“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!
Kamil Brabenec: The Czech scoring machine
The roster of future stars coming from the 1970 junior EuroBasket in Athens was not bad at all. Several great players came from several teams. Alexander Belov and Valery Miloserdov from the USSR, Luis Miguel Santillana and Rafa Rullan from Spain, Pierluigi Marzorati and Fabrizio Della Fiori from Italy, Srecko Jaric and Goran Rakocevic (the fathers of Marko Jaric and Igor Rakocevic) in Yugoslavia, and Kamil Brabenec (Brno, December 4, 1951) from Czechoslovakia.
There, in Athens, Brabenec averaged 16 points per game in starting what would be a brilliant international career. He was a natural scorer who, at the start of the 21st century, was chosen as the second best Czech player of all time, behind only Jiri Zidek Sr. After Brabenec, the list of Czech basketball greats also includes Ivan Mrazek, Jiri Zednicek and Frantisek Konvicka.
Just a year after his breakout in Athens, Brabenec was already playing with the senior national team at the 1971 EuroBasket in Essen, Germany. In 1972, he competed in the Munich Olympics, in 1973 it was the EuroBasket in Barcelona, and in 1974 he made his debut at the World Cup. Brabenec was at the forefront of international basketball for nearly two full decades until EuroBasket 1987 in Athens, the same city that saw him take his first international steps. But that was only the end of his career with the national team. He played at the club level until 1995, when he hung up his shoes at age 45. He left behind a record 11,029 points in the national league, a record 403 games with the national team, a EuroBasket silver medal from 1985 and a pair of bronze medals from 1977 and 1981.
Brabenec was selected the domestic league player of the year after the 1975-76 season and chosen to the all-league team some 11 times. He also won six titles. And all of this happened due to a childhood medical prognosis that resulted in doctors not allowing him to play his favorite sport, ice hockey. Luck would have it that he then chose basketball.
Behind the numbers and the biographical data, there’s the person and, in this case, a great player. He was a natural scorer, a shooting guard by the book, even if, at 1.90 meters, a little short by today’s standards. But in his time, he was tall enough. Plus, with his technique, speed and shot, he never had problems overcoming taller defenders. He was a great player and I agree with his very own words: “If I had played basketball today, I would be playing in the NBA.”
In fact, he was not even far from that in his own time, when the Detroit Pistons took an interest in him. He even visited the club’s headquarters, but then he preferred to go back to his native country because, during the 1970s, signing for an NBA team meant renouncing your spot on the national team, and that was a high price that he did not want to pay.
If I am not mistaken, I saw Brabenec for the first time on TV, during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when Yugoslavia defeated Czechoslovakia 66-63. The player I remember the most was Zidek, who with his 18 points, drove Kresimir Cosic, Vinko Jelovac, Zarko Knezevic and Milun Marovic crazy around the court. Brabenec scored 4 points. One year later, at the Barcelona EuroBasket, Yugoslavia defeated Czechoslovakia on its way to the title, 91-76. Zidek (22 points), Jiri Pospisil (20) and a still-young Brabenec (14) were the resistance. At the 1974 World Cup in San Juan, his average had already gone up to 17.7 points, only 0.3 less than Zidek. Against Argentina, he scored 41 points.
A lost final
In the 1973-74 season, Zbrojovka Brno reached the Saporta Cup final. In quarterfinals Group B, formed by just three teams, Brno defeated Steaua Bucharest and then Estudiantes Madrid, 117-93, the latter behind Brabenec’s 28 points at home. In the semifinals, the team overcame Torino. Crvena Zvezda Belgrade, featuring a golden generation that had won the national league title two years before, would become the second finalist. The final was played on April 2, 1974, at Primo Carnera Arena, named after the famous boxing champ. After some great years in Italy, “Professor” Aleksandar Nikolic was Zvezda’s coach, and on the other side was Frantisek Konvicka, who had been the star of Spartak Brno for many years and played the 1964 EuroLeague final against Real Madrid.
Zvezda won 86-75 behind 23 points from Dragan Kapicic, 20 from Zoran Slavnic and 19 from Ljubodrag Simonovic. Jan Bobrovsky led Zbrojovka with 20 points, while Brabenec added 14. It was his only European final at the club level. Brabenec left empty-handed and had to make up for it with successes for the national team and individual accolades.
At the 1975 EuroBasket in Belgrade, I saw Brabenec live. He was not a superstar yet, but he was on the right path. Aside from his undisputable technical qualities, he had what sets apart the good players from great ones: character. You could feel his self-confidence and he was willing to take responsibility; he would never hide. Yugoslavia, which won its second gold medal, defeated Czechoslovakia 84-68, but Brabenec’s 18 points hinted at him being a future star.
At the Montreal Olympics, Brabenec was the fifth-best scorer of the tourney with 18.7 points, only 0.1 less than the USA’s Adrian Dantley, but still far from Australia’s Eddie Palubinskas (31.3 ppg.) and Mexico’s Arturo Guerrero (27.8 ppg.). Brabenec scored 35 against Italy and then netted 24 against the eventual champs from America.
He returned to Belgrade as a star in the autumn of 1976 to play with Zbrojovka Brno against Partizan, which months before had won its first national championship and was making its debut in the EuroLeague. Brabenec, with 22 points, in addition to Jaroslav Beranek (24 points) and Bobrovsky (18), made that debut sour as Zbrojovka won 85-96. I also remember the game because Partizan fielded the first foreigner ever on a Yugoslav team, an American named Butch Taylor, who was a mediocre player and had been signed just for European competition because the national league didn’t allow foreign players. Zbrojovka also won at home, 100-93 after overtime and made it to the group stage, though it finished 0-10 there.
