I want to dedicate this entry to Juan Antonio San Epifanio, better known as Epi, a Spanish basketball legend who for several reasons never managed to win the European crown. Sports are, just like life is, sometimes unfair, but despite not holding the top trophy in continental basketball, there’s no denying that Epi was a huge player on the court and a gentleman off it. These days, precisely on December 26, 16 years will have passed since FIBA organized a great homage to a player for his retirement. That day, a selection of European players (Villacampa 7, Rafa Jofresa 10, Antunez 10, Alibegovic 17, Ostrowski 16, Herreros 13, Jamchy 15, Fetisov 11, Mikhailov 10 and Binelli 9) defeated FC Barcelona 118-92 (Jimenez 2, Galilea 4, Godfread 9, Middleton 20, Fernandez 9, Diez, Bosch 13, Ferran Martinez 15, Karnisovas 20 and Epi), but the score was the least important thing. Some 8,000 fans packed Palau Blaugrana in Barcelona to pay honors to a player that had been their hero for 19 years. The then president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, offered Epi the Olympic Order of Merit. The full board of directors for FIBA was also in the game, led by general secretary Borislav Stankovic and his closest collaborators, including Raymundo Saporta.
In a very emotional act, Epi only played for five minutes and missed his last two shot attempts, but he was already a retired player and dressed in his uniform only for this special occasion. His last official game was played at the end of the 1994-95 season, in the Spanish League playoffs. On May 25, in the fifth game of the final series against Unicaja, Barcelona beat the team from Malaga 73-64 to win the league and Epi retired with another league title, his seventh with “his” Barcelona. He only played the last 26 seconds, enough to score 2 free throws, the last 2 points of the game, and more than enough for a long standing ovation. It was the end of a brilliant career of a one of a kind player, a star on court and a humble man in the street.
Tagging along with his brother
Epi, born on June 12, 1959, was the youngest of three brothers of a family living in Zaragoza. The two elder brothers played basketball and Juan Antonio followed in their steps, but he suffered a big blow when the coach of Helios, the club where he played in the inferior categories, left him out of the team because of his “lack of talent.” He didn’t despair and didn’t waste the second chance he was offered, at 15 years old, thanks to his brother Herminio. Barca set its sights on him, but Herminio had one condition: that the club also signed his brother Juan Antonio. Barcelona, though not convinced, accepted and made one of the best signings in the history of the club. After two years in the inferior categories, the club would have a hero for the fans for 19 years. A man who was never tired of scoring more and more points. He was, without a doubt, the most profitable signing for the club ever.
I can’t exactly remember when I saw Epi for the first time, but I do know when I heard his name for the first time. After the junior EuroBasket of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where Yugoslavia (Aleksandar Petrovic, Predrag Bogosavljev, MVP Rade Vukosavljevic…) won its third straight gold medal, the Yugoslavian coach Bogdan Tanjevic was talking about outstanding players and he talked about Vladimir Tkachenko but also about Juan Antonio San Epifanio, as future stars. He was right. Like (almost) always. Spain finished third with a great generation that gave a lot of good things to Spanish basketball: Costa, Epi, Solozabal, Romay, Iturriaga and Querejeta, among others.
If not before, I am sure that I saw San Epifanio at the Olympic Games of Moscow in 1980. He was among the youngest players, but he finished the tourney as second-best scorer in the Spanish team with 18 points, including 25 against Cuba, 22 against eventual champ Yugoslavia and 21 against the USSR. You could see at first sight that he had an incredibly easy time shooting the ball. Epi was a 1.98-meter forward and a natural attacker with skills to score from anywhere. His favorite spot was the corner, but he scored just the same from midrange, on the fast break or penetrating to the rim. He was young enough to play before the three-point shot was adopted, though from 1984 it would become his main weapon.
After Moscow 1980, I saw Epi many times: At the 1983 EuroBasket of France, where Spain won the silver medal thanks to one of his baskets against the USSR in the semis; at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles with a silver medal for the ages for Spain (Epi averaged 18.9 points)… After that I saw him also at the EuroBaskets of 1989 and 1991 and in the 1990 World Championships and 1992 Olympic Games and, from the autumn of 1991, in many Spanish League and King’s Cup games as well as with the Spanish national team. Once I told him that, in Yugoslavia, after one of his scorefests, his surname was spelled as “Epifanich”. He laughed and took it with good humor and as great recognition because the Yugoslav shooters (Kicanovic, Dliebasic, Dalipagic, Solman, Plecas, Simonovic, Vilfan…) of the seventies were among Europe’s best and possibly even the world. Epi really was a natural at shooting, with that sense that you can improve, but you can’t learn. It’s that famous combination of natural talent and hard work, sacrifice and personal ambition.
A career with 25 trophies
Since his debut in Barcelona’s first team in 1976-77, at only 17, Epi set many records. He won 22 trophies at the club level: 7 leagues, 10 cups, 2 Cup Winners Cups, 1 Korac Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup and then also bronze and silver with the national team at the 83 and 91 EuroBaskets plus an Olympic silver in 1984. His numbers grew year after year:
1976/77 – 6.6 points, 2.0 rebounds
1977/78 – 9.6 ppg., 3.1 rpg. – Cup
1978/79 – 12.0 ppg., 2.5 rpg. – Cup
1979/80 – 13.1 ppg., 4.0 rpg. – Cup
1980/81 – 15.6 ppg., 3.6 rpg. – League, Cup
1981/82 – 19.3 ppg., 2.1 rpg. – Cup
1982/83 – 24.1 ppg., 2.7 rpg. – League, Cup, Euro silver
From 1983, the start of the ACB, he played 421 games and scored 7,028 points (16.7 ppg). His last great season was in 1991-92 with 18.6 points and 3.4 rebounds. He played less in the following two campaigns but he still had decent numbers (10.9 and 9.9 points) to finish his career at age 36 with 2.9 points and his seventh league title.
With the Spanish national team Epi played 239 times and scored 3,358 points. His career with the national team lasted for 15 years, 3 months and 19 days. No one like the dude, Epi. On October 10, 1993 in Malaga, he played his 222nd game with the national team against the Czech Republic and matched the record of Francesco “Nino” Buscato, but after that he played in the World Championships of Toronto in 1994 and stretched his brilliant career for 15 more games. He played several times with a European selection of players and “L’Equipe” named him the best European player of the 1980s.
His most emotional and glorious moment came on July 25, 1992. He was the last bearer of the Olympic torch in his city, Barcelona. Twelve years after Sergei Belov, another basketball player, had the same honor at the Moscow Olympics. Epi lit an arrow with the Olympic flame, which was shot by Paralympic athlete Antonio Rebollo to ignite the Olympic Cauldron, which was to be the symbol of the games until August 9.
On five occasions, Epi and his Barca tried to win the European crown. In 1984 they lost the first final to Banco di Roma (79-73) despite Epi’s 31 points. In 1990 and 1991 Barca lost twice to the great Jugoplastika (72-67 and 70-65) in the title game. Barca went also to two more Final Fours only to fall in the semis –in Munich in 1989 and Tel Aviv in 1994-. But, even without this title in his résumé, Juan Antonio San Epifanio remained a legend in Barcelona who many times justified his popular nickname – “Super Epi!”
(December 25, 2011)