"101 Greats of European Basketball," a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades' worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball's roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Wendell Alexis: The Ice Man
Searching data to refresh my memories about Wendell Alexis (July 31, 1964, New York), I found the video of the final minutes of the fifth game in the Italian League final series of 1989. On May 27, Enichem Livorno and Philips Milan, the European champ the previous year at the first Final Four in Ghent, played for the title. In the four previous games, Livorno – who had home-court advantage – won the first one with 39 points by Alexis; Milan won Games 2 and 3; and then Livorno tied it again with a win in Game 4, setting up the fifth, decisive battle. With 20 seconds to go, Milan was winning by a point and had possession. Mike D'Antoni held the ball for about five seconds and passed the ball to Roberto Premier, who took the shot and missed. In the resulting fastbreak for Livorno, Andrea Forti scored for an 87-86 win. The small gym in Livorno exploded. It was collective madness.
The court was invaded by fans and the title was celebrated in between great euphoria and public incidents, including an aggression against Premier. The hero of that game was Wendell Alexis, with 33 points... but it was the most short-lived title of his career. The referees looked at video of the game's last play in the locker room and decided that the last basket had been scored after the buzzer. So the title ended up in the hands of Milan, which had encountered a tough opponent in humble Livorno, thanks to the superb Alexis.
That's just one chapter in the long and successful career of Wendell Alexis, one of the best Americans who ever played in Europe. I wouldn't dare make a selection of the best 12 Americans ever in Europe, but I am sure Alexis would be a serious candidate for the forward position. Standing at 2.04 meters, he was a versatile player. He normally played power forward, but he was also a good shooter and it was not unusual to see him move to small forward or even shooting guard. He was a complete player, made for offense. His thing was scoring points, but he also pulled rebounds and, thanks to his long arms, could also play great defense.
First stop, Valladolid
The Golden State Warriors picked Alexis in the 1986 NBA draft with the 59th pick (one before Drazen Petrovic), but then did European basketball a big favor by not including him on the roster for that season. He had finished his university career at Syracuse with great numbers and, logically, he was expecting his chance in the NBA. But it just didn't arrive. Like many before him, Alexis then tried his luck on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. He was signed by Forum Valladolid in Spain, a humble team on paper, albeit one that would also sign Arvydas Sabonis three years later, in 1989. Only two games were needed to see that Forum had signed a star in Alexis. He would finish that first season averaging 18.2 points and recording a personal best of 44 points against Clesa Ferrol (89-86), a game in which he played 40 minutes and made 19 of 26 two-pointers. Then, on July 14, 1987, Real Madrid announced the signing of Alexis. He was the third addition for the club that summer, after Jose Luis Llorente and Fernando Martin, who was coming back to Madrid from the NBA.
Lolo Sainz, the legendary player and later coach of Real Madrid, told me the reasons that pushed him to sign Alexis:
"We were looking for a power forward, one who could not only rebound but also shoot. There was a lack of this kind of player on the market back then. We set our sights on Wendell and we hit the mark. He was a super player, a serious man who fit into the team just fine. He never hid. He had lots of self-confidence because he knew he could do many things. He had also great physical readiness and good legs to play defense, plus long hands to defend any opponent."
There's a video available on the Internet that showcases his character perfectly. In the final of the Korac Cup between Real Madrid and Cibona, Madrid won the first game of the series at home by 102-89 in front of 12,000 fans. Fernando Romay and Brad Branson scored 25 points each and Alexis added 21, but the play of the game was a spectacular slam by Alexis over Croatian giant Franjo Arapovic (2.15). Also, Alexis volunteered to defend Drazen Petrovic, who managed to score 21 points but with bad percentages, making just 3 of 12 two-pointers and 3 of 8 threes. All credit goes to Alexis.
In the second game, Petrovic scored 47 points, but Cibona only won by a point, 94-93, so Real Madrid took the trophy. It was the first European trophy for Wendell Alexis, who was 25 years old, just entering his prime. He ended that season with similar numbers to the ones he had in Valladolid: 18.0 points per game in the regular season, 18.7 in the playoffs. However, FC Barcelona ended up taking the title by winning the final series 3-2. Despite playing well, Alexis had to leave Real Madrid because back then the number of foreign players was limited to two, and Real Madrid had already signed Drazen Petrovic and Johnny Rogers.
