Twenty-four teams from 13 countries are competing in the 2007-08 Euroleague, and thanks to the growing link between the NBA and Europe, more fans than ever are paying attention.
But, in case you're a little late to the Euroleague party, here are 10 reasons to take an interest in the world's self-styled second-best basketball league.
1. The format
First, the basics. Euroleague consists of 24 teams, divided into three groups of eight.
Making the tournament is a complicated issue, but basically, spots are handed out to countries according to their historical success in Euro ball -- that's why, for example, Spain gets four spots, Greece three, France two and Poland one.
Generally, once accepted, a club is given a "contract" that allows it to remain in the tourney for three years, improving the competition's continuity, while ensuring the powerhouses are guaranteed a spot unless there is a big drop-off in the team's competitiveness (as happened with Benetton Treviso this year). The rest of the spots are allocated by the national federations, generally based on finishing position in the domestic leagues.
After playing home and away in the first phase, the top five in each group plus the best sixth-place finisher advance to the last 16 -- four groups of four teams playing home and away with the top two in each group going to the quarterfinals (best-of-three series).
Four winners then advance to the Final Four, to be held May 2-4 in Madrid.
For those counting at home, that means the 2008 Euroleague champions could have played as many as 25 games by the end, in addition to their domestic commitments.
The upshot of such an intense schedule is that there is no such thing as a dead game in Euroleague. Teams either are jockeying for seeding, or at the very least, showing they are worth a spot next season.
"Every game is extremely important; that is the biggest difference with the NBA, in my opinion," said storied CSKA coach Ettore Messina. "During the regular season, you can't have a letdown. In the NBA, in a lot of games, the good teams, especially, go through the motions for 35 minutes. It's like fencing. Then, in the last quarter, they really try to win. I'm not intending to offend anybody, but most regular-season games in the NBA are quite boring."
2. The players
On any given night, you are watching either NBA stars of old or tomorrow's NBA stars.
Unless you have been in a sensory-deprivation tank for the past decade or so, you will have noticed a lot of Euros now are heading to the NBA. Euroleague often is their starting point.
But the interesting traffic in recent years has been in the opposite direction.
"This year, for players like [Luis] Scola who make the trip to America, you have [Sarunas] Jasikevicius, [Arvydas] Macijauskas and [Vassilis] Spanoulis who are making the trip back," Messina said. "You see many European players who tried there, maybe they didn't get what they wanted, and they are coming back."
Sources claim leading stars such as Jasikevicius (Panathinaikos), Theo Papaloukas (CSKA), Macijauskas (Olympiacos) and Ersan Ilyasova (FC Barcelona) all are on deals in the $4.4-$7.3 million range. Factor in some creative tax work and additional benefits, and suddenly, that can become an attractive, better-than-NBA package.
"All of a sudden, we've gone back to the best golden age of the late '80s, early '90s, when there were some unbelievable offers on the table that could be tempting for the NBA players you are talking about," said Toronto Raptors assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini, who built Italian powerhouse Benetton Treviso and took it to four Final Fours.
"The decision now is kept down to a few seconds when teams start putting on the table $2-3 million net; that's a very good offer. That's a sign that overall Euroleague is getting stronger, is attracting more sponsors, bigger attendance, more attention from the fans."
3. Become a draft expert
We already have picked out a handful of young Euroleaguers to look out for, whose names you can drop into draft conversations with your buddies (see here).
But there is a serious point about young Euros being taken by NBA teams and stuck on the end of NBA benches, or worse yet, being demoted to the NBA Development League once they have shown they are not quite NBA ready.
Euros have a name for it: "The Darko Factor," after Milicic, the Detroit Pistons' former No. 2 pick.
Many leading European execs want to see an arrangement with the NBA whereby a team can draft a youngster, then, if they decide he is not yet up to NBA standard, "loan" him back to his Euro employers without losing their claim on the player. The silence from the NBA on the subject has been deafening.
"Unfortunately, because of NBA regulations and some kind of mentality that they do it better, at the moment they are not listening to this," Messina said.
