Estudiantes drop out of big league
Emblematic Madrid basketball club suffers relegation for the first time
The sense of grief was palpable throughout the Palacio de los Deportes in Madrid. The players of Asefa Estudiantes filed off the court with the weight of an historic relegation on their shoulders after losing 80-86 to UCAM Murcia in a game that brought a convulsive season to a bitter end.
On his way to the sanctuary of the locker room, veteran Carlos Jiménez was embraced by Felipe Reyes. "I am going to miss you a lot," the Real Madrid captain and former Estu star said. Jiménez has spent 18 seasons in the Spanish top division, 13 with Estudiantes and five with Unicaja, racking up 457 appearances for the former. Only Nacho Azofra, Estudiantes' sporting director, has played more games — 610 — for the club formed at the Instituto Ramiro de Maeztu public high school in Madrid back in 1948.
Both players were in Vitoria, along with Reyes, on January 31, 2000 when Estudiantes won the King's Cup, the last great triumph for a team that has spent this season subsisting, not living. It was the relegation of the last romantic of Spanish basketball.
Last summer, freshly out of administration and without funds for extravagance, Estudiantes took a gamble on rediscovering a lost identity and turned to two of its most recognizable recent icons. Coach Pepu Hernández and Jiménez became the leaders of a promising project. Luis Casimiro, who had a year left on his contract, was sacked despite leading Estudiantes to the playoffs two seasons earlier and keeping the team in the top flight last year.
"We want to go back to being a schoolyard team, in the best possible sense," said Hernández at his presentation. But the formula did not bear fruit. The poor form of Luis Flores and Antoine Wright, two of the foreign players brought in to make a difference, and the frailty of a squad with an average age of less than 25 made the team unstable. "It was a risky project, with a lot of young players and rookies, and it didn't work out as we had hoped," said the club's general director, José Asensio.
Hernández, Flores and Wright were offloaded and Trifón Poch came in as coach, joined by players Tariq Kirksay, Chris Lofton, Willie Deane and Louis Bullock, but the end was already inevitable.
In the mid-1990s, Estudiantes had the fifth-biggest budget in the league. In 2005, it was still among the top eight with 7.5 million euros, but by 2010 it had become the 12th-biggest hitter with just four million euros. The club subsisted for years by selling the jewels of its academy system and it recovered from administration. But matters on the court and the economic crisis combined to carry Estudiantes down.
Three times King's Cup winner, four times runners-up in the league, 24 European participations, a runners-up place in the Korac Cup, a Final Four appearance and infinite talent rising through the ranks of the academy and distributed throughout the Spanish league have all been devoured by an unprecedented relegation. Estudiantes was one of only three clubs, with Real Madrid and DKV Joventut, never to have set foot in the second division. Now it awaits an administrative miracle to save it from the abyss.
With its finances in better shape than some of its rivals and a stable sponsor, there is the possibility of an economic slip-up by one of its ACB competitors or that one of the sides that gains promotion will fail to meet the regulations of the top flight: a minimum budget of 2.5 million euros, a ban on running a deficit without justification, the obligation to pay players on time and a certificate proving that a club's tax affairs are suitably in order.