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Maccabi Wins 1st Game of Euro Classic As Dragan Bender Shines at United Center

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CHICAGO – The Maccabi Tel Aviv and Emporio Armani Milan rivalry has played with much higher stakes than on Thursday.

Just over a year ago in the 2014 Euroleague playoffs, Maccabi advanced to the Final Four in a Game 4 triumph over Milan in front of 11,060 rabid Tel Aviv fans. The rivalry had to settle for only 4,700 fans in the first game of the Euroleague Basketball Tour at the United Center on Thursday.

Known names such as Jordan Farmar and Robbie Hummel took the floor, as well as future NBAers in Dragan Bender and Alessandro Gentile, but the United Center was just filled to a quarter of its capacity. However, that didn’t impact the quality of play on the court.

Maccabi won the first of two games against Milan on the tour in a 85-79 victory that showcased a drastically different style of play then what usually takes place on the Chicago Bulls’ floor.

Both Maccabi and Milan utilized a four-out offense, something that is prevalent in Europe and becoming more popular in today’s NBA. The game featured a ton of high pick and rolls, hand offs, and unselfish play. NBA offenses mostly run through the team’s best player, but Euroleague offenses are about moving the ball and finding the open player.

Maccabi’s 25 assists in only 40 minutes of play exemplifies Europe’s pass-heavy, free-flowing style of play. Three Tel Aviv players finished with six or more assists, including starting power forward Brian Randle, who razzled and dazzled with flashy passes all night:

Eurosteps, which are spreading through the NBA like wildfire, are standard practice for Euroleague players. Players were using side steps and nifty moves in the paint throughout the game instead of trying to finish over the top of defenders. These players aren’t the kind of athletes who can jump to the moon, but their skill-level and craftiness is off the charts. Getting to see this brand of basketball in America was a positive experience, even if the United Center had a fraction of it’s typical audience in attendance.

“I think it’s good for the fans to get to see a Euroleague game,” said Milan forward and former Minnesota Timberwolves’ player Robbie Hummel. “Anytime you play in an NBA arena it’s always cool, no matter how many times you’ve done it. It was a good experience.”

The crowd, as well as the scouts representing half of the league’s teams, were brought to attention with a couple minutes left in the first quarter when 17-year old Croatian prodigy Dragan Bender checked in. The atmosphere would be overwhelming for any player, let alone a teenager playing in his first professional game in front of an American audience. That’s why his focus was elsewhere.

“I actually don’t see the crowd, the people,” Bender said.  “I just focus on the game 100 percent.”

His game did most of the talking anyway. Bender finished with only 10 points on 3-for-7 shooting from the field in 21 minutes of play, but he still flashed the brilliance everyone is raving about. His mobility, length, shooting touch, and overall feel for the game was apparent.

“I’ve never seen him play before tonight, but you could tell he’s very talented,” Hummel said. “To be 17 years old and play against adults is always impressive. I think as he adds muscle and becomes a grown man it’ll be interesting to see what he can do.”

Alessandro Gentile—who was the other player in this game with NBA appeal as his draft rights are owned by the Houston Rockets—finished with 16 points, five assists, and three rebounds in an impressive showing for Milan.

“It was a really nice experience to have the chance to play in a really famous arena,” Gentile said after the game. “It’s was a nice game, and we look forward to playing another game in New York.”

Although Bender and Gentile were the focus from an NBA perspective, it was former Big Ten players that made the biggest imprint on the game.

The University of Illinois’ Brian Randle and Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe shared the frontcourt for Maccabi and combined for 30 points, nine boards, and seven assists in 28 minutes apiece. Randle, who’s been playing overseas since 2008, was glad he got to play in front of his family and friends again.

“It’s good man,” Randle said of being back home. “My wife and I have been living here for six years now. I have quite a bit of family and friends up here and people downstate. We had like 30 plus (family and friends). My wife didn’t tell me. I just looked up, and I got a nice little section up there. To get back is always fun, but to be in the United Center and share an experience like this is special.”

Hummel, who scored 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field and 3-for-3 behind the arc, didn’t think he’d get the chance to play in the Midwest after leaving the NBA for Milan before the season.

“Actually, the day I signed I didn’t even know about (the American tour), but somebody else told me ‘hey, you’re going to be playing in Chicago and New York.’ So that was pretty cool,” Hummel said. “I’m from Valpo, so I’m like 45 minutes away. I had basically my extended family here, aunts, uncles, grandparents, mom, dad. Everybody was here.”

The thousands of fans at the United Center weren’t the only ones that got the chance to witness the first game ever played on American soil between two Euroleague teams. ESPN3 televised the game with avid Maccabi Tel Aviv supporter Marc Stein and former Maccabi player David Blu on the call. Stein thought the game was a success, even with the modest showing from the fans.

“I loved it,” Stein said. “I’ve been watching Maccabi Tel Aviv a long time. To have two high-level teams like this is great. Got to see players that we don’t normally get to see. I’ve seen them in Israel; I’ve seen them in the states. The thing I liked about this is these teams take it more seriously than NBA teams would take an exhibition game. They’re not going to go all out like they’re lives are on the line, but they do want to win.”

Israeli basketball icon Tal Brody, who was honored at halftime by Maccabi Tel Aviv, had mixed feelings about the first Euro Classic game.

“For us it’s a good exhibition game for the European league, for both our teams, but as far as the crowd, usually when we play an NBA team like in New York, (there are) 18,600 (fans),” Brody said. “We usually average about 14,000. A little bit disappointed that we didn’t get more than 5,000 that came out to the game, but it was nice and respectable. We realize that if it’s gonna be two European teams in an NBA stadium, it’s (going to be tough) unless you come up with a college team that’s allowed to play a good practice game.”

Now there’s an idea, pitting an established college basketball program against one of the top teams in Europe. The idea may be a long shot, but no one ever thought two Euroleague teams would play each other in NBA arena, either.

“Let’s say the University of Illinois, that would probably fill up when the students are coming back, and it’d be a much more exciting experience,” Brody continued. “It was a good experience for both teams to play, but they could’ve played in another smaller facility and got a full house. Let’s say at a university, at Illinois, Notre Dame, Northwestern even. But it was a good experience for both teams. It was a community experience.”

Maccabi and Milan will finish the Euroleague Basketball Tour in Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

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