If you look at the list of basketball players who have left Alba Berlin in recent years, continuity is not the first word that comes to mind. Marius Grigonis, Spencer Butterfield, Martin Hermannsson, Rokas Giedraitis, Franz Wagner, Tyler Cavanaugh, Dennis Clifford, Landry Nnoko, Simone Fontecchio, Peyton Siva, Jayson Granger, Niels Giffey – these selections of Berlin departures would make a viable Euroleague team. But continuity goes far beyond the purely personal level and is the key to Berlin’s success despite the high fluctuation in the squad.
When Alba opens the final series of the basketball Bundesliga with a home game against Bayern Munich this Friday (8:30 p.m., Magentasport), the Berliners will continue an impressive series. Since the start of the 2017/18 season, Alba has reached all national finals: five BBL finals, five cup finals. “It’s incredible for the club and makes us very proud,” says coach Israel Gonzalez, who came to Berlin in 2017 as assistant to the great Aito Garcia Reneses and succeeded him last summer.
While there are only three players left in Luke Sikma, Jonas Mattisseck and Tim Schneider from the team that was narrowly beaten by Bayern Munich in both national competitions in 2017/18, the same people have been at work in the strategically important positions for a long time : Manager Marco Baldi since the club was founded in 1991 and sports director Himar Ojeda since 2016. There is also a great deal of continuity in the coaching team around Gonzalez.
Without the positive economic development of the years before the pandemic, it would not have been possible to return to the top of the German table and jump into the continental elite with good prospects of a permanent Euroleague license. But for Baldi, money is an important factor, but not the decisive factor. “We have a culture here that is very different from other clubs,” says the manager. It begins in the basketball club with the most members in Germany with numerous cooperations in the day care center area and ends in the professional team. “When all the cogs mesh so well and we show our width strengths so clearly at the top, it’s just nice to look at,” says Baldi.
Of course, the needs and requirements differ significantly between popular and professional sports, but the main pillars of the basketball philosophy are identical. Even among professionals, success is not only measured by results and titles. The focus is on having fun with basketball and further development, both individually and as a team. The Berliners see the sporting success as a logical consequence.
One of the prime examples of this path is Jonas Mattisseck. The Berliner came to the Alba youth through VfL Lichtenrade and TuS Lichterfelde and took his first steps with the professionals in 2018. The 22-year-old guard is now vice-captain. “It’s extraordinary that we still focus on having fun,” says Mattisseck. Of course, basketball is his job, the expectations are high and not everything is always fun, but “even after defeats we try to stay relaxed, see the big picture and be proud of what we have here”.
For Baldi, players like Mattisseck and especially captain Luke Sikma are crucial to maintaining the chemistry in the team. “Despite the many player changes, we always had a tribe that we could keep,” says the manager. There is a lot that can be said about a basketball culture and a work ethic, but it is much more effective when these are lived by the experienced players and passed on to the newcomers.
At Alba, this has worked extremely well in recent years. “The path was different every year, but we always managed to be successful,” says Sikma. The 32-year-old American could earn significantly more money elsewhere, but is now in his fifth year playing in Berlin. “I’m very fortunate that I’ve always been able to play for titles during this time, and the club can be proud of that,” says Sikma.
The captain lost the first five finals with Alba, including the 2019 Eurocup final against his former team Valencia. There has been criticism and speculation as to why the team keeps losing out in crucial games. Sikma would have gladly avoided the defeats, but they too were part of the maturing process. “These finals hurt, but they also helped us individually and as a club,” he says. The disappointments would have made the team even hungrier and the four titles over the past two and a half years would have made it feel even better.
Now Alba is back in the final after a long season, three wins are missing for the third championship in a row. The conditions are ideal, because while the Berliners were able to prepare for the first game for a whole week, Bayern Munich only fought their way into the final on Wednesday evening. “We can be very proud of how we marched through the play-offs and that’s a good situation for us,” says Jonas Mattisseck. “But slowly it’s time to get going.”