The Club Scene: Unicaja Malaga

Oct 28, 2016 by Javier Gancedo, Print
The Club Scene: Unicaja Malaga

It is a special season for Unicaja Malaga, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this season. Founded on August 29, 1977, the club is using special activities to highlight its history over these four decades. Unicaja has been one of Malaga's best sports ambassadors, being successful in both domestic and international competitions. Unicaja has won two domestic titles - the Copa del Rey in 2005 and the Spanish League in 2006, and lifted the Korac Cup in 2001.The club was Remarkably successful in the EuroLeague, having reached the Top 16 for 11 consecutive seasons and making it to the Final Four in 2007. Unicaja has a solid structure of young teams and has developed elite players over the years like Carlos Cabezas, Berni Rodriguez, German Gabriel, Domantas Sabonis, Vitor Faverani, Alex Abrines and Fran Vazquez, among others, as well as a legion of fans ready to make noise at Martin Carpena. It may be a 7DAYS EuroCup newcomer, but expect Unicaja to be a solid contender for the title, which would add new hardware to its roll of honors.

The club was founded in 1977 as Sociedad Deportiva Caja de Ahorros de Ronda, with Juan Luis de la Rosa as its first president. Alfonso Queipo de Llano and Jose Maria Martin Urbano put together a team that included Manolo Rubia, the club's current chief of operations, and Bernardo Rodriguez, whose son Berni would become a club legend. The team started to compete in the third division in the 1977-78 season, when it won its group and beat Lliria in a do-or-die game to earn its right to play in the second division the following year. A new home court, Ciudad Jardin Arena, was opened in 1978, when Caja de Ronda hosted European Cup champion Bosna Sarajevo. The club signed Carlos Cabezas Sr., and together with Jose Maria Ferrer, Paco Alonso and head coach Damian Caneda, helped Caja de Ronda gain promotion to the Spanish first division at the end of the 1980-81 season. A win against Porcelanas Santa Clara Vigo sealed the club's promotion to the Spanish elite on March 14, 1981.

Ron Charles, a former NCAA champion with Michigan State, became the club's first foreign player. Caja de Ronda also signed European cup champion Luis Maria Prada and Miguel Lopez Abril, who helped the team finish 10th overall. Caja de Ronda played in the Copa del Rey for the first time, but lost to La Salle Bonanova. NBA champion John Stroud and Herminio San Epifanio arrived the following season and the team slipped to 12th place. With Moncho Monsalve as head coach, the club signed super scorer Dan Caldwell in the summer of 1983 and he helped Caja de Ronda finish 10th in the newborn ACB. Over the next two years, Caldwell averaged 25.4 points in 62 games, but could not stop Caja De Ronda from going down to the Spanish second division (Primera B) at the end of the 1984-85 season. Another Malaga-based team, Mayoral Maristas, made it to Primera B in 1984, but returned to the third division the following season.

It took Caja de Ronda a couple of years to return to the Spanish elite, which finally happened in 1987. Before that, Malaga was a host city for a group stage of the 1986 FIBA World Championship, with eventual champions United States of America playing several games in the city. With John Deveraux, Clyde Mayes and Rafa Vecina as its new stars, Caja de Ronda achieved promoted to the first division. It needed to beat Santa Coloma and for Leon to defeat Collado Villalba in the final regular season round, which happened to the joy of everyone at Ciudad Jardin Arena. It was a year of promotions in Malaga, as Maristas, led by head coach Javier Imbroda and superstars Ray Smith and Mike Smith, also made it back to Primera B. The club has never been back to the second division, even though it only won one regular season game in the 1987-88 season. Down 0-2 in the relegation playoffs against TDK Manresa and led by an unstoppable Adrian Branch, Caja de Ronda won three consecutive wins to avoid relegation. Branch averaged 35.7 points in those three do-or-die games. Mayoral, led by Ray Smith and Mike Smith, was also promoted to the ACB that season, giving Malaga two clubs in the Spanish elite.

Caja de Ronda got stronger in the 1988-89 season under new head coach Mario Pesquera and with the star foreign duo Ricky Brown and Joe Arlauckas, as well as key players Fede Ramiro and Pep Palacios. With a short rotation that also included Vecina, Caja de Ronda finished fifth overall and qualified to play in European competition for the first time. It also made it to the Copa del Rey quarterfinals, but lost in overtime against CAI Zaragoza, 110-115, despite 36 points from Arlauckas. With Brown and Arlauckas still as its main pillars, Caja de Ronda finished fifth overall the following season. Martin Urbano returned as head coach midway through the 1989-90 season, in which Caja de Ronda signed Mike Smith, who arrived from cross-town rival Maristas. The club had a short debut in European competitions, losing in the Korac Cup's qualifying round against Trane Castors of Belgium in 1989 and Charlottenburg of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990. By the 1991-92 season, Unicaja Ronda finished 14th and Mayoral 15th. Both clubs merged before the start of the 1992-93 season to become Club Baloncesto Malaga SAD, sponsored by Unicaja. Imbroda would be its first coach, while Nacho Rodriguez, Manel Bosch and Mike Ansley were its main stars.

