“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!
Juan Antonio San Epifanio – A Spaniard with a Yugoslav wrist
Juan Antonio San Epifanio, better known as Epi, is a Spanish basketball legend who for several reasons never managed to win the European crown. Just like life, sports are sometimes unfair. But despite not holding the top trophy in continental basketball, there’s no denying that Epi was a huge player on the court and a gentleman off it. It has been almost 25 years since FIBA organized a great homage to Epi for his retirement. That day, a selection of European players defeated FC Barcelona 118-92, but the score was the least important thing. Some 8,000 fans packed Palau Blaugrana in Barcelona to show respect to a player who had been their hero for 19 years. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then the president of the International Olympic Committee, bestowed upon Epi the Olympic Order of Merit. The full board of directors for FIBA was also at the game, led by general secretary Borislav Stankovic and his closest collaborators, including Raimundo Saporta.
In a very emotional appearance, Epi played for just 5 minutes and missed both of his last 2 shot attempts, but he was already a retired player and dressed in his uniform only for this special occasion. His last official game had been played at the end of the 1994-95 season, in the Spanish League playoffs. On May 25, in the fifth game of the final series against Unicaja, Barcelona beat the team from Malaga 73-64 to win the league. Thus, Epi retired with his seventh national title for Barcelona. He only played the last 26 seconds, enough to score 2 free throws, the last 2 points of the game, and more than enough for a long standing ovation. It was the end of a brilliant career for a one-of-a-kind player, a star on the court and a humble man on the street.
Tagging along with his brother
Epi, born on June 12, 1959, was the youngest of three brothers of a family living in Zaragoza. The two elder brothers played basketball and Juan Antonio followed in their footsteps. But he suffered a big blow when the coach of Helios, the club where he played in the youth categories, left him off the team because of his “lack of talent.” Epi didn’t despair and didn’t waste the second chance he was offered, at 15 years old, thanks to his brother Herminio. Barça had set its sights on Herminio, but he had one condition: that the club also sign his brother, Juan Antonio. Barcelona, though not convinced, accepted and made one of the best signings in the history of the club. After two years in the youth categories, Epi would become a hero to the Barcelona fans for 19 years. A man who never tired of scoring more and more points, he was without a doubt the most profitable signing ever for the club.
I can’t exactly remember when I first saw Epi play, but I do know when I heard his name for the first time. After the U18 European Championship in 1976 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain – where Yugoslavia (Aleksandar Petrovic, Predrag Bogosavljev, MVP Rade Vukosavljevic) won its third straight gold medal – Yugoslav coach Bogdan Tanjevic was talking about outstanding players. He spoke about Vladimir Tkachenko, but also about Juan Antonio San Epifanio, as future stars. As almost always, he was right. Spain finished third in that tournament with a great generation that gave a lot of good things to Spanish basketball: Epi, Joaquin Costa, Nacho Solozabal, Fernando Romay, Juan Manuel López Iturriaga and Josean Querejeta, among others.
If not before, I am sure that I saw San Epifanio at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. He was among the youngest players, but he finished the tourney as second-best scorer on the Spanish team, with 18 points per game, including 25 against Cuba, 22 against eventual champ Yugoslavia and 21 against the USSR. You could see at first sight that he had an incredibly easy time shooting the ball. Epi was a 1.98-meter forward and a natural attacker with skills to score from anywhere. His favorite spot was the corner, but he scored just the same from mid-range, on the fastbreak or penetrating to the rim. He was young enough to play before the three-point shot was adopted, though from 1984 it would become his main weapon.
After Moscow 1980, I saw Epi many times, including at the 1983 EuroBasket in France, where Spain won the silver medal thanks to one of his baskets against the USSR in the semis; and at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, with a silver medal for the ages for Spain, with Epi averaging 18.9 points. After that, I saw him also at the 1989 and 1991 EuroBaskets, the 1990 World Cup and the 1992 Olympic Games. And from the autumn of 1991, I also saw him play in many Spanish League and Spanish King’s Cup games, as well as with the Spanish national team. Once I told him that, in Yugoslavia, after one of his scoring fests, his surname was spelled as “Epifanich”. He laughed and took it with good humor – and as a compliment, because the Yugoslav shooters of the 1970s (Kicanovic, Delibasic, Dalipagic, Solman, Plecas, Simonovic, Vilfan) were among Europe’s and the world’s best. Epi really was a natural at shooting, with a level of skill that you can improve, but you can’t learn. It’s that famous combination of natural talent, hard work, sacrifice and personal ambition.
A career with 25 trophies
Starting with his debut on Barcelona’s first team in 1976-77, at only 17 years old, Epi set many records. He won 22 trophies at the club level: seven national leagues, 10 national cups, 2 Saporta Cups, 1 Korac Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup. Then, he also took the bronze and silver medals with the national team at the 1983 and 1991 EuroBaskets, plus an Olympic silver in 1984. His numbers grew year after year:
1976/77 – 6.6 points, 2.0 rebounds
1977/78 – 9.6 ppg., 3.1 rpg. – Cup
1978/79 – 12.0 ppg., 2.5 rpg. – Cup
1979/80 – 13.1 ppg., 4.0 rpg. – Cup
1980/81 – 15.6 ppg., 3.6 rpg. – League, Cup
1981/82 – 19.3 ppg., 2.1 rpg. – Cup
1982/83 – 24.1 ppg., 2.7 rpg. – League, Cup
From 1983, when the Spanish League as we know it started, he played 421 games and scored 7,028 points (16.7 ppg). His last great season was in 1991-92, with 18.6 points and 3.4 rebounds. He played less in the following two campaigns, but he still had decent numbers (10.9 and 9.9 points, respectively) to finish his career at age 36 with 2.9 points and his seventh league title.
With the Spanish national team, Epi played 239 times and scored 3,358 points. His career with the national team lasted for 15 years, 3 months and 19 days. There was no one like Epi. On October 10, 1993, in Malaga, he played his 222nd game with the national team against the Czech Republic and matched the record of Francesco “Nino” Buscato. But after that Epi played in the 1994 World Cup in Toronto and stretched his brilliant career for 15 more games. He played several times with a European selection of players and L’Equipe named him the best European player of the 1980s.
His most emotional and glorious moment came on July 25, 1992. He was the last bearer of the Olympic torch in his city, Barcelona, 12 years after Sergei Belov, another basketball player, had the same honor at the Moscow Olympics. With the torch flame, Epi lit an arrow that was then shot by Paralympic athlete Antonio Rebollo to ignite the Olympic cauldron, which was to be the symbol of the Games until August 9.
On five occasions, Epi and his Barça teams tried to win the European crown. In 1984, they lost their first final to Banco di Roma (79-73) despite Epi’s 31 points. In 1990 and 1991, Barça lost twice in the title game (72-67 and 70-65) to the great Jugoplastika. Barça also went to two more Final Fours – in Munich in 1989 and Tel Aviv in 1994 – only to fall in the semis. But, even without this title on his résumé, Juan Antonio San Epifanio remained a Barcelona legend who always justified his popular nickname: “Super Epi”!