“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!
A doctor among the baskets
If someone in a country with a long basketball tradition like Spain’s is known as the best point guard of all time and its most-decorated player, he certainly deserves a guaranteed spot among the legends. All of those accolades apply to Juan Antonio Corbalan, who retired in 1991 wearing the jersey of Valladolid, putting an end to a brilliant career. In his last active season, playing at 36 years old, he appeared in 15 games and averaged 6.5 points and 2.8 assists in 25 minutes per game. The strange thing is that Corbalan returned to playing again after a two-year break. He had already retired after 17 years on the court – from 1971 to 1988 – with his life-long club, Real Madrid. But then came an interesting call from Gonzalo Gonzalo, the president of the club in Valladolid, the team that had signed Arvydas Sabonis. The Lithuanian giant had suffered injuries but wanted to show, at 27 years old, that he still had some good things to offer to basketball. Sabonis was having a hard time adapting to this new chapter in his life. On the basketball court, he needed a great and – more to the point – experienced point guard by his side. The idea of Gonzalo to convince Corbalan to come out of retirement proved the perfect solution.
Thus ended the great career of Corbalan, the best Spanish point guard of all time. But what about the beginnings of this man born in Madrid on August 3, 1954? In the book “The King of Europe,” by Luis Miguel Gonzalez Lopez, dedicated to the basketball section of Real Madrid, Corbalan himself talked, as a junior, about his future: “I am not a future genius of basketball. Those are things that have to be proven by facts, and I still haven’t even started. The only thing on my mind now is playing. I hear people talking about me and they say that I took a big step forward, but I still have many things to do.”
Indeed, besides his game, if anything was characteristic of Corbalan, it was his modesty. He was an exemplary sportsman in everything: his behavior on and off the court, his fair play, and his respect for teammates, opponents and referees. On top of that, Corbalan was a brilliant student of medicine, a very difficult degree to obtain for an elite sportsman. But he got his MD on both fronts: in school and on the court. In fact, after retiring he became a prestigious cardiologist with many ideas that linked his two passions: sports and health. Corbalan founded and directs the La Salle Institute of Functional Rehabilitation and Applied Science to Sports, which is located in the Aravaca district of Madrid. However, we are here to talk about Corbalan the basketball player.
Free throws in Nantes
When Real Madrid reached the title game of the EuroLeague in Nantes in 1973-74, Corbalan already had two Spanish League titles from the two previous seasons, even though his contribution to the team, due to his age, was not yet major. But little by little he was getting more playing time and more confidence from his coach, Lolo Sainz. For instance, on the way to the final against Sandro Gamba’s Ignis Varese, Corbalan scored 23 points against Heidelberg of Germany even though he went scoreless against Radnicki and Berck. But then came the final against Varese, the archrival of Real Madrid in that era. In a close game, Real Madrid was in trouble when, though leading 78-74, Carmelo Cabrera fouled out after having scored 16 points and directed the game perfectly. Lolo Sainz looked down the bench and threw young Juan Antonio Corbalan to the lions. The kid made good use of his minutes on the court to score four free throws for four golden points. Real Madrid won 84-82 and lifted its fifth continental crown after having waited six years since the fourth one.
In the years 1978 and 1980, Real Madrid would win two more EuroLeague titles, the first against Ignis Varese in Munich (75-67) and the second against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Berlin (89-85). But in a conversation I had with him, Corbalan admitted that of the three titles he won with Real Madrid, the one he remembers with the most joy is the one from 1974 in Nantes.
That April day in 1974 was the start of the brilliant international career of Juan Antonio Corbalan. At the end of the 1987-88 season, his last with Real Madrid, his titles amounted to three EuroLeagues, one Saporta Cup (1984 against Olimpia Milano, 82-81) and one Korac Cup (against Cibona 102-89 and 93-94, with 47 points by Drazen Petrovic in Zagreb); 12 Spanish Leagues, seven Spanish Cups and a Spanish Supercup; three Intercontinental Cups (1976 and 1977 against Varese in the final and 1978 against Brazil’s Obras Sanitarias), a club world championship (1981), and a European Supercup. Corbalan was also chosen seven times as a member of the European Selection all-star team, more than any other player.
