With today’s entry I will try to pay a small homage to basketball in Belgian, a country whose national and club teams have never been European superpowers, but which has its place and weight in continental basketball. Among other things, the current Belgian champ, Charleroi, was among the founders of what 11 years ago was called the ULEB Euroleague.
After the final decision of FIBA to create the Champions Cup in December of 1957, the competition was born in the winter of 1958 with a first edition that featured 23 teams. The first phase consisted of four groups organized geographically. In this very website, with the great celebration of the 50 years of European competitions in Madrid in 2008, we already talked about the historic game played on February 22, 1958 in Brussels between the Belgian champ Royal IV and the Luxembourg champ Etzella Ettelbruck. The final score was 82-43 (35-22 at the break) and according to the official sheet the first protagonists were, for Royal IV, Jules Demarez, Antoine Tre, Jean Nolis (6), Jacques Brichant (10), Francois Depauw (23), Emile Kets, Roger Rosiers, Max Cyngiser, Mourice Gens, Jean Crick (23), Albert Nicodeme (20) and Francois Rombouts. For Etzela, Albert Meyers (15), Johny Kieffer (14), Rogul Feypel, Pierre Steinmetz (8), Marcel Urth (2), Paul Stein (2), Armand Posing (2), Johny Britz, Willy Putz, Fernand Lanners, Pierre Giorgetti and Paul Agnes. The game started at 20:45 and the two coaches for history were Henri Servaes (Royal IV) and Pierre Kraus (Etzela). The two referees were J.Debeer y M. D´Hondt, with the F.R.B.S.B. letters in parentheses for both, which is hard to figure out but which probably means that both were Belgian. The scoresheet also tells us that the first two points were free throws scored by Nicomede of Royal IV. That’s how it all began, with a Belgian team as protagonist.
Real Madrid’s fourth defeat in Belgium
That same season, in the quarterfinals, Real Madrid played Royal IV and won both games easily. In Madrid by 78-59 with 25 points by Johnny Baez while in Brussels it was 43-57 with 15 points by Baez again and Alfonso Martinez. Since then, Real Madrid has played a total 25 Champions Cup/Euroleague games against Belgian teams. It has won 20 of the games, lost 4 and tied once. The global record is positive but those four losses confirm that a trip to Belgium is not always pleasant for the winningest team in European basketball.
The first Belgian team that defeated Real Madrid was Racing Basket Mechelen. The game was played on February 10, 1966 in front of 5,000 fans. Racing survived by 104-95. Willy Steveniers, the big star in Belgian basketball those days, scored 28 points. Lucien Michelet joined him with 24 while Americans Theo Hilen and Ronald Loneski chipped in with 21 and 25 points respectively. In the second game of the series, Real Madrid won by only two points, 101-99, and that cost the Spanish team a berth in the first Final Four , played in Bologna, Italy in 1966. Slavia Prague and Simenthal Milano also advanced and the Belgian champ was only one step away from getting its biggest success ever. After defeating Slavia at home by 104-91 with 38 points by Steveniers, the Belgians travelled to Prague with big hopes and 300 fans supporting them on the road, in what was one of the first massive fan trips across Europe in basketball. But Slavia had a great Jiri Zidek, the father of our regular blogger here at Euroleague.net, who after having scored 40 points in the first game, outperformed himself with his 48 points at home. Slavia won by 94-76 and advanced to the Final Four in Bologna.
Two years later, on March 7, 1968, Racing defeated Real Madrid by 76-69 with the 18 points from the ubiquitous Steveniers and 26 by Leon Clark. Racing defeated Real Madrid again in the 1969-70 season by 89-82 and did it again in 1993-94 by 78-77 with Jacques Stas and Eric Struelens, the leaders of the new Belgian generation, as protagonists. The fourth defeat arrived two days ago in Charleroi. The only tie (79-79) happened on February 4, 1971, again with a great Stevenier, author of 26 points, in the second game of a two-game series won by Madrid due to its 103-71 victory in the first game, despite 32 points by – who else? – Steveniers.
Holden, Batiste, Teletovic, Cook…
As we have mentioned, Belgium has never been a superpower in European basketball. The best position for its national team was fourth in the Eurobasket of 1947 and the last result worthy of mention was an eighth place at home in Liege, for the 1977 Eurobasket. The last appearance of the team in the tournament was in 1993 in Germany. However, the clubs know how to beat any team, especially at home. Spirou Basket is the team of the city of Charleroi, a city which is in love with basketball and has been the perfect host of several ULEB Cup finals. In fact, that’s where Real Madrid won its last European title, the 2007 ULEB Cup, against Lietuvos Rytas by 87-75.
Spirou Charleroi, just like Royal IV in 1958, was among the pioneers, the founders of the new Euroleague in the summer of 2000, to open a new page in he history of European basketball. It’s true that in its two seasons in the competition, the team only managed to win five games (2-8 in 2000-01 and 3-11 in 2001-02), but after nine years, Spirou is back among the elite defeating solid rivals in the Euroleague Qualifying Rounds: CEZ Nymburk of the Czech Republic, Unics Kazan of Russia and Alba Berlin of Germany. In the second edition of the modern Euroleague, another Belgian team, Oostende, also appeared with a 3-11 record. If they haven’t made a big imprint on the competition so far, the Belgian clubes surely have provided the game with high-level players. Eric Struelens (Racing) also played in Real Madrid and other Euroleague teams. Tomas van den Spiegel, a former Oostende player, won the Euroleague with CSKA Moscow and also played with Real Madrid and other Euroleague teams, currently in AJ Milano. Axel Hervelle, formed in Pepinster, also played five years in Real Madrid. The fact that a big team like Real Madrid has signed at least four Belgian players (Struelens, Van den Spiegel, Hervelle and Jean-Marc Jaumin, the latter also formed in Oostende) is also a recognition to the sporting quality of this small country.
Belgian clubs have also been a great place for foreign stars to showcase their skills before joining bigger teams. In 2000-01, the best newcomer in Charleroi was a young Mike Batiste, who is a key piece since 2003 in Panathinaikos. In the same team one could also find Mirza Teletovic, a Caja Laboral player since 2006. The third great name was for Oostende, where J.R. Holden made his Euroleague debut averaging 19.5 points per game. After that he signed for AEK Athens and in 2002 he landed in Moscow to play with CSKA, where he won two Euroleague titles, became an Euroleague All-Decade selection and remains to this day. Also Omar Cook, the guard for Power Electronics Valencia, started his European stint with Mons-Hainaut of Belgium before playing with Crvena Zvezda and Unicaja.
I will end by reminding you that Radivoj Korac, the great Yugoslav scorer of the sixties who still holds the record of points in one Champions Cup game with 99 since 1965, was a member of the Belgian team of Standard Liege when he suffered the fatal car crash on June 2, 1969, that put an end to his life.
(November 20, 2010)