“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!
Nacho Solozabal – The brains of FC Barcelona
From today’s perspective, it seems impossible that a great player can spend all his career at the same club. It was not so usual many years ago, either, but there were cases of eternal loyalty. One that stands out was Ignacio “Nacho” Solozabal, who was born in Barcelona on August 1, 1958, and would spend his entire career, from 1975 to 1992, with FC Barcelona. He was a natural playmaker, a left-hander and a great organizer, but he was also a great shooter who came to the rescue when his team needed his points more than his assists.
Solazabal was part of a gifted generation of players on a Barça team with Juan Antonio “Epi” San Epifanio, Audie Norris, Andres Jimenez, Chicho Sibilio and Juan De la Cruz. In the 1980s, they formed a great core that only fell short of one thing: a crown in Europe’s top competition. They played three EuroLeague finals and lost them all. There was some consolation in winning two Saporta Cup titles, one Korac Cup title and one Intercontinental Cup title, but Solozabal’s biggest satisfaction came with the Spanish national team, with whom he won two silver medals: the first at the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes and one year later at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
A great reserve
At 17 years old, Nacho Solozabal was already a player who stood out in the junior categories of Barcelona. Antoni Serra, the Spanish head coach for cadets, called him to play in the third FIBA European Championship for Cadets. It was held in 1975 in Thessaloniki and Athens. Together with him were Epi, Juan Manuel Lopez Iturriaga and Jordi Ribas, the father of Pau Ribas, a future Barcelona player. On other teams of that tournament, there were future superstars like Panagiotis Giannakis of Greece, Aleksandar Belostenny of the Soviet Union or Peter Vilfan and Aleksandar Petrovic of Yugoslavia. Spain finished fifth, but Solozabal, with an average of 11.3 points, was among the best players.
One year later, at the 1976 FIBA European Championship for Junior Men, played in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, coach Ignacio Pinedo added some new players to his team, like Fernando Romay and Jose Antonio Querejeta. Spain took the bronze medal, its second straight prize after the silver medal the previous year in Orleans, France in the same competition. Epi and Solozabal, teammates at Barcelona, were promoted together to the club’s first team and would become synonymous with the Catalan club for the following 15 years.
They formed a perfect duo: a thinking playmaker with great game vision and a forward who could score from any situation. They were a lethal combination. Solozabal, one year older, retired first in 1992. His Spanish League numbers say that he played 349 games totaling 10,503 minutes on the floor. He scored 3,608 points (averaging 10.3, with a personal high of 29) on 59% two-point, 39% three-point and 80% free throw shooting, plus 2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. In his brilliant career, Solozabal also won six Spanish League titles (the first in 1981, the last in 1990), nine Spanish King’s Cups (the first in 1978, the last in 1991), two Saporta Cups, one Korac Cup and one Intercontinental Cup. What we cannot see in the numbers was his role on the court, that of a natural leader who gave confidence to his teammates, his coaches and the fans, who regarded him as a true idol.
A historic three-pointer
Not long ago the Spanish media celebrated the 25th anniversary of a historic three-point shot made by Solozabal. It happened on December 22, 1987, in Valladolid during the Spanish King’s Cup final. Barcelona’s eternal archrival, Real Madrid, was winning by two points, 83-81, with just a few seconds left, but Barça had the ball. Real Madrid committed two fouls but Barça coach Aito Garcia Reneses, making use of the rule at that time that allowed him to choose between free throws or inbounding the ball from the sideline, chose the latter. In the last timeout, Aito crafted a play for Sibilio to take the last three. However, great defense on that great shooter change the plan: the ball reached the hands of Solozabal, who was on the right side, looking at the rim. Jose Luis Llorente, Madrid’s guard, got there late and Nacho threw up a bomb that hit nothing but net on the buzzer making it 84-83 for Barcelona. Epi and Norris were the first to hug the new Barcelona hero. Epi finished the game with 18 points, Solozabal 17 (including 2 of 4 triples), Audie Norris 11 and Andres Jimenez 10. On Madrid’s side, Wendell Alexis had 22 points, Chechu Biriukov 20 and Fernando Martin 19. It was a great final and one of the most exciting in the history of the competition. Solozabal did other great things in his career, but that three-pointer marked his career forever.
Solozabal made his debut with the Spanish national team on April 22, 1980, against the USSR in Girona, Spain, in a 90-89 defeat. That same year, in Moscow, he took part in the first of the three Olympics he played in. His biggest success happened in 1984 in Los Angeles, where Spain defeated Yugoslavia in the semifinal and lost the gold medal game against a great USA Team led by Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, among others who would go on to great NBA careers.
Seven finals, four titles
If there were sour memories for Nacho Solozabal, there’s no doubt that those are the three finals lost in the EuroLeague, a cursed title for that generation of Barcelona players. The team made the final for the first time in 1984 but lost to Banco di Roma in Geneva, 79-73. Solozabal scored 6 points and dished 2 assists. Six years later, almost at home in Zaragoza, Barça was bested by Jugoplastika Split, coached by Boza Maljkovic. With a roster full of talent like Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Dusko Ivanovic, Zoran Savic, Velimir Perasovic, Zoran Sretenovic and Luka Pavicevic, Split won by the score of 72-67. Solozabal scored 5 points. His last chance came in 1991 in Paris, but Jugoplastika defeated Barcelona once again 70-65.
However, Barcelona won the other three finals it played in the other two European competitions. On March 19, 1985, Barcelona defeated Zalgiris and Arvydas Sabonis in Grenoble, France 77-73 to claim the Saporta Cup. Solozabal scored 11 points, grabbed 3 boards and dished 3 assists. That same year, in the Intercontinental Cup, played in Barcelona, the team defeated Brazil’s Monte Libano 93-89 as Epi hit 39 points. Solozabal contributed 6 points and 1 assist. The following year, in Caserta, Italy, Barcelona defended its Saporta Cup title successfully against Scavolini Pesaro, 101-86, with 10 points by Solozabal. The third straight title came in 1987 in the Korac Cup final against a strong Limoges with Richard Dacoury, Clarence Kea, Stephane Ostrowski, Jacques Monclar and Gregor Beugnot. Barcelona won at home 106-85 with 8 points and 5 assists by Solozabal, then won in France 97-86 with Nacho’s 3 points and 1 assists.
FC Barcelona retired Nacho Solozabal’s jersey number 7 in 2006 in a very emotional tribute. He was a player loved by the fans, respected by the rivals and very appreciated by the press because of his game and his behavior on court. After his retirement, he has remained linked to basketball, but in a different way. He has his own basketball school and is still a public figure as the color commentator of basketball games on TV as well as a newspaper columnist. Basketball in Catalonia would be less understood without Nacho Solozabal.