Even though I wasn´t going to be in the stands for the 2021 Euroleague final 4 in Cologne, Germany, I was still really excited for the weekend, because of two aspects. One I would be watching it on TV and two, I was going to attempt another autograph hunt something that carried me through my childhood in Boston and even accompanied me through adulthood the last years when I was in Boston. Before I could even venture to Cologne to see the top basketball players in Europe, I needed to have the top insider information. There are many hotels in Cologne, but obviously one could have narrowed it done to a few knowing that it would have been somewhere near the Lanxess arena. I had no idea if the four teams would all live in separate hotels or if there was one team hotel. Luckly for me I remembered that I knew someone from one of the clubs that could help me out. Within two minutes, I had gathered all the information I needed from my special contact person. Most importantly, I had found out that there was one team hotel and second probably even more vital was how the security was. My buddy reassured me that security wasn´t difficult. That last line paved my way to going to Cologne. I had decided it would make most sense to go on Sunday. I had people on all four teams that I knew, but I was more focused on seeing teams like FC Barcelona and Efes Pilsen. I had seen CSKA Moscow before and seen guys like Mike James, Darrun Hillard, Joel Bolomboy and Johannes Voigtmann, plus I had covered Will Clyburn way back in the day when he played his first season in Germany with ratiopharm Ulm when he was as far away from the Euroleague at that time as the Boston Celtics are from escaping the Brooklyn Nets in the playoffs. I also could have abstained from seeing AX Armani Exchange Milano. Granted my favorite interview buddy Kyle Hines was on the team, but I had seen him recently and had covered guys like Malcolm Delaney and Shavon Shields in Germany. Two guys I would have liked to have seen would have been ex NBA players Sergio Rodriguez and Jeremy Evans. So there I was on Friday evening watching the semi finals. So all I had to hope for was for Barcelona and Efes Pilsen to win, but deep in my heart I was aiming for a Milan-Moscow final, but it would happen totally different.
One thing was for sure, the two semi-final games on Friday night weren´t short for real excitement. The games were tight and real nail bitters. One has to wonder how incredible the atmosphere would have been had fans been allowed to be at the game. In the first semi-final, CSKA Moscow gave a real hard fight against Efes Pilsen, but despite Will Clyburn making tough shot after tough shot, his 26 points couldn´t get the Russian team over the hump and into the final as they lost 89-86. I was really excited to see what Tibor Pleiss would bring to the table, but I waited and waited and waited, but no Tibor Pleiss was inserted for the whole 40 minutes. I was disappointed, but he was a bit battered health wise. The German big man who won three BBL championships with Brose Bamberg had just experienced his first taste of adversary this weekend, but his time would definitely still come. The Turkish squad were led by ex FC Bayern Munich guard Vasilije Micic who dropped 26 points and was unstoppable with his lethal penetration. This was a game that either team could have won, but the dagger clipped the hearts of CSKA Moscow as they went back home wondering if Mike James could have been the difference, who had gone on to bigger and finer things with the Brooklyn Nets. In the second game, it was a real clash between Italian side Milan and FC Barcelona. With crunch-time winding down the game was as exciting as the first semi-final as FC Barcelona and Milan as nobody could get away from the other. With time running out, Milan had the chance to win the game, but Mr Kevin “I can hit any crazy shot you wnat” Punter who had kept Milan close all game long netting 23 points, but couldn´t connect on a three when it counted most with 8 seconds remaining. That allowed FC Barcelona one last chance as it was ex NBA player Corey Higgins who danced down the court on transition like the energizer bunny, but having the game clock always in his head and then dropped a pull up jumper buzzer beater with his friend and ex teammate Kyle Hines ready to secure the rebound for OT, but instead saw nothing but net. In a way I was content as I could see Efes Pilsen and FC Barcelona on Sunday. Of course I could have been even earlier in Cologne and also catch Milan and Moscow before they left the arena for the game for third place, but I had decided to catch the final teams as they left the hotel. You can´t have everything in life and I had my wife and son waiting in the car for me so the big kid could go about his business as see some real basketball hero´s. In the game for third place AX Armani Exchange Milan was able to dispose of CSKA Moscow 83-73. Vladimir Micov and Sergio Rodriguez led the Italian side with 14 points apiece, while the Russian side were led by Tornke Shengelia with 18 points. Even if American Euroleague record holder Kyle Hines who had a typical fill up the stat sheet game with 5 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals was denied his 5th Euroleague title, he was able to rewrite the Euroleague record books. His 3 blocks in the game made him the all-time Euroleague Final 4 shot block leader.
