The Club Scene: Montakit Fuenlabrada

Nov 28, 2016 by Javier Gancedo, Print
The Club Scene: Montakit Fuenlabrada

It took Montakit Fuenlabrada 13 full seasons to return to the 7DAYS EuroCup after being one of the original teams in the competition. This club, which was founded three-and-a-half decades ago, grew steadily with the help of a city that got the basketball virus in the most unexpected way - by hosting a future EuroLeague champion and making it its own. Fuenlabrada made its Spanish League debut in 1996 and has been competing with the best teams in Spain almost all of that time. Fuenlabrada has been home for many European basketball stars, EuroLeague champions and up-and-coming talents that went on to make history. Coming off a historic season in which the team made it to the Spanish League playoffs for the fifth time in club history in epic fashion, Fuenlabrada remains loyal to its own principles by investing in homegrown talents with a lot of upside together with veteran players able to lead the team for this challenging and exciting season.

Founded in 1983 by Julian Aranda and Miguel Angel Hernandez as P. M. D. Fuenlabrada, the club started to compete in regional leagues for two seasons and then joined the national leagues, starting right at the bottom. Mana, a cafeteria, was its first sponsor in the 1986-87 season. Fuenlabrada played on a public school court - Colegio Publico San Esteban - in the second regional division. The team was promoted to the regional first division at the end of the 1987-88 season. Armando Polo, who is now the youth team's coordinator and current president Juan Antonio Jimenez, joined the club before the end of the 1980s. The club merged with a women's team, Club Femenino Baloncesto Fuenlabrada, to become Club Baloncesto Fuenlabrada. Another merge took place a year later, this time with Club Baloncesto Torrejón de Ardoz, and by 1993, the club had reached the Spanish second division and already had seven youth teams.

Something really important happened in Fuenlabrada that helped it become a basketball city. Due to political reasons, Partizan Belgrade needed to play its EuroLeague home games outside of the former Yugoslavia and chose Fuenlabrada and the recently opened Pabellon Fernando Martin as its new home. Fuenlabrada became fully identified with Partizan and started to root for the team as if it was a local one; it was known as "Partizan de Fuenlabrada" by people in the city. When Partizan edged Spanish powerhouse Joventut Badalona in a group stage game 76-75, there were 4,000 fans rooting for the team. Later, Estudiantes of nearby Madrid came to play in Fuenlabrada and its fans were the minority. Partizan was allowed to return to Belgrade for the playoffs and, led by Sasha Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic and head coach Zeljko Obradovic, ended up winning its first and only EuroLeague title in epic fashion. And yes, the celebration was extended to Fuenlabrada and basketball fever was set to stay for good.

Fuenlabrada battled to make it to the Spanish elite (ACB) for several seasons, but always came up short in the playoffs. An opportunity was presented to the club in the summer of 1996 and Fuenlabrada took it with both hands. The club acquired the right to play in the Spanish League by buying out Club Peñas Recreativas Huesca to take their spot in the first division. Raymond Brown and Ken Bannister were its main players, along with Jordi Soler, Joe Alonso and Salva Guardia. Things did not go as expected, as Fuenlabrada had three different coaches - Martin Fariñas, Oscar Quintana and Andreu Casadevall - and had to play the relegation playoffs, which it lost to Forum Valladolid. But Fuenlabrada brought in Ramon Fernandez as its new general manager and that move paid off handsomely. Fernandez handed the team's reins to Quintana and signed super scorer Velimir Perasovic. Fuenlabrada responded with a near-perfect season and won its first official title, the Copa del Príncipe de Asturias (played by second division teams only) and earned its way back to the Spanish League.

Fernandez put together a very competitive team at the start of the 1998-99 season, led by Perasovic, the late Nate Huffman, Rico Hill, Carlos Cazorla and Ferran Lopez, the club's current sports director, who played for Fuenlabrada for nine seasons in two stints between 1997 and 2009. Fuenlabrada opened the league with a 25-point win against Tau Ceramica and remained near the top of the standings after that. It later reached both the Copa del Rey and the Spanish League playoffs, the latter of which it lost to Real Madrid. Huffman joined EuroLeague giant Maccabi Tel Aviv a year later, when Fuenlabrada made its European club competitions debut in the 1999-00 Korac Cup, but lost the chance to go past the group stage due to a tie-break disadvantage against Telindus Antwerpen. The club had signed Chuck Kornegay, Pablo Prigioni and Gaby Ruiz among others, but Perasovic stayed on as the team's main pillar. Fuenlabrada did not reach the playoffs, but returned to it in the 2000-01 season. Fuenlabrada, which then added David Wood and Fran Murcia as its new faces, finished the regular season seventh with an outstanding 20-14 record, but Madrid stood in its way in the quarterfinals.

