Basket City is back baby. With victory in the 2019 Basketball Champions League (BCL), Virtus Bologna ended a 10 year drought of major honours as they ensured another banner would be raised in PalaDozza. Emmet Ryan watched it all in the Sportpaleis in Antwerp
Kevin Punter came here to play and the well-traveled man delivered big with some nice help from Amath M’Baye. Whatever Tenerife threw at him, the star of Virtus Bologna stood tall in a dominant individual performance as a 10 year drought from major honours ended for one of the biggest clubs in the sport’s history. In what looked like it might be a tame affair, Punter made the fans want to stay and watch his side impose their game on Tenerife.
The Antwerp fans looked like they had gone home for the most part before this one, they had watched their man take bronze and thousands of them headed for the gates after the medal ceremony. Bamberg’s fans were still hanging around and them, plus, a reasonable number of remaining Antwerp fans, meant the arena looked ok except for the bench side, where the hard camera faces, sullying the overall impression of the crowd.
Tenerife’s fans, who had chanted MVP at the Red Foxes after their win on Friday night before getting photos with the dancers, were in full song well before tip. Some Bologna fans had passed me on the train here. The supporters of two teams competing weren’t exactly here in large numbers but they were vociferous. Everyone was just really hoping those empty seats would fill up before tip.
The awards ceremony was a most made for YouTube affair. The marketing of the BCL has been built heavily around social media, and in three years they’ve flat out smoked any previous effort by FIBA as well as comfortably surpassing Euroleague. The former admittedly was easy, FIBA’s social game was long in need of all the work, but they’ve raised the game in terms of realising that interacting with as many people in as many territories as possible is critical. Activating a base is rather vital for a start-up.
The ceremony itself was tame enough, no real surprises as Tamir Blatt took young player (yes, he is David’s son), Tyrese Rice took the MVP title, and hometown hero Roel Moors was named coach of the year. Fortunately it was just a 4 minute walk from my AirBnB, it wasn’t terribly useful for content but at least it gave me a launching pad for the pubs.
Thankfully those empty teeth filled up just in time for the opening tip, with an announced crowd of 16,437. The first optics challenge for FIBA, the body count, was won, now they needed some serious offence in this game. Kevin Punter clearly got the memo, his open three from the left of the key made it a 7-0 run to start for Virtus in the opening 2 minutes. He got his second three in short order, this time to the right of the key. The pressure of a decade without a major title for Basket City wasn’t preying on his mind. Then, of course, a third. This time the right corner. We weren’t even midway through the first quarter and he was already on a mission for the MVP trophy.
Colton Iverson finally got the first field goal for Tenerife with nearly 5 minutes off the clock and, despite the 11 point hole, there was no panic in the game from the men in black. There were plenty of errors but they remained calm.
The stingy Tenerife D finally appeared out of the timeout, getting this odd thing called stops that they had so far been unable to conceive let alone achieve. With Punter sitting, Mario Chalmers came in and Tenerife just flat out disrespected the exterior threat. Lucca Staiger had started specifically to guard Punter and been dealt with easily. The adjustment meant Tenerife could clog the paint and actually play their game. Amath M’Baye stepped up to keep them honest however with solid work in and out of the paint. With his side up 12, Chalmers stared up the floor unsure of what the job was to close out the first. Tenerife had a plan, Bologna had ripped it up and the Italians led 20-8 after 10 minutes.
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Great, this Romanian dude I just met who goes by Sega (that’s the nickname he insisted on), happened to be working on video editing at the hoops. That got me a seat in Billie’s, a great bar in town and an opening to a mad back story. As we were joined by two other chaps just looking for free seats, Sega told us about how he used to work on shooting porn. The challenges in doing so, beyond the obvious smutty jokes that were all made at our table, were curious as he had to adapt his shooting style while watching people going at it. That’s quite an education for a cameraman.
After polishing off some pork cheeks, it seemed like finding out the challenge about people having a warm-up shag while trying to get ready for an actual shoot had been detailed enough. So onwards to Gollemke for a local APA where I found Antonis from Eurohoops passing by. It was his first rest since landing here. About 5 minutes later he passed by again, he was heading to Elfde Gebod for dinner. I joined him and we talked shop over beers. He’d worked in men’s mags before joining Eurohoops so hearing about Sega meant we had a theme for the evening.
A few beers in, we decided to head home after an early one. Just as he was gone to the metro, I realised we never toasted Tyrese. So I rushed back to Gollemke, one more beer, then bed. 15 hours later I got up to head in for this game.
The pace of the second quarter certainly played more to Tenerife’s liking early on, if the scoreboard wasn’t exactly helping them. The offensive plan seemed to be have a guy put up a jumper, miss, and hope Colton Iverson got the offensive rebound. Individually, he was doing grand and easily the most effective Tenerife player but that’s not exactly sustainable and though the speed had dropped, it was still Bologna making more of their chances. M’Baye nailed a three to push the lead to 17 midway through the quarter. We were already looking seriously at blowout territory.
The Bologna fans in the corner were bunched up in black with ample noise coming as their guys just kept on looking meaner with the ball in hand. Virtus were just plain business like right now, calmly keeping a flat Tenerife side at bay. The one concern was that this lull might give the men in black a chance to settle and find their way back into the game. There were plenty of trips to the line for the islanders but the outside shooting remained atrocious, as the 14th straight effort from deep failed to find the net. Pierre-Antoine Gillet ended the streak in the final minute of the half. Still, the gap was wide as Tenerife trailed 38-24 at the break.
