Ah you’ve just got to love the simplicity of European team anthems. especially when they seem totally alien to the backdrop. ¡Hala Madrid! by Jose De Aguilar, leading right into the more typical tune for a modern arena, Stop the Rock by Apollo 440. This is what you get when you go to sport on the continent.
Judging by the speed they were going at, you’d have sworn Real were in blowout mood. They came into this derby as 14 point favourites and were scoring for fun. Their D however was letting Estudiantes do whatever they liked at just the same pace. It was fast, so much faster than what you normally get in Europe, and despite the stakes around this game it felt odd to see only a half full WiZink Centre on hand to watch it. Real were going with their strongest line-up, Vitoria-Gasteiz was still a week away after all, but their approach to making this a shootout wasn’t unnerving their derby opponents.
Through the middle of the first, Real were racking up scores but Estu were still plenty relaxed. Los Blancos, for all their might, were just the hurdle before the underdogs tonight and nothing more. A far from whopping gap of 6 had been opened up by the first timeout, which for the offensive effort involved wouldn’t exactly have pleased Pablo Laso. Then came that rolling R from the PA as Rudy Fernandez went deep. Anthony Randolp did likewise soon after to give Real their first double digt lead of the night. Rrrrrrrrudy again. Now we were getting the dominance Real were looking to assert.
Two of the three top clubs to have played every season in Spain’s top flight, call it ACB, Liga Endesa, or whatever, here dancing again. In the white corner, the kings: Real Madrid, 10 Euroleague titles, 34 Spanish championships, and around 80 odd other titles to their name. They’re looking to retain both Spanish and Euroleague titles this year, with this being their last home game before the Euroleague Final Four and them holding the same record as Barcelona at the top of the ACB standings.
Staring them down, the misfits that are happy being just that. Ludde Hakanson was there the first time I went to a club game in Europe, just not in these colours. Alessandro Gentile, well he’s a story. Goran Suton, a man better remembered for his time with Michigan State. All wearing the light blue of Estudiantes. I once asked Dan Clark, who spent a long time with Estu, who their fans were, his response was simple: Anyone who’s not a Madrid fan, the city being a byword for Real.
Whereas Los Blancos were riding high, once more Estudiantes were staring down a real relegation threat. Going into this they were just one win above the drop-zone. They know this situation well. They would have gone down in 2012 but Tenerife, that team that just came second in the Basketball Champions League, didn’t meet the ACB’s requirements to come up from LEB Oro at the time. That likely won’t come close to being a saving option this summer. It’s stay up on their own merits or go down for the first time having been in the top tier since opening day in 1955.
Estudiantes managed to remember what defence was after that sudden onslaught but this one already felt ready to get terribly ugly. Los Blancos were looking to give their fans one hell of a going away present before the quest for Euroleague title number 11 and Jaycee Carroll made a late three to make it 30-18 after the first.
You can’t look at Los Blancos without taking in the one-two punch. Edy Tavares at starting centre, he’s so freaking long and gathers whatever he likes. Then in for him comes Gustavo Ayon, a defensive question mark but so good at the 5 when his team has the ball that he more than makes up for it. Between scoring and distribution, he’s a beast. Combined, it’s just nasty.
That kind of strength up front allows for so much on the rest of the floor for Real. It’s why you can have Sergio Llull, the unrequited love of the Houston Rockets, looking like a headless chicken for half the game and then go off for a bunch of threes. It’s how an under-sized and not exactly athletic point guard in Facundo Campazzo can fit in perfectly as the ball-handler. What makes Real work is that their coach, Pablo Laso, knows how to make each guy work in his system.
Jeffrey Taylor arrived as a defensive 2 guard, now he’s a legit scorer. Jaycee Carroll still plays young but he’s the wrong side of 30. Still, he can do what he does because of the fit. Never mind Trey Thompkins, there are times watching this team where Anthony Randolph looks like a luxury.
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Hakanson was in as the ball-handoler for Estudiantes, at 23 he’s still at the front end of his career but he’s seen a lot. With this side, he was learning to grind to keep them up against a much superior outfit. Duelling with Llull as he watched Real inch further ahead. Gentile, still only 26, just back from injury and still in the early phase of his redemption tour. Unlike Llull, his failure to launch in Houston wasn’t one-sided. Out here, he was fighting but still looking to prove he belonged at a contender in Europe never mind the true top table. Gentile, jogging back on D, could only look on as Carroll drained another three. Llull with another, the lead was 20.
Ah Ludde. That was quite the weekend. It was London where Olympiacos with a roster that, in hindsight, was ridiculously deep, stormed to their second straight Euroleague title. The tournament however was a true failure to launch. Euroleague was meant to be in the O2 for two seasons for Final Fours. The first flopped so hard that they moved to Milano the next year.
Hakanson’s senior side was in action, losing as it happened to Real in the semi final, but he suited up with Barcelona’s youth side in the Nike Invitational Junior Tournament. It’s now the Adidas Next Generation Tournament but Hakansson was on a fun Barca team loaded with lads who looked destined for the NBA. The only one that actually got there was Mario Hezonja and the association hasn’t exactly worked out great for him.
Still, that was a really fun Barcelona side. Nowhere near as talented as the Badalona team that would trounce them in the tournament final, but they just ran like hell and had a tiny alternative to Hakansson at point guard called Pau Cami. Kid couldn’t have been more than 5’6″ in shoes. He was never going to make the next level but he was all energy and three balls. Hakanson looked the polished youth prospect. The following autumn, with him coming off injury, I’d see him in action for Barca’s B side in a rare win in a rough LEB Oro season (the second tier). He’s been grinding ever since, through Riga, Sevilla, and Fuenlabrada, before finally landing here.
