Turkish Airlines Euroleague
May 19, 2013
The Club Scene: Spartak St. Petersburg
Although the team is one of the Eurocup's newcomers this season, the name Spartak Saint Petersburg has always been synonymous with the top flight of European basketball going back to its golden age during the first half of the 1970s when Spartak established its hallmark qualities: perseverance and never-say-die team spirit. Future generations of Spartak players have succeeded in carrying on that legacy by rebounding from tough losses to eventually go the long haul and claim the well-earned glory. Any opponents who ignore the history of Spartak or underestimate its ingrained capacity of overcoming adversity run the risk of being unpleasantly surprised as so many others have been in both the distant and recent past.
Spartak Leningrad, as it was known then, opened its doors on April 19, 1935. By the outbreak of World War II, it already had participated in the Soviet national competition on two occasions, in 1937 and 1940. But it was not till 1958 that the team solidified its place among that country's basketball powers. That year, Spartak was crowned the champion of Leningrad and then advanced through qualifying rounds to once again win the right to take part at the highest level of USSR club play. Once there, Spartak stayed put and competed in the Soviet national competition from 1960 all the way to the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Spartak engraved its name among the greats of Russian and continental hoops in the early 1970s. The emergence of Spartak as a basketball power had a lot to do with the arrival of two key figures to the club in back-to-back years in the late 1960s. In 1967, Vladimir Kondrashin took over the head coaching job at Spartak. Kondrashin would not leave Spartak's bench for the next 28 years and therefore is considered the mastermind behind the lion's share of the club's achievements over those three decades.
The other main character in Spartak's rise to dominance was the legendary Alexander Belov, who fought in the ranks of Spartak from 1966 all the way until his tragic death in 1978 due to cardiac sarcoma, a rare heart disease, at just 26 years of age. Only a year after Belov debuted for Spartak, he would begin taking orders from Kondrashin, and from then on the two would be linked in the annals of both Spartak and Soviet basketball. Kondrashin, who coached the Soviet national team from 1970 to 1976, brought Belov on board and the two led the USSR to a gold medal at the 1972 Summer Olympics when the Soviet team beat the USA on Belov's last-second shot, ending the USA's run of seven straight gold medals and handing the American their first loss in Olympic play. The same coach-and-player duo would also lead the USSR to gold at the World Championships two years later in Puerto Rico with Belov being named to the all-tournament team.
Fortunately for Spartak, the success Kondrashin and Belov achieved with the Soviet national team carried over to the club. Belov piloted an incredible group of players including Yuri Pavlov, Alexander Bolshakov, Yuri Shtukin, Leonid Ivanov and Valeriy Fedorov to compete for the highest rewards both within the Soviet Union and beyond its borders. The rise to the top began in 1969 when Spartak finished third in the Soviet League. Striving to do even better the following season, Spartak fought all the way to the bitter end only to fall one step short of being crowned champions. But Belov and Co. were no fluke and they came back to finish as runners-up to the Soviet title for each of the next three seasons. Persistence finally paid off for Spartak when in 1975 it managed to get over the hump and lift the Soviet League crown for the very first time in the club's history.
The coach-player tandem also guided Spartak to honors in Europe. In 1971, Spartak played for its first-ever European trophy in the Cup Winner's Cup against Simmenthal Milan in a two-leg home and away series. Spartak won the first game in Saint Petersburg by the score of 55-66, and its fans' hopes were sky-high heading to Milano with an 11-point cushion. However Milano proved to be much better on its home court and rolled to a convincing 71-52 victory. But just like in the Soviet League, coming in second place proved to be a stepping stone to eventual victory. Spartak returned to dispute the title game of the Cup Winner's Cup two years later, in 1973, this time in a do-or-die one-game final versus Jugoplastika Split. Spartak had learned from the previous defeat and earned a sound 77-62 victory to claim the club's first continental title. Spartak would also make a third appearance in the Cup Winner's Cup final again in 1975, this time facing Crvena Zvezda. Spartak came out the winner of a great battle versus the Serbian powerhouse, 63-62, to grab its second European trophy and solidifying the best run in club history.
Kondrashin would pilot Spartak to another milestone in 1987 when Spartak added the Union Trophy Cup, the USSR's national cup competition, to its trophy case. Spartak's last major trophy came right on the heels of the break-up of the USSR. After changing its name to Spartak Saint Petersburg, coinciding with the return to the pre-Soviet name to the team's home city, in 1992 Spartak won the CIS Championship led by its new star Sergei Panov. Spartak and Panov fought all the way to the final the next season to defend the title in 1993 and finished second in the newly constituted Russian League. Spartak would have to wait a few years before another star rose from its ranks. In 1997, Andrei Kirilenko went into the record books as the youngest player to ever set foot on the court in the Russian Superleague. Kirilenko was not even 16 years old when he scored 3 points for Spartak Saint Petersburg against visiting Spartak Moscow.
Last season, Spartak had its best year for the club since its second-place finish 11 years prior. An 11-11 regular season was good enough to earn a playoff birth as a sixth seed and a quarterfinals date with Dynamo Moscow. Spartak entered as the underdog facing a star-studded Dynamo lineup packed with names such as Darjus Lavrinovic, Bostjan Nachbar and Sergey Monya, among others. But Spartak was not to be intimidated and pulled off a shocking 75-88 upset on the road in Game 1 as Zakhar Pashutin scored 20 points and Yahor Meshcharakou added 17 more for the winners. The best-of-three series then returned to Saint Petersburg and Pashutin made sure that there would be no trip back to Moscow as he scored 16 points to lead Spartak to a 73-66 win to cap the amazing series sweep. After losing Game 1 in the semifinals against the higher-ranked Khimki Moscow
Region, Spartak managed to grab home-court advantage by stealing Game 2 on the road. That, however, would be as close as Spartak would come to pulling off yet another shocker as Khimki won the next two contests in Saint Petersburg to end Spartak's Cinderella run.
With Pashutin and Meshcharakou, the two heroes from last season's Superleague playoffs, both returning, Spartak has shown that its current roster knows the club's history of overcoming obstacles and never giving up till the final buzzer sounds. This fighting spirit will make them a deadly opponent no matter what their record may be. And with the a handful of experienced players and a veteran coach on the sidelines, there's no telling how far Spartak could go this season as it looks to keep adding to the club's rich history.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Joseph Wilson, Eurocupbasketball.com