UCAM Murcia CB presents a peculiar case in Spanish and European basketball.
Founded in 1985, the club has seen considerable success over the last five years. In fact, since 2012, when the private Catholic University of the region took the reins, the fate of the organization residing in south-eastern Spain has changed. A Spanish League playoff spot in 2016 and three consecutive participations in European competition highlight the progress made. The culmination came arguably in 2018, when Murcia qualified for the Basketball Champions League Final Four, held in Athens.
Over the course of the last decade or so, UCAM Murcia had the privilege of counting on the services of Facundo Campazzo, Vitor Faverani, Augusto Lima, Raul Neto, not to mention notable appearances by ex and current NBA players Marcus Fizer, Bojan Bogdanovic, Goran Dragic in the 2000s. All the signings made during that time bear the signature of the same man: Alejandro Gomez, General Manager of the club who took over in 2009 and has built quite a reputation for himself and UCAM Murcia for handling a modest budget for ACB standards in an exemplary way.
The 46-year-old executive has been trying to find stability in a project involving numerous coaches (with Sito Alonso being the seventh in an eight-year period for UCAM) and -mostly- US players on one-year contracts. The coronavirus pandemic may have suspended the team’s rather underwhelming 2019-2020 campaign, but the same does not apply to the ACB which will eventually crown a champion (FC Barcelona and Kirolbet Baskonia are the finalists). Managing difficult situations has turned into a way of life for Alejandro Gomez, who recently finalized a long-term agreement with the youngest member of the Antetokounmpo family, 18-year-old Alex.
The Madrid-born GM explained to TalkBasket.net all the facts and figures of his tenure with the club. In a conversation over the phone, Gomez referred to the present and future of UCAM Murcia and basketball in Europe, from the grassroots level to the Euroleague elite. He also recounted his own trajectory and the background surrounding some of the most prominent transfers and signings in the club’s history.
Q: You took over as general and sports director of Murcia in August 2009. To what extent has the entity been transformed since then and what are the steps you would want to see it make in the near future?
A: At first, I entered as a CEO. From the second year onwards, I took over the sports section. The important thing was to modernize the club in many ways. In terms of signings, that has been achieved because the club in these ten years has made many transfers of players, like Raul Neto, Joe Ragland, Augusto Lima and Vitor Faverani twice. Before coming here, the club used to sign one-year-contracts. In this way, we have tried to give the players continuity and also improve the club. For many people, being able to play in a European competition was a dream. We played in the Eurocup for a year, then two years in the Champions League and that’s something that had never been achieved before.
At the ACB level, the club wants much more growth to continue advancing in the next few years, even though at the budget level we are still one of the last teams in the league. The goal is to play in the European competition and be able to enter the play-offs or the Copa Del Rey. It’s more of a dream than an obligation because we lack the big budget and the history to put pressure on our shoulders. Our president is very ambitious, but we all know that we have to be humble.
Q: What is it like to see from the outside the continuation of the league? Are you satisfied with the level of basketball?
A: We’re an atypical team because we were so angry with ourselves for losing eight games in the last minute. We all wanted to play. The team remained in Murcia, working and hoping to be able to play again. It’s been pretty frustrating not being able to do it but overall the team worked so much better than the results it had. In April, the disappointment of not playing was replaced by the opportunity to get to work earlier than other teams.
We think it’s good for our league to keep playing and proclaim a champion. These are high-level games and it’s always good to play basketball. It’s a format dictated by circumstances and I wish Murcia could have finished the season. But it’s better to play in this format than not play at all.
Q: With almost all basketball action suspended, do you believe that the Spanish League could take advantage of the circumstance and gather more attention globally? What will the league gain from a more extensive coverage, which includes the United States and the Indian subcontinent?
A: It’s time to show that the ACB is the second best competition after the NBA. I think the NBA itself can see the resumption of the league as a successful experiment taking place in Valencia in terms of safety and as a proof of the ACB’s potential.
Q: You recently said that the club has covered its budget with income from fans, sponsors and the League. However, you added that a problem would arise should the competition not be completed. Do you think UCAM could avoid the economic problems caused by the COVID crisis if the team could play the final phase?
A: When I said that about UCAM, I was talking about all the teams. The entire ACB needed to play: sponsors, tv rights… There are many important contracts from a financial standpoint. Playing the final phase was important for all clubs, not only because of the numbers of this year, but also for the next one. It is important to show to the league’s sponsors that we are here and that they can count on us. The league’s own image to the sponsors is reinforced.
