What is the best event in basketball?

It’s the EuroLeague Final Four this weekend in Belgrade – and it has helped me understand the NBA

The first European Final Four I attended was in 1992. I had no clue. I was an American who had recently moved to Europe, and I knew nothing of the players, coaches and teams, and this was how it ended:

Aleksandar Djordjevic, who hit the shoulder-swiveling 3-pointer to turn a Partizan loss into the European championship, left me in awe of everything I didn’t know. I had no idea what to make of any of it – the cigarette smoke that gathered at the top of the 12,000-seat arena in Istanbul and worked its way row by row down toward the court … the hysterical speed of the games set loose by fewer timeouts, especially in the final minutes … the lyrical chanting of the Spanish fans who would sing themselves hoarse throughout their team’s games so persuasively that you would wake up singing along with them the next day.

Years later I met with Djordjevic in Spain, after he had become the point guard for FC Barcelona following a two-month trial in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers. By now Djordjevic had shaved his head. He was a Serb from Belgrade and of course his English was perfect. We met at the coffee shop of the Princesa Sofia Hotel, and at a nearby table giving an interview to an British newspaper reporter from The News of the World was Bobby Robson, the 64-year-old English coach of the football team at Barcelona. Djordjevic was a quiet, confident star who carried himself with dignity. Robson was anxious and bustling with energy days before Barcelona was to meet its rival Real Madrid. Every few minutes Robson was yelling out to a waitress, “Café con leche! Café con leche!” He must have had a half-dozen coffees with milk, and he was all wound up. 

Following my interview, after Djordjevic had gone, the English writer asked if I wanted to join him and Robson. The writer asked me who I’d been talking to. “That’s one of the great basketball players in the world,” I said, and to Robson I added: “He’s now playing for your club.” Robson had never heard of Djordjevic – just as I hadn’t, five years earlier. Robson smiled and explained himself by saying, “Over here, football’s the game.”

He was right, of course. In almost every country football is bigger than basketball, including the United States, where American football is number 1. 

NBAnswers is a global newsletter about the NBA. This week I’m writing about the EuroLeague Final Four – a competition that is only 11 years younger than the NBA – because it has helped me to appreciate basketball in America. The NBA is by far the most talented, entertaining and profitable league in the basketball world, but those strengths can also create weaknesses and obstacles. To understand the NBA, it helps to know that there is another basketball world out there that is entirely different, and beautiful in its own right.

I love the EuroLeague Final Four for several reasons. The most obvious is that it is a single-elimination event. Every game is like an NBA Game 7.

In the NBA, each round of the playoffs is a series of games that provides as many as seven opportunities to generate money as the tension builds over a couple of weeks. For a league that has always aimed to operate as a business, the best-of-seven dynamic makes sense commercially.

When the European Champions Cup (the forerunner to the EuroLeague) was launched in 1957-58, making money was not the priority. Over the years it has been hard to find enough days on the basketball calendar for a European championship. There is no time for a best-of-seven playoff series – which is why the EuroLeague generates more pressure per game than you’ll find during the normal NBA season and postseason.

In the NBA, most losses can be rationalized because there is usually another game to come. On Sunday LeBron James entered his best-of-seven conference finals at Boston willing to lose the opener to the Celtics in order to devise a strategy for the rest of the series. "Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me, if you've ever followed my history," he said. "So I've got a good sense of the way they played me and how I'll play going into Game 2."

The format of the EuroLeague allows for little patience. “We’re talking about a 30-game season in the EuroLeague, where if you lose two or three games you drop dramatically,” says Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, who coached his teams in Italy and Russia to four EuroLeague championships from 1998 to 2008. “That’s why every game is so important. The general feeling is that if you win, you are as good as your next one, and if you lose it’s a failure. There is no way in Europe that a loss is seen as a necessary step that enables you to go back and win.”

The best NBA game I’ve ever attended was Celtics vs. Lakers in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. The rivalry between the two winningest teams went back for decades, Kobe Bryant was trying to avenge his loss at Boston two years earlier while trying to chase down the six titles of Michael Jordan, and the Celtics’ old stars were facing their final chance at the championship. There was a lot riding on the outcome and everyone in the Staples Center could feel the pressure.

I’ve attended many games in Europe that have generated similar feelings, beginning with the Olympiacos-Panathinaikos derby in Athens - arguably the most intense rivalry in world basketball. “You really feel it in Greece or in Tel Aviv,” says Messina of the Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv. “That is where the fans are really carrying the home team and putting the team on their shoulders.”

The two basketball worlds. “In Europe there is an unbelievable relationship in the arena between the team and the mood of the fans,” says Messina, who in the photo above can be seen celebrating with his CSKA Moscow players after they won the 2008 Final Four. “That’s where a missed shot or a missed free throw is always followed by a sigh of relief or a boo or whatever. Everything is followed by the reaction of the fans.”

In the NBA the sideshows are generated by the home team. Music and videos blare from the loudspeakers and scoreboards during every timeout. Tickets to NBA games are expensive, and the fans in America expect to be entertained.

In Europe the fans generate the entertainment. They bring in bass drums, trumpets and other instruments. They sing and create their own background music.