"Even the commissioner [David Stern] was saying something about it at his press conference in Madrid. He was asked something about NBA players being loaned to Euroleague, and he joked about the fact I have enough Americans at CSKA. I don't need more Americans! I want Spanoulis, Milicic; I want more European players back here to train and be ready for the NBA at a much better level.
"I don't want Americans. I want back all those players who don't find a place even on an NBA bench. Absolutely nothing has happened. That's the first rule of a monopoly: Don't even talk about what you're not interested in.
"[Manu] Ginobili, Scola, [Marco] Jaric, at the time [Toni] Kukoc, all became superstars in the NBA because they went when they were ready, instead of going at 18 or 19 and sitting on a bench in the NBDL.
"All I get is an ironic answer back from the commissioner; I'm not important enough to get more than that."
The positive aspect for those clubs who draft Euros as long-term projects is that the players have the chance to develop in the world's second-best league. Gherardini's Raptors, predictably, have two such youngsters in Roma guard Roko Leni Ukic and Olympiacos forward Georgios Printezis.
"It's a great situation for us because they are both playing quality national league, and the Euroleague is the best possible scenario for any young player to work on his game under pressure," Gherardini said. "In a way, that happened with [Andrea] Bargnani, Kukoc in his day -- playing the best players in Europe is a nice 'gym' to practice in."
As far as the next generation of Euros bound for the NBA is concerned, the list is headed by brilliant Tau Ceramica power forward Tiago Splitter, who was drafted 28th by the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 and wants to head to Texas next summer.
"Right now, everybody knows my situation," the Brazilian said. "At the end of this year, I have a buy-out for the NBA. I think everybody knows I want to go to the NBA; it's my objective and my dream.
"I think the club here, Tau, knows I want to go. [GM] R.C. Buford and the San Antonio Spurs know I want to go. We are going to see, but in one year, I hope I'll be there."
4. Great coaching
A day after beating Panthinaikos in an exhibition game last month, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich spent the morning studying video tape of the Greek team and the system installed by its coach, Zelimir Obradovic.
"Coach Obradovic may be the best coach in Europe at this stage and one of the best in the world," Popovich said.
Certainly, after winning his sixth Euroleague title with the Greens in Athens last season, Obradovic is worthy of such consideration, but Coach O. might not even be the best coach in Euroleague this season.
Messina and Israeli David Blatt, who masterminded Russia's stunning upset of Spain in this summer's Eurobasket before moving to Turkey's Efes Pilsen, also are among the greats, and both have been rumored to be on the radar of NBA clubs.
"Obviously, I would be extremely interested, but the issue is not if I would be interested," Messina said of a possible move to the NBA. "The issue is, would there be an NBA organization that would understand that a European coach would need time to learn? He should have good assistants to help him, considering the difference in the NBA. In Europe, we do things differently, there is more time for preparation, the role of coaches is a little bit different.
"If any NBA club is open to that, why not? It would be a great honor for sure. I have never had serious conversations, but I would not be a good marketing guy if I said no to the question of whether I have had any conversations."
5. Great basketball
And, as we all know, great coaching and great players mean only one thing .. great ball.
That's not to say we are claiming Euroleague hoops is better than the NBA, just different.
"Here in Europe, it's more team-orientated," said Jiri Welsch of Unicaja Malaga, who played for four years in the NBA. "In the NBA, the team and the game is built around individuals. A lot of plays go into isolations, guys going against other players one-on-one, that's how they grew up, that's what fans love in the NBA.
"In Europe, it's different. We have more time to practice because the season is played in a different way, and that leads to a more cooperative type of basketball. It's hard to say whether I prefer it, but I grew up here, so it suits me.
"Still, the NBA is very exciting, because you have great players, the best players in the world at what they do. Obviously, it's exciting to see someone like LeBron [James], [Allen Iverson], Tim Duncan go one-on-one against their defenders; it's fantastic to watch.
"It really depends on the person and the personality; you can find something you like in both styles."
6. NO parity
The NBA might base its whole business plan on salary caps and parity, but European basketball has no such restrictions.
