6 points, but Rodriguez averaged 20.3 and was chosen as the first MVP of the competition. He received 132 votes from the journalists, 26 more than Aleksandr Petrov of the USSR, who was second. Rodriguez himself acknowledged Korac as a great player; while focusing on Spain, he liked Clifford Luyk and Nino Buscato. At the 1960 Olympics, Rodriguez had the chance to see players like Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Jerry West. The latter was his favorite.
At the 1965 and 1967 EuroBaskets, Rodriguez also had high scoring averages – 21.6 and 21.8 points – but his problem was a mediocre Spain team that finished 11th and 10th, respectively, among 16 participants. At Real Madrid, Rodriguez had the help of great players who made it easier to win four EuroLeague crowns and take part in several more finals. In 1965, Real Madrid defended the title against old rival CSKA Moscow. Madrid won 88-81 as Rodriguez had 11 points in Moscow and 84-64 at home behind his 24 points. The third title came in 1967 at home against Simental Milano, 91-83, as the great Rodriguez scored 29 points. The fourth title followed the next year in Lyon against Spartak Brno, 98-95. Rodriguez only scored 6 points in that final, but was an important figure for the team. In 1969, in Barcelona, one of the most dramatic EuroLeague finals ever took place. Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow played for 50 minutes and CSKA won thanks to big man Vladimir Andreev, who played the game of a lifetime with 37 points. Rodriguez scored 18, Wayne Brabender and Luyk had 20 apiece, and Miles Aiken led Madrid with 24 points, but it was not enough to stop Andreev and Sergei Belov (19 points), who played all 50 minutes.
Emiliano Rodriguez played the 1971 EuroBasket in Germany (7.4 ppg.) and one more season in Real Madrid. In 1973, on the eve of the Barcelona EuroBasket, where Spain finally won the silver medal after losing to Yugoslavia in the final, he put an end to his career as a player. Justice would have been served if Rodriguez would have taken part in this tournament to finish his great career with a deserved medal, but even without the trophy, he has a privileged spot in the history of basketball in Spain and Europe.
In a brilliant career, Rodriguez won 12 Spanish Leagues, nine Spanish Cups, four EuroLeague crowns, two titles as the Spanish League’s best scorer (1963 and 1966) and two EuroBasket MVP titles (1963 and 1969). He was also honored six times on the European selection of players and scored more than 20,000 points in a Real Madrid jersey. For the Spanish national team, Rodriguez played 175 games and scored 2,834 points. In September of 2007, he was among the first players inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame.
Hats off to Emiliano Rodriguez, the Great Captain.