Q: What is the figure ACB clubs receive from television rights? I’m asking this because Rick Pitino used this argument to show why the NBA wants to resume the season anyway, while the Euroleague – which doesn’t distribute and doesn’t get as much money from TV rights – was more or less indifferent.
A: The ACB revenue budget this season was 35 million euros from television rights and sponsorships. 12 million euros were distributed to the teams for the whole season.
Q: Which are the difficulties facing ACB’s medium-low teams? You said that the budget for the coming season will be reduced by 20%. Which aspirations can an organization have in Spain with less than 1,5 million euros at their disposal?
A: We have to be creative, do different things, look for new sponsors and indirect sources of income. First of all, one must explore the market before anyone else. In April, the situation was complicated, as there were players who could accept lower offers because of the uncertainty surrounding the following season. Things could go wrong for us.
Q: Do you think next season is going to be transitional for European and world basketball, given that the pandemic could interrupt it again at any time?
A: I think that the crisis we’re facing in all financial and basketball sectors is also going to be an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. It’s the same with every crisis in human history: progress has been made and ingenuity has been implored in order to gain advantage.
Q: At the same time, do you see opportunities to sign players on multi-year, long-term contracts, promising them a stability hard to find?
A: That’s very important to me. I think going out on the market, offering maybe less money but with a sense of guarantee and stability for the player’s health and financial security, can bring good results. Being serious when it comes to paying the contracts and not having debt, is an important factor for this club.
Q: What can we expect from the market amidst the pandemic? In this sense, do you think that UCAM Murcia, receiving money from institutions, from the City Council and the General Administration of Sports and Tourism, is a unique case?
A: Our main source of income is the owner of the team, the Catholic University of Murcia. In terms of the financial assistance we get from the City Council and local authorities, we are not among the first teams in the league. It’s an issue we’re working on to improve and to have more institutional support. There are more than a hundred companies that contribute and sponsor the team. In addition, we’re dealing with the issue of our ticketing and season tickets revenue. It’s the most tricky part because we don’t know how things will turn out, but we have amassed an important number of supporters.
Q: What do you think of the semi-closed Euroleague? Do you think potential investors are being discouraged? Are you concerned about Euroleague’s feud with FIBA?
A: I think it’s not good for basketball that this battle exists. It is amazing that in football, which handles a lot more money and the cake is much bigger, they have been able to share the wealth. In basketball, we have a smaller cake to share, but we have not been able to create a common calendar and clarify the competitions. The Euroleague has made a big impression on us for being such a strong league. I really like it, but I’d prefer less games. I think the number of games in the Euroleague, as well as the very long trips and distances, determine who can play there.
Q: Will UCAM keep playing in the Basketball Champions League?
A: Once we qualify to play in Europe, we will analyze the situation. We have played in the Eurocup and the Champions League, feeling very comfortable in both competitions. We will see which will be the most convenient. I would really like to see an understanding between FIBA and Euroleague in order to get all the European competitions re-evaluated. It will be easier for more fans to understand our sport.
Q: In 2011, I asked Ferdinando Minucci, then president of Montepaschi Siena who participated in the Final 4 held in Barcelona, which element he would “steal” from his team’s rival Panathinaikos. He replied: “I’d like only one thing theirs: the budget.” Would you tell me something similar if I asked you about the things you envy in Real Madrid or Barca?
A: Their budget is the main envy. I could name some of their players I like. Also, their history. Both Madrid and Barcelona are clubs with an incredible trajectory and since they represent such a large institution, they stand for something greater. Teams like ours have to create a style of play, an identity, so that in a few years we will have a history of our own too.
Q: If you had unlimited budget, who would you sign?
A: When I was asked this question 4-5 years ago, I said: “Bojan Dubljevic of Valencia Basket”. If I could choose a player right now, I’d sign Facundo Campazzo again. He was here for two years, and I’d like to have him. There are many players who have been with the team, whom we have trained and helped and who have gone to another club. It’s a most uncomfortable situation, even when we had to sell them. Having more budget would allow us to have players we can’t afford right now.
Q: As for Facundo Campazzo, did you expect his meteoric rise to prominence at the highest European level? Could he play in the NBA?
A: Yes, after two years of working with us, we knew the heart, the desire and the intensity that he puts to the game. We were aware that he might be able to dominate in European basketball, playing many minutes with Real Madrid, as he has done. That happened after Sergio Llull got injured and Sergio Rodriguez left. I’m sure that if one day he leaves for the NBA, he will be successful, as he already demonstrated against Kyrie Irving, a high-level NBA player. He’s able to play anywhere in the world. For me, he’s the best guard in Europe right now.
