Basketball: Russia turns clock back to dominate Europe

Alexandre FEDORETS

Russian men's and women's basketball clubs have a chance this weekend of sweeping every European trophy for the first time in the country's history, in a throwback to Soviet domination of the sport.

With two women's tournaments and the men's second-tier European cup already secure, CSKA Moscow just need to win the Euroleague title to complete an extraordinary clean sweep.

Lokomotiv-Kuban from the Russian southern city of Krasnodar clinched their first-ever continental trophy by downing Bilbao Basket 64-75 in the Eurocup final at Charleroi, Belgium.

This year's Russian female champions UMMC from Ekaterinburg grabbed their second women's Euroleague title by beating Turkish outfit Fenerbahce 82-56 in the final, while Dynamo Moscow bagged the women's Eurocup beating another Turkish side, Kayseri.

Meanwhile, a rampant CSKA Moscow will challenge for their third Euroleague title in the Final Four tournament, held in London this weekend.

The Red Army side will take on their old foes Olympiakos in the semi-final, while Spanish arch rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona will determine the other finalist.

The Soviet Union -- with the full might of the USSR republics including the basketball-mad Baltic states -- were a global force in the game, famously defeating the United States for gold in the 1972 Olympics.

The rise of club basketball in Russia seems paradoxical as the game is currently out of fashion compared to a true basketball boom after the collapse of the USSR, when Russian youth discovered for themselves the NBA basketball stars.

But the wave of basketball popularity brought into the sport dozens of young talents, the best of whom are now playing for Russian and NBA professional clubs.

Flagship side CSKA Moscow -- winners of 24 Soviet and 20 Russian titles, four European Champions cups and who twice topped the Euroleague -- served an example for other sides.

CSKA have always had solid funding, attracting sponsors with their stable top-class performance both in the national championship and the European cups.

The club, currently owned by one of Russia's biggest mining companies Norilsk Nickel, have never bought players wholesale, instead pursuing a shrewd transfer policy allowing them not only to perform well on the pitch but also to retain good chemistry in the dressing room.

The club has bet on a combination of home-grown talents and European basketball stars like their current charismatic leaders, Greek player Theodoros Papaloukas and Serbian star guard Milos Teodosic.

"I feel really, really lucky to have the opportunity to win one more serious trophy at the end of my career," Papaloukas said in a recent interview.

"It came at the best moment. I am even luckier because it is happening with coach (Ettore) Messina in the team. We have the chance to win one more Euroleague title. I am going to enjoy it very much and hope that, in the end, we are going to make it."

Last year the club Khimki, which is financially backed by a major private bank, added a prestigious Eurocup to their trophy cabinet. That win gave the club -- which represents the Moscow satellite town of the same name -- the right to represent Russia in this season's Euroleague.

Khimki, where the former Orlando Magic forward James Augustine plays along with former Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings pivot Sergei Monya, managed to battle into the Euroleague's top 16 in their first attempt.

Lokomotiv-Kuban, who also won a pass into next year's Euroleague, are dreaming to repeat that success and maybe even outdo it.

"Of course it will be great to repeat that performance and to reach the knockout stage in the first attempt," club manager Yevgeny Pashutin said after the victorious Euorcup final.

"But it's natural to desire more and I believe we (Lokomotiv-Kuban) are able to surpass that success."

The success of Russian women champions UMMC meanwhile rests largely on the financial backing of the mining company the club is named after, which is powered by Iskander Makhmudov, a Russian tycoon of Uzbek origin. Makhmudov was ranked 12th among the country's wealthiest people by Forbes magazine.

The WNBA stars Diana Taurasi, Deanna Nolan, Candace Parker and Sue Bird are teamed up in UMMC together with top Russian stars Maria Stepanova and Olga Arteshina.

This star mix has allowed the club to win five consecutive Russian championships (and seven overall) together with two Euroleague titles.