That is why the three wealthiest Euroleague outfits -- Panathinaikos, Olympiacos and CSKA -- will pay their players at least $30 million this season, while lower budget clubs in Germany, France, Slovenia and Croatia will pay as little as $3 million.
Naturally, that means upsets are rare, although not that much more rare than in the NBA.
And when they do happen boy, are they worth the wait.
7. The history
2008 marks the 50th anniversary of European competition, dating back to the 1958 Euroleague Final, when ASK Riga of the USSR (now Latvia) beat Akademik Sofia of Bulgaria.
Of course, Europe has undergone staggering changes in the past half-century and not just in its basketball evolution.
You might think UNC-Duke or Cowboys-Redskins is a heated rivalry, but nothing compares to the historical hatred that some Euro rivals reserve for each other.
The deep-seated enmity between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona dates back to the Spanish Civil War, for example. Messina's cosmopolitan CSKA Moscow team still is identified by Eastern Europeans of a certain age as representing the Red Army that occupied their countries until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Then go even further back in time to look at the rivalries between Greece and Turkey, France and Germany, and the old Yugoslavian nations.
Euroleague itself came out of internal strife in European ball when leading teams, unhappy with the way in which governing body FIBA was benefiting financially from their efforts, formed the breakaway Union of European Leagues of Basketball in 1991.
For a time, there were two rival competitions, until a peace treaty between the two bodies saw the present Euroleague format come into being in 2001.
8. YOU own the team
Not exactly -- although in the cases of the members at FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, they can claim that is technically true.
But the general feeling of "belonging" to a club -- whether soccer or basketball -- is central not only to sport in Europe, but also life in Europe.
As for the owners themselves, that is one of the most interesting features of Euroleague, as Gherardini explained.
"There's no homogeneous picture. You can have one person owning a team, you can have a company owning a team, you can have members owning the club," he said.
"Clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid historically have been 'owned' by the 100,000 people who are members of the sporting club, which means the football club for the most part.
"Some clubs, like Benetton Treviso, are owned by the Benetton company. CSKA Moscow? You can't really even say who owns them. It was the Red Army team in the past, and technically, that is still what it is, but there are also owners who put money into it.
"The top European team right now, in terms of budget -- Panathinaikos -- are owned by two brothers, Yannakopoulos, who own a major pharmaceutical business. In France, it is not easy to describe, because clubs are part of the municipality and part-owned by institutions.
"Contrary to the logic of a commercial league such as the NBA, most of the people putting money into European basketball know they will never see that money back. Of course, Euroleague is meant to be a money-making business but very rarely is it a business that brings money back to the owners. They do it as a marketing resource to promote their product; they do it for political reasons, to have better ties with a political scenario; they do it for personal reasons or for a relationship with the local community. Or people do it just because they are crazy fans."
9. The fans
Ah, the fans. You probably have heard about the crazy Euro basketball fans who can make their soccer brethren seem tame by comparison.
But just why are European fans so much more vocal, passionate, violent -- choose whatever adjective you want -- than their NBA equivalents?
Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu came up with the best explanation we have heard.
"First of all, the concept of the club, upon which the league is based, is very different because the concept of 'ownership' is very different," Bertomeu said. "Most of the clubs belong to a big group -- FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have 100,000 members who call themselves 'owners.' It's not an economic issue. The team has a longtime link with the community, there is a feeling of ownership.
"But there are not only 100,000 members of FC Barcelona, there are millions of fans of Barca -- or Real Madrid or Panathinaikos -- who believe they are owners of the club. They are not official members, because Barcelona cannot have any more members than 100,000, but they are so close to the community.
"That is something that does not exist in the structure of American sport. They are more private. Of course, there are fans in American sport, but they are seen more as customers and that affects the 'feeling.' Supporting a European team is not a business relationship, it is a 'feeling.' If you think something belongs to you, you are more passionate, more enthusiastic, more heated."
The ultra-professional Euroleague now ensures the interaction between fans and opposing players is kept to a minimum, although that has not always been the case, as Welsch recalled: "The atmosphere can sometimes get crazy, especially in countries like Greece, Turkey. You could say it's out of control sometimes; there is a lot of pressure.
