On Thursday evening I attended the Red Star Belgrade versus Tel Aviv Maccabi Elektra Euroleague Basketball game. The first round game was held in the famous Pionir Hall, in my opinion, the best venue to watch a basketball game anywhere. My Israeli friends invited me to attend the game in the Maccabi fan section and as you can see by the security in front of the section, we were well protected from the rabid Red Star fans.
Red Star, after being behind the entire game by 10-15 points, came back in the fourth quarter and had a couple of opportunities to win the game in the final moments, but lost. The crowd was so loud and the game very back and forth with both teams making great plays, it was a thoroughly entertaining evening. It was interesting being in the “enemy” section. I did not feel threatened and there was much good natured back and forth between the Maccabi fans and Red Star fans. We had to wait about 30 minutes after the game finished to walk out, and I got to my car and home without incident.
Serbia loves basketball and I highly recommend the Pionir Hall basketball experience! You will not forget it.
Thursday night I attended the Euroleague Basketball game between Besiktas of Istanbul and Partizan of Belgrade. As a basketball fan, it was almost a religious experience because of the most rabid basketball crowd I have ever seen in my life! Partizan won 87-72 to earn their first win in six tries in this year’s Euroleague, which is the basketball equivalent of soccer’s Champions League.
Partizan plays their early round games in the old, state owned, Pionir Hall. The stadium only seats around 8,000 people, but it is very, very loud. We arrived two hours before tip off and it was already almost full. Like soccer fans, the Partizan basketball fans sing many songs during the game, and have impromptu group cheers based on what is happening in the game. For example, when the small delegation of Turkish fans arrived, the crowd started singing about the history of the Serbs,defeating the Ottoman Turks and killing of a particular sultan. Of course it was in Serbian, so I doubt many of the Turkish fans understood.
The photo above is from after the game. The crowd and team stayed after and they sing “Partizane!” An amazing, exhilarating experience! It showed the best characteristics of the Serbs, they are a passionate people and love sport.
This is for a team that is 0-5 in this year’s Euroleague competition! They have a good, very young team, but with a payroll many times lower than other teams in the competition, they have a difficult time competing year in and year out. Their strategy is to develop young players and then sell them to the bigger teams. This is one of their main sources of revenue. They also get import players who want to make a name for themselves in Europe or who are new to international basketball. The positive is many players want to play for the club because the team is famous throughout Europe, they have an intense training program that develops many players, and of course, they will play in what I argue, it the best atmosphere to play basketball in the world. The experience must compare to Madison Square Garden in New York, or perhaps Cameron Stadium at Duke University.
Partizan will improve this year and will be tough to beat next year. They have three 7-footers, Leo Westermann, a French guard that reminds me of the San Antonio Spur’s Manu Ginobli, Drew Gordon, a 6-8 power forward from New Mexico that has great inside moves, and a host of athletic Serbs that can shoot. It will be fun to follow them this season, at least in the Adriatic Basketball League. I will upload a video of the post game singing when I fix my internet connection.
I would like to give a big thanks to my friend, and former Partizan player, Jagoš, for taking me to the game and sharing his knowledge of Serbian basketball with me.
Last week Partizan defeated Maccabi Electra 3 games to 1 in a best-of-five quarterfinal series in the Euroleague Basketball playoffs. They now qualify for the Final Four tourney to be held in Paris in early May. Maccabi is from Tel Aviv, Israel and for those readers not knowledgeable about basketball, the Euroleague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer. It is the premier professional club basketball league in Europe.
Above is the logo of club. On top it says шампиони which translated from the Serbian Cyrillic means champion. In the Serbian Latin alphabet, is reads a bit easier for English speakers – Šampioni. On the bottom, KK stands for košarkaški klub. Košarka is “basketball” in English. The name Partizan in the cyrillic script then follows. The team is named after Tito’s resistance army in World War II, hence the Red Star in the middle. The club was founded right after WWII in 1945 as part of a youth sports association in the People’s Army of Jugoslavia (JNA).
I’ve been thinking about the Euroleague and Partizan. I wonder how Partizan would do in America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) or in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). One point I want to make, the Euroleague should study the nba.com and espn.com web sites on how to market and cover its league. The Euroleague website really could do a lot more in promoting the teams and players. There is little in-depth information and commentary on the games or match-ups. They do not highlight star players at all. If I was running the Euroleague, I would make it a lot better. I know that basketball is not as popular in Europe and it needs to compete with soccer, but a David Stern-like commissioner could really raise its level of popularity and money earning. They need an American sense of marketing sports entertainment.
