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The Club Scene: Spirou Basket
Dec 19, 2008
by Javier Gancedo, Eurocupbasketball.com
In just two decades, Spirou Basket Charleroi has gone from virtually unkown to become a reference point in Belgian and European basketball. Founded just 20 years ago, Spirou has forged its status as a team to beat in Belgium, and this season stands as one of five unbeaten clubs in the Eurocup right before the start of 2009. Charleroi has already put seven Belgian League and four Belgian Cup titles in its trophy case, but despite being a regular team in European club competitions since 1993, the team has never been close to lifting a continental trophy. With a balanced roster, a modern organization and backed by thousands of fans that sell out the wonderful Spiroudome on regular basis, the time might be ripe for Spirou to take its domestic success to the European scene. Ambitious as ever and already qualified to the Last 16, Spirou knows it has a tough road to follow, but has taken a strong first step towards its goal - the Eurocup Final Eight. Few teams are more used to Europe's second competition - this is Charleroi's sixth appearance in seven seasons since 2003 - and fewer still would be so comfortable in the end-of-season setting after Charleroi hosted a series of ULEB Cup finals this decade. Now, Spirou hopes the time has come to play in one.
Even when Spirou was founded in 1989, basketball has been played in Charleroi for many decades. Back in 1945, Fernand Ballens and Andrew Ghyselinck founded the JSRE Monceau. The club included two basketball sections, and the men's team set the basis for what one day would be Spirou Charleroi. Its women's basketball section, Royal Spirou Monceau, started to compete officially in 1968 and still is a successful club nowadays. The team eventually took its name from Spirou, one of the most important Belgian comics, a young bellboy that first appeared back in 1938. Right before Spirou was born, CEP Boigelot Charleroi, featuring Czechoslovakian superstar Stanislav Kropilak, right at the end of his legendary career, Horace Wyatt or Jean-Marie Barbier made it to the 1988 Korac Cup elimination rounds. Boigelot managed to down BBC Nyon in the first round, but soon-to-be champion and European club competitions giant Real Madrid stood on its way to the group stage.
The club was founded in 1989 from the ashes of Spirou Monceau with one and only ambition: to become the first club in the Wallone region to lift the Belgian League title. Fully supported by the city of Charleroi, the club found instant success in the Belgian League, making it to the 1992 semifinals, where Malines stood on its way to success. Giovanni Bozzi, Eric Somme and Etienne Bertrand had managed to put together a powerful team for its Korac Cup debut in the 1992-93 season, featuring another European basketball legend, Valdemaras Homicius, as well as Mark Wade, John Weatherspoon, Tony Marion and Erik Cleymans. Charleroi survived three elimination rounds against Estrelas of Portugal, Asvel Basket of France and Tofas of Turkey to reach the group stage, a big success for a newcomer to European club competitions.
Spirou cemented its status as a Belgian League contender in the mid-nineties, reaching three consecutive Belgian League finals from 1993 to 1995, losing twice against Malines and once against Oostende. Ron Ellis was its superstar back then, while Weatherspoon, Marion, Daniel Goethals and Sydney Grider made up its core of players. Spirou was ready to go one step forwards and that is exactly that happened in the 1995-96 season, in which it became the team to beat in Belgium. With Ellis, Weatherspoon and the addition of center Eric Struelens, Spirou went on to win both the Belgian League and the Belgian Cup titles, thereby earning the right to make its Euroleague debut in the 1996-97 season. Struelens was the decisive factor in the league finals against defending champion Oostende. Spirou had reached its initial goal of winning titles for the Wallone region but ambitious as it has ever been, the club wanted much more.
Ellis and Cleymans stayed as references for Spirou, but the club replaced Struelens with Adam Wojcik to face its first Euroleague season. The team finished its first experience in the Europe's top competition with a 1-15 record, but at Charleroi registered a prestigious 90-82 home win against Maccabi on February 13, 1997 behind 28 points from Ellis. Spirou added a second Belgian League title that season. With playmaker Jacques Stas added to its core of players, Spirou took part in the Saporta in 1998 and 1999, surviving the group stage and reaching the elimination rounds in each occasion, always with Ellis as its scoring reference. In 1999, Spirou - competing as Region Wallone Charleroi - reached the Saporta eighthfinals, losing against eventual champion Benetton Treviso. Back home, Spirou added two more Belgian League titles to establish a dynasty in its domestic competition, adding another Belgian Cup trophy in 1999.
