“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!
Michael Young – A one-man team
It is more than true that basketball is a collective sport and it’s impossible for a single player to win a game or a trophy by himself. That’s why it is an exaggeration to say that Limoges won the 1993 Euroleague thanks only to Michael Young. However, it’s nothing but the truth that the French champ would never have gotten the club’s biggest success without him. That year in Athens, one of the biggest miracles in the competition took place. There had been many surprises in one game, even in the finals, but never before did a humble team that everybody discarded as a contender for the crown manage to surprise game after game all the way to the trophy ceremony.
This story has a pre-story, as Boza Maljkovic, the technical master and a four-time Euroleague champ with three teams – Jugoplastika, Limoges and Panathinaikos – told me long after:
“I think it was the summer of 1989. Jugoplastika, already the European champ, played several tourneys in Spain. In Cuenca we faced Valladolid. There was a left-handed shooting guard that hurt us badly throughout the game. There was no stopping him. I tried with big men and small men. They all played tough against him, but he was just unstoppable. He finished the game with something like 35 points. It was the first time I ever saw Michael Young, and his great game was imprinted on my mind. Since then, I followed his career and when he became a free agent in the summer of 1992, I asked the Limoges directors, the team I had been coaching since January 1 of that year, to sign him no matter the cost.” Said and done.
From Manila to the top of Europe
Michael Young, who was born on January 2, 1961, in Houston, arrived in Limoges at 30 years old, after having lived many different experiences in basketball. Having played at his hometown Houston University and missing the NCAA title on a buzzer-beater, he was drafted in 1984 by the Boston Celtics but immediately traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. The following two years, Young hardly touched an NBA floor, but played a lot in the Continental Basketball Association with the Detroit Spirits, averaging 26.8 points. Tired of waiting for a real chance, he moved to Manila in the Philippines. From Manila he landed in Spain for Valladolid, where he also shined with 23.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Midway through the season, he was signed by Udine in Italy where, in 21 games, he put up 24 points on average. For the 1989-90 season, he was back to the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers, for whom he scored 4.9 per game. But he returned to Europe to played two seasons in Italy with Panasonic Reggio Calabria for impressive figures: 34.0 and 27.4 points per game. That’s when Boza Maljkovic came in.
After a traumatic departure from Barcelona and several offers, Coach Maljkovic decided to choose Limoges midway through the 1991-92 season. He won the French League and started to prepare the team for the Euroleague. First of all, he did a major clean-up, retaining only Richard Dacoury – who had been considering retirement – on the roster. Young arrived to the roster together with Jure Zdovc, Frederic Forte, Jimmy Verove, Willie Redden, Jim Bilba… Despite this rebuilding – or perhaps because of it – nobody bet on Limoges for the title, especially after the team’s discreet start in a preliminary round.
The French champion was unable to beat the Guildford Kings of England in their first game, which ended in a 72-72 tie, although at home Limoges was better (71-57) and advanced to the eighth-finals group. There, the team finished second at 7-5 behind PAOK Thessaloniki (8-4), but ahead of Scavolini Pesaro (also 7-5), Knorr Bologna and Joventut Badalona (6-6), Cibona Zagreb (5-7) and Maccabi Tel Aviv (3-9). In the quarterfinals, in three close games, Limoges got rid of Olympiacos. After losing 70-67 in Greece, Limoges won at home 59-53 and 60-58. Michael Young shined: 35 points against Maccabi, 31 and 30 against Joventut, 27 against Cibona, 26 against Scavolini… But in the first game against Olympiacos, he scored just 8 points, his worst mark of the season and his only one below 10 points. However, at home, he repaid the Reds with interest: 20 points in Game 2 and 30 in the decisive third and final game.
Two miracles in Athens
Limoges had a ticket to Athens, home of the Final Four that year, but competing against Real Madrid, Benetton Treviso and PAOK, its chances of success were completely discarded. In the semifinals, Limoges surprised Benetton 59-55 with brilliant defense plus 18 points and 7 rebounds by Young. Toni Kukoc was playing his fourth Final Four but it was the first time he lost a game in the tournament. Terry Teagle, an NBA alum, scored 19 points for Benetton, but his shooting was not perfect. Despite that victory, Limoges was considered an outsider also against Real Madrid in the title game. Madrid had Arvydas Sabonis, Chechu Biriukov, Antonio Martin, Ismael Santos, Jose Lasa, Jose Miguel Antunez, Ricky Brown…an imposing lineup that was a heavy favorite. But the final result was 62-52 for the “miners” – as Maljkovic used to call his players for their hard-working nature. And it was, until then, the biggest upset ever in a Euroleague title game.
Many people criticized the Limoges playing style, with its slow tempo and ball control, but Maljkovic simply applied one of the basic theories of this sport: you have to adapt the system to the players you have at your disposal. His team was not made to score 100 points, to run or to score on fastbreaks. They were a team made for defense, for working for every point, and for giving the ball to Michael Young. In the title game, he scored 20 of his team’s 62 points and pulled down 7 rebounds. That was more than enough to be chosen MVP of the 1993 Final Four in Athens. After so much suffering and being underestimated, Young had his recognition at the highest level.
“He was a great player who devoted 100 percent of his attention to three things: family, basketball and fishing,” Maljkovic remembered. “When he set foot in the opponent’s half of the court, he was already a threat. He was a great shooter, but also a rebounder, and one of the best players and men I ever coached in my career. He is the only player for whom, when our collaboration ended, I bought him a gold coin. He still keeps it and showed it to me when we went to Limoges to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the title we won.”
Young stayed with Limoges for two more seasons and also played in the 1995 Final Four in Zaragoza, but his biggest moment was in 1993 in Athens. His French League averages in 1994 and 1995 were 23.5 and 20.1 points, respectively, with almost 5 rebounds per game. In the EuroLeague, his personal record is the 47 points he poured in against Benetton on December 9, 1994. After Limoges, he played one season in Lyon (27.4 points) and was back to Italy, but to the second division (Fabriano, 22.8 points). In 1998, he put an end to his great career in Maccabi Givat Shmuel of Israel, scoring 25.8 points at 37 years old! In Italy, his overall average was 27.4 points, in Spain 23.5, and in France he also averaged more than 20 points over three years. In his golden season, 1992-93, he put up 20.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists in the EuroLeague for Limoges.
A one-man team: if it could be said about anybody, it’s Michael Young.