In May of 1977, Brabenec was chosen to play with the European selection against Jugoplastika for a farewell to its captain, Rato Tvrdic. The coach was the late Antonio Diaz Miguel from Spain. The team also featured the likes of Pierluigi Marzorati, Fabrizio Della Fiori and Gianni Bertolotti from Italy; Juan Antonio Corbalan, Rafa Rullan and Manolo Flores from Spain; and Atanas Golomeev from Bulgaria, among others. Team Europe won 116-108. My next appointment with Brabenec was at EuroBasket 1977 in Belgium. In the last group stage game in Ostend, Belgium, his Czechoslovakia beat Yugoslavia 111-103 with Brabenec shining to the tune of 32 points – and only 2 of them from the free-throw line. Despite the loss, Yugoslavia managed to win its third straight title, but Czechoslovakia won another medal eight years later after taking bronze in Naples. The key player was Brabenec, who scored 29 points in the third-place game. He was also the top scorer for his team with 23.7 points and finished second in the tournament, behind only Kees Akerboom of Holland (26.4).
Again in the European selection
In July of 1978, Brabenec received another great recognition on being selected for the European team that would face Real Madrid in the farewell game for Clifford Luyk. For many years, until the late 1990s, FIBA had this nice custom of paying homage to big stars when they retired with a game against a European team of great players. But of course, there were more available dates, fewer trips and more centralized power back then. Diaz Miguel, the Spain coach for many years, coached Team Europe again and called upon Brabenec, Luis Miguel Santillana, Dino Meneghin, Renzo Bariviera, Tal Brody, Micky Berkowitz, Drazen Dalipagic, Dragan Kicanovic, Mirza Delibasic and Zeljko Jerkov. On the other side, a great Real Madrid coached by Lolo Sainz featured Luyk, Corbalan, Rullan, Wayne Brabender, Carmelo Cabrera, Vicente Ramos, Walter Szczerbiak and John Coughran. Madrid won 119-102 and the game was officiated by Obrad Belosevic (father of current EuroLeague official Ilija) and Piet Leegwater. Luyk scored his last 2 points, but Brabender (32) and Szczerbiak (28) shined against the European team; Brabenec scored just 2 points.
During the autumn of that year, most of those players participated in the World Cup in the Philippines, where Brabenec (26.9 points per game) was the top scorer. Against Puerto Rico, he scored 44, against China, 41. The championship was a festival of great scorers: Oscar Schmidt, Dalipagic, Kicanovic, Marcel de Souza… Czechoslovakia placed fourth at the 1979 EuroBasket in Italy and lost the bronze to Yugoslavia despite Brabenec’s 28 points. The following year, at the Moscow Olympics, he averaged 17.6 points, but only good enough to share 10th place among top scorers. The second bronze medal came at home in Prague, at the next EuroBasket. In the third-place game against Spain, Brabenec netted 28 points and Stanislav Kropilak helped with 25 for the win. Against Italy earlier in the tourney, Brabenec had scored 40.
Silver in Stuttgart
At 34 years of age, Brabenec, then playing for BC Brno, didn’t even think about retiring. Despite being the oldest player on the team (14 years older than Leos Krejci and 12 more than Otto Maticky) he was its best player and top scorer (17.9 ppg.). Yugoslavia went to the 1985 EuroBasket with the idea of regaining the supremacy lost in Nantes two years before, but in the quarterfinals the team clashed against a great Czechoslovakia and a great Brabenec, who netted 32 of 102 points for his team. Aside from being the top scorer, Brabenec was key on defense. Drazen Petrovic, already a star, scored 25 points, but in the first half, when Czechoslovakia managed to run away, 51-34, he had only 6. The winners were congratulated by the Spaniards, as they thought they would defeat Czechoslovakia easier than Yugoslavia, but Brabenec and company also defeated Spain, 98-95.
A super powerful USSR was waiting in the title game and it was just too strong. Valdis Valters scored 27 points, Rimas Kurtinaitis had 24, Arvydas Sabonis 23 and Aleksandr Volkov 18 to lead the USSR to a convincing 120-89 victory. In that game, Brabenec scored 21 points. That silver medal was a great prize for his career.
It wasn’t his last EuroBasket, however, as he also played the following one in Athens and averaged 11.5 points at 36 years old. He also demonstrated that there are no old and young players, but excellent, good, mediocre and bad ones. He was one of the first, excellent ones. That was not the end of his career, either. At 38 he finally left his country, but didn’t go too far to join Debreceni of Hungary, where he played for two seasons. At age 40, he went back home to play for humble Zdar nad Sazavou first, and then to spend his last two active years until 1995 at Usti nad Labem, his boyhood club. If that was not enough, the Brabenec name is still a reference in Czech sports. His own son is a very famous ice hockey player and his daughter Andrea was an international player in basketball, the daughter of a basketball scoring machine. Jiri Zidek senior, the best Czech player of the 20th century, and a teammate of Brabenec’s in the national team, said the following about Brabenec: “The greatest skill Kamil had was his shooting ability. His trademark scoring move was the jump shot after the dribble. He could create his own shots in one-on-one situations, played small forward, and used screens well to get open, receive the ball and play one-on-one,” Zidek recalled. “We played together for a couple of years in the national team and I can say that he was for sure one of the top players in Czech history, a player very dedicated to practicing. He worked on his game tirelessly. He was a gifted player, athletically, for that time.”