Sunday, November 06, 2005

European Basketball

by Phillip Compeau

The 1992 Summer Olympic Games of Barcelona saw the proof of American domination in the world of basketball. The “Dream Team,” composed entirely of NBA stars, won rout after rout over international opponents in impressive fashion; the world watched American basketball stars demonstrate that they truly were quicker and stronger than their international counterparts. The memory of Olympic supremacy in 1992, and then in 1996 and 2000, is the image burned into the American thought pattern with regard to European professional basketball. We said that “European players are fundamentally sound, but they can’t compete with the more athletic Americans.” Right?
The fact of the matter is that Europe is leading a basketball revolution, and former Davidson players have found themselves in the middle. Of the college’s last twenty-three men’s basketball graduates, twenty-one have advanced to the European professional level, and Davidson claims sixteen alumni in European leagues now (including Class of 2005 standouts Conor Grace and Logan Kosmalski). Coach McKillop is no stranger to European basketball as well. For 25 years he has traveled throughout the European continent speaking at clinics, giving lectures, and running camps. He continues to expand his network of connections in Europe, and he has taken four of his teams on European trips, including a two-week tour of duty to Italy, Switzerland, and Slovenia this past summer.
It is a testament to the program at Davidson that so many graduates are able to mesh well in the European setting. Many might contribute this to the traditional style of play typical of the Davidson system, featuring tight-knit defense and a pass-oriented half-court offense. In the words of former Davidson player Frantisek Babka, who now lives in Prague, Czech Republic, European teams “are looking for more players that are coachable … and if you stay for four years alongside Coach McKillop, that’s exactly what you are.” But in a larger sense, Davidson’s style is not radically different from that of other programs; passing, screening and tough defense are simply fundamentals which the Wildcats emphasize ad infinitum, and which may have been somewhat lost in the modern American professional era of the point-scorer.
Perhaps more accurate factors in the rise of European basketball have been the increased depth, unity, and diversity of players of European leagues. With hundreds of teams across the European continent, there is much more opportunity for talented players than in the United States, where the NBA and its development league are the only real options for college players wishing to continue their basketball careers. In addition, many European countries offer multiple leagues on different levels of play, which permits more players the opportunity of developing their games and fosters a very healthy competition among players.
The Union of European Basketball Leagues (ULEB), a coalition of leagues from sixteen nations, has succeeded in uniting European basketball under the same rules, format of play, and even playoff system. In fact, Euroleague, which was founded in 1958 as a means for determining the best team in Europe, has steadily grown in size and popularity. Today, it offers annual berths to the sixteen best European teams, which go on to compete in a European league separate from the leagues of their respective countries; Euroleague’s most ardent advocates feel that it is evolving into the basketball equivalent of the UEFA European Cup of soccer.
As noted in the large number of Davidson alumni who choose to continue their play abroad, Europe is attracting greater and greater numbers of players from the four corners of the world, particularly America. What’s more, Euroleague has recently altered its rules concerning non-European players. Formerly, every member team could only sign two players who were not holders of a passport from a European country, but this restriction has been lifted for the 2005 season. This can only envision a greater influx of American players into the European system, which will no longer have to ride the coattails of the NBA but has developed into a powerful entity of its own. According to Babka, “The Americans playing [in Europe] are more trying to pick up the European basketball than the other way around.”
In addition to acclimating to the renewed traditional style of European basketball, Davidson graduates must learn to live in a completely new and sometimes alien environment. Although European leagues may not have the hype of the NBA, they are nevertheless a cutthroat world of agents and contract negotiations. Furthermore, the Davidson athlete must adapt himself to living in an unfamiliar culture and learn to speak a foreign language. The broadening of one’s horizons is a concept that Coach McKillop has always tried to foster as a central facet of Davidson Basketball, and Frantisek Babka believes that the lure of European basketball is just that: “It’s not the money. They can get a job here. It’s not the basketball either. It’s about finding a different way of life, and playing basketball in Europe certainly offers that.”

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