The Club Scene: Asvel Basket

Feb 04, 2005 by javier Gancedo, Print
The Club Scene: Asvel Basket
Asvel BasketMaking its debut this season in the ULEB Cup is a club whose name is synonymous with French basketball: Adecco Asvel Villeurbanne. As France's most successful team ever, Asvel became known as the "French Celtics" not just for its green uniforms, but for its 13 titles in 28 seasons between its founding in 1949 and 1977. Asvel has also carried the French flag in Europe since the 1950s, reaching its highest mark just eight seasons ago with a Euroleague Final Four appearance. The club's early and modern eras were bridged by an unusual honor bestowed in 2004, the retiring of jersey number 4 with the names of two superstars who wore it: Alain Gilles of the great 1960s and 1970s teams, and Delaney Rudd, who led the club's resurgence in the 1990s. A half-century of traditions makes one thing clear: just as it has in all competitions it has played, Asvel can be expected to contend for ULEB Cup honors, as well.

As the most successful team in France, Asvel has to be considered a European classic. Founded in December 1948 with the merger two local teams, Eveil Lyonnais and A.S. Villeurbanne, success came quickly to Asvel. Under first club president Pierre Millet, the team won that season's Excellence Championship and by 1950 had clinched its first French League title. Its first star was a lasting one, Andre Buffiere, who would win four French League title as a player and seven others as a coach. However, Asvel soon found an even bigger star, Alain Gilles, considered by many the best French player ever. An exceptional playmaker, Gilles played 21 seasons with Asvel, until age 40. When its 50th anniversary was celebrated in 1998, Gilles was voted Asvel's biggest history-maker, and he remains with the club to this day as vice-president.

With stars like Gilles and Buffiere, Asvel dominated the French League for almost three decades and came to be called "the French Celtics" because of its winning tradition and green uniforms. Asvel's dynasty included 13 domestic titles and five second-place finishes between 1950 and 1977. Asvel's reputation reached beyond France, too, as the club played in first Euroleague, back in 1958, losing to Royal Brussels in the eighthfinals. Asvel would lose to eventual champion Real Madrid in the 1965 quarterfinals on a team in which center Alain Durand joined a young Gilles and Buffiere. Asvel managed to challenge two of the best Europeans teams, CSKA moscow and Ignis Varese, in the 1970 Euroleague quarterfinals, which Gilles shining against the very best in Europe and John Rucker became the first American player in club history. Asvel also reached the 1974 Korac Cup semifinals after knocking off Olimpia Milano and Union Olimpija, but eventual champ Cantu stood in the way to the final.

In 1976, Asvel returned to the Euroleague ready to make some noise. Gilles was already well known around the continent and Asvel registered quality wins all season, especially at home, where sellout crowds of 10,000 fans became common. At the quarterfinals group stage, Asvel beat Zadar 70-65 and even mighty Varese 88-67. With one more victory needed to advance, Asvel thrashed Malines of Belgium 84-60 to reach the two-way semifinals against mighty Real Madrid. Even after the first-game result, a 113-77 victory by Madrid, made the series outcome clear, Asvel treated its home fans to a 101-99 victory at home in the second game as Roger Moore scored 27 points.

Asvel would win its 15th French League title in 1981 and would reach its first-ever European final in the 1982-83 Saporta Cup. Asvel survived a tough quarterfinal group, again featuring Olimpija Ljubljana, before knocking off Den Bosch of Holland in the semifinals to reach the title game in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. There, however, Scavolini beat Asvel 111-99 behind 31 points by the legendary Dragan Kicanovic. Philip Szanyiel had 26 points for Asvel, Larry Boston 24 and the everlasting Gilles 8. Asvel next made it to the 1987 Saporta Cup semifinals, but lost to the legendary Drazen Petrovic and Cibona.

Some low years intervened, but by 1995, Asvel was playing in Europe again, with a team that featured Laurent Pluvy, Brian Howard, Alain Digbeu, Ronnie Smith and above all, playmaker Delaney Rudd, the club's cornerstone player since he arrived in 1993. Asvel started in the qualifying round, but survived an eighthfinals group with AEK of Greece, Manresa of Spain and Scavolini, then knocked off Alba Berlin in the quarterfinals as Rudd had 29 points and 7 assists in the decisive second leg. Although Milano swept their two-way semifinal, Asvel was back, and not only in Europe. It would reach the French League finals that season against Pau-Orthez, setting up arguably its biggest success ever.

In 1996-97, with all its stars from the previous season back and former Euroleague champ Jim Bilba added, Asvel made it all the way to the Euroleague Final Four. The team chemistry was evident as Asvel registered incredible road wins: Rudd had 31 points to beat Panathinaikos in Athens and 35 to win at Barcelona and reach the eighthfinals in style. The three-game playoffs against Estudiantes of Spain woke up the basketball fever in Villeurbanne, which was rewarded when Rudd had 18 points and Digbeu 17 in the decisive 75-71 home win in Game 3. In the best-of-three quarterfinals against Efes Pilsen, everything seemed lost when Efes won Game 1 in Istanbul. But Bilba had 19 points and 14 rebounds to help Asvel tie the series with an 80-70 win in Game 2. Then, in Game 3 before 12,000 Efes fans in Istanbul, Asvel registered an historical victory, 57-62, as Rudd had 20 points to lead his team to the 1997 Final Four! Once in Rome, Asvel lost to both FC Barcelona and Union Olimpija, but history was made and the support from its fans allowed Asvel to build the Astroballe, a phenomenal, modern 5,600-seat arena which has been the home of the team ever since.

Although it won its third French Cup in six years in 2001, Asvel had no title to show for its resurgence despite consistent appearances in the domestic playoff finals. That all changed in 2001-02, when after 21 years, Asvel added its 16th French League crown thanks to a talented team led by current All-Euroleague center Nikola Vujcic and coached by Bogdan Tanjevic. In that season's best-of-three finals against archrival Pau-Orthez, Asvel won Game 1 on the road 68-77 and edged Pau 65-64 at home in Game 2, on Vujcic’s game-winning free throws, to take the title. More European success came with a trip to the Euroleague Top 16 in 2002-03. After a down year that followed, Asvel rebounded to make the French League semis last season, thus qualifying for its ULEB Cup debut. In this new competition, expect Asvel to maintain more-than-half-century tradition of contending for honors in every competition where it plays.