I remember perfectly the first time I saw Corbalan play. It was February 7, 1974, at the old Hala Sportova in New Belgrade, the Serbian basketball temple of that time. Radnicki Belgrade, the surprising champ of the strong Yugoslav League the previous season with a great generation of players led by coach Slobodan Piva Ivkovic, defeated Real Madrid 95-87. Corbalan didn’t play much and he didn’t score any points, as Real Madrid was well covered in that area with Wayne Brabender (37), Walter Szczerbiak (29) and Carmelo Cabrera (25). But Corbalan could not hide his talent despite the few minutes he played. It was the exact opposite.
Silver in Nantes and Los Angeles
Corbalan made his debut with the Spanish national team in an international competition at a qualifying tournament in the Netherlands for the 1972 Munich Olympics. His average of 8.8 points was a highlight for the team. He also helped the team advance through a second filter, the world qualifying tournament, for the same Olympics. But Corbalan didn’t manage to earn his place on the team for the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona. He was back on the team for the 1974 World Cup in Puerto Rico and he would not leave the team until his last big international competition, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Nantes is probably Corbalan’s favorite city because nine years after his first big triumph with Real Madrid, Spain took a silver medal there, too, at the 1983 EuroBasket. That was a great Spanish team, with Juan Antonio “Epi” San Epifanio averaging 20.0 points and playing with Chicho Sibilio (17.1 points), Fernando Martin (13.8), Corbalan (11.3), and Andres Jimenez (10.7). In a 95-94 semifinals win against the USSR, Corbalan was his team’s third-best scorer, with 16 points, after Sibilio (26) and Epi (25). However, Spain lost the title game 106-95 against Italy. One year later, at the Los Angeles Olympics, that great Spanish generation defeated Yugoslavia in the semis 74-61 before losing in the gold-medal game by 96-65 against a team of college students from the United States with great names like Jordan, Ewing, Perkins, Mullin, Alford and Klein.
“Those are two medals that have a special place in my memories,” Corbalan told me. “At that time, the USSR and Yugoslavia had better teams than us, but we managed to eliminate them in the semis of two big competitions. People following basketball nowadays must know that in those years, the first three spots were almost the exclusive property of Yugoslavia, the USSR and the USA.”
And now a writer, too!
For some years now, Corbalan has been a doctor only. From time to time he writes interesting columns in Madrid’s sports media. But not so long ago, he caught my attention with the title of his book: “Conversations with Mirza”. My first guess was that Corbalan transcribed some of the talks he had with his great friend and teammate on Real Madrid between 1980 and 1982, Mirza Delibasic. However, his book is a novel, a metaphor about Mirza and his home city Sarajevo, whose fate – like his own – was a sad one. Every word uttered by Corbalan about Delibasic gives off deep respect, love and feeling. About his basketball and his enormous talent Corbalan simply says, “He was a genius.” And I totally agree.
They first met at the U16 European Championship in Gorizia, Italy, in 1971. Mirza Delibasic was the best player for Yugoslavia, the eventual champ. They also interacted at the 1972 U18 European Championship in Zadar, with the same protagonist role for Mirza. After that, they crossed each other’s paths several times in big competitions and even were together twice in the European Selection all-star team. In the 1979-80 season, during the two games between Bosna Sarajevo, defending champion and Real Madrid, future champion, Delibasic showed to the fans in Madrid what Corbalan had known since 1971.
In Sarajevo, Bosna defeated Real Madrid 98-96 without a big contribution from Delibasic. But in the second game in Madrid, played on February 21, 1980, Delibasic drove the home team’s defense crazy with 44 points despite Madrid’s 95-93 win. Fortunately for the Spanish team, Real Madrid signed Delibasic at the end of that season and then the relationship between two great players and great people became bigger than friendship. That relationship ended due to the early death of Delibasic on December 8, 2001.Thanks to his friend, Dr. Juan Antonio Corbalan, Delibasic is somehow still among us again and in the hearts of the readers of the book “Conversations with Mirza”.