Monday, December 31, 2012

Fenerbahce Alkur Istanbul 78 at FC Barcelona Regal 100 (EuroLeague Top 16, Game 1) - December 28, 2012

When I planned the year-end trip to Europe, sports were not the priority as I would be making the trip with my girlfriend. Still, they weren't far from my mind. When choosing Barcelona as a destination, I knew that there would be no soccer while I would be there, but hoped that there might be a basketball game. Although the Spanish domestic league (ACB) would also be on a break, the EuroLeague was scheduled to begin its Top 16 on December 27th, which coincided perfectly with my visit. (For those who are not aware, the EuroLeague is basketball's equivalent of the Champions League, a competition where the best teams from countries across Europe play each other for the chance to call themselves continental champions.)

FC Barcelona may be most famous for Lionel Messi, but it is more than just a soccer team. They are a sports club with a basketball and handball team among other entities. Their hoops squad, named FC Barcelona Regal after a sponsor, is one of the best in Europe and had advanced from the EuroLeague regular season into the Top 16 without worry. If they were given a home date for round 1, I would be able to attend. As is often the case, the sporting gods smiled on me and a game was scheduled for Friday, December 28th, with Fenerbahce from Istanbul the visitors. So after another day of touring the city, my girlfriend and I made our way to Palau Blaugrana to add another country (18 in all now) to the list of nations in which I've attended a sporting event.

Palau Blaugrana

FC Barcelona Regal plays at the Palau Blaugrana, which has hosted basketball (and handball) for over 40 years. Blaugrana is the combination of the Catalan words for Blue and Deep Red, the world-famous colours of the soccer team. The Palau is dwarfed by neighbouring Camp Nou, the biggest soccer stadium in Europe, which lies just east. The entire complex is only five minutes from the Palau Reial metro station on L3, which is itself just a few stops from the major tourist areas, making the venue very easy to get to. As you walk down the hill from the metro station, you will notice immense Camp Nou to your left, but just in case you forget that soccer is first and foremost here, there are pictures to remind you.

The ticket window is clearly marked, but be sure to go to the right wicket as some are reserved for the soccer stadium tour, which attracts fans in its own right. The best thing about getting your tickets here is that the ducat has the FC Barcelona logo printed on it, making it far more colourful than what you normally get from TicketMaster. Being a ticket collector, I became very excited to see this. The ticket guy, sensing my anticipation, pulled the old "Here you go....psych!" trick by handing me the ticket and then pulling it back as I reached for it. He actually did this several times, much to my girlfriend's amusement. Yes, I felt very childish at that time.

Anyway, we walked around the stadium but there wasn't much to see. We entered by the door on our gate and stopped to have a look at the domed roof (above) which was quite impressive. We then made our way to our seats, which were a bit confusing as they are not consecutively numbered. Odd-numbered seats are on the left of the aisle, while even-numbered seats on are the right. Moreover, there is no aisle between the even and odd seats in different sections. For example, section 110 ends with seats 20 and 22 next to each other. Section 109, seat 23 was then the next one over, and there is no aisle between them. It isn't rocket science, but be aware of this if buying tickets online.

One cool thing is that there are a few yellow seats that spell FCB on one side and we happened to be sitting in these, just 2 rows from the court. At 53 Euros, they aren't cheap, but certainly much more affordable than similar NBA seats.

While the players warmed up, I did my usual walk around. The first thing I noticed is that some lower-level corner seats have an obstructed view, as do those at the end.

I would suggest the upper-level corner seats are the best value at just 19 Euros but be careful not to sit with the supporters, who are loud throughout the game. In fact, what was perhaps most surprising was that there were two distinct groups of supporters.

As best I can tell, they are differentiated by their feelings toward Catalan independence. Barcelona is in the Spanish area known as Catalonia, which has a strong separatist movement that has been active for decades. Catalonia has its own flag and those fans who push for their own nation wore the yellow and red from that standard, while the other group sported the blue and deep red of FC Barcelona. Putting politics aside, having two diverse yet loud groups of fans supporting the home team was a unique experience and really added to the atmosphere.

One nice touch was a number of electronically displayed retired jerseys along the top of one wall, including those from the handball club (above).

I followed the above sign and escaped to the bar, only to be disappointed that the beer on offer was of the non-alcohol variety. Instead I had a foot-long hot dog that was less appealing by the bite. Avoid the food here if you can.

Overall, FC Barcelona Regal may be the lesser-known team when compared to their world famous soccer brethren but that doesn't mean that they should be ignored. The quality of basketball is high - former players include Pau and Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, and Anderson Varejao among others - and tickets are easy to get. If you happen to be in Barcelona during the long basketball season, check out the FC Barcelona Regal home page to see if there is a game while you are in town. There has been talk of building a larger facility which would be a shame as this place is perfect for basketball; let's hope that wiser minds prevail and this place remains an excellent stadium destination for years to come.

The Game

This was the first round of the Top 16 of the EuroLeague, so I had high hopes with the visitors from Istanbul also considered a good team. During warmups, while I did my tour, my girlfriend observed that Barcelona was shooting much better. I assured here that meant nothing, but it turned out she was spot on. Barcelona, who were on a 4-game losing streak, came out gunning and used some sharp shooting to take an early 17-6 lead, which they cemented into a 24-13 advantage by the end of the first quarter (periods in Europe are just 10 minutes long).

David Andersen scores for Fenerbahce

I expected the Turks to fight back, but they were not up to the task. Barcelona continued to shoot lights out, taking a 54-35 lead into half time, with one-time Raptor Nathan Jawai (below) a noticeable star behind two monster dunks.

The second half was merely window dressing, and by the end of things, the only question was whether Barcelona could reach 100 points, a rare achievement in European basketball. When Marcelinho Huertas sank a shot with less than a minute to go, the century mark had been reached. The final was 100-78, a surprisingly one-sided affair that did not temper the fans' enthusiasm one bit.

Barcelona was simply too good, spreading their scoring evenly among the top players. As you can see above, Huertas and former Grizzly Juan Carlos Navarro led with 14, but the rest of the team helped out with all 12 players contributing. Ante Tomic, dunking below, was the MVP with 12 points, 11 boards, 5 assists and only 1 turnover.  Update: Note #14 above - that's Marko Todorovic, who played just 2 minutes, but was memorable for his youth and size. He was drafted 45th overall by Portland in the 2013 NBA draft. Update: he never made the NBA,

The game was less than 2 hours long, perhaps one of the quickest sporting events I have attended. Although the result wasn't close, it was great to see quality basketball from such a vantage point - many of these players could play in the NBA, although probably only as bench players. Still, the team concept was apparent here with more passing and less wasted possessions due to poor shot selection. It would be very interesting to see a 7-game series between the EuroLeague and NBA champions - I think it would be closer than many basketball fans would expect.



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