2009-10. Old acquaintances reunite

The Promo-Cup in December 2008, eight clubs from five Eastern European nations, Sabonis and Tkachenko at the opening game, a new chapter in the CSKA - Zalgiris rivalry, a surprise from Donetsk, regular season MVP Viktor Khryapa, Russian American J.R. Holden, center Timofey Mozgov at the beginning of his career, 37 points from Marcus Brown, an unforgettable Final Four at the Kaunas Sporthalle and a championship for CSKA in the VTB United League’s first season.

Back Story
After several years of work behind the scenes, the VTB United League first made headlines in December 2008 when it organized a 3-day promotional tournament on CSKA’s home court. Eight clubs from five countries took part in the competition: CSKA, Khimki and Dynamo (Russia), BC Kiev and Azovmash (Ukraine), Zalgiris (Lithuania), ASK (Latvia) and Prokom (Poland). CSKA was led by coach Ettore Messina and European stars like J.R. Holden, Ramunas Siskauskas and Trajan Langdon as well as 23-year-old center Sasha Kaun. Timofey Mozgov starred for Sergio Scariolo at Khimki, while David Blatt held the reins at Dynamo Moscow.

The tournament final featured Russia’s top rivalry: CSKA vs. Khimki. The game was close, but the Army Men ultimately came out on top, 70-66. Siskauskas received the Promo-Cup MVP, while Vasily Titov, First Deputy President and Chairman of VTB Bank Management Board, the VTB United League’s title sponsor, shared what was next for the competition: “Across Eastern Europe, people love to play the wonderful sport of basketball, but until recently there was no way for the top clubs in the region to play against one another. Now we have the VTB United League. The Promo-Cup convinced us that this competition is needed. For that reason, we have decided to move forward and bring this new project to life.”

Format and participants
The first-ever VTB United League season was held in 2009-10. The new club competition united eight clubs from five Eastern European countries: CSKA, Khimki, UNICS (Russia), Azovmash, Donetsk (Ukraine), Zalgiris (Lithuania), VEF (Latvia) and Kalev (Estonia).

The teams were divided into two groups during the regular season: Group A (UNICS, Khimki, Donetsk, VEF) and Group B (CSKA, Zalgiris, Azovmash, Kalev). The playoffs featured a Final Four, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the postseason after a six-game slate.

Sabonis vs. Tkachenko!
The first game of the season, held in Moscow, featured famed USSR rivals: CSKA and Zalgiris. The rivalry burned brightest in the 1980s, when Zalgiris thrice won the league (1985, 1986 and 1987) led by superstar center Arvydas Sabonis. The Lithuanian big man returned to Moscow for the big game in 2009, along with many formed CSKA legends, including Alexander Volkov, Sergei Tarakanov and Valery Tikhonenko. Former CSKA center and rival Vladimir Tkachenko was also there and the two legends took part in an emotional opening ceremony.

Sabonis and Tkachenko contested the ceremonial opening tip, with Andrey Kostin, President and Chairman of the VTB Bank Management Board, throwing the ball up.
There was a lot of pride on the line for both teams, but CSKA took advantage of its home court and star power to start the season with a 90-74 win over Zalgiris.

Regular season
The very first game of the season was actually held in Riga, where VEF hosted UNICS, with Kazan pulling out a hard-fought 76-72 victory. There was one upset in the first round. Sergio Scariolo’s Khimki squad led by double digits on the road against Donetsk, but couldn’t hold on, dropping a 70-69 decision to the plucky Ukrainians.
The second round showed the balance of power in the new league. UNICS defeated Donetsk, while CSKA took care of business against Azovmash. In the other two games, Zalgiris and Khimki won at home over Kalev and VEF, respectively. These four teams would ultimately finish in the top spots and advance to the final four…

While CSKA, Zalgiris and UNICS cruised through the regular season with 5-1 records, the battle for 2nd place in Group A was much more competitive. Khimki lost again in round three (this time to UNICS, 82-69) to allow Donetsk to move into 2nd place. Azovmash was also 1-2, though head coach Rimas Girskis resigned prior to round four, the league’s first change at the head coaching position. Round four featured a showdown between Khimki and Donetsk. The Yellow-Blues stayed composed despite a poor start and eventually pulled away for a 78-68 victory. Zalgiris also took revenge in Kaunas, defeating CSKA 67-63 in front of a big crowd.
CSKA, UNICS, Khimki and Zalgiris each won in round five, clinching spots in the Final Four. Khimki was helped by Donetsk’s loss in Kazan. With Ramunas Butautas losing his job a few days before the game against UNICS, the Ukrainian club struggled to compete on the road and was eliminated from postseason contention.