"At Euroleague level, the organization is pretty good now, you're protected. But when I was younger, playing for lower level teams, in places like Serbia or Turkey or Greece, things were out of control. People were throwing coins, bottles, spitting on you while you're playing."
10. THE Final Four
Put all those ingredients together, and that leads you to the Final Four, a staggering weekend of intense basketball activity that -- dare we Euros say it -- even eclipses the NCAA version.
Welsch and Splitter both played in last season's chaotic Final Four in Athens, losing in the semifinals before Obradovic and Panathinaikos defeated Messina's CSKA before 17,000 fanatical -- and chain-smoking -- partisan Greeks.
After the game, Athens riot cops closed down most of the major city squares to avoid celebrating fans from laying waste to their hometown. Good thing the Greeks actually won!
"It was amazing experience, it was incredible, it was something from one of my dreams," Welsch said. "Obviously, getting to the NBA and having the chance to spend four years there was an incredible experience and a dream in itself for me.
"But the Final Four, it's a different kind of experience. You're playing in Europe, against the rest of Europe, all the different countries, the different players are coming into the tournament. Then the best four teams are there, and fans travel from all over Europe. It's incredible."
Added Splitter: "Playing in a Final Four is difficult, and I had a tough game last year against Panathinaikos. They were playing at home, they had 17,000 people shouting like crazy all the game.
"I've played three Final Fours, and it's always a spectacular show. Everybody should get the chance to see how big it is. We have a lot of pressure. All the fans are like soccer fans -- big flags inside the stadium, sometimes you hear bombs [fireworks] -- nobody in the States could imagine that. It's amazing. We tried to forget about the fans when we were playing the game, but they were so aggressive."
Indeed, it is easy to see why NBA scouts and GM's are such regular visitors to the Euroleague, and the Final Four in particular. It is where reputations can be made … or lost.
Miss a clutch free throw in an NBA game, and you might get ripped on sports talk radio. Miss a deciding shot in the Euroleague, and your physical well-being could be in danger. (There's a reason why there are huge plastic shields behind both benches and over the tunnel leading to the locker rooms, kids.)
Gherardini went to four Final Fours in his time as GM of Benetton and never came away a winner, although the memories -- particularly of the 1993 Final in Athens, when his team lost 59-55 to French outsiders Limoges -- are worth more than a winners' medal.
"I always rate that Final as one of the most exciting moments of my basketball life," he said. "I remember very clearly the unbelievable atmosphere at the arena, the Sport and Friendship Arena in Athens, in the semifinals when we surprised (Greek team) Thessaloniki.
"Most of the fans were noisy, smoking Greek fans, but we surprised them, came from behind and hit a jumper with 10 seconds to go to go up by one. The atmosphere went from the noisiest crowd I had ever heard to complete silence.
"Limoges did the same thing and surprised Real Madrid, with Arvydas Sabonis, and all of a sudden, two Cinderella teams were in the Final.
"We had some bad luck. The guy who hit the winning shot against Thessaloniki, [Maurizio] Ragazzi, hurt his back in the warm-up and couldn't play at all. One of our two Americans, Terry Teagle, suffered bad plantar fasciitis. He had an injection before the game, but I can still remember him coming into the locker room at halftime and crying like a baby and telling us he couldn't feel his foot any more. We were up by 10 or 11 at the half, in a very slow-paced game, but we came out for the second half without any guards and a couple of guys in foul trouble. We only lost on a very questionable final play, when Toni Kukoc had the ball stolen. We thought it was a foul, but the referee didn't, and we ended up losing the game.
"You could really sense the fact that these games were the highest level of basketball you could reach outside the NBA, of course. A special atmosphere, special people, the entire basketball community, more than ever before, was gathered for an event.
"I remember the night before not being able to sleep, sensing the fact you could nearly touch your goal. Of course, when you touch that dream, almost have it in your grasp, and it slips through your hands, it's a strange feeling. You regret the opportunity you lost."