Valencia Basket enters its eighth European final, its sixth in the EuroCup and the second against the same opponent, ALBA Berlin. It is a remarkable achievement for a club that celebrated its 30th anniversary just a couple of seasons ago. Only a few of their fans have been there all the way, including when the team went down to the second division in 1995 on a cold night in Huesca.
One of them is Luis Ledo, who has been loyal from day one, watching his team return to the Spanish elite and win the Copa del Rey title in 1998 against all odds. A bus of Valencia fans traveled to Valladolid, packed with everyone's suitcases to return as soon as the club lost. "But we didn't lose and had to return to the hotel not once, but twice," Ledo remembered. "It was supposed to be a one-game trip. Some of my friends had to buy underwear and clean clothes because they didn't expect to be in Valladolid for so long."
Ledo was there when Valencia lost two Saporta Cup Finals, one against Benetton in Zaragoza, Spain, in 1999 and later against Montepaschi Siena in Lyon, France, in 2002. Everything changed when Valencia became the then-called ULEB Cup's original champion. Ledo witnessed of an unprecedented basketball party at Pabellon Fuente de San Luis.
"It was a final in which we were the clear favorites. Novo Mesto was a little-known team and to be honest, we had a great roster with very important players. Once we won the first leg in Novo Mesto, nobody expected us to struggle at La Fonteta. Even with that, it was a very good game, very close. We didn't seal the win until the final minutes and that is when people exploded with joy. The club had been working to win a European title for many years, and it was finally there," he said.
Ledo has two very vivid images of the 2003 final. "The iconic image of the 2003 Finals was Fede Kammerichs standing on the rim, waving one of the nets after cutting it. There was also a very emotional hug between Nacho Rodilla and Victor Luengo, two homegrown players who played together in the third or fourth Spanish division and they were celebrating being European champions."
Valencia had to wait seven long years to return to the EuroCup Finals. Luis went to see his team in Turin in 2008 and 2009, but Valencia did not get past the quarterfinals. Everything changed again in 2010; Valencia downed Panellinios OPAP Athens and ALBA to claim its second EuroCup title. That trophy changed everything for the better, according to Luis.
"It was a strange year, there was a moment of doubt in the club in which it was not clear that basketball in Valencia would carry on. In that sense, the 2010 EuroCup title was very, very important. Coach Spahija did a great job and if you think about it, we had a very good roster, with great signings. Some of those players reached really far after that - Matt Nielsen, Nando De Colo... we even had Toko Shengelia as our 12th player that season. He won the EuroCup; I believe it is his only title until now! It was a great year, and it allowed basketball in Valencia to have a brighter future," he added.
One of the things that makes Ledo so proud of his team is the family environment around the club and the fact that Valencia Basket wants its players to interact with fans. A good example of that came in 2010. "Valencia Basket is a very close team. The relationship between players, staff, management, and fans is special, maybe different than in other clubs. The team celebrated that 2010 title in Vitoria and I was lucky enough to be in that celebration. The club had the detail to invite those fans staying overnight to the party with all the players. I have fantastic memories of that night!" Ledo remembered. "In general, when we hear from fans from other Spanish teams and how they travel, we have little to complain about. The club treats its fans the best way possible and they encourage players to interact with fans. Players are close to the fans, not some sort of gods at a different level. This is very important and helps the club's fan base. Fans identify with their players."
Ledo missed the 2012 EuroCup Finals in Khimki, but when Valencia returned to the final stage of the competition in 2014, he flew all the way to Kazan, Russia, to cheer for his team. It would be one of the best experiences in his life as Valencia Basket fan. "It was beautiful. The club gave us the opportunity to fly to Kazan; they hired a charter plane and a group of fans was allowed to fly in with the team. That made the final more special. We flew there with the team. We won the title and the trip back was unforgettable. You can only imagine; players and fans dancing inside the plane, drinking champagne. It is a moment that, as a basketball fan, I will never, ever forget."
If the win in Kazan was his sweetest in European competitions, losing Game 3 of the 2017 finals against Unicaja Malaga was one of his worst memories as a Valencia fan. "It was probably the hardest loss in club history. Losing a final at home, in a series in which you were the favorites, in which you counted on the win, is really tough. In Game 3 we had a big lead with 7-8 minutes left, but then the team completely collapsed and Unicaja ended up being the fair winner," Luis said. Things changed for the better very quickly, though. "Yes, it was a shock, but everything changed when we won the Spanish League title a couple of months later. We always say that when we won the Spanish League title, it was as if we also won the EuroCup. Of course, we didn't, but that sadness we had came to an end."
This season, Ledo is very proud of his team and its current 14-game winning streak, Valencia's longest ever in the EuroCup. "I would like to say that we had a great EuroCup season until now. We had tough groups in the competition, we weren't exactly lucky and had fantastic results until now. I give the team a lot of credit for finishing 6-0 in a very tough Top 16 group. Being able to eliminate Rytas and UNICS without losing a game gives the team a lot of credit. Of course, it made us reach the finals thinking that we are the favorites, but we cannot underestimate ALBA Berlin, which got great results and plays great basketball. I had the luck to watch some of their games and they play great," he said.
Most of his best memories as a Valencia fan are linked to the EuroCup and Ledo enjoys every bit of it, as he gets ready to see his team in another final. "There is a EuroCup culture here in Valencia; no other group of fans has seen more EuroCup games than us, that's for sure. Personally, I enjoy the EuroCup a lot. I like the format, with short group stages. It is entertaining but demanding at the same time, all season long, and that is a very good thing."
You can count on it that Ledo will be there on Tuesday night as Valencia looks to create more great memories for the club and its loyal fans, like Luis Ledo.