Yeah, this was completely out of hand hitting half-time. The Berserkers were downright jovial in their section, nothing mad about them because how can you really get worked up when it’s all going to plan? Even when it didn’t, it ended up breaking right. Fab Causeur was stripped by Gian Clavell only for Estu to subsequently send the turnover out of bounds. There was the odd moment of joy on offence for Estu but when Real fans can barely get annoyed by a late foul call on Llull, well you’re not exactly stressing them.
At the half Real were well and tryly in command, 55-38.
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Gentile gave Estudiantes a bit of a spark to start the second half but that shouldn’t be confused with hope of a comeback. The only question was the winning margin for Real. Taylor converted an alley-oop from Campazzo and hung on the rim gently to avoid over doing it coming back down.
That got another run going for Real, the one constant with Laso’s teams over the years is that when they go into murder mode there’s not a whole lot anyone can do about it. They just keep on scoring until they find a way to stop themselves. Laso usually calls them in then and service often resumes right after. So often, opponents of so many levels, have gone into games looking even with Real on paper and been blown away without even having a chance to get started.
Estu really do hold a special place in my heart. I’d been to NBA, NCAA, and, of course, Irish games before 2013 but I’d never actually gone to Europe to watch teams ball in person until a weekender in Barcelona that spring. Having caught a Barcelona football game in the Camp Nou on Saturday, Sunday afternoon saw Estudiantes visit the Palau Blaugrana.
Clark was playing, so was future Toronto Raptor Bebe Nogueira for Estudiantes. Little did we know at the time but Joe Ingles on that Barcelona would end up doing well in the association too. Barca were being more cautious with their line-up, no Juan Carlos Navarro as he was being rested for London’s Final Four. Estu had won the reverse game by 22 points, they came in confident. Instead, they got whupped. Normal order doesn’t always assert itself but there’s a reason why, even with all their time logged in the ACB, Estu’s glory years can be counted on one hand. Well, maybe a couple of fingers into the second.
Still, they’re just plain cool. The underdog club in a city that has one side so associated with success. They endure, they stay who they are, and they ride wild hoping to hang about for another flash of fire like their early 90s run which saw them make the Euroleague Final Four in 1992 and win the Copa del Rey, one of three they have ever lifted, the same year.
I mean, it still mattered. One missed stop had Tavares audibly punch the stanchion in self-disgust. This while up 18 mid third quarter. That’s the order with these guys. It’s when they’re at their best that they are most self-critical. If things are clicking they’d better stay that way.
The amount of times the PA had screamed Campazzo and Taylor’s names before the end of the third, you’d have sworn they had more than 29 points between them on the evening. It was supposed to be time for cruise control but Real just kept on looking to increase the pain to their city rivals.
Hakanson made a nice elbow three but it wasn’t exactly giving Real any cause for panic. With 10 minutes to play, Los Blancos were well on top 84-61.
Gentile’s night was a lot like his career to date. Flashes of intelligence and solid execution but too often he was just anonymous. Getting run out of Milano, having lost the captaincy along the way, didn’t help but he’s not a guy to despise. The passion is there but it often got the better of him. Since leaving, he’s been listless. The clubs on his docket, prior to Estu at least, were big names. Panathinaikos, 6 time champions of Europe, Hapoel Jerusalem, a legit second force in Israel that’s in the middle of its best run ever, and then Virtus Bologna…just before they got good again.
Here, well there’s nothing to gloss over. It’s a team where you’ve got to deliver because trophies are rarely in the discussion. It’s survival mode and you hope to do enough to merit the attention of someone bigger. There were those hints of going to join the Rockets while in Milano but they’re gone for now. He was formally waived last October. At 26, there’s still ample time to rebuild, he could be in a lot worse places to try.
Ah there’s King Felipe. Young master Reyes, the elder statesman of Real Madrid, has spent his entire senior career in the city. The first 6 were with Estu before moving to Los Blancos where he’s in his 15th season now. The trophy cabinet is plenty full and he’s a lot nearer retirement than he’d like to admit, but he gets his role now. Felipe never had a NBA body but that never let it bother him. A master of the dark arts and or getting his arse where it needed to be, he’s been a force in this sport for two decades as well as an iron man with the record for most appearances in both this league and the Copa del Rey. You can add all-time leader in rebounds in both the Spanish league and Euroleague to that list, although the latter record is going to come under threat faster than you’d think given the sheer increase in the number of games in the competition.
As the scoreboard ticked 90, he bundled inside again to make something happen. Then he took a seat as Real looked to mix things up a bit more at the tail end. Another chance for Gabriel Deck, signed from San Lorenzo in the off-season, to show something. The young Argentinian was a superstar in the FIBA Americas League and his home competition, he moved here for €250,000 which is not a small amount for the sport over here. This is a major step up however and he’s only featured in a small supporting role all season. For this team however, even at 24, he’s a kid. The move of Luka Doncic to the NBA saw the natural association between Real and getting kids on the floor disappear. There’s not a man on the roster getting real time under 28.
That veteran experience brought up the century just past the middle of the fourth. The timeout with 2.34 left was as much to give everyone a rest as anything else. Estu were well passed trying to keep this dignified. Deck got his three off a lovely outlet pass by Llull. There’s a reminder to Laso as he finalises his rotations before the Final Four. Then came a dinky floater by Causeur. This one was done. Real, for one night, were on top on their own in ACB, with a 109-92 win. Placido Domingo played us out with Himno Real Madrid.
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