When rummaging through the annals of EuroLeague history, various clubs from Spain, Italy, Greece and other basketball powerhouses stand out among the winners. One of the countries that was crowned the best in the Old World’s strongest club series just once is known to all Estonians – we are talking about Lithuania and Žalgiris Kaunas – but to find out the other one, let’s have a quick quiz!
This is a team where, for example, Matthias Tass and Siim-Sander Vene have played from the Estonian national team. This is a team whose head coach has been, among others, Božidar Maljković and Duško Ivanović. The country of origin of this club is mentioned in the title of this story, and if you look at it all you might already have the answer.
We are talking about the former giant of France, Limoges, who is fighting to stay in the Premier League this season, but is the 11-time champion of the country, falling behind only ASVEL from Villeurbanne. The last title was won by the former employer of Tass and Vene nine years ago.
But there was also a time when Limoges ruled not only France, but also Europe. Between 1989 and 1995, the Central French club reached the top four in the EuroLeague three times and was limited to the quarter-finals three times. The icing on the cake was in the 1992/93 season when they beat Real Madrid in the semi-finals and defeated Treviso Benetton in the final.
With the EuroLeague victory, Limoges became the first French basketball club to win the strongest European league in its field. At the same time, football was narrowly overtaken, because when Limoges defeated Treviso on April 15, 1993, one month and 11 days later, Marseille Olympique defeated AC Milan 1:0 in the Champions League.
And for those of you who should be interested: in handball, the French club won the Champions League throne only in 2003 thanks to Montpellier, and in volleyball two years earlier, when the Paris Volley (which also backed the Treviso club) emerged as the winner from the final tournament held in Paris.
But enough of other sports, let’s return to the basketball story of Limoges.
The coach everyone wanted
The end of the 1980s and the beginning of the next decade are still Limoges’ most successful era. At the same time, it is worth mentioning that the local head coaches Pierre Dao and Michel Gomez played a very big role in the club’s strong progress, but in the context of the EuroLeague, there is no way around Maljković.
The Croatian-born Serbian ended his playing career at the age of 19, but immediately focused on coaching. Developing under the watchful eye and care of the legendary Aleksandar Nikolić in his homeland, Maljković arrived in his native port city of Split in 1986.
With the local Jugoplastika, where later NBA players Toni Kukoč, Žan Tabak and Dino Radja played, Maljković rose to the elite of European coaches. Together they won two EuroLeague titles and three Yugoslavian championships.
Maljković was so successful with Jugoplastika that everyone wanted to bring him to their club and were willing to pay a lot of money for that. He moved to Barcelona, where he spent just over a season marked by tensions with the club’s management. In the end, he resigned himself. He just had enough of it.
A little over a month later, Maljković was back at coaching when he took over Limoges halfway through the season. The first half of the year went as it did, although they reached the finals of the French championship, where they lost 0:2 to the arch-enemy Pau-Orthez.
The following summer, Maljković was able to complete the team and brought in the former NBA man Michael Young, Jim Bilba, who later won Olympic silver with France, and Slovenian point guard Jure Zdovci, who was the head coach of Žalgiris a few seasons ago. By the way, for Maljković, Young is one of the best players he has ever had.
The stay of Limoges legend Richard Dacoury was crucial. The nine-time French champion played for the club for almost 20 years and played the main part in the EuroLeague triumph. If in attack Dacoury shone sometimes then in defense, he was always fantastic.
Dacoury Limoges career highlights:
Maljković has always said that defense was the most important part of his basketball philosophy. For example, he has a quote: “I consider good basketball to be a game that, in the opinion of many, does not offer a great spectacle.” However, I will be much happier if I win 51:50, not lose 124:128.
In the 1992/93 season (when, by the way, Tallinna Kalev also participated in the EuroLeague qualification tournament and lost to the English Guildford Kings by only one point in two games and was relegated from the competition) Limoges played a suffocating defense in Europe.
For example, in the group stage, an average of 63 points were scored against them, which was by far the best figure among 15 clubs. 70 points were scored in the game against the closest pursuer of Limoges, PAOK Thessaloniki. The latter took first place in Group A ahead of the French team.
In the quarterfinals, Maljković’s men closed the taps even tighter. The Greek giant Olympiacos won the opening battle of the series with 70:67 but only managed to score 53 and 58 points in the next two games, respectively, ultimately losing them both.
Real, led by Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis, who averaged 84.3 points in the regular season, couldn’t manage to beat Limoges in the top four, scoring only 52 points against them. By the way, the defeat of the Spanish Royal Club is still considered one of the biggest surprises in the history of the EuroLeague, and they were not aided by Sabonis’ 19 points and 14 rebounds either.
Sabonis’ highlights against Limoges:
Led by Maljković’s former protégé Kukoč, Benetton, who at the time was one of the wealthiest in Europe, fell 25 points below their regular season average in the final as Limoges allowed them just 55 points.
The final score of 59:55 was the lowest in the EuroLeague history at the time, which was beaten five years later by Bologna Kinder and AEK Athens, who scored only 102 points in the final. Kinder won 58:44.
Let it be said that in the playoffs, Limoges scored its highest score in the opening game against Olympiacos. There is probably no season that would better illustrate the cliché that in sports, games are won with offense, but titles are won with defense.
It is also interesting to note that although Benetton lost the final, it was Kukoč who was chosen as the most valuable player of the final tournament. No one doubts that the Croatian had a good tournament, but Young from Limoges scored 20 points and picked up six rebounds in the semi-finals, in the final he had 18 points and seven rebounds. Kukoč averaged 14.5 points and 4.5 assists in the finals.
Kukoč’s highlights in the final:
Benetton’s head coach, Croatian Petar Skansi, who once played in Jugoplastika and coached the club, was very critical of Maljković’s style after the final. “Basketball died tonight,” he said. “I am not at all sorry for the loss, because I am sure that I did not lose a basketball game. I can’t teach that kind of basketball.”
Maljković replied that if he had had a player of Kukoč’s class, the match would have been of a different style. “I had to play with the whole team, not just one player,” he objected.
Meanwhile, Limoges started the final terribly, when Benetton was on top 19:8 after the first 12 minutes. The French club took the lead for the first time only at 7:58 before the final siren. By the way, for Kukoč, it was the last EuroLeague game of his career, as he moved to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA.
Maljković won even more
In that season, Limoges not only won the EuroLeague, but also triumphed in the French championship, where they also won gold medals in 1994, in addition, they were the best in cup competitions twice with Maljković.
In Maljković’s last season, 1994/95, they again reached the top four in the EuroLeague, but Real avenged them in the semi-finals, winning 62:49. In the third-place match, Limoges lost to Athens Panathinaikos 77:91. In the French championship, they finished the regular season in second place, but in the semi-finals, they lost to Pau-Orthez in a series. This was also the end of Maljković’s tenure, with which he wrote himself boldly in the history book of Limoges.
His and the club’s success story in the EuroLeague is an excellent example that a big wallet does play a role in being successful, but a good coach and the players under him can forge surprises that cannot be foreseen in any way.