Europe's top league turns 50

Ettore Messina, the legendary Italian coach currently in charge of CSKA Moscow, sat in the stands and watched as the NBA paid tribute to its 50 greatest players of all time at the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland.

This weekend, in Madrid, Spain, Messina will be one of the honorees as European basketball stages its own version of those half-century celebrations.

"I was in Cleveland personally and that ceremony was extremely moving, extremely touching," said Messina, whose CSKA team is taking on Spain's TAU Ceramica, Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv and Italy's Montepaschi Siena in this weekend's Euroleague final four.

"Cleveland was a great experience so I hope I will experience something similar this weekend. I am extremely happy, not only to be honored but to receive the attention of the people who selected this list."

European club competition turns 50 this year and boasts a history every bit as colorful, exciting and controversial as the NBA's.

And that history will be celebrated in full at the Palacio de Deportes de la Comunidad de Madrid ("The Palace" for short) where Euroleague recognizes its "50 Greatest Contributors List," a list that naturally includes Euro greats such as Messina, but also many names familiar to American fans of the game.

Current NBA stars Anthony Parker and Manu Ginobili will be acknowledged for their Euroleague efforts before they became established players in the United States.

From the dominant and talent-packed Yugoslav national program of the late 1980s and early 1990s, names such as Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja are as well known in L.A., Chicago and Boston, respectively, as they are in the Balkans.

And, from an earlier vintage, Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, former NBA MVP Bob McAdoo and Walter Szczerbiak -- father of Cleveland Cavaliers forward Wally -- are still stopped on the streets in Italy and Spain by basketball fans who want an autograph and a chat about the old days.

In short, the 1992 Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics may have brought the Old World and the New World closer together on the basketball court.

But North American ball and European ball -- the NBA and the Euroleague -- have a long and productive common history. The only surprise is that it took so long for the Euro invasion of the NBA to get underway.

"When I was playing in Europe, I saw a lot of talented players," said McAdoo, who won two NBA championships with the Lakers before becoming a legend with the Italian team Milano in the late 1980s.

"I saw very athletic guys, guys who could shoot the ball, but they never got the opportunity to play in the NBA because the league just was not comfortable with getting over European players at that time.

"I look now at guys who have come over from Europe in recent years -- I like Dirk Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovic, Pau Gasol who is fitting in perfectly with the Lakers -- but then take, for instance, a guy like [Brazilian legend] Oscar Schmidt.

"He played on a couple of teams I played against in the Italian league and I thought he could have played in the NBA easily. Dino Meneghin was the center on my Milan teams and he could have played in the NBA easily."

It has taken 50 years and thousands of games for the European game to advance to the point where Euros can move easily and often to NBA teams (a little too easily, say some high-ranking Euroleague folks who are worried about talented young Euros being drafted then left to rot at the end of the bench or in the NBA Development League).

And what a journey it has been -- a journey in which Americans have naturally played key roles in the development of the game in Europe.

"Americans have been a very positive influence on our game," says Messina. "Most of the time they are players who are either here for a long time so they understand and enjoy the culture in Europe, or if they are young, they come here because they know it is a very good competition that will prepare them for the NBA.

"Overall, most of the teams are pleased with their Americans. It is very rare a team is unsatisfied with their American players."

European basketball competition began in 1958 when governing body FIBA saw the success being enjoyed by soccer's new European Champions' Cup and stole the idea.

As with the soccer equivalent, the concept was for every national federation to send its champion club from the previous year to complete in the single-elimination tournament. The first game took place that February in Brussels, Belgium.

Hometown Royal IV SC Anderlechtois beat Luxembourg's BBC Etzella that night, and while those two nations may not figure too prominently on today's world basketball stage, they were certainly onto something then.

Teams from the former Soviet Union dominated the early years of the European Cup -- Riga from present-day Latvia won the first three, while CSKA Moscow won two and Georgia's Dinamo Tibilisi won one of the next three.

But by the 1960s, while postwar politicians on both sides of the Atlantic were nervously dealing with the Cold War, basketball had its very own arms race underway.

Milano and Real Madrid were beginning to invest in Americans like Wayne Brabender, Szczerbiak and future US senator Bill Bradley, who "commuted" to Milan from Oxford, England, where he was a student -- and the balance of power was shifting.

The 1970s would belong to Meneghin's Varese, a team which featured Bob Morse, a free-scoring forward from the University of Pennsylvania -- Varese made every final over the decade, winning half of them -- while the '80s saw Italian teams share prominence with emerging basketball superpower Yugoslavia.

By 1992, revolution was in full swing. The Olympics welcomed NBA players and, in return, so did Euroleague teams.

Greek clubs emerged in that decade with Panathinaikos signing former Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins, who helped them to the 1996 title, a first for Greece.

By 2000, the European Cup had become Euroleague, with more teams beyond just national champions admitted, and its ownership had controversially passed from FIBA to the newly-formed Union of European Basketball Leagues (ULEB), a federation run by Europe's various domestic leagues.

"Euroleague's organization is getting better and better," said Messina, who will be aiming to win his third Euroleague title of the decade this weekend. "For example, the Web site, the communications, Euroleague TV, a lot of things that people can really enjoy and experience being inside the Euroleague. The organization is getting closer and closer to the NBA."

Not that the journey has been completely smooth. The history of Euroleague has had as many bumps in the road as the history of Europe itself.

For example, for years, games between CSKA and Maccabi Tel Aviv had to be played in neutral Belgium because the Soviet Union and Israel had no diplomatic relations.

And, famously, at the 1977 final in Belgrade, Maccabi fans were told not to travel to watch their team because Yugoslavia, like the Soviets, had no diplomatic relations with Israel and would not issue visas to the visitors.

Nonetheless, 4,000 Israeli supporters flew into the Yugoslav capital and were, after all, allowed in to see their team win its first-ever European title, 78-77 against Varese.

"My feeling is that in the early days, the games were more about countries than teams," says Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu, who has presided over the league's recent expansion and success.

"When Real Madrid played CSKA, it was Spain against the Soviet Union, or when Yugoslavian teams played Russian teams, the games were a real fight because maybe relations between those countries were not too good.

"Nowadays I think it is more about the teams, their tradition, their colors. But still, when you get a game between Zalgiris [Lithuania] and CSKA [Russia] or Partizan [Serbia] and Cibona [Croatia], that emotion, that feeling is still there."

Emotion and feeling will be running high in Madrid on Friday when Euroleague recognizes its 50 most influential sons.

"One of the frustrations of having gone over to play in Europe so early in my career is that I'm not eligible for any post-retirement honors," says Szczerbiak, who is deservedly acknowledged as one of the American pioneers in Europe and still works for the Spanish ACB League as a liaison with the US.

"A lot of times, as a player, you take everything in your stride, everything for granted. When you get older, and things like your knees and your back don't work as well, you look back and wonder whether it was a reality. It's pleasant to have something like this come out of the clear blue sky to make you feel good when you need to feel good."

Ian Whittell covers basketball for The Times of London.