Blog: Why Union Olimpija vs Khimki turned Ljubljana into my favourite city

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One of this season’s Eurocup favourites BC Khimki improved to 2-0 in Group D by edging Union Olimpija 88-85 at the Stozice Arena. The last time these two teams met in a European competition was back in December 2012 when they both competed in the Euroleague. TB’s own John Hobbs remembers the game well – he was there.

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I must admit, when I was asked to work the Euroleague fixture between Union Olimpija vs Khimki, I had fears that it was going to be a game that would end up meaning nothing. The 2012-13 Euroleague season was on the road to London, so the tournament had extra prestige for me, you know, being British. But this game did not exactly stand out for me.

I had Slovenian friends that I had met while covering two Eurobaskets in 2009 and 2011, so I messaged them that I was coming, and I thought that while I was out in Ljubljana, I would make the most of it. See the sights, get a feel for the place and enjoy the company of friends along with the rest of the Slovenian people.

My drive to Stansted Airport on Thursday, December 6 was traffic-free [the joys of a 7:30am flight], but it was intensely nervy as the 1 hour, 50 minute journey was met with sleet that then turned into snow as I was headed to the Dartford Tunnel. It was cool though; I arrived and checked in to my flight, which would see me go to Ljubljana. And despite not being too animated about the game itself, a game where the hosts, Union Olimpija were already eliminated and the reigning Eurocup champions Khimki had progressed to the Top 16, I was looking forward to seeing what Slovenia’s mysterious capital city had to offer, especially as I was going to be coming back nine months later to cover Eurobasket in Ljubljana.

I arrived at the Jože Pučnik airport to clear-ish skies and deep snow on the ground. I arrived at the hotel in downtown Ljubljana that was suggested to me by one of Union Olimpija’s press officers. The hotel’s front entrance had two Eurobasket 2013 posters promoting the event, as well as billboards just outside. I was told that Slovenia was looking forward to hosting perhaps their biggest event since independence. The proof was all round the city.

After dropping my bags and looking outside at the incredible amounts of snow on the pavement, my phone rang and a good friend of mine Matej, who was also one of Union Olimpija’s press officers, was at the lobby waiting to pick me up. It just so happened that the Stozice, which I pronounced horribly wrong at the first attempt, was a mere five-minute walk from my hotel. The Stozice was clearly a brand new arena. An admittedly sickly lime green covered wall inside met a grounded space ship, caked in snow from the outside.

Still, despite the horrible choice of colour, it was an impressive facility. The arena staff were busy applying the ‘Turkish Airlines Euroleague’ logo on the court as Matej and I were looking on from the nosebleeds. And it was most certainly a fitting place to host the final rounds of Eurobasket, which of course, was graced by Tony Parker and France.

While impressed with the Stozice, I was more intrigued with Union Olimpija’s old home, and the site for Group A of Eurobasket, which was just a short car drive deeper into the city centre. The Hala Tivoli was home to the Ljubljana club until 2011 and since the club’s departure to the Stozice, the arena had been used for ice hockey and concerts.

Arriving at the Tivoli was a little strange. The outside looked like a rundown business park, where failing companies inside were trying to turn their place of work into a success but were just preparing themselves for the inevitable closure. I said to Matej, “Is this place going to be demolished after Eurobasket”? “No,” he replied. “What makes you think that.”?

I quickly changed the subject and wondered in. The Hala Tivoli by day is an open Leisure Centre, where children were playing ice hockey in one part, and in the other part, the basketball hall was being occupied by one skinny 6-footer, who had an ugly jump shot, but they were miraculously dropping.

The Hala Tivoli had the feel of a traditional Leisure Centre that you would find in Great Britain – old, rundown, and full of screaming kids attempting to play sports. But Matej and I got talking about how the group stage games would be laid out? There were talks that both areas would definitely be used – which was expected. My thoughts were that the old basketball gym would be best suited for the opening games, as the gym held about 4,000 spectators. There would not be a hope in hell that the games would sell out. The ice hockey area; was the more attractive option for the organisers apparently, as it held about 6,000 and there was more room. We walked out and had lunch in the centre and I was then left to explore Ljubljana until the media availability with Union Olimpija later on.

Ljubljana, despite the temperature being 10 below freezing and surrounded by a white sheet is really unique. It’s the only country I know that sells hot red wine, and one of the few I know that had basketball competitions in the main square, in the snow – where the prize – was the same basketball you hoped to have scored with. I wondered what bright mastermind conjured up that idea? Otherwise though, it’s a friendly community in its own way, the Slovenian way. One thing you notice is you quickly feel part of their culture – something I find quite extraordinary. And this comes from a guy that has done some fair old travelling in his years as a writer.

I walked 40 minutes back to my hotel room and after a 30-minute rest, walked the shorter distance to the arena. It was empty. I walked around the external part of the arena: no one.

I wasn’t too shocked. It was a meaningless game. I wondered why I even left the hotel in the first place? I had to remind myself that it was an assignment and so I rang Matej to ask where he was?

“I just got back home, John,” he said.

“Ahh shit, the time difference,” I replied. They are one-hour ahead, like most of Europe compared to back home in the UK. So after a bit of small talk, I decided to walk around the nearby Stozice Stadium, home of the Slovenian national football team and then head back.

The next day was game day, and I arrived at the arena with the snow driving down. I made a joke to a friend over Facebook that the British Basketball League could learn to man up as the mere sleet drop often results in the postponement of a game, yet in Ljubljana, I was walking ankle deep in snow and the game was on.

Union Olimpija-Khimki was not your typical classic encounter. It wasn’t anticipated to be anyway. Both teams knew their fate the week before. But for the hosts, this turned out to be their last home game in the Euroleague, before dropping down to the Eurocup the next year. But a Klemen Prepelic buzzer-beating winner was a particular highlight. The crowd of around 5,000 roared and celebrated like they won the Euroleague title. Hey, it was their moment. They deserved it. Khimki trotted off and I followed suit. I went to both locker rooms afterwards and while the Ljubljana was a joyful and happy one, Khimki’s was actually laid back. They had lost on the buzzer, and they didn’t seem too affected by it.

I arrived back to the hotel, and headed to the bar. I hopped in the evaluator to be greeted by a few of the Khimki players, who were staying at the same hotel that I was, and until the post-game, were hidden away from the public. I shared the lift with KC Rivers, who recognised me from the post-game chats and said hello plus Matt Nielsen, who later in the bar told me that while the loss was hard to take in, they [the team] were thinking about the Top 16 and just wanted to come out of this game healthy.

For Khimki, and thinking more about Nielsen’s words, it was almost like being in pre-season, during the season. You can’t blame them for that, I guess.

My last day in Ljubljana was spent with my Slovenian friends, many of whom are university students. I was treated to a fantastic traditional Slovene meal, and a candlelit Mexican dinner, plus an awkward to start, but in the enjoyable and eye-opening lunchtime meal with a friend’s family in Dravograd. None of her family spoke English except the brother, who I had met at Eurobasket 2011 and is a fellow Liverpool fan like me. Hence the awkward tone for the first half-hour.

Still Union Olimpija-Khimki holds fond memories for me – last night’s closed doors battle still took me back. A seemingly dull and listless assignment ended up with me enjoying the capital city [and the game] for all of its splendour, and prepared me for the four weeks that I spent the next September, and Slovenia showed Europe what their slogan of S-LOVE-NIA was all about.

But the real reason why Union Olimpija-Khimki held such fond memories? That visit turned Ljubljana into one of my favourite cities that I have ever been to.

Hvala.