“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!
Manuel Raga – The Flying Mexican
In a hypothetical quiz about basketball knowledge, I doubt there would be a lot of correct answers if the first question were: “Who was the first non-American player ever drafted by an NBA team?” I am guessing most people would point to some European legend, but the right answer is Manuel Raga Navarro of Mexico. This unforgettable player was born on March 14, 1944, in Villa Aldama, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. He was chosen by the Atlanta Hawks with pick number 167 in the 10th round of the 1970 draft. In the following round, the 11th, the first European was picked, big man Dino Meneghin of Italy, also by the Atlanta Hawks. But the first non-American was always Raga.
Marty Blake, the general manager in Atlanta, had seen that Raga and Meneghin were a great duo at Ignis Varese, the European champion at that time, and both were capable of playing in the NBA. But that was a different time and teams in the United States didn’t trust players developed outside of the country. Maybe that’s the reason why the Hawks didn’t want to pay the $35,000 to free Raga from Varese. The Italian team didn’t even want to hear about a buyout for Meneghin, who would be its undisputed star throughout the next decade.
Key part of the great Ignis Varese
The name of Manuel Raga is found de Janeiro, Brazil. He was only 19 years old, but he was already a regular for his national team. Mexico finished that competition in ninth place, but the young, 1.88-meter guard caught everybody’s attention. He finished the tourney with 12.3 points per game, with highs of 24 points against Canada and 20 against Uruguay. Four years later, at the 1967 World Cup in Uruguay, Raga increased his numbers to 15.6 points and sank Italy with 31 points. However, the decisive moment in his career came at the 1968 Olympic Games in his home country of Mexico. The Mexican team, coached by American Lester Lane, an Olympic champ from Rome 1960, finished fifth thanks to two excellent players: Raga and Arturo Guerrero. At the same time, Ignis Varese president Alberto Tedeschi had asked his club’s director, Giancarlo Gualco, to renew the team. But instead of bringing in a well-known American, Gualco brought in a rather unknown Mexican player. Shortly after his arrival in Varese, Raga earned the nickname Indian, but shortly afterward it was changed for two others: The Flying Mexican and The Phenomenon.
Already in his first season in Italy, in 1968-69, Raga earned the respect of all his colleagues, the admiration of the audience and the kudos of the press. Despite being short, he jumped like nobody else (an estimated 1.1 meters from a standing position). It was said that he could touch the rim with his elbow. Ignis Varese won the Italian League with 418 points by Raga, an average of 19.0 over 22 games, enough to finish eighth in the top scorers’ list of the league in which the leader was ace scorer Radivoj Korac with an average of 26 points even though his Padova team was relegated to the second division. Raga was also the third-best rebounder of the team, with 98 boards, only 5 fewer than Meneghin, while the leader on the team was Ottorino Flaborea with 136. Winning the league, Ignis earned the right to play the EuroLeague, and on April 9, 1970, in Sarajevo’s new Skenderija Arena (which now bears the name of the legendary Mirza Delibasic), Varese beat CSKA Moscow 79-74 and won its first continental crown.
That began a golden decade in which Varese would play 10 straight finals, still a record. Raga scored 19 points, one fewer than Meneghin. On the other side, the legendary Sergei Belov scored 21 points and Aleksandr Sidjakin posted 18. Before beating CSKA in the title game, both teams had met before in a quarterfinals group. In Moscow, CSKA took the win by the score of 83-60 despite 26 points by Raga, and Varese won on its own court 79-59 with 17 points by Raga. Both teams advanced, and in the semifinals CSKA got rid of Slavia Prague while Varese outlasted Real Madrid 90-86 in Madrid (Raga with 22 points, Ricky Jones 29) and 108-73 in Varese (Raga 18 points, Jones 36).
