“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!
Johnny Rogers – A champ by any measure
When in the summer of 1988 he decided to move to Europe to have more playing time, Johnny Rogers probably never imagined that he would only be back to his native California occasionally to visit his family and friends. He would live in Europe for a quarter of a century after that between Spain, Italy and Greece. He played in all three countries, got married in Spain, and represented the Spanish national team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Since 2004, the year he retired, Rogers has remained involved with basketball in other ways. He worked as an NBA scout while also becoming a color commentator on EuroLeague.TV. He hosted a shooting camp in Valencia for young players. Most recently, he has been the Director of Pro Player Personnel for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.
After a good run at Stanford University and University of California-Irvine (21.7 and 20.7 points plus 7.4 and 8.6 rebounds, respectively, in his last two years), Rogers was selected in the second round of the 1986 NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings. In his rookie season with Sacramento, he averaged 10.5 minutes and 4.2 points. His second year, after being traded to Cleveland, he played in 24 games for 7 minutes on average and scored 2.4 points. With a strong will to play, Rogers crossed the Atlantic Ocean and decided to try Europe. An offer from Real Madrid was good enough for him to start his European adventure.
The year with Drazen
His first season in Spain started early because of national cup games. Curiously enough, the final of the cup tournament for 1989 was played in 1988. Eight teams played the tourney in several towns in the Galicia region, with Real Madrid eliminating Magia Huesca in the quarterfinals, 88-64, and Joventut Badalona in the semis, 99-74. That led to the dream final, Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona, being held in La Coruña. It was a clash of titans, a game that half of Spain stopped to watch. Rogers still remembered many details decades later:
“We got to the arena one and a half hours before the game and the stands were already full,” he recalled to me. “There was an unbelievable atmosphere. Barcelona had the lead for a long time, but in the end, we prevailed 85-81. It was my first trophy.”
The media of that time highlighted Rogers as the man of the final. Drazen Petrovic, who had recently arrived from Cibona, scored 27 points. But Rogers had 23 points on 7 of 11 two-pointers, 1 of 1 threes and 6 of 6 free throws, plus 6 rebounds. He was decisive in his 40 minutes on the court.
That same season, on March 14, 1989, Rogers won his second trophy – and first at an international level – with Madrid in Athens. In an unforgettable title game of the Saporta Cup, Real Madrid beat Juventus Caserta 117-113 in overtime. The epic game had been 60-57 for Madrid at halftime and was tied 102-102 at the end of regulation. The game was marked by an unbelievable performance by Petrovic, who scored 62 points. For Caserta, there was the “Holy Hand” of Oscar Schmidt, who scored 44. Rogers contributed 14 points in 21 minutes. It was the European final with the most points, 230. With its 117 points, Madrid matched the record of Partizan against Bosna in the 1978 Korac Cup final, but that was broken later when Maccabi Tel Aviv scored 118 points in the 2004 EuroLeague championship game.
“It was an impressive game, an offensive feast, a true show,” Rogers recalled. “Fernando Martin played slightly injured and Drazen had to pull the wagon and he did it in unforgettable fashion. Some criticized him for being egocentric, but he did what he had to do. Drazen was a great player, a natural-born winner. We beat a great opponent that had a great team, not only Oscar. Nando Gentile also hit 34 points that night.”
Despite his good year with Los Blancos, Johnny Rogers didn’t stay in Madrid. His next stop would be Pamesa Valencia. After a good season there (20.5 points) he played little in the following campaign due to an injury. At the end of the season he signed for Philips Milan and there, with Mike D’Antoni as head coach, Rogers changed positions. Until then, he had played small forward, making use of his excellent outside shot to hurt rivals. But D’Antoni’s idea was to get Rogers closer to the rim. Rogers was a modern player, versatile, capable of running, jumping and scoring, almost the ideal player for any coach. He also had a fighting character and never played bad games. You could always expect something from Rogers: points, rebounds, big shots, fastbreaks and, many times, a good combination of all of the above.
In the 1991-92 season, Philips had a good team – Antonello Riva, Darryl Dawkins, Riccardo Pittis, Davide Pessina and Rogers – and reached the EuroLeague Final Four in Istanbul. But in the semifinals, it lost to Partizan for the third time that season, although that was not the biggest disappointment in Rogers’ career. After two more years in Italy with Varese and Forli, and three more in Spain with Murcia, Caceres and, again, Valencia, in the summer of 1997 and with the title of “best Spanish player of the season”, he joined the European champs. He flew to Greece and signed with Olympiacos. He was 34 years old, but the best was yet to come.
