Barca-Real basketball rivalry runs just as deep


In the final, tense moments before the clasico, the team came together in the dressing room. Outside, the arena was full: Their fans were waiting for them, waiting above all for the man who crossed the divide and now played for the other team, ready to give him hell. Inside, gathering around and reaching in to put their hands together, the players listened to the last battle cry: a voice heard, caught on camera and soon, heard everywhere.

“We’re playing the biggest bunch of rats in Europe,” it shouted. And then Real Madrid headed out to face their biggest, bitterest rivals, FC Barcelona.

It was November last year, a year in which tension between the two teams had grown considerably. A hugely controversial refereeing decision had seen Barcelona take the cup in the last minute, and Real Madrid threaten to walk out on domestic competition. The man who had been raised at Madrid had joined Barcelona, abused and beaten on his return, but vowing that “we’ll see who’s laughing in the end.” The best player in a generation had replied by insisting that he would never do a thing like that.

And now this. Only this wasn’t that clásico, it was the other one. This is basketball, and it is big.

(The two rivals meet on the basketball court on Friday night, a tasty precursor to their La Liga clash, Lionel Messi and all, on Saturday afternoon.)

“Real Madrid against Barcelona is different,” said former Madrid player Louis Bullock, a 1999 second-round draft pick for the NBA’s own Minnesota Timberwolves. “I had never seen a rivalry like it; I didn’t imagine that anything like this could exist.”

Brent Scott, himself a former NBA player (and center for Real Madrid Baloncesto, 1999-2000) described it as “unforgettable,” insisting: “It doesn’t take long to realise what kind of rivalry there is.”

As for Drazen Petrovic, who made it four years in the NBA after his clasico experiences in 1989-90? Well, he leapt into it from the start. He had been on the verge of joining Barcelona in 1988, only for them to dither and doubt, so he did the thing that hurt them most: He went to his agent and said, “If they don’t want me, talk to Madrid.”

Petrovic wasn’t finished there, either. When the teams met the following year, Barcelona eventually winning the series 3-2, Petrovic announced it was “time the Ultra Sur come over from football to the Palacio,” determined to wind up the rivalry and seek home-court advantage. The series was dramatic and ended with the whole of Madrid’s starting five fouled out, Barcelona’s Epi celebrating wildly — he had spent the game mimicking Petrovic’s celebrations after sinking shots — and Madrid bitterly bemoaning the officiating.

“Barcelona might as well put a statue of [the referees] next to the cup,” complained José Biriukov, veteran of 11 seasons with Real Madrid.

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This was toward the end of the days when the rivalry was probably at its greatest, incarnated by two men: Real Madrid’s Fernando Martin and Barcelona’s Audie Norris, who had joined the club in 1987 having previously been in with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, and won 16 trophies. “There was magic in those duels,” according to Fernando‘s brother Antonio, who played in the same Madrid team.

“I compare it to L.A. Lakers vs. Boston Celtics, [Magic] Johnson vs. [Larry] Bird, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] vs. [Robert] Parish,” Norris told El País in a wonderful interview with Faustino Saez last year.

Martin and Norris might have been teammates — Norris had been close to signing for Madrid — and instead they became adversaries, elevating the level of both clubs, each reflected in their rival. The pair of them were ultracompetitive, an attitude that proved contagious and self-perpetuating, and they fought endlessly, Barcelona finally managing to break Madrid’s stranglehold on the game in Spain.



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“I didn’t really appreciate just how much of an impact those duels had until time passed: later on, I would come across people who said to me, ‘I was a Madrid fan and I hated you, man, but you were a star,'” Norris said. “Not a day goes by without someone reminding me of our duels, of that rivalry that made me a better player and made me understand what makes competition great.”

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At a time of social change in Spain, it was huge, compelling basketball. It was also brutal and fierce. “On the court, I would kill my own mother,” Norris would later say in a documentary about Martin directed by the former footballer and filmmaker, the late Michael Robinson. “It was animalist: elbows, clashes, so much contact.” They would literally claw at each other, scratches and bruises leaving them bloodied and exhausted after each battle. And yet there was a nobility about it, a fondness that developed in the heat of the fight, a huge mutual respect. “He would be throwing me down and picking me up almost at the same time,” Norris remembered.

Lolo Sainz, the Real Madrid coach, recalled: “At times I would stand and clap … both of them, eh.”

It was a clasico rivalry, the right way. After one game, Norris was in a bar when Fernando and Antonio came in. “B—-y hell, I’m sick of seeing you. Cut your fingernails, man! You’re a b——.” Norris smiled: “Come on, I’ll buy you a beer,” he said. And so he did.