When I arrived to Serbia last year, I picked Red Star as my team. (note – I just read an article that describes how Red Star basketball is facing bankruptcy.) But this year, I have admired the Partizan basketball team and now am a big fan. Two of our students at the international school have parents on the management board and another two play for the youth teams. I have a connection to the team and hope they can win it all. Unlike most European countries, basketball is a bit more popular in Serbia than soccer, although the Serbian national soccer team is in this year’ s World Cup and Red Star won a Champions League title in 1991. This gives Partizan an advantage in that it has access to a big pool of good young players and the packed arenas with knowledgeable and rabid fans, makes them tough to beat at home. Other arenas are much quieter. Serbs are also tall, active, and tough generally as a culture and this also translates to good basketball teams.
Partizan plays an exciting, fundamentally sound style of basketball. A big factor is their coach, Duško Vujoševic. The guy began coaching at age 17 and spent most of his career in Italy. He must not have been much of a player. He is currently the coach of the national team of Montenegro besides Partizan.
Like all the Euroleague teams, Partizan does have several imported players and three start for Partizan. This also gives a good chance to compare Euroleague basketball to the NBA or NCAA. The type of American players that end up playing in Europe are those guys that had excellent university careers, but couldn’t stick with an NBA team. So considering they are a bit older than the current college players in the US and they had strong careers in the NCAA, I think that they would do well in the “March Madness’ tourney, but not so well in the NBA. The two Americans players for Partizan are 6-8 center Lawrence Roberts and 6 foot point guard Bo Maccalebb. Roberts used to play for Red Star so I have followed him for over a year. He was an All-American and the SEC Player of the Year for Mississippi State. Maccalebb was the Sun Belt Conference player of the year for the University of New Orleans. Both guys first played in Turkey or Greece before coming to Serbia. I would like to interview them to see how they like living in Belgrade. The other import is 6-11 Czech forward, Jan Vesely. He is very thin and more of a small forward than a power forward. The other two starters are Serbian. Dušan Kecman is a solid 6-5 shooting guard and Aleks Marić is a 6-11 center that is a force inside, averaging 17 points and 9 boards in Euroleague play this year. Marić is a Serb that grew up in Australia (many Serbs left during the war) and then had a good career at the University of Nebraska, being named to the All Big-12 team as a senior.
They also have a strong bench of young local talent. Slavko Vraneš is a 7-6 giant Montenegrin. He played one game for the New York Knicks. He is a bit slow, but he takes up a lot of space near the basket. Aleksandar Rasić is a good back up point guard. Partizan puts a lot of effort into its youth program and they produce many great players. Unfortunately, many of them eventually leave for more money on other European club teams.
I’ll be watching the Final Four in Paris. Partizan faces some stiff competition with three giants of Euroleague basketball also qualifying for the final four. Barcelona (with Minnesota Timberwolf prospect Ricky Rubio), CKSA Moscow (last year’s runner up), and Athens Olympiacos (also in Final Four last year). The format is knock-out, just like the NCAA Final Four, and they play Olympiacos on May 7th. I don’t understand the delay, perhaps the national leagues are finishing first.
The EuroLeague Basketball is like the Champions League in soccer. The best professional club teams compete outside of their regular national leagues to determine one European champion. The EuroLeague is getting close to its “final four” and it is down to the final 16 teams. Belgrade professional team Partizan last night hosted Barcelona.
It was the first time I saw a basketball game end like it did. Partizan was comfortably head by half time but Barcelona stormed ahead in the second half. Late in the game, Partizan tied it and it went to overtime. In the overtime, with Partizan ahead by a point, 67-66, a Barcelona player took a shot. The ball hit the rim twice and was bouncing out when a Partizan player knocked it away from the basket – giving Partizn the win. But shortly after, the Barcelona coach (left in the photo above taken from my TV screen), the two referees (orange), and the Partizan coach (bald far right) were looking at the replay to determine if it had been goaltending or not.
Now while they were deciding who would win the game, the crowd waited. Pionir Hall is a small stadium that seats roughly 7,000 fans was completely full. Partizan fans are like soccer fans and they are on their feet and singing and cheering the entire game. Serbia takes its basketball seriously and so the atmosphere for visiting teams must be difficult. After about a 5 minute delay, the referees finally decided in favor of Partizan. I wonder what would have happened if they had decided the other way? A riot? Violence?
I didn’t know that instant replay is used in professional basketball anywhere. It is used in NFL football, tennis, but I don’t think in basketball yet. Even more puzzling was the fact that the opposing coaches and referees were looking at the replay together court side to make the decision. Usually the replays are looked at in the quiet of a booth in the stadium by a designated official or they are computer generated like in tennis.
With the win, Partizan is 2-0 in their group of four. They had two upset victories, on the road against Panithinaikos (Athens) and this victory at home against Barcelona. They play next Thursday against Maroussi, another Greek team in Athens. My favorite team in Serbia is Red Star, the other big Belgrade team, but I am fully behind Partizan since Red Star did not qualify for the Euroleague.
I’ll be posting more about basketball as the season continues. Below is the photo of the instant replay. I would have not ruled it goaltending as the ball was leaving the cylinder. The Partizan player, John Roberts, former Red Star import, shouldn’t have touched it however, and risk the goal tending call.