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Continent's fans gripped by Euroleague Final Four

ATHENS -- For the other 51 weekends of the year, Athens has to satisfy itself with being the self-proclaimed "cradle of civilization."

This weekend, the Greek capital is something else -- the cradle of the European basketball world, as the Euroleague season reaches its climax at the OAKA, the 18,000-seat Olympic Indoor Sports Center.

Imagine the glitz and glamour of the NBA Finals, mixed in with the heavyweight importance of the NCAA Final Four and throw in a healthy dose of European soccer tribalism. Now, you can begin to get a feel for what the Euroleague Final Four is all about.

The event, which features reigning champions CSKA Moscow and Spanish clubs Tau Ceramica and Unicaja Malaga would have been big enough in its own right, even before you factor in the identity of the fourth finalist, Panathinaikos.

"The Greens," as they are known to their fanatical followers, are not only an Athens sports club, their home court is actually the OAKA.

The venue was chosen months in advance of Friday's semifinals and Sunday's final game and no doubt served as an incentive for Panathinaikos to emerge from the original field of 24 teams, from 13 countries, which started Euroleague group play way back in October.

But it also means that what would have routinely been an electrifying Final Four is now guaranteed to be one of the must-see basketball events anywhere in the world this year.

Imagine Duke playing in a Final Four at Cameron Indoor Arena or UNC headlining the big NCAA weekend at the Dean Dome. That only begins to describe what it will be like to see possibly as many as 15,000 Panathinaikos supporters backing their team when they face Tau in Friday's second semifinal.

"Having the Final Four in Greece does make a difference because it is a real basketball country," says Euroleague communications director Kirsten Haack, whose office has accredited a record 600-plus journalists from 25 countries for this weekend. "There is more coverage, more interest.

"Having Panathinaikos here does not change the ticketing pricing or distribution. The four teams receive 1,000 tickets each, and we sell 12,000 tickets through a variety of programs but, obviously, we expect quite a few Panathinaikos fans here."

That could be the understatement of the weekend. Athens has embraced the event with typical Greek pride and gusto. The city seems to have branded every bus stop and billboard with the Euroleague's "Devotion" slogan that plays on the importance of the sport to European club supporters.

The 2,500-year-old Acropolis might be the only priceless tourist site in this glorious, ancient city that is not draped in Panathinaikos green this weekend.

And, of course, what self-respecting major sporting event would be complete without its own army of scalpers? Only, this being Euroleague, there is a nice international twist to the trade in black market tickets in Athens.

The cheapest semifinal ticket, with a face value of $27, was selling for around $680 on Friday, where they were available at all.

Business-minded CSKA fans in Moscow have been snapping up packages made available by Athens tourist agencies which include hotel accommodation and game tickets, and run to around $475-$680 … and selling the tickets in Greece for twice that amount.

The cheapest semifinal ticket, with a face value of $27, was selling for around $680 on Friday, where they were available at all.

Many disappointed fans are clearly going to have to satisfy themselves with watching the action on television, not difficult given that the Final Four will be broadcast to a record 163 different countries this year including, for the first time, China, where the Euroleague, like the NBA, is heading for preseason exhibition games later this year. (CSKA versus Unicaja is slated to air Friday at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBA-TV.)

"The progress we have made has been clear over the years," adds Haack of Euroleague's continued growth since rival European leagues unified in 2002. "We are breaking records this year in a way that demonstrates that the work done so far is paying off. I think it's clear there is only one direction the league and this event is going."

NBA teams, certainly, do not need convincing of that fact and every one of them will be represented by at least one, and in some cases numerous, scouting and front office personnel this weekend.

Those experts will be curious how Tau's Brazilian forward Tiago Splitter performs ahead of this year's draft and will be checking on the progress of Argentinian Olympic gold medalist Luis Scola (drafted by the San Antonio Spurs 2002) and Serbian guard Igor Rakocevic (drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves 2000).

Defending champions CSKA, who have been led superbly by former Cleveland Cavalier Trajan Langdon this season, have Australian center David Andersen back in peak form after an horrendous dislocated ankle and fibula forced him off last season's title team. Drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2002, Andersen has spoken of his willingness to try and make it in the NBA in the near future.

But it is CSKA guard Theodoros Papaloukas who might be the most intriguing prospect in this year's tournaments with teams alerted to the possibility of him trying his luck in the NBA next season, even though he turns 30 next Tuesday.

Given home-court advantage, Panathinaikos will be seen as favorites by many pundits although the fact that they are a team packed with established veterans will make them of less interest to NBA scouts.

Milos Vujanic (New York Knicks 2002) and Robertas Javtokas (San Antonio 2001) have been drafted but seem unlikely to pursue careers in North America. One of the few young players on the roster, Greek forward Dusan Sakota, has played just 10 times in Euroleague this season, averaging nine minutes a game. He most likely will see little or no time this weekend.

Perhaps the most intriguing name on the Greens' roster is former Arizona State forward Michael Batiste. He had one season in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002-03. But he has been electrifying this campaign despite injury problems.

In one sense, however, the European game has become a victim of its own success with the increasingly sophisticated and extensive NBA scouting machine now making tournaments like this largely redundant for their purposes.

"We have watched these four teams over and over, seen the players playing for their countries at World Championships," says one NBA scout. "Maybe you'll get the chance to see how they perform in the clutch, but you've probably done that already as well. A lot of guys wouldn't be coming if it weren't for the junior tournament."

That event, the Nike International Junior Tournament, takes place on Friday and features the next generation of stars from some of Europe's major powerhouse programmes, exactly the sort of place the next great Euro find could be spotted by an alert scout.

"That tournament has added a whole new dimension to the weekend," says the scout. "Put it this way, two years ago in Moscow, [Yaroslav] Korolev was drafted by the Clippers because their coach Mike Dunleavy was there, watched him play in the junior tournament and he shot up their draft board [taken 12th overall]."

All of which, of course, is for the future. For the present, for hundreds of thousands of basketball fans, and four sets of players and coaches, all that matters are the final games in the 2006-07 Euroleague season.

"For me, winning Euroleague was a great accomplishment," says Langdon, who ended his college career at Duke by losing the 1999 Final Four to UConn. "Being that I'd been to a Final Four, been to the championship game, the last game of my senior year. That was very disappointing, to lose after an incredible senior year.

"Then, as a team in the NBA, we weren't very good -- in three years in Cleveland we never got to the playoffs. Then, in my first year in Europe, at Benetton [Treviso] we got to the Euroleague final and lost there. To get back there and finish off the job last season was one of the highlights of my career."

Ian Whittell covers the NBA for The (London) Times.