With the recent announcement that the 2011-12 champions won’t in fact be seeking a second go-around in the Adriatic League and hard economic realities facing many Serbian and Croatian clubs, BallinEurope contributor Marko Savkovic today asks the hard question about one of Europe’s most prestigious associations.

Something is always up in the Adriatic League. After Maccabi Tel Aviv informed the league about its decision not to participate in next year’s competition, sportswriters started looking for a replacement but one announcement caught everyone’s attention: ULEB, it seems, has considered cutting number of teams entering the competition directly to just two. Therefore, whoever finishes third will go to qualifications. If agreed upon, this decision will become effective beginning in the 2013-14 season.

This is yet another blow to a proud basketball nation, since Belgrade powerhouse Partizan has failed – once again – in its efforts to receive a Euroleague’s “A” license.

In Serbia, despite regular attendance, support for the ABA was never wholehearted. Teams opted to play for practical reasons: First, because they expected higher profits; second, because they sought stronger competition; and only in distant third because they hoped for improved organization and refereeing.

Opinions were divided among basketball enthusiasts as well. While some looked forward to revival of rivalries last seen in the 1980s, many were concerned with the future of domestic competition. By 2004, Red Star, FMP Zeleznik, Hemofarm and Partizan (in that order) joined the multinational league, and Serbia’s highest tier of basketball gradually came down to six weeks of repetitive matchups. What had been centers of fine basketball – Kraljevo, Cacak, Leskovac and Subotica – became “benched” for most of the season. To make things worse, seasoned professionals playing for other teams could find themselves unemployed as early as March – not to mention the effect this long hiatus has on talented youngsters.

A similar trend was noted in Croatia, with traditional centers losing ground to relative newcomers such as this year’s runner-up Cedevita Zagreb or defending champions KK Zagreb. In the meantime, former greats like Cibona Zagreb, KK Split and KK Zadar have been forced to invest more energy in fighting financial difficulties than in defeating their opponents.

As the national basketball league in Serbia enters semifinals, executives are openly voicing their frustration. Dejan Tomasevic, a former European and world champion with Team Yugoslavia who is now the federation’s vice president, said on Saturday that “we [obviously] have no position in either the Euroleague or the FIBA […] as if we don’t exist. We are always one step behind.” Tomasevic also criticized public opinion for getting carried away by Partizan’s success: “I heard that the Euroleague needs Partizan, with its 7,000 fans in Pionir or 20,000 in the Belgrade Arena. However, now it seems this was not really the case.”

Another legend, now at the helm of Basket Treviso, remained calm: Sasha Djordjevic has said that “ULEB’s interest is to have a strong competition, with 30 or so teams who would be kept regardless of results [...] our interest has to be to have at least one team from Serbia playing the Euroleague; we should focus on that and forget everything else.” He sees no hidden agenda in the ULEB’s refusal to grant his former team an “A” license, however.

Regardless of individual opinions, everything points that the Adriatic League is here to stay. One has to hand it to chief executive Roman Lisac, who admitted last year that his number one priority was to draw in Partizan and Red Star. “Without these two teams, it would go bust.” Now, with the ULEB’s backing, his company has the keys to European-level basketball for Serbs and Croats for years to come.

Marko Savkovic fell in love with basketball because: a) his older brother used to play, so it must have been a cool thing to do; and b) he witnessed Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc play an exhibition match back in 1988. After learning the fundamentals with Partizan Belgrade, Marko spent four years in FMP Zeleznik’s youth system and another three playing lower-division ball. Years later, as a political science graduate, he found a different career for himself, yet remained devoted to hoops. For BallinEurope, he will be closely following developments in the Adriatic league. You may write him at markosavkovic@gmail.com.

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