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This was an odd place for Tenerife and I’m not talking about the weather. They had come in as the bad guys on Friday and sent the home fans home frowning. They were, on paper, the best team in town on a neutral site but there were still so many questions. Hate me Now had been their intro song for this game and the chip on their shoulder seemed the only real go-to option. There was no-one who was just a bad man as the logical person to look to when things got tough. This was a balanced side but one built around measured displays. Streaky ball isn’t their thing, in Spain it doesn’t make sense. They will never have the budget to match the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Baskonia, but they still offer players a chance to compete in the second best national competition on the planet.
That makes them a magnet for reliable dudes, guys who can go so far but aren’t going to be the dude when you need that one mad person. It’s ideal for consistent play in the regular season but in single elimination play it suited more to grind out D first ball. If that doesn’t work, well, there’s not reall a plan B.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please no whistling while the match is in progress.” Dude, this isn’t tennis and it definitely isn’t golf. This is European basketball and no polished pretty arena is going to change the attitudes of Bologna fans. They were here to be the sixth man and the first Tenerife offence right after that warning led to the whistles being even more audible.
Punter, left corner, three. Yeah, he’s just looking to complete the set for a pretty shot chart. He’s rather used to this stage, having been part of the AEK team that won the trophy last year. He was also used to Antwerp, albeit not this arena, having logged a couple of months with the Giants in 2017. In only his fourth year as a pro, Punter is on his fifth team in four countries. Greece (Lavrio), Belgium (Antwerp), Poland (Rosa Radom), then Italy with Virtus. It’s a familiar road, just ask Malcolm Delaney who went on a tour of championships before spending all of two years with Lokomotiv Kuban before jumping to the NBA with the Hawks. Delaney’s balling in China these days, despite all the desire to get him back to Europe. It’s a nice life if you can make it work and the business brain is strong with Delaney.
Back here, well , a four point play by Davin White woke up Tenerife in the middle of the third as they cut an 18 point deficit back to 9. That seemed to remind Bologna that they actually had to close out the game. With nothing to play for after this, save for a dead rubber last game of the season in Serie A, it was a ride or die game. Pietro Aradori from deep and the gap was back to 13. Punter with a defensive rebound and he sees a chance to lean in, foul drawn from Rodrigo San Miguel. Normal business seemed to have resumed but Tenerife manged to chip and claw away, locking down in their own half court again to keep Bologna thinking.
Once more Aradori, the lane just opened up for him as Tenerife seemed sure he’d pass. He waltzed inside and it was as you were 10 minutes earlier, with Bologna up 58-44 and on the verge of a season defining victory.
So, Virtus. The whole city is a story. They used to be kings of Europe, the real kings as in the actual top competition be it the old champions cup or Euroleague. Then came the crash. That also saw their city rivals, Fortitudo, end up in a bigger hole. Both of them would end up in Serie A2, unthinkable for an outside observer but all too easy to understand with a cursory knowledge of Italian hoops.
Siena, who had been royalty in the sport in Europe, not just Italy, went bust a couple of weeks after I got back from my jaunt through Italy earlier this season. They too had dropped to A2, then didn’t pay their players, then promptly got excluded. It’s an all too familiar story. Sam Meyerkopf, a scout/journalist described it to me well once. Italy doesn’t have financial problems, there are no finances.
That win in Eurochallenge back in 2009, their last European trophy, was meant to be the first step on the road back for Virtus. Instead it preceded a horrid downturn amidst the economic crisis. Virtus returning to Serie A two years ago was a start, getting into Europe this year was a bonus. Then came the big coaching switch, hiring Saša Đorđević mid-season, and making the marquee signing of Chalmers albeit without getting the desired on-court effect. The club is being linked, often ludicrously, with potential free agents. The idea of getting Basket City back is building momentum and, with Fortitudo being promoted back to Serie A for next season, the dreams of the past are alive again.
There’s that cold reality to worry about though because the issues aren’t gone. Torino, who opened the season with Larry Brown as their head coach, Royce White as a big name signing, and lots of hype, got trounced repeatedly in Eurocup, didn’t fare much better in Serie A, and eventually reached a familiar financial mess where they will be excluded next season. The dream of Italian basketball being cool, is so fragile.
Aradori had Bologna’s first make of the final frame and Punter immediately started waving his guys back on D. Tenerife had opened the fourth with a pair of threes. The gap was only 10 again, and the former Tennessee man did not want his guys going to sleep now.
Punter and Chalmers both waved along with instructions. Two careers that had gone so differently but with a common goal for the next few minutes at least. They were able to get boring, drawing fouls out of the chasing islanders to be in the bonus by the middle of the fourth. Now, with Tenerife chasing, Bologna were the ones bringing frustation from all around.
The panic button had never been hit however and there was Tim Abromaitis to cut the gap to 8 as we hit the decisive stages of this one. For all their flaws, flubs, and failures, Tenerife had not yet fallen. As ever, the cool the heads bucket for Bologna came from Aradori. Double-digits again, a Tenerife timeout.
A 26th missed three from Tenerife and it was Punter grabbing it. Whatever was required, Punter was out to deliver. You’d easily have thought it was he that was the long-time pro with NBA titles and a NCAA championship not Chalmers, such was the veteran guile. As tempers frayed, the coolest head was a man known for his trash talk.
Somehow, someway, the islanders hadn’t gone away. From the line Abromaitis made the gap the samllest since the first quarter cutting it to 7. Then came the 28th missed three, from White, but Javier Beiran caught the airball and cut the gap to 6. On a night where their shooting was awful, Tenerife somehow found hope in the closing minutes.
Mario Chalmers baby. Just when they needed a make from their big signing he got one. That proved to be closer. All that work done mid quarter to frustrate would pay off now. The line would carry Bologna through the final minute. Victory for Virtus. The banner would go up in the PalaDozza, a place back in the BCL next year secured, and the following Sunday’s season closer against Varese would be a guaranteed celebration. Punter had the final say for them from the field as he capped an MVP display over the weekend to complete a 73-61 victory.
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