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David Pick | Nr. 55

From Russia with LOVE | David Pick über die Perspektiven des Basketballs in Russland und die Auseinandersetzung zwischen ZSKA Moskau und der EuroLeague

The tides in basketball are changing all around us. Who would’ve or could’ve imagined an era where three of the top five players in the NBA – AKA three of the best five players in the world – are EUROPEAN. That’s right. The Greek Freak. The Joker. Luka Magic. INSANE.

Having Euros go head-to-head and toe-to-toe against LeBron James, Steph Curry etc. – no one had thought such an era would be upon us. “Remember when he played his 1st EuroLeague game against us, he was 16-years-old”, tweeted Aaron Jackson to his former CSKA Moscow teammate Kyle Hines in reference to Luka Doncic. “I remember. We went deep under the screens, and he knocked down four 3s”, the reigning EuroLeague Defensive Player of the Year responded. Pure legendary stuff.

We’ll dive into the overseas part of our column in a moment, but I need some more time to marvel at Luka’s evolution to stardome. Do you remember recent EuroLeague head coach Igor Kokoshkov? Well, Kokoshkov coached Luka and Slovenia to the Eurobasket Gold Medal. Kokoshkov was also the head coach for the Phoenix Suns that passed on drafting Doncic. Fast forward to the present, Kokoskov is an assistant coach on the Dallas Mavericks. Where are the Suns? In Cancun. Oh well.

Chris Paul and Devin Booker shared plenty of dreams on the outcome of Game 7. Shooting a combined 1-7 from 3-Point land, however, wasn’t one of them. Luka celebrating on their home floor definitely wasn’t the other.

European basketball is also trending toward new formats with new clubs. Russian teams dreaming of a return to international play face a dark reality. As long as this war between Russia and Ukraine is ongoing, there will be no Russian teams participating in European competitions – EuroLeague, EuroCup, FIBA Cups. Behind the scenes there’s another war between CSKA and the EuroLeague.

Moscow, a regular at the Final Four events, are eager to return to the 2nd best league in the world. Officials for CSKA issued a formal letter to EuroLeague shareholders indicating their intentions to compete in the 2022-2023 season. It’s still unclear how UNICS Kazan and Zenit Saint Petersburg will move forward, but CSKA are not going down without a fight.

Awkwardly, CSKA is also part-owner of the competition and despite the current international sanctions against Russian sports clubs, CSKA will remain very much a part of the EuroLeague board in the near future. “We are the members of the shareholders board, we fulfill all our obligations, and we continue to participate in all meetings on strategic issues. I am sure CSKA will return to the top, even if it takes some time”, CSKA President Andrey Vatutin said in a recent interview with Greek media giant

Vatutin says it became a global trend to eliminate Russian sports entirely. “Our football clubs and the National Team have been suspended by UEFA, the Ice Hockey World Championship is now taking place without Russians.”

CSKA toys with the idea of relocating their home games outside of Russia in an attempt to bypass international flight limitations on visiting clubs. “Despite all the difficulties, we are ready to make every effort to ensure security in Russia and we consider it possible to travel via Belgrade or Istanbul”, Vatutin said.

Not long ago it was reported that the EuroLeague was seeking legal reasons to revoke CSKA’s license from the competition, though no legal grounds were found.

Vatutin’s goal to rejoin the Euroleague comes with great ambitions to celebrate the lengthy existence of his club. “CSKA will turn 100 next year. We will do our best so that the great history of our club continues.”

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine couldn’t have come at a worse time for Russia’s EuroLeague reps. CSKA had just formalized the signing of Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kevin Pangos. Kazan were ranked 1st in the VTB League, and Zenit were believed to be a strong Final Four contender.

I don’t watch tennis. I actually dislike it. But basketball can learn A LOT from how people around the world seperate sports and politics. Not long ago Serbian superstar Novak Djokovic won his first title of the season, in Rome, at the grand Internazionali BNL d’Italia. Djokovic is unvaccinated to COVID-19, and has drawn a lot of negative attention. But he wasn’t dismissed from the tournament. Furthermore Russian tennis players surprisingly took part in the event. There’s no reason athletes can’t use their voices to promote peace and solidarity. Rome is a prime example of that – sports are greater than politics.

The war affected the build up of the VTB League teams as well. Of the 12 participating teams this past season, just nine are still standing. Polish side Zielona Gora, Estonian club Kalev Tallinn and Kazakhstan representative Astana have pulled out of the competition. In discussions with Russian officials, BIG Magazine has learned the secret plan of the VTB League: 1. More games (40). 2. Teams play each other twice at home and twice on the road. 3.

Promoting clubs from the 2nd Division “Superleague”.

Former EuroChallenege winning club BC Samara, who finished 7th (17-14) this season is a sure lock in the VTB League for the 2022-2023 season under coach Sergei Bazarevich. Samara not only has a rich history in Russian basketball, but also a rich club and brand new facilities. Another club set to join the VTB are Superleague finalist Runa Basket from Moscow. Runa also has an acceptable arena for the VTB standards, and their location can attract high level imports. The 3rd potential club are Superleague winners Uralmash from Yekaterinburg, who won the championship with a 28-3 record, but it’s undecided as of this time due to their small gym capacity. The upside for Uralmash is their budget abilities to acquire high volume imports. The 9th seed in the Superleague “MBA Moscow” (16-18), a small club in the capital, might also receive an invite to the VTB, but it’s still undecided. One team that you won’t see next season? Khimki Moscow, who finished 11th this season with a negative 12-22 record and continue to recover their debt. A week after the conclusion of the VTB Finals between CSKA and Zenit, the board will gather to vote on the new participants.

The American embassy in Moscow has its own basketball court. It used to hold around 1000 employees. Nowadays, you’d be lucky to find 100 people on campus. The cooperation between the two countries, Russia and the US, have known better times. But this time, there’s a pressing matter that demands a resolution ASAP.

Almost three months ago, WNBA player Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia and now faces up to 10 years in prison. Griner has been behind bars since mid-February when she flew into Sheremetyevo airport and Russian customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Griner, a former 1st overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury, has played in the US, China and Russia, for UMMC Ekaterinburg, for no less than SEVEN years. Russia is rumored to want to pursue a “trade” in exchange for Griner in the form of a prisoner swap for notorious convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, according to the US media, citing unnamed government sources.

Bout also goes by “Merchant of Death”, and is known for allegendly killing U.S. citizens, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization. All this in exchange for a basketball player. YIKES. Last month, the US and Russia completed a prisoner swap despite the cold shoulder between the two nations. Ex-US Marine Trevor Reed was detained in Russia for almost three years. The US traded back Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking. Griner, alongside Paul Whelan, another former Marine sentenced to 16 years on spying charges, remain the only two US citizens detained in Russia. Recent footage saw Griner leave a Russian courthouse in handcuffs, with an orange hoodie over her head, face down staring at the floor.

“If this was an NBA player of her caliber… this would be on the cover of not only every sports page but every news media page in the world”, said Tamryn Spruill, a sports journalist who is writing a book on the WNBA and Griner’s contributions to the league. Her Russian lawyer Alexander Boykov told the local media he expects a verdict charge to be brought soon. Chris Paul wore a shirt with Griner’s face on it, and the WNBA adored each court with Griner’s initials and number “BG42”. US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson was brought in to assist in negotiations; Bill also helped release Reed. “Brittney has been detained for over 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home”, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement to ESPN on May 3.

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