Two titles with Panathinaikos
At Olympiacos, Rogers met Dusan Ivkovic and his assistant, Milan Minic, the most important coaches, together with Zeljko Obradovic, that Rogers would have by the end of his career:
“I learned something from each coach I had, but these three, together with my father Clifford, who played college ball and was a coach after that, were the ones that helped me the most,” says Rogers.
It was during his time at Olympiacos, from 1997 to 1999, that Rogers has the memory of his most painful loss, which came in the fifth game of the final playoffs series of the Greek League against archrival Panathinaikos. Olympiacos was playing at home in front of its fans, who were preparing a big celebration, but it was not to be.
At 36 years old, when most players think about putting an end to their careers, Rogers received an offer from … Panathinaikos! Obradovic, who had recently arrived from Benetton Treviso, had started to build a team to win the EuroLeague and reached the conclusion that he needed an experienced player at power forward. He wanted someone who could contribute without needing a lot of minutes, a role that Johnny Rogers fit perfectly.
“In Panathinaikos, I met many players whom I had played against throughout my career: with Gentile I had fought in that final in Athens; against Zeljko Rebraca with Partizan in 1992; with Dejan Bodiroga in our duels in Italy; with Oded Kattash and Michael Koch in several European duels,” Rogers said. “It was a great group of people, people who spoke several languages but understood each other perfectly. Friendships were born in that team that last to this day. Also, we fulfilled the dream of the Greens as we won the crown in Thessaloniki against Maccabi 73-67.”
It was April 20, 2000, the last chance to win a continental crown in the 20th century – and Rogers took it at 36 years old. He played 27 minutes, scored 4 points and grabbed 2 boards. Just what Obradovic expected from him. The following year, in the season of the two EuroLeagues, due to the conflict between FIBA and ULEB. The only three powerful teams who chose FIBA over ULEB were Panathinaikos, Maccabi and CSKA Moscow, even though the Russian champ was not as powerful in those days as it has been since. The three of them, together with Efes Pilsen, reached the SuproLeague Final Four in Paris, where Maccabi, led by Nate Huffman and his 21 points, got revenge over Panathinaikos for the previous year’s loss despite 27 points by Bodiroga. Maccabi won 81-67.
For the 2001-02 season, all the best teams in Europe got together again to play a single competition, the EuroLeague. The Final Four that year – the first for the new EuroLeague after a playoff series that Kinder Bologna won over Tau Ceramica 3-2 decided the previous year’s title – would be played in Bologna. Panathinaikos reached the Final Four, but it wasn’t the favorite for the title. Not even close. Things changed after its unexpected 83-75 win over Maccabi in the semifinal. However, Kinder was waiting in the title game. The home team was coached by Ettore Messina and had several stars. It is true that many of its best players were still very young – like Manu Ginobili, Marko Jaric and Matjaz Smodis – but one could see a bright future for all of them.
The game started badly for Panathinaikos and at halftime, Kinder was winning 48-40. But in the second half, several Panathinaikos players took their turns starring for the team. Young center Lazaros Papadopoulos had 12 points, veteran Rogers added 7, and the full orchestra was conducted by Ibrahim Kutluay with 22 points and Bodiroga, with 21. In the end, the Greens won by the score of 89-83. Rogers, at 38 years old, was European champ for the second time. The Greens also won the Greek League, his first national league title.
It was a perfect time to retire, but Rogers still relished more battles. He signed for Lleida, where he did more than well in the Spanish League and the ULEB Cup for two years. When he retired in 2004, he left behind 267 Spanish league games, averaging 16.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and an index rating of 15.6. His accuracy from the arc was impressive, at 42%. He also made 56% of his two-pointers and 85% of his free throws – no bad for a 2.08-meter big man. In the Italian League he played 113 games with averages of 20.2 points and 7.5 rebounds. At Olympiacos, with whom he had reached another Final Four in 1999, his averages were 15.5 points and 8.6 boards. At Panathinaikos, in his late 30s, he was still able to score 10.0 points and pull down almost 4 rebounds per game
Johnny Rogers was a great player, but all of those who know him would tell you he is an even better person, a great teammate and a true friend in every situation, a champion in every sense of the word.