“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!
Walter Szczerbiak – The superstar with the unpronounceable name
The first duel between Partizan Belgrade and Real Madrid took place in 1979-80 in the EuroLeague. Partizan, with Dusan Ivkovic as the coach, had just won its second Yugoslav League title led by the duo of Dragan Kicanovic and Drazen Dalipagic, However, Kicanovic could not play in Europe while doing his military service. Partizan visited Madrid on December 20, 1979, and lost 110-83. Walter Szczerbiak scored 30 points, Wayne Brabender had 23, Rafa Rullan 20, Randy Meister 15 and Juan Antonio Corbalan. For Partizan, Dalipagic’s 32 points were totally useless except as a passport to sign for the Spanish team two years later. The second game was played on February 14, 1980, in front of 6,000 fans at Pionir Arena in Belgrade. After a 54-54 first-half tie, Real Madrid’s quality prevailed and the game ended 100-87. Meister and Szczerbiak had 22 points apiece, Corbalan 12, Rullan scored 10 points. It was the first time – and if memory serves, also the last – that I saw Szczerbiak play live. I knew him well because Yugoslav TV had always broadcasted the title games of the EuroLeague and even the Intercontinental Cup, competitions in which Real Madrid always went far in the 1970s.
Walter Szczerbiak was a true star, a player admired in all the gyms he played in. Aside from being a great player, he was a true gentleman, both on and off the court. That night at Pionir, I didn’t even imagine that, years later, I would be able to meet him and maintain a good relationship with him. Walter always jokes that I am one of the few people who know how to pronounce his surname correctly. For most people, it’s almost impossible to utter the “sh” sound followed by “tch”. Two consonants at the beginning of his name, which comes from the Ukrainian word “scerba”. But his surname was only a problem for TV announcers everywhere. For the rest of us, the great scorer was only Walter. Always Walter.
Seven years of glory
The 1979-80 season was the seventh and last for Walter at Real Madrid. It finished as it started, with triumphs. Real Madrid beat Maccabi 89-85 in the EuroLeague final, played on March 27 in West Berlin. Walter scored 16 points, a tad lower than his average of 21.1 up to that point. His best nights were against TUS Leverkusen (37 points) and Den Bosch (33). Rullan was the best scorer with 27 points in that game, while Jose Antonio Querejeta, the current Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz president, scored 2 for the Whites.
Berlin was the end of the brilliant career for Szczerbiak. During seven years in Madrid, he won four Spanish Leagues (1974, 1975, 1976, 1977), three EuroLeagues (1974, 1978, 1980), a Spanish Cup (1977) and three Intercontinental Cups (1976, 1977, 1978). He played four seasons with scoring averages of more than 30 points, and that was before three-pointers. Real Madrid had the luxury of keeping him only for the EuroLeague because of the limit on foreigners in the domestic league. He was a born shooter with excellent technique: elegant and fast. He was also a solid rebounder. For many, and for me too, he is one of the best Americans to have ever played in Europe.
Thanks to his huge talent and hard work during his youth, life gave back to Walter a part that was stolen from him in his childhood. He was born on August 21, 1949, in Hamburg, West Germany, the city where his parents, fleeing from Ukraine, were waiting for the migration documents to get into the United States. Once in New York, he fell in love with basketball. In school tourneys and street games in the playgrounds, the talent shown by Walter caught the attention of many colleges. He chose George Washington University. In his senior year there, he averaged 22.1 points. That same year he was picked by the Phoenix Suns in the fourth round of the draft with the 65th pick. He signed a non-guaranteed contract and after the summer he was off the team. Walter had a tryout with Pittsburgh of the ABA, then the competing league to the NBA, but at the end of the season he was without a team again. That’s when Real Madrid entered his life. Coach Pedro Ferrandiz – well assisted and informed by his friend Victor de la Serna, aka Vicente Salaner, a well-known basketball newspaper columnist in Spain – offered Walter a five-year guaranteed contract. And that was how his European adventure started.
Debut against Barcelona… with 47 points!
Walter made his debut with style on November 11, 1973. Real Madrid beat its archrival FC Barcelona 125-65 – by 60 points! A rookie, Walter with his unpronounceable surname, finished the game with 47 points. Soon enough, he was the fans’ new idol. He shined in game after game. He finished the season with the triple crown: Spanish League, Spanish Cup and EuroLeague titles against Ignis Varese in Nantes, 84-82. Walter, Clifford Luyk and Rullan had 14 points each, while Brabender scored 22 and Carmelo Cabrera 16 in the championship game. The following season, they also won the Spanish League and Spanish Cup and stretched the team’s winning streak to 88 games over more than three years. Against Mataró, Walter scored 53 points, but on February 8, 1976, he outdid himself by setting a Spanish League record that still stands today. Against Breogan, in a 140-48 blowout, Walter finished with 65 points! His numbers were unbelievable: 25 of 27 two-point shots (most of them from what would be three-point territory today) and 15 of 17 free throws. His record also hides an anecdote. After he scored “just” 16 points in the previous game, Martin Tello, a journalist at As newspaper in Spain, wrote that games in the morning didn’t seem to suit Walter. The result? A record that prevails today.
Szczerbiak won his second European crown in 1978, again against Mobilgirgi Varese 75-67. The final was played in Munich and Walter led all scorers with 26 points. Two of his three European crowns were won in Germany, the country where he was born.
After seven wonderful years, Szczerbiak had to leave. Real Madrid didn’t re-sign him. That hurt him, but he was only 31 and he wanted to play more. Udine, then in the Italian second division, offered him a two-year contract and he accepted. After that, he was back in New York and he thought about putting an end to his career, but a call from his great friend Carmelo Cabrera, the Real Madrid guard in the years they shared together, lured him into playing for Gran Canaria. Cabrera also called Meister and Luis Miguel Prada, and he managed to reunite the four friends from Real Madrid’s Golden Era. “Old” Walter responded with 23.1 points and 7.3 rebounds and an average index rating of 19.0 in over 37 per game. Again, he did all that without three-pointers, which would be established that same summer of 1984, when the genius named Walter Szczerbiak definitively retired. For years he has been technical consultant of the Spanish League and many of the American players that shined in the league were recommended by him. In the meantime, his son Wally became a pro himself, in the NBA. Later a group of authors wrote a great book called “Foreigners in the ACB” with a prologue by Szczerbiak himself. However, I would like to see another book: “Foreigners before the ACB”. There were many and very good, all led by Walter Szczerbiak.