He averaged almost as many points in the EuroLeague as Martin Müürsepp, but unlike the only Estonian who played in the NBA, his career in the strongest club series of the Old World was limited to only 14 games. His name is Tanel Tein.
The patriot of Tartu, today’s politician and advertising businessman, was considered a supreme talent at the time. Tein started basketball training at the age of eight under Tõnu Lust, who later coached him among men as well. At the same time, Tein’s coming to basketball is not a miracle, because his father Toomas won four consecutive Estonian championships in the 1970s.
One of the most interesting chapters in Tein’s career is that of the USA. While today it is quite common for many of our young ball players to go to college or prep school across the ocean, it was rare in the late 1990s.
In 1998, Tein went to St. Francis University, where he shone brightly at times, but the game philosophy there became monotonous for him and he decided to return home after one season. And it was also the time when the rise of Tartu basketball to the absolute top of Estonia began.
The Tartu team had not won the Estonian championship for 22 years when Tein and his colleagues accomplished the feat in the 1999/00 season, and the triumph was repeated a season later. In both cases, the 194 cm tall versatile baller was one of the main strengths of Tartu, in the 2001 playoff games he played an average of almost 37 minutes and scored 17.3 points, got seven rebounds and distributed 4.3 assists per game.
The club needed to be brought back to the top
Tein was a complete star in Estonia, and the time seemed ripe to go abroad. The decision was made in favour of the Polish club Wrocław Śląski, who had won five championships a few years before, but then finished with bronze. Just like with Tartu basketball, Tein was supposed to help Śląsk back to the top.
Tein, who shook hands with the Poles in the summer of 2003, became the second Estonian in the EuroLeague after Müürsepp. Head coach Muli Katzurin was happy about the start of our man’s season because he felt that the Polish club was not his final station and that Tein was capable of developing into a superstar.
In Śląsk, Tein was like Gabriel Deck at Real Madrid or James Nunnally at Partizan Belgrade: when needed, he shot from a distance. If necessary, drove to the basket. If needed, he found a free teammate. When needed, gave everything in defense.
Tein was not hired as the absolute leader of the team, because the American Lynn Greer was brought in to fill that role. A guard who scored 25.1 points per game in the EuroLeague, crowning him the best shooter in the strongest club series in the Old World.
At that time, the 24 EuroLeague clubs were divided into three eight-member subgroups, from which the first five in each group and the best sixth-place team qualified for the top 16. Among the most famous teams, Śląsk faced Olympiacos as well as today’s Baskonia and Istanbul’s Anadolu Efes.
Śląsk finished the group with six wins and eight losses, and points, not a win, were the only difference from reaching the intermediate group. AEK Athens, sixth in Group A, and Žalgiris Kaunas, sixth in Group B, also collected the same balance, but the difference in baskets for Žalgiris was +15, AEK -33 and Śląsk -53.
How did Tein do individually?
The importance of Tein is illustrated by the fact that the Estonian participated in every single one of the 14 matches and was on the field for almost 30 minutes on average. Twice – against Efes and Treviso Benetton – he didn’t get a second’s rest, although statistically, he did nothing noteworthy in those games.
As of today, the 45-year-old former baller brought 8.1 points (87.5 free throws, 55.3 2-pointers and 31.5% from long-distance shots), 2.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 0.8 assists and 0.6 turnovers in the EuroLeague. In three battles, Tein reached double-digit points, and his record was 21 points against ALBA Berlin.
Tein was also good in the first match with ALBA when he took eight points, five rebounds, five steals and six mistakes were made against him. The German giant could not let such a good man slip through the fingers and he was hired for the next season. But ALBA then did not play in the EuroLeague, but in the EuroCup, the second strongest series in the Old World. There, Tein’s numbers were quite similar compared to the EuroLeague.
Tein’s super shot against ALBA:
In Poland, Śląski managed to win the cup competition, but in the final series, they lost 1:4 to Trefl Sopot, who won the first title and ruled local basketball for the next five seasons. Śląski’s title drought ended only last year.
In the regular season of the championship, Tein’s numbers were better than in the EuroLeague, but in the playoff games, the Estonian had difficulties with his shooting accuracy, although he compensated this with more basket passes.
After one season in ALBA, Tein played for a few weeks in Dynamo Moscow, but left the club due to visa problems and rejoined Tartu. Magnificent times awaited them, as they won three Estonian championships, Tein was chosen as the best basketball player in Estonia in 2008, and in the spring of the same year, they became the first Estonian club to reach the top four in the Euroseries.
In 2010, when he was only 32 years old, Tein hung up his sneakers. Certainly, his career could have been brighter, but as the player himself has said, he has no regrets.