As we gear up for the new EuroLeague season this October, TalkBasket will guide you back in time to the first EuroLeague championship match under its independent umbrella and Final Four format in 2002 all the way to CSKA Moscow’s 2016 triumph in Berlin.
We start in 2002 when Panathinaikos silenced the raucous home crowd in Bologna and thus the start of a European basketball revolution was born.
After beating Benetton Treviso in the semi-finals, a lot was expected of the hometown Kinder Bologna in the championship game. Many inside the packed PalaMalaguti were nervous but excited at the same time, as they loudly cheered their heroes, led by a young Manu Ginobili onto the floor.
Panathinaikos came into this one as slight underdogs. The Greek juggernaut overwhelmed Maccabi Tel Aviv in their semi-final match-up and with an independent EuroLeague company readying itself for its first champion, a lot was at stake and many were watching around Greece and Italy with just over 8,200 inside the PalaMalaguti Arena, mostly Bologna fanatics.
Ginobili, who would be later taken away from the EuroLeague and signed up by the San Antonio Spurs scored Bologna’s first eight points as he used his deceptive quickness to glide to the bucket with ease but Panathinaikos were not to be deterred and often found answers of their own as veteran and European legend Dejan Bodiroga began to find his range after he struggled to get going mainly in part to near suffocating defence by the Italians.
The first quarter ended in a stalemate at 23-23. Both sides were sizing each other up and not giving any room to pull clear. The anticipated battle between Ginobili and Bodiroga definitely went the way of the former to begin matters as the Argentine easily found his stride and cut through the Panathinaikos defence like a knife through butter.
Then the home side, roared on by their vocal support went up a gear.
And Panathinaikos, led by a strong team of veterans could not compete with a Bologna side that executed the basketball sublimely from outside. Antoine Rigaudeau hit one and Slovenian Matjaz Smodis drained two three-pointers to give Bologna a 32-23 lead. With a mere click of the finger, the “home” side were in control.
The Italians had enjoyed a 14-point advantage towards the climax of the second. But before it got out of hand, Panathinaikos had managed to keep the deficit in single-digits at half-time but at 48-40, Bologna’s fans had firm belief that they could claim the EuroLeague title.
Bologna wanted to end it in the third quarter. They sensed that the Greens were on the ropes and that they were vulnerable but instead of the Panathinaikos veterans of Bodiroga, Ibrahim Kutluay and Johnny Rogers, their shining light in what was an unlikely comeback came in the form of Lazaros Papadopoulos.
The youngster, who mainly came off the bench for Zeljko Obradovic’s men scored eight points in an 11-2 run burst that ultimately handed Panathinaikos its first lead since the opening stages of the game and the pro-Kinder Bologna crowd fell deafly silent. From enjoying a 48-40 half-time cushion, they now trailed 64-61 heading into quarter number four.
With both teams trading buckets to start the fourth, Bologna began to play sloppy and missed golden opportunities at the foul line. With the minutes ticking away, missing free throws was something that the Italian side did not want to do. And Kutluay took charge, leading the Greens the rest of the way.
Kutluay ended with a team-high 22 points for Panathinaikos, Bodiroga had 21 despite his first quarter struggles and Papadopoulos added a hard-earned 12 points.
“The whole team played great, and Bodiroga is surely the best player in Europe, Papadopoulos also played great,” claimed Kutluay afterwards.
“We are in the Euroleague and we had a hard time this season with injuries but this is my first European title and I want to thank my coach for it. In basketball you can always score and be offensive but the hard thing is being a good defender and we played a great defence without which we wouldn’t have made it to the Final Four.”
Ginobili led all scorers with 27 points for Kinder Bologna.
Watch the entire 2002 EuroLeague title game here: