Three quarters of the ELA collective were together in Berlin as ALBA took on CSP Limoges in the Euroleague on Friday 7th November, then hosted Bayern Munch in a first versus second BBL clash two days later. Rob Scott took it all in, and lets it all out here.

Across Germany, people commemorated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but just a few hundred metres from the East Side Gallery, ALBA Berlin has been celebrating its own quarter-century with some of the club’s living legends.

Former star Wendell Alexis is still a hero to the yellow-clad Berliners, adored for the success he brought to the club, alongside players like current ALBA Sports Director Mithat Demirel. Alexis was in the house on Friday night when the home team blew out CSP Limoges 89-66 and again on Sunday for their victorious 83-80 grudge match with Bayern. It’s still early in the Berlin careers of guys like Reggie Redding and Cliff Hammonds, but perhaps one day they will be invited back to the O2 World Arena for a video-screen tribute of their own.

That would be a long way in the future, but there were more pressing issues to deal with in the here and now. The Limoges game seemed like a tune-up for Sunday’s clash with Bayern Munich. Not only was that a battle between the top two teams in the league, 7-0 ALBA taking on 6-1 Bayern, it was a culture clash with a tasty recent history. The football behemoth’s hardwood cousins have bought their way to the top table in German hoops largely off the back of former-ALBA players. No loving return for Heiko Schaffartzik, Nihad Djedović, Jan Jagla or any of the others who have taken the Bavarian schilling.

Berlin loves its crosses

Schaffartzik’s exit before last season continues to inspire a war of words that the ALBA partisans revel in stoking. A huge #8 jersey was held aloft in the tribune behind the basket at his first return to Berlin, cursing the trigger-happy gunner for his treachery. Somewhat hilariously, the outraged top brass at Bayern described this as a ‘crucifxion’ of the jersey. That prompted the latest bout of delightful provocation by the Berliners, holding up more banners, firstly one that proudly proclaimed ‘Wir Lieben unsere Kreuze’ – We Love Our Crosses – then railway-style signs for the Ost and Westkreuz stations at either end of the city. Berlin loves its crosses, but they love poking fun at pompous Bavarians even more – especially if they end up winning as they did on Sunday.

Verkauft = sold. Kein Berliner = not a Berliner. Never cross the ALBA fans.

Saša prowls the sideline

The battle of the banners seems like an indicator of these two cities’ wider identities. Irreverent, anarchic Berlin versus staid, entitled Munich. At least that’s how the Berliners would see it. Building on that blue-collar, earn-every-cent ethos, ALBA has built a team in the image of their coach – and former player – Saša Obradović. No team on earth could match the intensity with which the Serbian legend coaches a game, but ALBA’s relentless pressure defense comes close.

A whirling, maniacal presence, he prowls the sideline, crouching as the opposition advances the ball up the floor, unwittingly playing shadow defense, hands gesturing madly. He jerks his body in disgust at a referee’s call or a made basket no matter the level of difficulty, petitioning the basketball gods – or the team bench? – against such injustice. Not for him the makeup of a drill sergeant, though I’m sure he makes rigorous demands on his players. Saša’s exhortations are more akin to those of a zealous preacher, convinced of his own righteousness in the face of an unbelieving world.

Coach Saša D's up

Redding, Hammonds poised to breakout

What is abundantly clear is the ALBA players believe, and well they might, such has been the way their stock has shot up since arriving in the German capital.

Reggie Redding began his pro career in Cyprus in 2010, then spent two years with BBL also-rans Walter Tigers Tübingen. Now, he is poised to be one of the continent’s most in-demand players in the summer of 2015. At 1.96m he’s big enough to guard small forwards, but handles the ball and sets up halfcourt offense like a point guard. Calm on the ball, with the height to see over opposing guards, he probes the defense for a glimpse of what might be on offer. If a gap appears, he goes for it. He has the speed and awareness of angles to get to the rim and the length to finish. It’s a controlled approach though, with minimal fuss. He rarely drives with recklessness, and isn’t phased by game situation or pressure. Several times down the stretch against Bayern he bailed out an ALBA offense that had drifted into stagnation. Players with his skillset are in demand at the richest teams in Europe, and it will be a huge bonus if ALBA can hold on to him come the summer.

