FIBA-backed final four is for second-rate hopefuls

The first of Europe’s two competing basketball finals begins in Thessaloniki on Saturday with a low-key lineup that serves as a reminder of the ailing state of the continental game. The Champions Cup final four, organized by basketball’s world governing body FIBA, has Greece’s Aris Salonika joined by Latvia’s Ventspils, Poland’s Prokrom Trefl and Hemofarm Vrsac from Serbia and Montenegro. Noisy local support makes Aris, the only team with European finals experience, favorites at the arena – which belongs to local archrival PAOK – in the first semifinal against the comparative unknowns of Hemofarm. Ventspils BC, who finished the regular season atop the Latvian standings, will take on Polish league leaders Prokrom in an evenly matched second pairing. European basketball has yet to recover from a messy divorce in 2000 that left FIBA and Spanish-based rivals ULEB running different competitions, with both looking to match the commercial success of soccer’s Champions League. Neither tournament has prospered, struggling for television audiences and sponsors. An attempted reconciliation in 2001 ended in more recriminations and another reorganization last summer which gave birth to the Champions Cup. ULEB’s Euroleague was hit hard last year by the travails of key sponsor Telefonica, while the FIBA has failed to find any major sponsorship for the newcomer. The rebranded tournament has been dogged by withdrawals since its inception with none of the big names from Italy, Greece, France or Spain taking part. For lesser lights like Aris, it has provided a chance to revisit the glory days of the late 1980s when they reached three consecutive final fours as well as to make up for never claiming the title. To do so the Greeks, nicknamed «the Emperors,» will have to get past Serbia’s unflavored Hemofarm and their teenage center Darko Milicic. The 2.13-meter (7-foot) 18-year-old is a major prospect and expected to gain the highest yet position for a European in the upcoming NBA draft. Latvia’s Ventspils will take on outsiders Prokrom, who swept aside French team Dijon in the playoffs and lead the Polish standings with a largely home-grown roster in which forward Goran Jagodnik is the leading point scorer. The winners of the two semifinals will compete in the final on Sunday after a losers’ playoff for third place.