After an off day on Saturday, Sunday finally arrived. I ventured to Cologne and was at the team hotel at 6:00pm for a 8:30 final start. I was there a bit early, because I wanted to be sure that I didn´t miss anything. With only a 2-3 minute bus ride to the arena, both clubs had set a 6:45 Pm departure from the hotel. There were maybe 10 fans there and all mostly Efes Pilsen fans. In the first 20-25 minutes, it was very quiet as no players excited. Then came a charismatic looking guy out of the hotel that could still have been a player, but it was obvious to see that he had some kind of function with FC Barcelona. He smiled at some fans and then walked towards the bus and stopped for two pictures with people. I wondered who it could be. Then I heard the name Juan Carlos Navarro. And I had my first OMG feeling. I yelled his name and just before he walked on the bus, he turned his head and said “Ill be right back”. Apparently other fans also didn´t recognize him and before he knew it, he had to make the rounds with selfies with many people. I was included in the bunch and also got an autograph. After my wow effect two Efes players came with Turkish big man Sertac Sanli and ex NBA player James Anderson. They were both relaxed and took selfies with the Efes fans and me. It was the calm before the storm and at about 6,35 it began to go bang, bang, bang as the players began exciting out of the hotel. Then came the only disappointment for me on this balmy Sunday night as the breeze made it feel like early summer as a flock of FC Barcelona players departed the hotel. All 8-10 players looked like Lebron James as they were incredibly focused and seemed like they were already on the floor with their game faces on. In that bunch were three players that I really wanted to get selfies of with Corey Higgins, Brandon Davies and Nick Calathes. Even my scream of Corey didn´t get the ex Euroleague champion to flinch as none of those dudes were about to stop for me. I also missed a herd of Efes Pilsen players with Bryant Dunston and Chris Singleton, but that didn´t bother me at all. But I did have some massive fortune after that. With five minutes to go before the buses would go, the last stragglers showed up. One guy everyone was waiting for was Spanish legend Pau Gasol. As always he was a real gentleman and stopped for everyone. I had seen him two years earlier in Boston when he had been with the Milwaukee Bucks and it hadn´t been any different there. Gasol was a little occupied when he signed by two pictures and unfortunately signed with a blue Sharpie on a black portion of my picture so in the end, one can´t really see his signature. I also got a selfie. He had to make the rounds and even signed a Lakers jersey for a fan. The legends continued as Sarunas Jasikevicius next departed who is the FC Barcelona head coach. I really wanted to get a selfie with the ex NBA player who is a legend in Lithuania and won 4 Euroleague titles as a player and won the 2003 European championships. He obliged even if he had an angry look on his face. Now the FC Barcelona bus left the grounds Next came Tibor Pleiss. He saw me and unleased a loud hey. He was happy to see me and asked how I was feeling concerning my cancer. I also got a selfie with him and last but not least came ex NBA player Shane Larkin. He was also a player I wanted to get a selfie with and he was more than happy to. Larkin was the last player to exit the hotel and now the Efes bus was able to leave for the arena
I was more than pleased with my 45 minutes of work concerning selfies and now was back on my way home. In a way I was for FC Barcelona to win, because Pau Gasol had never won a Euroleague title before, but my heart was obviously more for Tibor Pleiss who had the opportunity to secure that first Euroleague title in his home town. FC Barcelona controlled the game in the first quarter and led by 7 points. FC Barcelona did a great job on the defensive end making everything difficult for the Turkish side. Tibor Pleiss was on the bench, but his shinning moment would still come. The turning point of the game came in the second quarter as Tibor Pleiss was inserted. FC Barcelona led by 10 points, but the German big man gave the team instant energy on offense with 5 points and key defensive rebounds. On defense he was a solid rock and didn´t let any of the FC Barcelona big men or penetrators to get good looks. He played 8 minutes and had 5 points and 3 boards. He had mastered his adversary from Friday not playing with a great stint from the bench At halftime Efes Pilsen led 38-34 and would never look back. Unfortunately Pleiss had hurt himself again in the second quarter and would never come back into the game. Efes Pilsen led by as much as 11 points in the third quarter. FC Barcelona never gave up and made it real exciting in the fourth quarter dead locking the game a few times in crunch-time, but the Turkish side got massive buckets from their dynamic duo of Shane Larkin and Vasilije Micic. Both possibly NBA bound this summer, combined for 46 points and was FC Barcelona´s nightmare in this evening. In the post game interview Tibor Pleiss was all smiles. His smile was so massive, it could have competed with his ex teammate´s Michael Hakim Jordan when he had been with Cologne in 2009. “ The title for Tibor isn´t only a milestone for him personally, but also for German basketball. It is the climax of a great career. His way should inspire many German players”, stressed medi Bayreuth guard Bastian Doreth. He said more than once that this win was the greatest moment in his life. “It is funny to see that two guys that were the centers1-2 in Bamberg in 2010-2011 were in the Euroleague Final 4. I´m very happy how his path has gone. After his NBA dream was shattered, he continued to develop and found a niche with Efes Pilsen. He deserved the Euroleague title”, stressed former Pleiss coach Steffan Weissenbock. Even if the German big man had to face adversary twice on the weekend including getting hurt again in the second quarter, he was able to conquer adversary and the Euroleague title and garner the greatest moment in his life in his home town. That is something that nobody will ever take away from him.