Cliff Hammonds is another member of the Berlin backcourt who has had to climb the ladder in Europe from pretty much the bottom rung. From the lower reaches of the Turkish and Greek leagues, France and then KK Igokea in the ABA, where he had his breakout, his career has been on a slow-burning wick. ALBA’s defensive identity starts with Hammonds’ unwithering pursuit of the opposition ball handler, fighting over screens and pestering his man into mistakes. Leo Westermann must have spent the first half on Friday wondering why he wasn’t bringing the ball up and the second half wishing he was still stationed in the corner. Hammonds hassled him into dribbling off pretty much every available part of his body. Bayern took a long time to get into their halfcourt sets, down in no small part to Hammonds and Alex Renfroe‘s harrying ball pressure.

Power forward Jamel McLean is one of those players most satisfyingly described as “a beast.” He made victims out of Adrien Moerman, Ousmane Camara, John Bryant and Yassin Idbihi over the weekend. None of those guys were able to handle his combination of power and agility in the post and around the rim. McLean has space to operate down low with Leon Radosević or Marko Banić at the five picking and popping along with Redding and two of Hammonds, Renfroe or Niels Giffey, playing his first pro season out of the University of Connecticut.

The 1991-born Giffey won two NCAA championships at UConn, almost entirely as a specialist in spotting up from behind the arc. He has work to do to develop his handle and decision making when he can’t let fly from deep, but going 4-of-6 from three-point range against Limoges and pouring in 18 points is a good start. He came up with the game ending steal on Sunday as Vasilije Micić threw the ball away desperately evading an attempted foul.

You would struggle to find a better symbol of ALBA’s blue-collar ethic than backup centre Jonas Wohlfarth-Bottermann. ‘WoBo’ played only 10 minutes against Limoges and just over four versus Bayern, but did more in those 14 minutes than some players manage in double the amount. He’s active, committed and plays as hard as anyone. He has absorbed the role of local cult-hero to a T and the ALBA fans have taken him under their wing, making as much noise when he was fouled grabbing an offensive rebound as for a McLean dunk or Giffey long bomb.

Obradović demands such physical effort from his players that he makes frequent substitutions. It did seem to throw McLean off his rhythm, and as a team they commit a lot of fouls. They have caused 98 whistles in four Euroleague games, second only to Zalgiris, and 22.6 fouls per contest in the BBL to date. Bayern lived at the line in the first half on Sunday, as ALBA’s dominance in most aspects only led to a 47-40 halftime advantage. Bayern shot 32-of-36 at the line, although the home team went 29-of-35 themselves. The refs were overly picky, particularly off the ball, but ALBA must be careful not to give up too many freebies, particularly in Euroleague play.

Bayern injury hit but still playing catchup

If, as in football, Bayern is going to build a team by reaching its tentacles into the rest of the German league and sucking up the best talent, it should come as no surprise that the whole country is delighted when it slips up. On Sunday’s evidence, the project has a long way to go in hoops before it replicates the success on the football field.

In addition to the cohorts poached from Berlin, Bayern made Anton Gavel the Beko BBL’s highest-paid player when he signed  a two-year, €1.2 million deal this summer. It looks like Bamberg might have the last laugh on that one, as the Slovak with a fresh German passport looks like a shadow of the dynamic scorer that won league titles in Franconia. He didn’t do much outside of bringing the ball over halfway and handing off to Schaffartzik, Djedović or Staiger, and it’s difficult to see how the team is getting good value for its outlay.

Nihad Djedović on the other hand is still one of the most artful players in Europe. He kept Bayern contending in the first half on Sunday with a delicate array of shots off the dribble. Both picked up injuries in the second half that meant they missed the game’s crucial moments, but the Bosnian was by far the most damaging loss. Gavel is out for a month, while Djedović faces a race to be fit for this week’s Euroleague game versus Fenerbahçe, reports official Friend-of-ELA David Hein.

