“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!
Mieczyslaw Lopatka – The Polish legend
Who was the top scorer at the World Cup 1967 in Montevideo, Uruguay? A question like that in a trivia contest would test even the most knowledgeable experts in world basketball history.
The answer is Mieczyslaw Lopatka, a Polish forward considered to be the best scorer of all times in his country. In Montevideo, he scored 177 points for an average of 19.7 per game. His Polish national team finished fifth, but it also had the tournament’s second-best scorer, Bogdan Likszo, with 19.3 points per game. Finishing as the eighth-best scorer was Radivoj Korac (at 14.6 ppg) and 10th-best was tournament MVP Ivo Daneu (14.0 ppg) – both of Yugoslavia. In the All-Tournament Team with Daneu were Lopatka, Luiz Claudio Menon of Brazil, Korac and Modestas Paulauskas of the Soviet Union.
Lopatka, who was born on October 10, 1939, in Drachowo, Poland, was a star of European basketball in the 1960s. Poland, at the time, was one of the best national teams and won medals at the European championships. It’s true that Poland never took the top step on the medals podiums, but its principal star, Lopatka, has three European medals: silver from EuroBasket 1963 in Wroclaw, and bronzes from EuroBasket 1965 in Moscow and EuroBasket 1967 in Helsinki.
Before becoming an outstanding basketball player, the young Mieczyslaw practiced various sports. He started with field hockey, continued as a soccer goalkeeper, but abandoned that sport after giving up nine goals in one game. Lopatka started to train as a boxer, but when his engineer father heard about it, he had to give that up. Then he discovered handball, where coaches saw in him a great player, due to his size, 1.96 meters and 95 kilos. But it was a physical education teacher, Alexander Kwiecinski, who discovered Lopatka’s talent for basketball.
Lopatka needed few games to become a key part of his school team. In one game, his team scored 150 points and Lopatka had 130 by himself! Soon, in 1955, he began to play for Kolejarz Gniezno, in a small town near the village where he was born.
Eyes open in Rome
The best Polish clubs fixated on the young Lopatka, who, despite not reaching 2 meters, played center thanks to his strength and excellent rebounding. In 1958, he was signed by Lech Poznan and two years later participated in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. It’s true that Lopatka was on the Polish national team as a substitute for the injured Wlodek Pawlak, who was hurt in practice crashing into a teammate. But Lopatka’s average of 8 points wasn’t bad at all for the young player. Just like other European players, Lopatka returned home from Rome enamored with the basketball played by the American “Dream
Team” of that time, with Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas and others. It was another kind of basketball the Polish had not seen before, and it motivated Lopatka to work harder.
In 1961, Lopatka for the first time became the top scorer in the Polish League with 582 points. He would repeat that feat three more times: in 1963, 1966 and 1967. In the 1962-63 season, playing for Slask, he scored 77 of his team’s 96 points in a game against AZS Gdansk. That remained the league record until seven years later, when Edward Jurkiewicz scored 84, to be later topped by Mieczyslaw Mlynarski’s 90 points in 1975. With Slask, Lopatka was national club champion twice, in 1965 and 1969, when he was also chosen MVP of the competition for the second time.
By the time that Poland hosted EuroBasket in 1963 in Wroclaw, Lopatka was already a player of reference who had to be on the national team. Poland started with a respectable 64-54 loss against the USSR, but proceeded to string together six consecutive victories and qualify for the semifinals, where the runner-up from the 1961 EuroBasket, Yugoslavia, was waiting. In a game that earned a place in Polish basketball history, the hosts won 82-73. Lopatka was his team’s top scorer, with 18 points, followed by Likszo (13) and Janusz Wichowski (12). The silver was assured. In the final, the USSR won again 61-45 behind 17 points from the giant Janis Krumins, 14 from Gennadi Volnov and 13 from Aleksandar Petrov. Radivoj Korac was the top scorer of the tournament with 26.4 points per game, while Lopatka finished seventh at 15.9. His best games were 26 points against France and 14 against Czechoslovakia.
In an interview a few years ago, the principal hero of that silver medal recalled the prize the team won: “They had given 20 dollars to each of us. Such were the times that our other prizes were a radio (that didn’t work), a refrigerator (without ice) and some tickets to buy suit fabric.”
Lopatka’s second Olympic Games were in Tokyo in 1964, where he scored 9.7 points per game. In 1965, he was for the first time Polish League player of the year and also won the bronze medal with Poland at EuroBasket in Moscow, scoring 13 points per game. In 1967, in addition to shining in the World Cup at Montevideo, Lopatka won the European bronze at Helsinki.
In 1968, Lopatka should have continued his career outside Poland, something that was not easy at the time for sportsmen from countries in the Soviet bloc. Standard Liege of Belgium wanted to sign him to form what would have been a fearful duo with the recently-arrived Korac. The signing deadline was August 31. Lopatka had a promise that he could leave his country due to his merits as a sportsman, but the passport was delivered to him on … September 1. He didn’t blame anyone, but he knew, as everyone did, that it was a bureaucratic means of preventing his departure to “the capitalist world.”
Lopatka had to stay home, and in October of 1968, he participated in his third Olympic Games, in Mexico City, where he again was among the top performers with 19.2 points per game. In autumn of 1969, he received a great recognition by being chosen for the European selection that played in Belgrade against Yugoslavia to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Yugoslav Basketball Federation.
In that game, after many years or watching Lopatka on TV, I finally had the opportunity to see him in person. It was a great European all-star team, with Paulauskas, Volnov, Sergei Belov (who had 25 points) of CSKA Moscow, Clifford Luyk and Emiliano Rodriguez of Real Madrid, Francisco Nino Buscato of Joventut Badalona, Jiri Zednicek of USK Prague and Robert Mifka of Zbrojovka Brno, among others. They defeated Yugoslavia – with veterans like Daneu, Vladimir Cvetkovic, Nemanja Djuric and Trajko Rajkovic, plus young lions like Ljubodrag Simonovic, Dragan Kapicic, Nikola Plecas and Vinko Jelovac – by the score of 93-90.
Ahead of his time
Buscato, a great point guard from the Spanish national team of the 1960s and ’70s, played in that game in Belgrade with Lopatka. But he also knew Lopatka well from their battles in the EuroBaskets. He remembered Mieczyslaw Lopatka like this:
“He was a great player, a ‘four’ height-wise, but a ‘five’ for his body and rebounding capacity,” Buscato told me. “He played excellently facing the basket, shot with both hands and moved well. He formed a great tandem with Likszo, who was tougher; Lopatka was smarter. The game of the Polish team depended on those two players, but more on Lopatka. He had what the great champions have – a winning character. In the 1960s, he was one of the big players in Europe, and ahead of his time. Since our teams usually stayed in the same hotel, we had the chance afterward to chat about the games. Off the court, he was very nice, open and well-mannered.”
At age 33, Lopatka participated in his fourth Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. That ended his national team career after 13 years. He finished with 236 games, 3,522 points and an average of 14.9 points per game. When he returned from Munich, he finally received permission to play abroad. He went to France to become player-coach with third division Montbrison. Lopatka returned home in 1976 and began to work as a head coach, and did not do badly at all. In 10 seasons with Slask Wroclaw, he was Polish League champion eight times. His son Miroslaw was taller than his father, at 2.13 meters, but was far from being as dominant.
Eventually, Mieczyslaw Lopatka was awarded the status of adopted son in the town of Gniezno, where his pro career started. But no matter how you look at it, his impact on the courts applies to the whole country.
Mieczyslaw Lopatka is a legend in Polish basketball.