The Club Scene: Bizkaia Bilbao Basket

Feb 01, 2010 by Javier Gancedo, Print
The Club Scene: Bizkaia Bilbao Basket
Tiago Splitter with Bilbao (Photo: Diario El Correo)Another example of a regional capital city becoming crazy about basketball this decade is Bilbao, where the Eurocup's only undefeated team has built a tremendous following since it was founded in 2000. Since then, the team now called Bizkaia Bilbao Basket has made a remarkable progression from the Spanish third division. Qualifying for international competition for the first time ever last season, Bilbao Basket was more than ready, finishing that regular season undefeated, too, on the way to a remarkable run into the Eurocup semifinals at the Final Eight in Turin, Italy. This season, despite struggling in its domestic league, Bilbao Basket has been the single most dominant team in the Eurocup, scoring the second-most points in the league with the best two-point shooting percentage. Having started the Last 16 with a major road win, it's looking as though the sky is the only limit for Bizkaia Bilbao Basket again this season in the Eurocup.

Basketball was first officially played in Bizkaia back in the 1940s in a place called Club Deportivo. Always ready to play new sports, its club members had discovered basketball 20 years earlier, however, and the game was already one of their many activities. It was soon all over the Bilbao schools and then on to the rest of the Bizkaia area. Two signature clubs in Bilbao basketball, Aguilas and Patronato, were founded in 1950s and are still in the sporting memory of the city. Aguilas was the first club of Emiliano Rodriguez, who was named in 2008 among the 50 greatest contributors to the first half-century of European club basketball. Rodriguez won four continental titles with Real Madrid as one of the best pros basketball players anywhere during the 1960s. Patronato is still active and is the oldest club in Bizkaia. Aguilas reached its biggest success when the Spanish League started in 1956. In 1978, however, club founder Paco Diez - a truly important icon and a basketball pioneer in Bilbao - passed away and Aguilas folded right after that. In 1983, Caja Bilbao tried to bring elite basketball back in the city. The team made it to the Spanish League in 1986 and remained for five consecutive seasons with players like Darrell Lockhart, Joe Kopicki, JJ Davalillo, Mark Simpson and Juanma Lopez Iturriaga. The team earned the right to return to the first division in 1994, but folded due to financial problems.

Richard Scott with Bilbao Basket (Photo: Diario El Correo)The city of Bilbao was without a top basketball club for several years, but it all changed on March 7, 2000, when Bilbao Basket Berri was founded. A group of people linked to the sport in Bizkaia, such as the Arrinda brothers and Davalillo, gave fans the chance to have a team to cheer for, starting in the Spanish third division (LEB-2) in the 2000-01 season. It soon gained an important fan base despite an underwhelming debut, as the team finished 13th overall, just avoiding relegation with players like Javier Madina, Felix Herraiz and David Fernandez de Castro. Bilbao Basket knew it was the time to be ambitious and the 2001-02 season marked the start of a progression that continues today. With teen center Tiago Splitter, Javi Salgado, Mark Poag, Ruben Quintana and Patrik Saez de Ugarte and its own signature head coach Txus Vidorreta, Bilbao became unbeatable on its homecourt, La Casilla, while moving up to the Spanish second division (LEB-1).

Nobody expected Bilbao Basket to do well it its LEB-1 debut in the 2002-03 season, but the club once again beat the expectations with Vidorreta as coach and Salgado, Splitter, Poag and Txemi Urtasun as its main stars. Bilbao was fourth at the end of the regular season but lost against Leon Caja España in the quarterfinals. The team had nonetheless quickly established a basis to be a strong team in LEB-1 and was already considered a favorite to reach the first division after the 2003-04 season. Bilbao lived up to the expectations and got better with Bryan Sallier, Venson Hamilton and Brian Howard. Bilbao became the regular season winner of LEB-1 and downed Ciudad de Huelva in their five-game quarterfinals. In Game 5, Bilbao beat Huelva 91-85 behind 22 points from Salgado to reach the semifinals. In a direct fight to reach the first division, Bilbao swept Leon 3-0. On May 21, 2004, Bilbao thrashed Leon 55-71 with 14 points from Hamilton to win the series and earn the right to play in the ACB.