An Olympic silver medalist for Spain in Los Angeles in 1984, handsome, charming and forthright, Martin’s impact was huge already. It grew even greater when he became the first Spaniard to go to the NBA in 1986, a time when U.S. basketball was brought to the mainstream in Europe. Things, though, didn’t work there and didn’t really work when he came back, either, embittered by it all: the loneliness and the lack of opportunity. Nor did he get on with Petrovic, who joined in 1988 and then left for Portland himself.

Tragically, Martin was killed in a car crash in 1989, as Petrovic would be four years later. Norris attended Martin’s funeral, embracing his rivals, the sadness engulfing them all.



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Three days later, Madrid played, a second-half comeback fuelled by the emotion, supporters chanting, “Fernando is here!” but their era was coming to an end. Martin had died, Petrovic had gone, Biriukov was injured. Emotionally, they were lost.

In Barcelona, Norris played on until 1993. A certain Pau Gasol, six-time NBA All-Star and winner of two NBA titles, was not far off in the future, making his debut in 1999 and becoming the second Spaniard to go to the NBA, after Martin — and with considerably more success. After three years at Barcelona between 2003 and 2006, his brother Marc, himself an NBA title winner (with the Toronto Raptors in 2019) and three-time All-Star, would follow.

Madrid would begin to drift, signing almost 70 players between 2000 and 2010 alone, chasing success that largely evaded them. Eventually, they were revived by the current manager, Pablo Laso, who instilled the very embodiment of the values and style that originally made them the country’s best side in the 1960s and had been the identity held by Martin and his contemporaries: fast, counterattacking and aggressive basketball.

As Madrid’s Sergio Llull put it: “Those were difficult times. Barcelona won it all and we couldn’t find our way. Year after year we changed people but didn’t manage to win.” Laso brought stability and titles: one every 35 games, the mayor of the city calling him “the p— amo [f—ing master]”, a phrase made especially famous when Pep Guardiola applied it to Jose Mourinho. Only Guardiola’s was bitterly ironic; the mayor’s was not.



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“[Laso] knows what Real Madrid is and what it represents; he is the great foundation stone of this magical era,” the president, Florentino Pérez, said, somewhat more interested in basketball now than he had been before.

Laso has since won 20 titles in 10 years, the standout figure now — more than any other single player. Not that he and Real Madrid can win everything, as Barcelona are determined to prove. Not that he is the only one, either. And while there might be no Norris vs. Martin any more, and while this is not like the football — something of which many basketball fans are proud — still the rivalry rolls on.

Take last year, and those three events that bring this confrontation to where it is on Friday night, when they’ll face each other in the Euroliga.

Once upon a time, Nikola Mirotic had proudly announced, “a Madridista would never join Barcelona.” But there he was, having returned from four years at the Chicago Bulls, joining Barcelona. To which his friend, Madrid player Marcus Slaughter, noted: “I’m happy for you if you’re happy, but you know I can never support that team. Hala Madrid!”

Others said far worse things: When Mirotic returned to Madrid to play that day, the abuse was constant and defeat followed. “They’ll see,” he vowed, but he could not complain.

That at least was the verdict of the former Madrid star and current NBA standout Luka Doncic, a man who marked last year’s football clásico by photoshopping himself into a Madrid football kit. “I can understand the reception,” the Dallas Mavericks star told AS. “He didn’t just play at Madrid; they raised him. I would never do that [move to Barcelona], never. Madrid is my family.”

Either side of that had been Madrid’s doctor calling Barcelona the biggest rats in Europe — Barcelona accused him of “fomenting hate,” and he promptly apologised — and probably the most dramatic final the Spanish game has ever seen, proof that even Laso couldn’t win it all. Not when Barcelona, the old enemy, stand before them.

With Barcelona down and 4 seconds left in the final game, they launched one last attack, leading to a shot from Ante Tomic. Madrid centre Anthony Randolph, previously of the Warriors, Knicks, Timberwolves and Nuggets, made a block to take the title, but the officials reviewed the play, giving Barcelona the basket instead. Replays showed the decision was wrong — “a serious error,” by their own admission — and Barcelona were champions.

“I have never been in a game like it,” Barcelona’s Pierre Oriola said afterward as they drenched him in champagne and he swore very loudly live on TV. This after all is the same man who declared himself “anti-Madridista.”

Nor had Madrid seen anything like it, making a formal complaint. When it was reported that they were contemplating leaving the league, Barca defender Gerard Piqué waded in.

“They’re just trying to hide the fact that Barcelona went to Madrid and, unexpectedly, won at their place, lifting the trophy there,” he said when he was asked about the basketball following a game at the Camp Nou. “It’s always the same lately. And then they get a call and it all goes quiet again for a while. It’s a strategy and we have to put up with it. I’m very proud of our [basketball] players. It happens in football and it happens in basketball. It’s a good job they haven’t got other sports teams or we’d have to put up with it in handball and hockey, too.”

No, it’s just football and basketball, but that’s plenty. And this weekend, the greatest rivals in sport come face to face once more — both on the court and in the Camp Nou.

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