Coach Quintana, Perasovic, Wood, Murcia and Cazorla were joined by Jose Manuel Calderon at the start of the 2001-02 season. The club did well in the Korac Cup by winning its regular season group and defeating Portuguese side FC Porto in the eighthfinals. Once in the quarterfinals, Fuenlabrada won 84-82 in Game 1 of its two-leg series against Maroussi, but suffered a 73-63 loss in Game 2 was was eliminated. Fuenlabrada missed the Copa del Rey tournament, but a good second half of the regular season, which included a six-game winning streak, took the team back to the playoffs. Unicaja Malaga was its rival in the quarterfinal playoffs and swept the series, 3-0. Its seventh-place finish gave the team an opportunity to play the newly-created ULEB Cup the following season. Quintana returned as head coach and Perasovic left, but Fuenlabrada landed a mix of experienced and talented newcomers that featured Jose Miguel Antunez, Frankie Solana, Richard Scott and Walter Herrmann, who had an instant impact on the Spanish League and won MVP honors. Even so, the team could not make it to the playoffs and finished 14th overall. Despite opening the ULEB Cup with a 90-83 home win over Snaidero Udine with 28 points from Solana, a six-game losing streak prevented the team from getting past the regular season.

Things went south in the 2003-04 season, in arguably the most balanced Spanish League regular season of all-time. Indeed, Fuenlabrada was just three wins away from the playoffs with a 13-21 record, but went down to the second division. Again, it only took one year for Fuenlabrada to return to where it belongs. The club signed Luis Casimiro as head coach, kept key players like Solana and Guardia and added a reliable big man in Tom Wideman. Fuenlabrada left no doubt about its power by winning both the Copa del Príncipe de Asturias and the Spanish second division titles to get back to the ACB. It took Fuenlabrada six years to return to the Spanish League playoffs; it placed 10th at the end of the 2005-06 season and ninth in the 2008-09 season. Fuenlabrada remained competitive with players like Saul Blanco, Lopez, Solana, Andres Miso, Marko Tomas, Jose Antonio Paraiso, Brad Oleson, Gustavo Ayon, Kristaps Valters and Quino Colom. Things got better in the 2010-11 season with Salva Maldonado as head coach. Esteban Batista had a terrific first half of the season and when he left the club, Ayon took a step forwards and with the help of Valters and Leo Mainoldi, Fuenlabrada recorded a 20-14 record and finishing seventh overall. Fuenlabrada lost against Madrid and Guardia retired at the end of the season as the player with the most games in club history.

Fuenlabrada returned to European competitions in the 2011-12 season when it took part in the EuroChallenge. Ayon left in December, but Fuenlabrada regrouped led by Kirk Penney, Sergio Sanchez, Colom and Mainoldi. The club advanced past the regular season and the Last 16, in fact finishing that second group stage undefeated to reach the best-of-three quarterfinal playoffs against Triumph Lyubertsy. Both teams traded road wins, so Fuenlabrada hosted do-or-die Game 3 at Fernando Martin. Triumph prevailed with a 65-80 victory that denied Fuenlabrada a spot at the final four. The club finished 16th in the Spanish League with a 12-22 record for the first of three consecutive tough seasons. Things went south in the 2014-15 season, in which the club signed experienced players like Andy Panko, Kenny Adeleke, Jimmy Baron and Manolis Papamakarios. Fuenlabrada finished the regular season at the bottom of the standings with an 8-26 record, but kept its place among the Spanish elite due to the lack of candidates able to meet the competition's requirements.

A major turnaround was needed and that is exactly what Fuenlabrada did. The club signed Zan Tabak as head coach and put together a strong team led by EuroCup legend Marko Popovic. Ivan Paunic, Jonathan Tabu, David Wear and Alex Urtasun rounded out a competitive team. Tabak left during the season to join Maccabi and was replaced by Jota Cuspinera, who helped the team played attractive and intense basketball. Fuenlabrada kept its playoffs chances alive until the final game, which the club lost at home against UCAM Mucia, 61-73. With the players already in the locker room, Fuenlabrada's only chance was to hope for CAI Zaragoza to defeat Bilbao Basket on the road. With Bilbao up 72-70 and 2.8 seconds left, Joan Sastre banked in a 20-meter three-point shot that sent Fuenlabrada - and not Bilbao - to the playoffs, in what became an unforgettable moment for Fuenlabrada fans, who stayed at the arena to celebrate the amazing way it reached the next round.

A season later, Fuenlabrada is back to the EuroCup for the first time since the 2002-03 season and already showing its power with home wins against Khimki Moscow Region, RETAbet Bilbao Basket and ALBA Berlin. And Fuenlabrada has another milestone coming up, as Popovic may become the EuroCup's all-time top scorer in the very near future.