After finishing 10th in the 1993-94 season, everything clicked for Unicaja a year later. Sergei Babkov and Kenny Miller joined Ansley, Alfonso Reyes, Gabi Ruiz, Rodriguez, Bosch and Curro Avalos. Unicaja finished the regular season in second place with a 25-13 record and swept Estudiantes and Manresa in the playoffs to reach the Spanish League finals against FC Barcelona. In a best-of-five playoffs series for the ages, Unicaja won Game 1 at Palau Blaugrana and lost Game 2 by 1 point, but took Game 3 88-87 to get within one win of glory. Down 78-80 with a few seconds left, Ansley took a championship-winning three-pointer from the top of the key, which hit the back of the rim. Barcelona won Games 4 and 5 to claim the title, but Malaga already breathed basketball and was fully backing Unicaja. The club made its EuroLeague debut in the 1995-96 season when it missed the quarterfinal playoffs on point difference. Back in Spain, Unicaja was third at the end of the regular season with a 26-12 record, but Manresa stopped it in the quarterfinals.

Unicaja lost competitiveness in the Spanish League; Babkov, Miller, Ruiz and Rodriguez was the team's backbone for many years, but the team did not reach deep in the Spanish League or in domestic competitions. In 1999, Rodriguez, Cabezas - whose fathers also played for the team in its early years - and Gabriel helped Spain win the World Junior Championships. Unicaja signed Veljko Mrsic before the start of the 1999-00 season to join Xavi Fernandez, Bryan Sallier, Juan Antonio Orenga and Jean-Marc Jaumin. The club, coached by four-time EuroLeague winner Bozidar Maljkovic, went all the way to the Korac Cup finals, but an 80-58 road loss against Limoges CSP in Game 1 of the two-game, home-and-away series was impossible to overcome at Ciudad Jardin. It got even better in the 2000-01 season, when Unicaja knocked off JDA Dijon of France, Maccabi Ramat Gan of Israel, Ricoh Astronauts of the Netherlands and Hemofarm Vrsac of Yugoslavia to lift the 2001 Korac Cup. Cabezas and Rodriguez were already starting for Unicaja and Abrams averaged 16.5 points in the finals. Unicaja also reached the Spanish League semifinals that season, but lost against Barcelona, and moved into its current home, Palacio de Deportes Jose Maria Martin Carpena.

Far from being done, Unicaja made its renewed EuroLeague debut in the 2001-02 season, with Milan Gurovic as its main signing. The club signed Louis Bullock late that season. A second-place regular season finish and wins against Fuenlabrada and Estudiantes brought Unicaja back to the Spanish League finals, this time with the home-court advantage against Tau Ceramica. Bu everything went wrong as Tau won twice in Malaga and added a win in Vitoria Gasteiz to sweep the series. Unicaja made it to the EuroLeague Top 16 for the first time in the 2002-03 season, but home losses against CSKA Moscow and Efes Pilsen left the team out of the Final Four race early. A domestic title was missing for Unicaja to keep growing, but its fans didn't have to wait long for that. Sergio Scariolo had become the team's head coach in 2003 and the club signed Jorge Garbajosa, Pepe Sanchez, Florent Pietrus, Vazquez and Zan Tabak before the start of the 2004-05 season. Unicaja qualified to the Copa del Rey tournament in Zaragoza, where it downed Alicante, Valencia and Real Madrid to lift the trophy.

This was the start of the club's golden age. Unicaja returned to the EuroLeague Top 16 in the 2005-06 season and would play it for 11 consecutive years. That season, with Marcus Brown and Daniel Santiago as its main additions, Unicaja was first at the end of the Spanish League regular season with a 26-8 record and made the most out of its home-court advantage by sweeping Estudiantes in the quarterfinals and beating Joventut Badalona 3-2 with a home win in Game 5, 88-75, behind 31 points from Brown. Unicaja reached the Spanish League finals for the third time and was finally able to lift the trophy, sweeping Tau Ceramica in the best-of-five series. Garbajosa earned Finals MVP honors. A year later, Unicaja took its success to the EuroLeague, getting past the Top 16 for first - and so far, only - time in history. It earned the home-court advantage in the best-of-three playoffs series against Barcelona. Everything came down to the final seconds of Game 3, in which a three-pointer by Sanchez lifted Unicaja over Barcelona 67-64 to secure a berth in the Final Four in Athens. CSKA gave Unicaja no chance, 62-50, but Coach Scariolo's team had completed its own trilogy of achievements in as many seasons. Also in 2007, Unicaja downed Memphis of the NBA 102-99 in Martin Carpena thanks to 20 points from Davor Kus.

Unicaja returned to the Spanish League semifinals in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the last two with coaching legend Aito Garcia Reneses leading the team. Unicaja reached the Copa del Rey final in 2009 and lost 98-100 in overtime despite 23 points from Marcus Haislip. The club kept making it to the EuroLeague Top 16 each and every season, but did not get beyond that point. Cabezas, Rodriguez, Carlos Jimenez, Jiri Welsch, Omar Cook, Georgios Printezis and Joel Freeland were its main pillars throughout those years. Unicaja missed the Spanish League playoffs in 2012 and 2013, when it finished ninth overall. Unicaja became more competitive with head coach Joan Plaza, who joined the team before the start of the 2013-14 season. Unicaja kept reaching the Top 16 on regular basis and also returned to the Spanish League semifinals in 2014 and 2015, but lost against Madrid and Barcelona, respectively. Last season, Unicaja made it to the Spanish League playoffs, but Valencia Basket stood in its way in the quarterfinals.

This season, Unicaja makes its 7DAYS EuroCup debut, with a chance to keep growing. A well-respected member of the city community, Unicaja was one of the first teams to join One Team, Euroleague Basketball's corporate social responsibility programme. It has all it takes to be successful again - a solid fan base, a coach that knows what it takes to win the EuroCup and a deep roster hoping to make the 2016-17 season one to remember for everyone in Malaga!