The rules of basketball, in their most basic sense, are simple: if you put the ball through the other team’s hoop, you get two points (usually); and if they put the ball through yours, they get two points (again, usually). If you score more points than the other team, you win. Therefore, you want to put the ball through the other team’s hoop as often as possible and prevent them from putting the ball through yours.
You probably knew that already, though. So let’s go a bit further. Imagine a situation with two teams, say, the red team and the blue team. A player on the red team shoots the ball toward the blue team’s basket but it’s not a very good shot — it really has no chance of going in. However, a player on the blue team jumps up to block the shot and, in doing so, deflects it right into the hoop. In that case, even though the red team’s player missed the shot and the blue team’s player was the last to touch the ball, the red team gets two points. Basically, what matters is what hoop the ball went through, not how it got there.
Every year, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) sanctions EuroLeague, arguably Europe’s top-tier basketball league. There are 18 teams in the league hailing from roughly a dozen different countries. The modern format echoes that of most other professional sports leagues: each team plays 34 games — two against each of the other teams, one home, one away — and the eight with the best win-loss record over that 34-game season advance to the playoffs. But that’s a relatively new format for EuroLeague — and one that only emerged after they tried a lot of other formats. And the format used for the 1961-1962 season created a little bit of chaos.
At the time, there were 24 teams in the league with five rounds of play. In each round, teams were paired off and played two games — one at each team’s home arena, to avoid any home-court advantage issues. That immediately created a problem, though; it was possible, if not likely, that some of these two-game series would end with each team winning one game and losing one game. No problem, the organizers decided: whichever team scored the most total points over the two games would advance. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything, it turned out. In the quarterfinals of that 1961-62 tournament, Real Madrid of Spain drew Italy’s Ignis Varese, with Ignis Varese hosting the first game. Real Madrid broke out to an early lead but couldn’t hold it. With only a few seconds left in the game, Ignis Varese tied it up, 80-80. This left the Real Madrid coach, Pedro Ferrandiz, in a predicament. His team was shorthanded — one of his best players was injured and two others had committed enough fouls to disqualify them from the rest of the game. If the game went to overtime, Ferrandiz was concerned that his squad would be overrun by the Italian team. And that was a problem because the point differential mattered more than the victory itself. Ferrandiz realized that if he lost the game right then and there, 82-80, he’d only have to make up two points in the second game of the two-game series, and that seemed very doable: the second game would be in Spain and all three of his absent players would likely be able to play in that second game.
So Ferrandiz did exactly that: he ended the game right then and there. With either two or seconds left, Ferrandiz called a timeout and, according to the official EuroLeague website, he told his team to score a basket for the other team. And they did just that: “After the timeout, guard Jose Luis inbounded the ball to Lorenzo Alocen. The Madrid center, with a clean and uncontested shot, gave Ignis the win, 82-80.”
The ploy worked. There was no rule against intentionally scoring against yourself at the time, so FIBA upheld the results of Ignis Varese’s win. A few weeks later, the two teams met in Madrid and the results were what Ferrandiz had hoped for — his team won, 83-62, giving them a 163-144 overall victory against the Italian hopefuls. They ended up making it all the way to the finals where they ultimately lost, 90-83, in a one-game round on a neutral court against a Soviet team.
But it would never work again. Shortly after the first game, FIBA created a new rule, today listed as rule 16.2.3 (pdf summary here, see page 9), which reads: “If a player deliberately scores a field goal in his team’s basket, it is a violation and the goal does not count.”
From the Archives: Sometimes, To Win, You Have to Play to Lose: A similar story to today’s main one, but in the world of soccer.