John Bryant picked up three fouls in the first five minutes, and sat out the rest of the first half. Bayern was much more dangerous with the big man on the floor, as he hooked up with Staiger and then Micić as he finally got into the game. His second foul was off-the-ball as he elbowed Leon Radosevic as they battled for position, and it was easy to see why he was frustrated, not having touched the ball up to that point. After McLean powered through him for two-plus-one moments after, Bayern was left with only Djedovic’s creative improvisation and a couple of pull-up threes. Only ALBA’s fouling saved them from slipping out of contention.

One of the big attractions of being in the gym for this game was Vasilije Micić, the 1994-born Serbian point-phenom. In person, it’s even more striking how his long strides and clever footwork help him get to the rim without anything approaching devastating speed. Once Gavel and Djedović went down, coach Svetislav Pesić was forced to put the team in his hands. Even in defeat, he impressed, instantly improving Bryant’s mood feeding him in pick and roll, getting to the rim at crunch time and making sure the ball moved to the right spots. It may have been his turnover that stopped Bayern having one last three-point attempt to force overtime, but they wouldn’t have been there without young Vasa.

Bayern still seems like a team struggling to find an identity. They are missing Bryce Taylor, one of the BBL’s leading ‘glue’ players, and Robin Benzing, who would have offered another body and shooting option, but it’s difficult to see them overcoming ALBA, or a resurgent Brose Baskets, in a playoff series, even with those guys available. Gavel is no replacement for Malcolm Delaney’s volume scoring and playmaking, and the big-man depth behind Bryant isn’t there. Jan Jagla helps the offense without having to score, but Idbihi and Stimac are too stiff to bang with a player like McLean and not mobile enough to cover the Radosevićs of the world.

Atmosphere without anarchy

It’s become almost regulation to mention that the German BBL is becoming a profitable model to follow amidst the economic turmoil in European hoops. That’s a discussion for another day. Across the two ALBA games it was obvious that the baser, old-world customs of fandom in southern Europe haven’t permeated the culture of the game in Germany.

Over 12,000 fans filled most of the seats at the O2 on Sunday. The numbers are impressive, particularly as their 2013/14 average of 10,659 was recorded across the whole BBL season, not just a selection of derbies or important Euroleague games. The atmosphere is loud, but self-regulated. The arena is NBA-style, as are the dancers. The ‘ALBA-tross‘ would surely make the top 10 of Zach Lowe’s Mascot Ranking if he went international.

The banners and chants were rowdy and passionate, but measured – by constant rhythmic drumming and the underlying recognition that this is only a game, not an existential battle. Some may say that sport is at its most meaningful when a defeat feels like death, but that becomes problematic when the symbolic armed struggle on the court spills into real violence in the stands and outside the stadiums.  The Berliners don’t like Bayern because they’re rich and they’re a ubiquitous football brand that now wants to dominate basketball. Once the final buzzer goes and the fans head for the exits, normality returns.

This can’t be explained by lazy stereotypes about emotionless Germans. It’s not like the country doesn’t have football hooligans. Bayern is the BBL’s only football offshoot and they’re hardwood neophytes. Ingrained, seething rivalries that span generations, like Crvena Zvezda and Partizan or Panathinaikos and Olympiacos just won’t happen between ALBA and Brose Baskets. It’s a different world. It might be quite as cathartic as the swaying, teeming mass of humanity seen in Belgrade, Athens or Istanbul, but there’s very little chance that playoff games will be abandoned or played behind closed doors.

It’s that, as much as the economic model, that makes the BBL so appealing to the people tasked with growing the game in Europe. ELA saw enough in Berlin to make it really tempting to return for the BBL playoffs in the spring. A sold out arena in Berlin will be as tough as any gym in Europe for Bayern or Bamberg to come in and win. For now, ALBA is clearly the team to beat in Germany.

*Thanks to Christophe, Çagri, Jannes, Ann and Marcel for providing the backstory on the banners.