• Basketball Capitals

Cities in Focus - Berlin

Ian Whittell


IT is tempting to see the story of Berlin basketball as being all about a $200 million arena and a $200 million power forward but, as with so much to do with this stunning European capital city, the real story is far more complicated.

For sure, Berlin's state-of-the-art O2 World arena and NBA All Star Dirk Nowitzki have played pivotal roles in the city becoming one of Europe's basketball hot beds.

But historical events that re-shaped the map of Europe in the second half of the 20th century have played just as big a role. During the Cold War, US servicemen poured into Germany, and Berlin in particular, in their thousands, leading to the country's abiding affinity with American culture and sports.

And when the Berlin wall was torn down as part of the so-called "Peaceful Revolution" in November 1989, paving the way for the re-unification of Germany a year later, Berlin was ready to start its growth towards becoming a true basketball capital ... with a little help from the Dream Team and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

"Berlin has a very strong street ball culture and that has been flourishing for many years," says Ademola Okulaja, who enjoyed an outstanding college career at North Carolina before playing professionally in Europe for a decade and eventually settling in Berlin where he is now an agent. "It really started in '92 with the Olympic Dream Team, kids wanted to play and the big shoe company tournaments followed. It is part of the culture now, every summer."

It takes more than playgrounds - of which there are many around the city now - to spark a basketball revolution. The emergence of Nowitzki, whose NBA career earnings of $200 million now make him one of the nation's most high-profile ever sports figures, plus the opening of the 16,000-seat O2 World in 2008, have played their part. But Berlin's transformation into a top basketball city also owes much to the managed growth of a solid, well-structured professional club, Alba Berlin.

"Germans have a really strong affinity with the US sports culture," explains Houston Rockets assistant coach Chris Finch who coached for a year in the country with the Giessen 46ers in 2003-04. "The NFL Europe has had a bunch of teams there and Alba Berlin have been one of the most recognisable names in European basketball for some years.

The Berlin stop of our Basketball Capitals features premi√®res soon © ESPN.co.uk
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"But the key has been they have grown the sport organically. The Bundesliga has a reputation as one of the strongest in Europe, crowds and budgets are growing despite the recession, and Alba are key to that."

While Alba has only existed in its current form for 22 years - the blink of an eye by European sports standards - they are eight-time German champions and became the first German club to win a European trophy in 1995, the third-tier Korac Cup competition. In 2012-13, Alba reached the last 16 of the Euroleague, for the second time in five years.

All this on a budget of $10.2 million a year - in comparison to European powerhouse CSKA Moscow whose budget is a reported $57.5 million.

But while Alba have caught the attention of the sports-mad city, averaging 10,500 fans for every game at the O2 World this season, the club's greatest contribution to helping Berlin become a true basketball capital has been in its grass roots programmes.

"We had to change the system a little bit," explains Alba CEO Marco Baldi. "Kids play sport in school for two or three hours a week but we realised maybe the teacher was a little boring for the kids, or didn't know basketball. So over the last six or seven years we have trained 80 coaches who go into schools to assist the teachers and coach basketball. They are well-educated, well-qualified, they are cool, they are good with the kids. And not only do the kids learn basketball from them, the teachers learn from them, also.

"We now have 3,000 kids coming to our club every week, outside of school, for coaching. Of course, we are interested in producing top players who can play for us but we are more interested in it as a grass roots programme and it has helped our credibility in the city because it is also social work."

The work carried out by Alba, and programmes like them, within Berlin has not gone unappreciated by Germany's most famous basketball son. Although from Wurzburg, a basketball-crazed city some 300 miles from the German capital, Nowitzki is greeted like a hometown hero on his visits to Berlin.

Dirk Nowitzki - Dallas Mavericks © ESPN.co.uk
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"I think Berlin has a great basketball culture," said Nowitzki. "They have a recycling company, Alba, that's been investing in the sport for 20 years and has done a great job.

"In Berlin there is a real street ball culture, you see it on a lot of courts around the city, there is a lot of organised basketball going on.

"The atmosphere in Berlin is great. Every time I have played there, the gym has been full, the crowds are coming out. In fact, they (Alba) were top in Europe in attendance last year, over 10,000. It's a beautiful gym and there are a lot of basketball players on the national team coming out of Berlin.

"Overall, it's one of THE great basketball cities. Kids are playing there, there is a great club, a great atmosphere around the sport and basketball is loved."

That new-found passion for the sport, plus new rules in the professional Bundesliga that now require all teams to have six German players on their roster, has given extra incentive to the thousands of young Berliners playing the sport.

"Dirk Nowitzki is a world superstar," adds Okulaja talking of the German national team hero. "When the Dallas Mavericks played here in pre-season, they sold 15,000 tickets in two minutes. But he is thousands of miles away. More and more, the kids here look at the Bundesliga and see that there is a future for them to play professional basketball."

Basketball Capitals is a new ESPN documentary series profiling the passion for basketball within the world's most iconic cities. The four-part series will premiere in May across ESPN in Europe, Middle East, and Africa. www.basketballcapitals.com
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