The Club Scene: AS Monaco

Feb 13, 2020 by Javier Gancedo, Print
The Club Scene: AS Monaco

The Principality of Monaco is a microstate on the French Riviera and the second-smallest country in the world after the Vatican. Despite its small size, it has a big club that is well-known all around the world. AS Monaco was mainly known as a soccer powerhouse, which won the French League title eight times and reached the UEFA Champions League final in 2004. In recent years, however, basketball has become quite popular in the Principality, drawing the attention of the very famous people living there, including reigning monarch Albert II, Prince of Monaco. Even though the club's basketball section opened in 1928, the sport has never been bigger in the country. It took Monaco 88 years to win its first trophy, but since returning to the French elite in 2015, it has captured three consecutive Leaders Cups and reached several finals in domestic and international competitions. This is a look back at a team that only looks forward, as there is no time like the present for AS Monaco.

The club was founded in 1924 and its first big success came in 1950, when Monaco finished second in the French League, back then called Nationale 1, behind only ASVEL Villeurbanne. Monaco won its group with an 11-3 record and defeated Racing 49-34 in the semifinals. ASVEL stood in its way to success in the championship game, winning 52-40 despite 14 points each from Jean Perniceni and Marc Albos. A season later, Monaco dropped to the French second division. It briefly returned to the French elite in 1955, but it wouldn't be back until the 1972-73 campaign.

From 1973 to 1991, Monaco would play in the French first division in all seasons but one. Monaco was promoted at the end of the 1972-73 campaign and ranked ninth out of 16 in its first season back in the French elite. Woody Edwards and Bill Phillips were its best players back in the mid-1970s. Monaco made its European debut in the 1974-75 season in the Korac Cup. It swept Levi's Flamingo of the Netherlands and downed Hapoel Ramat Gan of Israel in the qualifying rounds. It reached the group stage with ASVEL, Levski-Spartak of Bulgaria and Brina AMG Sebastiani Basket of Italy, but could get no further. Over the late 1970s and the 1980s, Monaco had some of the best French players, such as Philip Szanyiel, Eric Beugnot, Christian Garnier and George Brosterhous, as well as talented foreigners including Robert Smith, Rich Laurel, Mike Stewart and Rick Raivio, among many others.

Monaco would spend 15 consecutive seasons in the French elite. It had a brilliant 1981-82 season, in which it ranked fourth in the French regular season with 14 wins, 3 ties and 9 losses and earned the right to play in the 1982-83 Korac Cup. It also went all the way to the French Federation Cup final where it fell at the hands of Limoges CSP 96-81. Laurel led Monaco with 43 points, but ASVEL's Ed Murphy did even better with 46. Monaco downed OAR Ferrol of Spain and Fortitudo Bologna of Italy to start the Korac Cup. In the group stage, Monaco bested Joventut Badalona of Spain and Partizan Belgrade of Serbia twice but was eliminated by Dynamo Moscow. Led by Smith and Szanyel, Monaco returned to the Korac Cup group stage in the 1987-88 season, but was unable to get past this stage against European giants like Real Madrid of Spain and Virtus Bologna of Italy. In the previous season, Monaco had reached the French League semifinals before losing to Limoges by a narrow margin. After three consecutive seasons reaching the French playoffs, Monaco was last with a poor 3-27 record and went back to the French second division.

The Monegasque team quickly vanished into the French lower divisions and became almost irrelevant. In 2013, Monaco was in the French third division when Sergey Dyadechko became its new president. Dyachenko had previous experience in elite basketball; he had been the president and main shareholder of Donetsk, a team that reached the EuroCup Quarterfinals in the 2011-12 season. Dyadechko invested enough money to bring in experienced players like Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion Dusan Kecman, Derrick Obasohan and Anthony Christophe. Monaco only lost four games that season and earned promoted to the second division. That summer, the club brought in Cyril Akpomedah, Moustapha Fall and Darrel Mitchell. At the end of the 2014-15 season, Monaco earned the right to play in the French elite for the first time in 24 years.

Dyadechko made a key move by signing head coach Zvezdan Mitrovic, who had been successful coaching in Ukraine. It also brought in Sergiy Gladyr, DeMarcus Nelson, Jamal Shuler and Amara Sy and was strong from the very beginning of the 2015-16 season. A 13-4 record at the halfway mark of the regular season allowed Monaco to qualify to the French Leaders Cup, in which it downed Nanterre 92 and Strasbourg to reach the final against Chalon-sur-Saone. Shuler had 31 points in leading Monaco to a 74-99 win at Disneyland Paris. It was the club's first title, 88 years after its founding. Once it broke the curse, Monaco kept adding hardware to its roll of honors, winning more Leaders Cups in 2017 and 2018. Monaco downed ASVEL 91-95 in the 2017 final behind 22 points each from Gladyr and Dee Bost and topped Le Mans 83-78 in the 2018 final with 18 points from Gerald Robinson.

Coach Mitrovic guided Monaco to first-place regular season finishes in 2016, 2017 and 2018, but could not lift the French League title. Despite having the home-court advantage in all playoffs series, Monaco lost against ASVEL in the 2016 semifinals and the 2017 quarterfinals and against Le Mans in the 2018 finals, losing a do-or-die Game 5 at home, 74-76. It took the club 26 years to return to European competitions, but did so by taking part in the 2016-17 FIBA Champions League. Monaco did well in advancing past the group stage for the first time in European competition and then downing AEK Athens of Greece and Dinamo Sassari of Italy to make it to the final four in Tenerife, Spain. Banvit stood in its way in the semifinals, downing Monaco 83-74 despite 20 points from Shuler. Monaco did even better in the 2017-18 season, reaching the Champions League title game. Monaco defeated MHP RIESEN Ludwigsburg in the semifinals, 65-87, behind 19 points from Elmedin Kikanovic, but was stopped by AEK in the championship game, 94-100.

A few months later, before the start of the 2018-19 season, Monaco decided to go for a bigger challenge, joining the EuroCup. Saso Filipovski stepped in as head coach and Monaco had a solid core of players led by Kikanovic, Yak Ouattara, Paul Lacombe and Eric Buckner. The team was competitive right away, finishing first in its regular season group with a 7-3 record and winning two of its first three Top 16 games. But Monaco did not add more wins and was eliminated. In the French League, Monaco returned to the playoffs and defeated Limoges and JDA Dijon to return to the finals against ASVEL, which had the home-court advantage. It would be a decisive factor; ASVEL won do-or-die Game 5 at home 66-55 for the title.

Sergey Dyadechko and Prince Albert

Monaco remains ambitious in the 2019-20 season. It has already returned to the EuroCup Top 16 and depends on its own result in Game 6 to be able to advance to the playoffs for the first time. It is also very much alive in all three domestic competitions: Monaco is in the French Cup quarterfinals, will play the Leaders Cup tournament this weekend and is part of a three-way for first place atop the French League regular season standings. Monaco keeps growing and this could be the season in which everything clicks for a club that is quickly becoming the team to beat in France and a European powerhouse.