Love in Sarajevo
The 1970 title game in Sarajevo was also a turning point in the private life of Raga. It was there where he met Esma Smais, a player at the local Zeljeznicar club, and shortly thereafter they got married. They had two children, Fidel and Manuel Jr., the latter of whom would become an outstanding player at Lugano of Switzerland and played in the EuroLeague in 2000-01. Lugano was also the city where his father put an end to his career.
The following season, 1970-71, Varese repeated the national club title with Raga as the second-best scorer in the league, averaging 25.6 points, behind only Elnardo Webster of Gorizia’s 26.9 per game. In the EuroLeague, Varese and CSKA repeated the title game, this time in Antwerp, Belgium. The Soviet champ took revenge with a 67-53 win, possibly because Raga scored just … 3 points! The following season Varese lost the Italian championship to Simmenthal Milano. Raga was the best scorer on the team and the fourth-best in the league (22.7 average). In the EuroLeague, Varese reached the final again, this time against Jugoplastika Split in Tel Aviv, and won its second continental crown by a single point, 70-69, with 21 points from Meneghin and 20 from Raga.
For the 1972-73 season, the coach of Varese, professor Aleksandar Nikolic, decided to sign a new American, Bob Morse, and for the Italian League he had to sacrifice Raga, as only one foreigner was allowed to play. But in Europe, Morse and Raga were a lethal pair. Ignis won the Italian title back with no problems and in the next EuroLeague final, on March 22 in Liege, Belgium, the Italian team faced archrival CSKA Moscow again. Varese won 71-66 with 25 points from Raga and 20 from Morse. That was Raga’s third and last European title with Varese. In 1973-74 he also played in European competition only, and Ignis reached its fifth straight final but lost in Nantes, France against Real Madrid by the score of 84-82. The trio formed by Meneghin (25 points), Morse (22) and Raga (17 points) did its job, but Real Madrid shared the points better with Wayne Brabender (22 points), Carmelo Cabrera (16), Walter Szczerbiak (14), Clifford Luyk (14) and Rafael Rullan (14) all scoring in double figures under the masterful floor generalship of Juan Antonio Corbalan.
In 1974-75 Varese was not the Italian champ, but it was European champ again. It got revenge against Real Madrid in Antwerp with a 79-66 victory but did so without “The Flying Mexican” Raga, who had moved to Lugano. But before that, during the summer at the 1974 World Cup in Puerto Rico, Raga was the tourney’s top scorer with 155 points (25.8 points per game). He the Philippines with 38 points and scored 29 against both the USSR and Argentina. In four years at Lugano, Raga won two league and two cup titles. His last big competition was the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976.
Honorary citizen, hall of famer
Raga returned to Europe thanks to a great initiative by Euroleague Basketball during the 2008 Final Four in Madrid. There, the 50th anniversary of European competitions spawned a voted list of the 50 biggest contributors to our sport during all those years. Of course, Manuel Raga could not miss being on that list. In Madrid, he was moved by the recognition and he managed to meet many old teammates and rivals to reminisce about the golden years. He also returned to Varese on March 12, 2010, to receive the recognition as an honorary citizen of that city in front of 2,500 people. Varese had not forgotten about its idol during the 1970s, a great player who could jump like a big man and had an extraordinary fadeaway jumper as he waited for the rival to fall first to the floor. He was incredibly fast and capable of flying over rivals and playing above the rim, which inspired Enrico Campana, then a journalist at La Gazzetta dello Sport, to call him the Helicopter Man.
In 1991, Raga was an assistant coach on the Mexico national team that won the silver medal at the Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba. He lives now with his second wife, a former volleyball player from Cuba, Lucia Urgelles. He works at the Sports Department of Tamaulipas, where a gym bears his name. In 2016, he was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame.
On March 2, 1997, Horacio Llamas made history by becoming the first Mexican to ever play in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks. But 30 years earlier a fellow Mexican could have done so with no problems as the first non-American in the league. European basketball should be grateful to the Atlanta Hawks for not spending those $35,000, because if they did, we would not have been able to enjoy the genius abilities of The Flying Mexican.