The 20th season this century of the continent's top competition being managed by the clubs themselves brings up countless exciting memories, but the spring of 2001 will always hold a special place for Virtus Bologna becoming the very first champion of a brand new era.
The first EuroLeague game ever held under the management of the clubs themselves, who had formed Euroleague Basketball, took place on October 16, 2000 in the Spanish capital of Madrid, where Real won a 75-73 thriller against visiting Olympiacos Piraeus amid much fanfare. Future Hall of Famer Dino Radja scored the very first basket of the new era and also pulled 16 defensive rebounds, still the third-highest total ever, for Olympiacos. His teammate Stephane Risacher led all scorers with 18 points, but Real showed more depth, with seven players scoring between 7 and 14 points, the latter figure belonging to Alberto Angulo. Sergio Scariolo became the first coach of the new EuroLeague to record a victory. Among the special guests was the late Mirza Delibasic, a former Real great received with a loving ovation from the home crowd.
Parade of stars
The new EuroLeague featured many of the top stars of the day. Among them were the late Alphonso Ford, who still holds the EuroLeague's highest career scoring average, with 22.2 points per game, and the second player on that list, Panagiotis Liadelis, who averaged 19.3. Others include Radja, Manu Ginobili, Dejan Tomasevic, Gregor Fucka, Sasha Djordjevic, Elmer Bennett, Pau Gasol, Fabricio Oberto, Sani Becirovic, Mike Batiste, Jorge Garbajosa, Arturas Karnisovas, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Zoran Savic, Antoine Rigaudeau, Carlton Myers, Marko Milic, Anthony Bowie, Ibrahim Kutluay, Marko Jaric, Igor Rakocevic, Gianluca Basile, Felipe Reyes, Ricardo Pittis, Alberto Herreros, Luis Scola, Beno Udrih, Matjaz Smodis and Petar Naumoski – most of them once or future EuroLeague, Olympics, World and NBA champions. There were also illustrious coaches like Scariolo, Dusan Ivkovic, Ettore Messina, Aito Garcia Renesis, Dusko Ivanovic, Smago Zagadin, Pepu Hernandez and Neven Spahija.
The inaugural EuroLeague season under Euroleague Basketball consisted of 24 teams from 14 countries playing a 10-game regular season before two best-of-three playoff rounds preceding best-of-five semis and finals series. The eighthfinals featured 16 teams and eight series, of which seven were swept 2-0, including those by Benetton Treviso and Baskonia (then Tau Ceramica) without home-court advantage, while Union Olimpija Ljubljana won on the road in Game 3 to advance. Fortitudo Bologna, Virtus Bologna, Baskonia and AEK Athens survived the quarterfinals.
Record still standing
In the Game 2 of the eighthfinals, as Fortitudo defeated Cibona Zagreb 74-75 on the road in overtime, winning center Stojko Vrankovic set a record that remains to this day. He blocked his 10th shot to preserve the series-clinching win at the end of overtime. The eclipsed the mark of 8 blocks by Grygorii Khizhniak of Zalgiris a couple of months earlier, and no player since has recorded more than 7. Vrankovic, a native of Croatia who never played for Cibona, would finish his career at age 37 a few months after that performance. He also had 15 rebounds in that game but scored just 9 points, missing what would have been the EuroLeague's first triple-double by a single point.
The first best-of-five series in the history of continental club competitions were the 2000-01 semifinals, which both ended in sweeps, but were interrupted by controversy. The second meeting between AEK and Baskonia in Athens ended with what would have been a game-winning basket by Dimos Dikoudis for the hosts if his shot had not clearly been launched after the final buzzer. The EuroLeague's disciplinary judge, Jose Manuel Meirim from Portugal, soon ruled that the basket was, indeed, too late, and cited the applicable competition bylaw in ordering the game replayed, a first in European competitions at this level. Baskonia romped in the replay and went on to sweep the series at home in Game 3. Virtus did the same to archrival Fortitudo on the road with an epic comeback from 18 points down at the start of the fourth quarter.
Best shooting performance ever
The replay of Game 2 between AEK and Baskonia was highlighted by a series-defining shooting exhibition that has stood the test of time. On the night of April 4, 2001 in Athens, Baskonia's Saulius Stombergas made a perfect 9 of 9 three-pointers on his way to 39 points in a redemptive, and resounding, 65-90 victory for the visitors. No EuroLeague player before or since has made so many triples without a miss. Remarkably, Stombergas also made 4 of 4 two-pointers that night, but missed pure perfection by going 4 of 5 at the foul line.
Although the 2000-01 finals remain the only best-of-anything series to ever crown a European club king, there was a championship game. That's because the series came down to one do-or-die Game 5 to decide whether Virtus or Baskonia would be that champion, which was anyone's guess until that night. Baskonia shocked everyone by handing Virtus its first home loss of the season in Game 1 with center Victor Alexander pulling what is still a playoffs record of 19 rebounds as he took advantage of Rashard Griffith's absence for the hosts. Antoine Rigaudeau and Manu Ginobili exploded for 23 and 27 points, respectively, as Virtus won Game 2 and Game 3 by 20 or more points, the latter on the road, to flip the series. Baskonia answered with a series-tying Game 4 victory that featured a still-classic dunk by Mindaugas Timinskas. It all came down to Game 5 in Bologna, where Rigaudeau, Ginobili, Griffith and Marko Jaric proved the difference as Virtus walked off with an 82-74 victory and the first modern EuroLeague trophy.
What they said
After the final victory, Virtus coach Ettore Messina said his team recalled other great ones from the previous century:
"We have played under enormous psychological pressure, but we've been able to withstand everything and win this great title. I'm very proud of my players because they are very young and this title reminds me a little of the titles won years ago by Jugoplastika and Partizan, also with very young players."
Manu Ginobili, who was chosen the MVP of the finals, said he was not sure that he deserved it:
"This was the best day of my career. I'm so happy, but it's not so important that I'm the MVP. I'm happy for our victory. We are a great team, we keep together well and my MVP award, it's secondary. I want to thank all my teammates and my coaches for the opportunity to live this fantastic moment... I can't believe I'm the MVP, and I don't know if I deserve it. This is a team with no stars. Any player can make the last shot or all the other ones."