“Another funny thing that Americans wouldn’t believe is that nobody eats at the arena in Europe,” Messina says. “Nobody leaves their seat for 10 seconds to buy a burger. You stay locked in your seat. You don’t want to miss even the warmup. People judge the warmup to see if the players are focused, or are they scared? You can hear them calling the names of all the players. Imagine Cameron Indoor Stadium times three in terms of the loudness of the arena and the jokes you’re hearing from the fans.”

In America we tend to view basketball commercially. The NBA’s sophisticated fans are aware of the money that players are paid, how many years are left on their contracts, and the salary-cap strategy of the teams. To be a fan of the NBA is to think of basketball as a business.

In Europe, and in other leagues around the world, the fans view professional basketball as something more than an entertainment industry. Their focus on the competitive ideals and the all-out need to win each game drives the point of view of my new book, The Soul of Basketball, which is a story of the two worlds colliding in the 2011 NBA Finals. When Dirk Nowitzki (who was inspired by the competitive ideals of Europe) competed in those finals against LeBron James (who at that time had been led astray commercially by the American point of view), it became a battle for the soul of the game. Would the universal ideals of basketball prevail against the mighty business interests?

Since the 1980s, when commissioner David Stern began expanding his league’s reach beyond North America, the NBA has been devoted to adding new fans around the world. This global mission has elevated the quality of basketball everywhere. At the same time, Stern and his successor Adam Silver have understood that the NBA has benefited greatly from the immigration of players like Nowitzki who, by beating LeBron in 2011, helped the NBA’s most talented young star to take stock of himself and fulfill his potential.

As the NBA continues to mature globally, there will be a marriage between the two views of basketball. The American interest in basketball as a business will unite with the international view of the game as something more valuable than a business. 

That’s why this newsletter exists – to help bring the two worlds together with the understanding that everyone brings something important to the NBA, whether you live in North America, or Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, the Southern Hemisphere, or somewhere in-between.

The Final Four this week will be defined by leaders who have a foot in each world. 

Real Madrid is led by 30-year-old guard Sergio Llull, who has long been pursued by the Houston Rockets, and Luka Doncic, the lengthy 19-year-old swingman who could be the number 1 pick of the NBA draft next month. 

“For Real Madrid it will be crucial to see Doncic performing well, regardless of the expectations that are on him,” Messina says. “It’s not easy for this kid knowing that everybody is going to be looking to see what he is going to do under tremendous pressure.”

Sarunas Jasikevicius, the young Lithuanian coach of his hometown club Zalgiris Kaunas, was a star at the University of Maryland in the 1990s who went on to play three seasons in the NBA. 

CSKA Moscow, one of the powerhouses of Europe, is led emotionally by Viktor Khryapa, the former first-round pick of the Portland Trail Blazers who will be playing in a record 12th Final Four with CSKA. CSKA has overcome the absence of Kyle Hines, its defensive leader who was born and raised in New Jersey, and Nando de Colo of France, the former San Antonio Spur. 

The general manager of defending champion Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul is Maurizio Gherardini, an Italian who one decade ago was vice president and assistant GM of the Toronto Raptors - the first European to be a senior manager with an NBA team. Fenerbahce’s leading scorer and rebounder is Jan Vesely, the former lottery pick of the Washington Wizards, and its coach is Zeljko Obradovic, the winningest coach in European history with nine Final Four championships – beginning in 1992, when as the rookie coach of Partizan he watched Djordjevic make the winning 3 to beat the buzzer. 

“Fenerbahce is doing what CSKA started to do 10 years ago by making the Final Four every year,’’ says Messina, who has coached both CSKA and Real Madrid. “This is the fourth straight appearance in the Final Four for Fenerbahce. For them, CSKA and Real Madrid, to be in the Final Four is like the normal thing that has to happen. They have three established coaches, and then the new star is Sarunas Jasikevicius.”

This event is being influenced positively by American basketball. “The EuroLeague Final Four is becoming more and more similar to the NCAA Final Four – the town is full of basketball fans and nothing (of violence) is happening,” says Messina. “It’s just about people enjoying the game. This is great progress.”

Along the same lines, the NBA has adopted a more fluid style based on the lessons of European basketball. At the turn of the century, Stern was convinced to push through new NBA rules that permitted zone defenses after he saw that they liberated the game internationally. Those rules changes have led to an offensive explosion in which one generation after another has continued to stretch the court with outrageous shotmaking – a change that was launched in part by Dirk. 

My own experiences with the Final Four have helped me to appreciate players from new points of view. I saw Dominique Wilkins play world-class defense to help lead Panathinaikos to the championship at the 1996 Final Four in Paris. One year earlier I watched Arvydas Sabonis lead Real Madrid to the championship in Zaragoza, Spain, months before he would make his long-anticipated debut in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers. 

The Final Four this weekend won’t generate the money or the global audience of an NBA event. And yet in other ways it is where the game is headed. I’m an American who loves to see basketball growing beyond America, and I invite you to join me in analyzing and appreciating the NBA from this new point of view.

NBAnswers is a newsletter from American insider Ian Thomsen for NBA fans everywhere.

Have an NBA question for Ian? Email him at ianthomsennba@gmail.com. He’ll answer your questions each Friday (available for subscribers only).

To buy The Soul of Basketball, the first American book for NBA fans around the world, please click here.