Q: Which of your signings or transfers do you feel more proud of?
A: Raul Neto’s transfer to Utah. We signed Raul at a time when he had left Gipuzkoa. It was a moment of doubt for him, but after playing incredibly with us, he went to the NBA and his career has been good ever since. In addition, I would single out the first time we sold Faverani to Valencia. We vouched for him when no one in the world would have. I consider him a totally determined player and we were able to get the best out of him. Joe Ragland also brought us a lot of money.
Q: This summer, UCAM signed Conner Frankamp, top scorer in the Greek League. You explained what qualities he has and how he could help the team. My question is: Why have you signed him for just one year? In Rethymno, he was on a 1+1 contract.
A: It’s very simple. With our economic potential, it’s hard to sign American players for more than a year. A player can make the leap if he plays very well. I wish I could have signed Conner for at least two years because we understand that he is a player who will adapt very well to the ACB and to the style of play of Sito Alonso. He’s someone we trust to make the difference at crunch time.
Q: Murcia is the Spanish team that feeds more than any other in the ACB of players from the Greek League: Giannoulis Larentzakis, Dusan Sakota, Delroy James, Charlon Kloof, Askia Booker, Ovie Soko. They’ve all played for UCAM over the last five years. Is there a special reason behind those decisions?
A: Yes, the reason is that I always liked Greek basketball. Greece was European champion in 1987 and since then I have felt sheer admiration for Greek basketball. I know a lot of people and watch many games because I’m interested in how the Greek teams work. I have great friends in Greece, important people like Kostas Papadakis and Giorgos Dimitropoulos. They’re agents who helped us locate players. Kostas Papadakis has been in business for all his life, giving us advice. Many times it is easier to ask for some players, as we did with Ovie Soko in Trikala or Delroy James.
The experience we had with Fotis Katsikaris was thrilling. We developed a magnificent relationship. We are still great friends with him and for me he’s one of the best coaches in European basketball.
In Murcia, we follow the Italian, the French and the German league as well, but we like players from Greece with a strong character, like Larentzakis. They have teams that always sign good American players, like Langston Hall. He was someone we liked and followed for a year, watching Promitheas Patras play in Eurocup.
Q: Don’t you think that the fast pace of the game in the ACB might put problems for players accustomed to the slower Greek League?
A: Dusan Sakota is an example of a veteran player dominating the competition in Greece, but it was very difficult for him to play with the speed and scouting we have in the ACB. We have experienced it first-hand with more complementary players in our competitions, like Ovie Soko.
Q: What was the exit agreement of Larentzakis? The 90,000 euros he leaves behind is intended for his buy-out payment or for his 2020-21 contract?
A: It’s the buy-out we had. He committed himself to paying it in full. There was no other option in the case of not fulfilling the second year of the contract. He is a very special person, with a big heart, who left many friends and money at the club before signing with Olympiacos.
Q: Last July, the Spanish press was talking about conversations you’d have with Olympiacos Piraeus that “were on the right track.” To what extent did those reports correspond to the truth?
A: We had an opportunity and a possible interest. I’m very proud of Olympiacos’s interest. They were planning ahead of a difficult year, as they were going to play in the second division of the Greek League and in the Euroleague. It’s a very important team because of its history. The timing was difficult for both sides. In my case, I think it was clear that my work in Murcia was unfinished and the option to continue is what I chose to do. I thought that in Murcia we can keep growing and in this sense I am really proud to be here. I like to have our president’s absolute trust every year. I feel very welcomed in Murcia because of the love, the people and the president of the club. He’s a person who is keen on sport and lets me work. I wish all the best to Olympiacos.
Q: Would you work outside of Spain?
A: At the moment, my only thought is to work at UCAM Murcia because I consider it more than a job. My relationship with President Jose Luis Mendoza is very close and we share a great deal of trust. I’m looking forward to the club growing, but we can never foresee the future. There could be something interesting in another league, like Greece for instance, but one must know the difficulties: the language, the idiosyncrasy of the people and what it’s like to work in those places.
Q: Who has been your role model of sports director and GM?
A: From the people I’ve met, I’d say Ramon Fernandez who worked at Fuenlabrada and Real Madrid. He was a pioneer, the towering figure of the GM in Spain, the man who professionalized this post in the country. Besides him, I quite enjoyed following Joan Creus’s career in Barcelona and the confidence he gave to Xavi Pascual. Currently, I got to know personally Maurizio Gherardini, who worked with Zeljko Obradovic.
Q: What has been your happiest moment in basketball, as an executive and as a spectator?
