The 7DAYS EuroCup Finals were a rollercoaster that will be forever remembered, and at the center of it all was Unicaja Malaga center Alen Omic, who put an unusual end to his already unusual season. Omic, an All-EuroCup First Team selection with Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas last season, arrived in Malaga on loan from Anadolu Efes Istanbul in mid-January to give Unicaja the extra boost it needed in the decisive stages of the competition. When All-EuroCup center Dejan Musli went down due to injury, Omic knew his moment had arrived and he did not disappoint. He had averaged 2.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in the quarterfinals against FC Bayern Munich, but with extended playing time and responsibility, Omic raised his numbers to 7.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in the semifinals against Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar. Against Valencia Basket in the finals, he remained a big factor with 8 points and 12 rebounds in Game 1 and a double-double (12 points and 10 rebounds) in do-or-die Game 2, which allowed Unicaja to send the series back to Valencia. It was in Game 3, however, where Omic showed great sportsmanship. And even though things did not go the way he wanted on a personal level, his team lifted the trophy.
Late in the first half, Unicaja was trailing by 8 points and struggling to put the ball in the basket. Oliver Lafayette tried to change things for the visitors, but his shot only hit the backboard. Pierre Oriola and Alen Omic fought for the rebound before the ball went out of bounds. The referees gave Unicaja the ball, but Omic, knowing he was the last player to touch the ball before it went out, corrected the referees' decision, lifting his left hand and pointing at himself with the right one. Such sportsmanship is rarely seen in a game, let alone in a do-or-die game to win the EuroCup title. "If I know something, I say it. In that case, I was aware that I was the last one to touch the ball. I chose fair play over acting in a different way," Omic said after the game. "I had touched the ball, I knew it. It was better to tell the truth and admit I did it. Okay, we were down by 8 points, but it was the second quarter and we were not going to rally past Valencia in a couple of minutes," he added. Omic could have chosen not to say a word and Unicaja would have had an extra possession, but it was not what he wanted to do. "It is my decision, period. I touched the ball and I said it. Maybe other players will do the same I did. Maybe not, I don't care. I just know I wouldn't change what I did," Omic added. He got a nice ovation from the Valencia fans for his sportsmanship.
Things went south for Unicaja in the third quarter, as Valencia displayed its best basketball and led 50-43 late in the third quarter. With 1:53 left, Nemanja Nedovic of Unicaja committed a hard foul on Rafa Martinez of Valencia. An angry Martinez looked to lunge toward Nedovic, but Omic jumped off the bench to grab him and stop a potential fight right at that spot. Once the players stopped their pushing and shoving, the referees reviewed the incident via instant replay and, once it was clear that Omic left the bench in a fight, ejected Omic from the game. Omic left the court with a towel covering his face and headed back to the locker room in one the iconic images of this unforgettable finals. Valencia managed to extend its margin to 56-43 with nine minutes left and the rest is history. With Musli injured, Omic ejected and Viny Okouo too young for such responsibility, Unicaja head coach Joan Plaza chose to use Carlos Suarez at center, with Jeff Brooks and Dani Diez opening the floor at the wings. "I opted to do something I previously had done during the season; use smaller players to be able to switch on defense if need be, and to go with a lot of commitment. Alberto [Diaz] has been with us for many years, Dani has been two years with us, Carlos four...," Coach Plaza said. "It is obvious that those players who have been here for a longer time could understand better the level of commitment and sacrifice that the moment required. And luckily, they executed really well," he added.
"The key is not letting them get the ball by being between them and the ball. When Dubljevic got the ball in the low post, I had instructions to foul him to avoid easy baskets. My teammates helped me double-team him so that he would pass the ball out," Carlos Suarez said in a recent EuroCupbasketball.com interview.
Omic celebrated the title as if he was a homegrown player, right at the center of the party. He waived a big Unicaja flag in front of over 500 fans who had been waiting in the airport for hours, instantly becoming a fan favorite in Malaga due to his commitment, sportsmanship and happiness when it was time to celebrate. His EuroCup Finals were unusual, but Omic emerged as a key player, leading by example in many ways. "I always give my best and like to be close to my teammates, on and off the court. I don't do anything special. I am happy in Malaga, everyone is great and I enjoy a lot with our fans," Omic said about his happy days in Malaga. "He is a giant with a little kid's heart, a great person," Coach Plaza added.
In terms of fair play, Omic was far from being done. Three days later, Unicaja played a Spanish League road game against Rio Natura Monbus Obradoiro. With the game already in Unicaja's pocket, Mickey McConnell of Obradoiro drove to the floor, but fell on the floor with Omic and hit his head on the court. Omic did not run back, but stayed with McConnell, asked the referees to stop the game and told the doctors to come right away. Omic also walked McConnell to Obradoiro's bench, making sure he was Okay.
Another game, another lesson of sportsmanship from Alen Omic, a gentleman on the court. "It is just fair play. I have seen a lot of situations like this in basketball," Omic said. "Am I an example to kids? I cannot answer that. Maybe the best is to talk to the kids and ask them... let's see what they think about me!" Omic is set to return to Efes and finish his contract there next season, but being so universally loved in Malaga, it would not be a surprise to see Unicaja try to bring him back in the near future.