Italian League champ... for a half-hour
Alexis chose Italy and the humble Livorno as his next stop, and he ended up being Italian League champ – for 30 minutes, at least. He had two excellent seasons there, scoring 20.8 and 19.4 points on average. After that, he moved to Ticino Siena, which at that time was far from the heights it would reach early in the 21st century. There he put up 20.3 points and 5.9 rebounds, after which he switched to Trapani, where he played his two best seasons in Italy. In 1991-92, Alexis scored 25.2 points and pulled 7.8 rebounds per game; in 1992-93, he improved to 25.8 and 8.3! It was the right time to sign for a big team again. He chose Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he won the 1993-94 Israeli League title and was that season's MVP, but he decided to return to Italy. In Reggio Calabria, he posted his usual numbers, 20.9 points and 6.8 boards. The following campaign he landed in France with Paris Levallois, and once again was consistent, with 22.5 points plus 5.5 rebounds per game.
I will never understand how no really big teams after Real Madrid and Maccabi ever signed this great player, but on the other hand, the fact that ALBA Berlin chose him to become the pillar of its growing project was the key moment for the evolution of the club. In the summer of 1996, at 32 years old, Wendell Alexis joined ALBA. He would stay there for six years, winning six straight German League titles plus three German Cups. He became the top scorer of all time in the club and a true idol for the fans of the team. Marco Baldi, general manager of ALBA for many years, told me about Alexis's role in the club:
"Wendell Alexis is not only one of the biggest players in the history of ALBA. He is a great personality and a long-time friend that I have the utmost respect for," Baldi said. "With him, we went on an unprecedented string of victories. During Wendell's six years with ALBA, we won six consecutive German championships, three German Cups and became a force in the EuroLeague. Wendell is still ALBA's all-time leading scorer. In his time in Berlin, he earned the nickname 'Ice Man' as he was able to hit numerous game-winning and championship shots. In September 2012, we retired Wendell's jersey (#12) in an emotional ceremony. Even 12 years after his last game, well over 7,000 fans attended the ceremony to celebrate an important figure in the history of ALBA Berlin."
In a spectacular homage in September of 2012, as Baldi mentions, ALBA retired Alexis's jersey number 12. It made perfect sense, as it's very difficult to imagine anyone other than the Ice Man wearing that number as he had done during those wonderful six seasons, winning nine titles and scoring 5,922 points in 341 games. Personally, I didn't see many live games with Alexis, but I do remember when he played at Hala Pionir in Belgrade in February of 1989. In the semis of the Korac Cup, the great Real Madrid – with Martin, Biriukov, Romay, Iturriaga, Branson and Alexis, who scored 17 points – defeated Crvena Zvezda by 82-89. In Madrid, the score was 81-72 with 24 points by Alexis. That season, in 12 games, Alexis averaged 19 points. After that, I saw some games of his in ALBA's jersey and especially at the 1998 World Championships in Athens, where a team of American "volunteers" appeared, due to the NBA lockout. He was the second-best scorer of that team, which won the bronze medal, with only 2 points fewer than Jimmy Oliver. His averages were 11.6 points and 4 rebounds. Against the Argentina team with Nicola, Oberto, Wolkowyski and a young Ginobili, he netted 20.
He also made it to the modern EuroLeague during the 2001-02 season, putting up 16.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, and was ALBA's top scorer and second most-used player on court, with 31 minutes per game, behind only Derrick Phelps.
Euro-trophy at 40
At 38 years old, Alexis was thinking about retirement, but in December of 2002 he had an offer from PAOK Thessaloniki, and he delivered: 13.4 points and 5.8 boards in the FIBA Europe Champions Cup and 12 points and 5.5 boards in the Greek League. Was that the end of his career? Of course not! There's nothing better than winning a title at 40 and Alexis did just that with Mitteldeutscher BC, even though he missed the FIBA Europe Cup final four due to injury. However, with 17.0 points, 4.7 boards plus 1.3 assists, Alexis was a big factor in Mitteldeutscher reaching the final. And in the German League, he was the usual Alexis: 18 points plus 6 rebounds per night.
Personally, Wendell Alexis reminded me of Damir Solan, the great Jugoplastika forward of the 1970s. Alexis rebounded better and played closer to the rim, but aside from wearing the same number 12, they had in common the way they moved, their technique and the ease with which they scored points, the essence of basketball.
When he finally retired at 40 years old, Alexis offered his expertise and knowledge as an assistant in high schools (Saint Joseph), the NCAA (New Jersey Institute of Technology) and even the NBA Development League (Austin Toros). And he has a lot to teach.