A: When we qualified for the Final Four in the BCL (2018) and the ACB play-offs (2016). It’s the most rewarding feeling and we want to keep working in a similar vein.
Q: Alex Antetokounmpo’s signing has been a media favorite. What was the project you proposed to him?
A: When we knew that the player was not going to continue in college and go to Europe instead, we thought he was going to Greece and asked the agents about it. We had meetings with them in order to find out what they wanted to do because we are interested in a player with Alex’s features. We have a working group in each of our development teams, in the junior and EBA (the fourth tier level in the Spanish basketball league system) categories. There are players who work with Sito Alonso and his technical staff every day to be able to evolve both physically and technically.
We knew there were other ACB teams -at least three- interested in signing him and we told him the truth. We considered registering him in the ACB but not in order for him to play there. He would train with the ACB team and get minutes with our development team. It is important that he gets playing time. We talked with Giannis, explaining to him the daily routine of our players. It was very easy to find common ground as far as money goes. Alex leaving his studies behind was not a problem because we are a club focused on teaching and education and in this sense we offered him a guarantee.
Q: Is it true that Giannis participated via Zoom in the meetings with you and Sito Alonso to close the deal and get information on how the youth project works?
A: Yes, it is true. He was up to date, listening to everything we had prepared for his brother; all the work he has to do every day in order to know that it’s not going to be easy. He listened and I guess that he talked to other teams before coming to UCAM Murcia.
Q: Giannis has commented that Alex could surpass him in the future. Do you agree?
A: It’s difficult. What he has to do every year is just be himself, without aiming to be like his brother. Giannis is a basketball beast, one of the best players in the world. Alex has to work hard to get better and time will tell where he can go. His last name works very well on the marketing level. We were surprised by the response we had from the media, but we hope that Alex will come to Murcia in August and prove his worth. During our talks, he has shown a great willingness to work. At no time did he have any doubts.
Q: Is it by chance that three Antetokounmpo brothers have signed with Spanish teams? Giannis never played in Zaragoza, but Thanassis did have a major impact in Andorra. What has been the factor that has attracted the three to the ACB?
A: I think ours is a very competitive and important league. Above all, it can lead to the NBA. I think that’s what most players have in mind and in this sense the ACB is very popular among NBA scouters. The evolution and maturation of the player is what matters to them. We explained to Giannis how Luka Doncic evolved at Real Madrid and he seemed to understand that many times a player who skips college, as is the case of Alex, can arrive just as prepared to the NBA. Doncic reached the NBA, having dominated the top competition in Europe. Pau Gasol was the first to demonstrate the model of the player who can reach the NBA with sufficient training. What Alex has to do is work, improve physically and technically, play with the development team in the EBA League and train with the ACB team. His potential and impact will be shown with the passage of time, starting from his second year.
Q: Murcia has always been a good place to learn. There were the cases of Facu Campazzo, Bojan Bogdanovic and Goran Dragic. Who will be the next player to emerge?
A: I wish I knew. When we sign a player, we are always thrilled, but in the end there are variables that cannot be controlled. In the case of Dejan Todorovic, we signed him too soon. He’s had an incredible season, being the best player on the team, but suddenly he broke his knee and got sidelined for six months. Sometimes season-defining injuries on a small team, like ours, make it difficult to regain control of the situation. I hope we’ll have another player making the leap from Murcia to the NBA.
Q: What is the reason for the poor participation of Spanish players in the ACB?
A: The overprotection of Spanish players makes each team obligated to have at least four homegrown athletes. Many teams sign players from other countries so that they can shape them. We have seen examples of the best generation of Argentine players in history, who emerged just when there was no limitation on Americans and foreign players of any kind. With or without quotas, players like Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes and Pau Gasol would play the same.
We need the Spanish players to have some time to be evaluated. It is not an easy league for players coming in to losing teams, who might get relegated and deal with a lot of pressure. It’s easier to have young people who can progress to the NBA. In general, the transition from the junior to the senior category is intended only for the very talented players. For someone at the age of 20-22, the price is a little higher. In this respect, it is true that Spanish basketball has fewer high-quality players, but it is also true that they are able to compete, as we have seen in the last World Cup.
Q: In general, are you optimistic about the future of European basketball?
A: I’m always optimistic. I think that European basketball is going to grow. Its capacity and potential are yet to be found. Many times, because of egos and personal differences, we tend to look more at the particular interests. We need to look and learn more from what is happening in the United States. The NBA is not the best league making the most money just because it is more spectacular or because they play better basketball, but because they are all on the same page. That is what we have to do in Europe.