The Euroleague is an unknown entity to most American basketball fans, but players who got their start in the league have become household names.
Toni Kukoc, Manu Ginobili, the Gasol Brothers, and more recently Danilo Gallinari, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Mirotic are among the many NBA players who started their careers inside the Euroleague. For those unfamiliar with overseas basketball, think of the Euroleague like soccer’s UEFA Champions League. The 24 best clubs in Europe are split into six groups. Each team in the group plays each other twice during the regular season, with the top four teams advancing to the Top 16, which is essentially the Euroleague’s version of the playoffs. Although the format and court are drastically different from their American counterparts, the level of basketball in the Euroleague is the highest in the world outside the NBA.
The Euroleague, which was founded in 1958 (although not named the Euroleague until 2000), has gained popularity overseas in recent years. Turkish Airlines’ sponsorship with the Euroleague has led to an influx of money and breathed new life into a league that deserved more worldwide exposure. The Euroleague can now be seen in 199 countries while select games are also televised on ESPN3 and NBA TV throughout the season.
Tal Brody, one of the most important figures in Israeli basketball history, was among the first players to forgo the NBA for overseas basketball after being drafted in 1965, a trend that continues to this day. Established players such as Real Madrid’s Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull passed up on NBA offers this summer because they’re receiving competitive salaries and enjoying the comforts of playing in Europe. Nikola Mirotic and Dario Saric are first-round picks who opted to stay in the Euroleague before joining the NBA, with Mirotic eschewing a rookie scale deal that would’ve represented a massive pay cut (Saric may do the same). The Euroleague is thriving, and the rest of the world is taking notice.
The Euroleague Basketball World Tour, which starts in Chicago at the United Center on Thursday, is the next step in the league’s goal to become more prominent statside. Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv of Israel and EA7 Emporio Armani Milan of Italy will face each other this week in exhibition games in Chicago and New York at the storied Madison Square Garden. NBA teams regularly play Euroleague teams in the preseason, but this will mark the first time ever that Euroleague teams will play each other outside of Europe.
The decision for the Euroleague to travel to the United States speaks volumes to how much overseas basketball has been popularized in recent years. The Euroleague’s recent inclusion in NBA 2K games was a sound start, but bringing two teams over to America to play in front of an American audience is a different monster altogether.
The Euroleague is taking a massive risk by expecting Maccabi and Milan to fill out the United Center and Madison Square Garden, but it’s a risk worth taking. The beneficiary is American fans who’ve been dying to see the best European teams play in person. These aren’t just two random teams either — they’re two of the most storied teams in Euroleague history.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, who’ve won the second-most European Championships (six, three behind all-time leader Real Madrid), sport a roster of familiar names on a club with rich tradition. Jordan Farmar, whose Jewish heritage allows him to have Israeli citizenship, leads a Maccabi team that’s one year removed from their 2014 Euroleague championship. The head coach of that team was David Blatt, who used his success with Maccabi to become head coach of the Finals-runner up Cleveland Cavaliers.
Farmar is joined on the roster by Croatian-teenage prodigy Dragan Bender, who’s already being pegged as a potential top five pick in the 2016 draft. Bender will have the chance to play in the building where fellow Croatian Toni Kukoc won three championships with the Chicago Bulls.
Three-time European champions Milan are led by Robbie Hummel and Italian sensation Alessandro Gentile, whose draft rights are held by the Houston Rockets. Milan hasn’t won a Euroleague title since 1988, when Mike D’Antoni was finishing up his brilliant career with the club. He finished as Milan’s all-time leading scorer and was hired as the club’s head coach after retiring as a player in 1990. He famously brought the Seven Seconds or Less offense to the Phoenix Suns, where teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs would later emulate his style and sets.
Maccabi and Milan will add another chapter to a rivalry that’s yet to take place on American soil. These two games are another development in the ever-growing popularity of the Euroleague in America. Does this ensure that the NBA will finally adopt a European division? Of course not, but seeing two clubs that have existed since the 1930s face each other outside of Europe for the first time is a massive step forward.
**Today’s FastBreak will be covering Thursday’s game live at the United Center. Make sure to check Today’s FastBreak and follow @ on Twitter for updates**