Even when Spirou did not win another league title during the next three seasons, it took steps forward in European club competitions. In 2000, Spirou was back in the Saporta Cup, with Bill Varner as its prime scorer while keeping Marion, Weatherspoon, Goethals and Richard Morton. Spirou managed to down teams like AEK, Hapoel Jerusalem and Avtodor Saratov to survive the group stage, losing against Pamesa Valencia in the first head-to-head elimination round. A new era started for European club basketball with the turn of the century, and Charleroi had the honour of taking part in the first-ever Euroleague Basketball season. Ellis now joined forces with Mike Batiste but despite an initial win against the St. Petersburg Lions, Charleroi went on to lose its next eight games to miss the playoffs. In 2002, Spirou returned to the Euroleague with the goal to bounce back from previous its experiences in the competition. Louis Rowe, Stas, Ellis and Roger Huggins were its franchise players but Spirou missed the Top 16 with a 3-11 record. Spirou bounced back by winning another Belgian Cup title in 2002.
Spirou joined the newborn ULEB Cup in 2003 and quickly became one of the trademark teams in the competition. The team had recently moved to the state-of-the-art Spiroudome, a new arena with all kind of facilities that hosted the ULEB Cup final for four consecutive years, from 2004 to 2007. Even when Ellis and Huggings were back, Spirou had new references in scoring ace Marcus Faison and defensive center Andre Riddick, who would eventually became the all-time top rebounder, shot blocker and steals leader in Europe's second competition. In that first season, 2003-04, Spirou survived the group stage and had a 60-39 lead after 30 minutes in the first leg of the two-way eighthfinals against DKV Joventut, but the Spanish powerhouse managed to rally and advance to the next round on points differential. Spirou went on to win the Belgian League and Belgian Cup titles, its last double so far. No more titles would come in the next five seasons, but Charleroi stayed as a reference in Belgium and beyond.
The club proved its solid organization each and every year that the Spiroudome hosted the ULEB Cup final with sellout crowds and an entire city devoted to basketball. People kept coming to see Spirou despite the lack of trophies, as Charleroi even missed the Belgian League playoffs in 2004-05 for the first time in over a decade. Spirou competed really well in the ULEB Cup, reaching the elimination rounds in each of its four opening appearances. Spirou almost provided a big surprise by putting Spanish side Estudiantes into trouble. Spirou had registered an 18-point loss but Riddick, Predrag Savovic, Faison and Petar Arsic were about to change things in the second leg in Madrid. In 2005, Spirou went one step higher and reached the quarterfinals with the additions of Tunji Awojobi, Dzenan Rahimic and Damir Krupalija. losing against Pamesa Valencia. Eventual champion Dynamo Moscow stood on its way to the ULEB Cup final at the Spiroudome in 2006.
In 2007, Spirou took part in the FIBA Europe League and lost in the second group stage. Ralph Biggs, Amir Tamit, Cyril Akpomedah and Krupalija were its main players. Spirou regrouped in the Belgian League, winning the regular season but losing in semifinals against Euphony Bree. Last season, Spirou missed the ULEB Cup post-season for the first time in five appearances, finishing 4-6 in its regular season group. Len Matela, Wes Wilkinson, Riddick and Justin Hamilton, who are all back in the team thie season, were its main references on court. The arrival of coach Drazen Anzulovic along with playmaker Justin Hamilton and shooter Matt Walsh allowed Charleroi to win its seventh Belgian League title last season, taking revenge against Bree in the title series. With its strong Eurocup start and leading the Belgian League already, it is safe to say that Spirou may be facing yet another historical season. After all, Spirou has the experience, organization and know-how that any team needs to reach to the top.