Bilbao celebrates promotion to Spanish League (Photo: Diario El Correo)Its first ACB season in 2004-05 would not be easy, starting with a 104-57 road loss against neighbors Tau Ceramica. Always ambitious and determined, the team - now called Lagun Aro Bilbao Basket - had put together an interesting lineup featuring Richard Scott, Fred Weis, Salgado, Cesar Sanmartin and Predrag Savovic. Bilbao bounced back with a surprising road win against Joventut in Badalona and proceeded to hava a similarly up-and-down season. Bilbao was able to beat Pamesa in Valencia but also registered home losses against the weakest teams in the competition. A 67-77 road win against Unelco Tenerife allowed Bilbao to remain in the first division for 2005-06 on the next-to-last regular season game. The team kept coach Vidorreta, all its core players and added experienced forward Andy Panko. Bilbao finished 2005 with a 4-10 record but bounced back in style, also taking giant step forwards in terms of club structure and commitment with its fans. On January 22, 2006, Bilbao played its first game at the 13,000-seat BEC Bizkaia Arena, downing Tau 92-78 in front of a sellout crowd. Despite a big win against Barcelona, Bilbao had to wait until the last regular season game to stay in the ACB for one more year.

Bilbao got ready for the 2006-07 ACB season by keeping current franchise player Marko Banic, as well as adding Luke Recker, Nacho Azofra and Martin Rancik, among others. The club was allowed to host four regular season games at Bizkaia Arena - against Real Madrid, Barcelona, Tau and Guipuzkoa Basket - and managed to set an all-time ACB attendance record by hosting 15,414 fans in the game against Tau. More and more fans came to see the team practice and hundreds of time travelled to nearby road games to Vitoria, Guipuzkoa and Valladolid. The city of Bilbao had caught basketball fever. Bilbao was 10th at the end of that season and was chosen to host the Spanish League's preseason Supercup tournament in 2007. The club, now named iurbentia Bilbao Basket, has landed playmaker Marcelo Huertas, center Drago Pasalic and sharpshooter Quincy Lewis to play alongside Banic, Savovic, Salgado, Weis and Paco Vazquez, always with Vidorreta as their boss. The team downed Barcelona 74-67 in the Supercup semis, but loss in the title game against Tau, 73-85. It marked the start of a historical season for Bilbao Basket, in which the team made it to the King's Cup semifinals and the Spanish League playoffs. Moreover, Bilbao earned the right to play in European club competitions for the first time, taking another step forward.

Javier Salgado (Photo: Diario El Correo)Far from being an average newcomer to European club competitions, Bilbao battled hard from the very beginning in the 2008-09 Eurocup. With the addition of depth and versatility in the persons of Ronnie Seibutis, Salva Guardia and Janis Blums to its strong core of players, Bilbao won all six regular season games with big road triumphs against more experienced teams like Buducnost and Hemofarm Stada. Far from being lucky, Bilbao beat the Artland Dragons and downed Spirou Charleroi twice to reach its final Last 16 with a chance to qualify for the Final Eight. It all came down to one game, but Banic had 24 points and 14 rebounds to lead Bilbao to a historic 67-59 home win against Lietuvos Rytas. La Casilla went wild. In another recognition of achievement for the club, Banic made it to the All-Eurocup first team. Once at the Final Eight in Turin, Italy, Bilbao stormed into the semifinals with a solid 76-67 win against Zadar behind 21 points from Blums. BC Khimki Moscow Region stood in the way to the final, but Bilbao had truly rewritten its own team history in a sensational Eurocup season. Bilbao returned home and got back to the ACB playoffs to round the best season in club history.

For the current season, Bilbao landed Alex Mumbru, Chris Warren, Jerome Moiso and Javi Rodriguez to bring even more talent and experience to the roster. Despite those moves and despite finishing the Eurocup regular season unbeaten for the second consecutive year, the club suffered tough times in the ACB, causing Vidorreta, the architect of Bilbao's rise from the Spanish third division, to resign as head coach. While it tries to survive in the Spanish League, Bilbao remains the only undefeated club in the 2009-10 Eurocup. With a year of Eurocup experience and a new, well-traveled coach in Fotis Katsikaris, Bilbao must fight for survival at home even as it tries again to reach for Eurocup glory.