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The Club Scene: ASK Riga
Oct 16, 2008
by Javier Gancedo, Eurocupbasketball.com
A legendary team by any means is set to start making noise again in European club competitions. ASK Riga started a new era when it was reborn in 2005, but its basketball tradition goes back to the late twenties. In fact, ASK was the original European club competitions back in 1958, when it all started. ASK dominated European basketball led by Valdis Muiznieks, Maigonis Valdmanis or big man Janis Krumins, the most unstoppable player of his era. Moreover, it featured head coach Alexander Gomelskiy, a future Hall of Famer. ASK successfully defended its European Cup title in 1959 and three-peated in 1960. Only Split - 1989-91 - was able to match this achievement in more than 50 Years of European club basketball. ASK wants to get back where it started, which is nothing but being an elite team in European club competitions. With a well-defined long-term plan to grow as a club, ASK could take another step forwards by making it to the Eurocup regular season, but it will have to down Cholet in the first qualifying round before challenging Cajasol in early November.
Founded in the late twenties, ASK Riga started to compete in the Latvian League second division in the 1929-30 season. It was not until 1932 when ASK promoted to the Latvian first division, finishing fifth overall. Latvia won the first-ever EuroBasket in 1935 with two players from ASK - Martins Grundmanis and Janis Lindman, which shows how important the club was becoming. A title was needed to confirm its status but ASK was second in 1938 and 1939, losing the final both times against Starts. In EuroBasket 1939, as many as six ASK players helped Latvia to win the silver medal. ASK finally managed to win back-to-back Latvian League titles in 1940 and 1941. Basketball fever was all over Riga and fans were full of enthusiasm. ASK stayed competitive for the next decade, but when Krumins stepped up, the club went from good to unstoppable.
Krumins was a 218cm center who had not played organized basketball until age 23 but who soon become the best Latvian player ever. He was a carpenter before playing basketball, but soon starting improving since he joined ASK Riga in 1954. It was coach Gomelskiy who brought him in. It was a history-changing decision, as Krumins would lead ASK, together with Muiznieks and Valdmanis, to its glory days. He finished his career in nearby VEF Riga and was a three-time Olympic finalist, winning silver medal in Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964. He changed so many shots and intimidated so much that he was the equivalent to Bill Russell in European club basketball. ASK had won another Latvian championship in 1953, still without Krumins but already with coach Gomelskiy . The Soviet Union League was created right after that and ASK would start to dominate. With Krumins already being a dominant force, ASK would win as many as four consecutive Soviet Union League titles from 1955 to 1958. The best, however, was yet to come.
The European Cup was created in 1958 and ASK entered it as the reigning Soviet Union champion. ASK thrashed Humbolt Berlin University in the eighthfinals and defeated Legia Warsaw in the quarterfinals. ASK had to face Real Madrid in the semifinals, but the Spanish dictatorship did not allow the Spanish champion to play in the Soviet Union, and would deny Riga any visa to enter the country. As such, ASK walked over to the finals against Bulgarian champ Lukoil Academic. ASK won the first game 84-81 at home and despite facing a strong atmosphere with 17,300 fans in Sofia, Riga swept the series with a 71-84 triumph behind an unstoppable Krumins. Both teams would face again in the 1959 European Cup final, as ASK beat Honved Budapest of Hungary and Lech Poznan of Poland on its way to the title series. ASK thrashed Lukoil 79-58 in the first leg, while Muiznieks led Riga to a 67-69 road win in Sofia to successfully defend its title.
ASK would add a third European Cup title despite finishing fourth in the Soviet Union League in 1960. The team, always with the same core of players that also featured Gundars Muiznieks, Alvils Gulbis, Juris Kalnins or Olgerts Hehts, swept its two-way series against Olimpija Ljubljana and Slovan Orbis Prague to get to the finals against Dinamo Tbilisi. It was the first time that two teams from the same country made it to the European Cup final. Krumins had 26 points in the first leg to grab a 51-61 road win in Georgia. Back in Riga, Krumins dominated again with 28 points for a 69-62 win. The three-peat was a fact. In 1961, ASK made its last European Cup appearance and once again made it to the finals against the emerging force in the Soviet Union, CSKA Moscow. CSKA won the first leg 87-62 in Moscow, leaving no room for ASK to rally in the second game in Riga. CSKA had players like Armenak Alachachan, Viktor Zubkov or Gennadiy Volnov. As a dynasty ended, a new European superpower was born.
ASK was away from European competitions for more than four decades, but the team kept competing well in the Soviet Union League, finishing second in 1962 and 1964, as well as third in 1963. Its main superstars started to leave the team, however, and ASK became just a regular team in its domestic competition, even going down to the second division in 1970. ASK went back and forth, from the Russian League to its second division and back again until the Soviet Union League came to an end when the country disolved in 1991. ASK folded for 15 years, but basketball was equally important in Riga as the Latvian League started in the 1991-92 season. Broceni Riga replaced ASK as the team to beat in Latvian basketball, winning eight consecutive league titles from 1992 to 1999. Players like former Soviet Union legend Valdis Valters, soon-to-be elite coach Karlis Muiznieks, Ainars Bagatskis, Gundars Vetra, Roberts Stelmahers, Raitis Grafs or Jon Robert Holden joined Broceni in that period, in which the team also took part in European competitions. Its best results came in 1999, when Broceni made it to the Saporta Cup eighthfinals, losing against Partizan.
As the new millenium started, Ventspils became the dominant force in the country, winning seven consecutive Lavtian League titles from 2000 to 2006. Despite having teams like VEF or Barons in the Latvian capital, Riga lacked a basketball reference and a new club was founded in 2005 by the Riga City Council, the National Army Forces, Parex bank and the Riga basketball academy. It soon decided to get back the legendary ASK Riga name in 2006, the year in which the team already finish third in the Latvian League. ASK was back and soon signed players like Curtis Millage, Torraye Braggs or A.J. Bramlett, as well as keeping a base of Lavtian players like Sandis Valters, Ugis Vilums os Grafs, coached by Ramunas Butautas. It paid off, as ASK dethroned Ventspils in the 2007 Latvian League finals.
ASK took another step forwards when it host the 2007-08 ULEB Cup opening game, marked by the celebrations of 50 Years of European club basketball. ASK Riga hosted Lukoil Academic in a very special opening game that replayed the first- and second-ever European cup finals. The 1959 final was the last time both teams faced each other - until that night. It was a one-of-a-kind event, as commemorating one of the central moments in 50 Years of European Club Basketball with both clubs honored on-court before the game. A particularly emotional moment when participants in the historical 1958 final - Valdis Muiznieks, Gulbis and Hehts of ASK; and Georgij Panov, Ljubomir Panov and head coach Bozidar Takev of Academic Sofia, among others - took the floor prior to tipoff, with rare video images of the first-ever Euroleague final shown in the giant videocube at Riga Arena. That night not only ASK was loyal to its own history, but also proved it is a club more than ready to host any kind of major event.
ASK is on a mission to bring Riga back as a must-stop for European basketball fans not only in the past, but also in the present. With an even-growing structure, a modern organization and thousands of diehard fans, ASK is ready for success. Last season, ASK was third in the Baltic League, as well as returning to the Latvian League finals. "Of course, when we renovated the legendary ASK team, the main goal set was to return to the Euroleague, raising the level of our team as much as we can to achieve it," general manager Girts Kalnins said last season. "This is our ultimate goal, but we must start by becoming a very good Eurocup team." It may all start next week, when ASK visits Cholet Basket in the second leg of the first qualifying round. If the team lives up to its tradition, the sky is the only limit for ASK.