Donetsk. There were four favorites from the very beginning--CSKA, UNICS, Khimki and Zalgiris--and they ultimately advanced to the Final Four. Donetsk was in the same group as UNICS and Khimki and managed to challenge Moscow Region for the final postseason berth. Donetsk’s shocking win over Keith Langford, Paulius Jankunas, Timofey Mozvgov and Carlos Cabesas in round one gave them an early lead in the standings, though the Ukrainians lost the following week to UNICS. Nonetheless, Artur Drozdov and co. left a positive impression with their performance in the regular season.

Final Four
The Final Four was held in Kaunas at the legendary Sporthalle and included an exciting opening ceremony, sellout crowds and thrilling competition.

Each of the Final Four participants--Zalgiris, UNICS, Khimki and CSKA--were legitimate championship contenders. The first semifinal between CSKA and Khimki more than lived up to expectations as Khimki seized an 11-point lead in the second half before the Army Men stormed back to win 71-66 and book a spot in the final.
The second semifinal between UNICS and Zalgiris was just as entertaining. Kazan faced a hostile, boisterous Zalgiris crowd, but did not appear intimidated. Coached by former Zalgiris player Valdemaras Homicius, the Tatar club staved off early pressure from the Lithuanians, took the lead and enjoyed a 75-65 victory.

The final day of competition began with the 3rd place game between Zalgiris and Khimki. The Lithuanian fans did not appear too disappointed to be in the bronze medal game, selling out the Sporthalle once again. They were rewarded for their devotion as Zalgiris picked up a 78-72 victory. Next up was the final between CSKA and UNICS, the top two teams in the league all season.
The first half belonged to the Army Men as they led by 14 at the break. Kazan got back in it in the second half, cutting the deficit to four points with four minutes left to go. CSKA, however, would not be denied. Holden, the Final Four MVP, knocked down an unbelievable turnaround fadeaway, helping the Army Men pull away for the 66-55 victory and the first-ever VTB United League championship.

The fans saw plenty of stars during the VTB United League’s first season, including exciting young prospects and grizzled veterans.
J.R. Holden, the heart and soul of CSKA’s squad, ran the offense and led the Army Men to a championship with some huge baskets in big moment.s
Zalgiris’s Marcus Brown, perhaps the most individually talented player in the league, dazzled with his scoring ability and caused headaches for opponents around the league, averaging 15.3 points per game.
UNICS’s Marko Popovic made life miserable for the competition, finishing second in scoring behind Hasan Rizvic (16.7 ppg). He didn’t always fit into Kazan’s schemes on offense, but he won several games nearly single-handedly with his intense drive and competitive spirit.
Khimki witnessed the birth of a new star. Sergio Scariolo gave young Timofey Mozgov a chance and the center took full advantage, averaging 10.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in his first season on the pro level.

Meanwhile, the inimitable Viktor Khryapa, CSKA’s captain and leader, was everywhere on the court, stuffing the stat sheet with his brilliant all-around play.

37 points. Zalgiris guard Marcus Brown put up a league-best 37 points against Azovmash during the regular season. Five years later, only two players have scored more than Brown in a single game!

The biggest highlight of season one was that the competition was organized and contested at a high level and showed so much promise for the future. The organizers did a tremendous amount of work, laying the foundation for the league’s development. Everyone that took part in the project deserved credit. The Final Four trophy ceremony in Kaunas featured many highly respected guests, including Sergey Ivanov and local legend Arvydas Sabonis.

- Personally, I’m very happy that this competition exists, - Sabonis said after the conclusion of the first VTB United League season. - I hope that the league has a good future and that we will get together more often. Zalgiris needs these games against strong Russian clubs. They are an excellent opportunity for the youth, not to mention the interest from the fans, which we saw proof of over the past few days in Kaunas.


Final standings