Search for “Final Four” in Google News and you’ll be hard pressed to find an entry that doesn’t reference a US lacrosse team or the four finalists of The Voice. The first mention of the Euroleague Final Four Basketball Championships, which kicked-off with the semi-finals in Madrid Friday night and culminated with a gut-wrenching final last night, only comes on the 4th page – and that’s an article dating back a few days. For fans of European basketball, however, it’s their equivalent of the NBA Playoffs; albeit with smaller-scaled European nationals playing alongside a handful of behemoths imported from the US. For everyone else, the Euroleague still remains as marginal an event as the Eurovision*.
If you were in Madrid, you could be fooled into thinking the Final Four is more than just a speck on the global radar. An estimated 120,000 Russian, Greek and Turkish fans cheering on CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos Piraeus, and Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul descended on the Spanish capital for the 3 day event (Real Madrid fans were lucky enough to just have to stay put and avoid the additional influx of tourists). Unlike the 2013 games in London when it was impossible to tell the city was hosting the championships until you were in the 02 arena, Madrid fully embraced the games. The city not only had sponsored festivities taking place right outside the Royal Palace, but the cup presenter was none other than the King himself.
The matches didn’t disappoint either: to pass through to the final, Olympiacos used its trademark last-ditch-attempt game play to steal the match from CSKA, 70-68, while Real Madrid overcame Fenerbahce, 96-87, with some effortless team play that surely instilled fear in the lesser confident Olympiacos fans (the more confident ones having put the onus wholly on the weak defence of Fenerbahce). As for the final itself, well that depends which side you were on. Let’s just say Real Madrid won, 78-59 and leave it at that.
There are many factors that keep European basketball in the shadow of its better-known older US brother. Aside from their smaller frames, the players’ general appearance doesn’t help their cause. Some of the league’s most talented athletes (e.g. Olympiacos’s Vassilis Spanoulis & Real Madrid’s Sergio Rodríguez) look like they would have been picked last at try-outs for their high school basketball team. Others look like they were picked for their high school team and are still playing for it. Then there’s the fans who (for the most part) throw good sportsmanship out the window in favour of good old Eurovision-style country alliance and opposition politics**: Fenerbahce fans provoked Olympiacos fans. Olympiacos fans slighted Fenerbahce fans. In the absence of a fellow former USSR team, CSKA Moscow fans remained aloof. And supporters of Real Madrid stuck it to everyone; because, let’s face it, it was a home game and they far outnumbered the rest.
Just about all sides seem to have missed the class on the benefits of positive reinforcement, choosing instead to go negative and slag off one another – in the case of the Greeks, this was either by inviting their opponents to perform acts of self-fornication or to do so unto their mothers – all the while never straying from the rhyming rule of thumb. Despite the goading on all sides, the games nonetheless remained peaceful. A feat undoubtedly owing (at least in part) to the security guards who were hired to sit with their backs to the court and stare down spectators into submissiveness for the duration of the games.
It’s obvious that the Euroleague is trying hard to follow the NBA model. Since its founding in 2000, the league has managed to hook big-name sponsors like Turkish Airlines and Citroën. They have a kiss and bongo-cam to liven the pre-show, complete with a presenter who can nail an American accent and hot cheerleaders to hype up the crowds. They’ve adopted some skewed version of the half-way line throw, which involves running from the half way line and doing a lay-up for the chance to win a signed ball, instead of making the shot for a large sum of money. And, while it might not be Alicia Keys, they did hire gold-sprayed Bulgarian men clad in nothing but speedos to perform some astonishing (yet, unfortunate, given the costume choice) gymnastics for the half-time show. Considering the clear similarities, it’s a mystery how European basketball still trails far, far behind the NBA in both recognition and viewership. A suggestion for Berlin 2016: a “Final four at the Final Four” half-time show collaboration with The Voice might just do the trick. At the very least it will guarantee the games a higher Google search entry.
*For readers not born and raised on the broader European continent: the Eurovision is as odd an experiment in international community building as they come. A song contest, created in 1956, which began with the goal of highlighting music from European nations (and their periphery) and ended up with the majority of contestants singing in English to pander to a larger demographic. In it’s heyday, it did propel some singers to fame, notably: Abba, Celine Dion and Julio Iglesias.
** Recall Cyprus giving full points to Greece and vice versa.