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Raimundo Saporta: the father of Real Madrid and Spanish basketball

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A celebration of former club vice-president, basketball whizz and Santiago Bernabeu’s right hand man.

Real Madrid

Basketball is not something the Managing Madrid community free associates with the club we love. In fairness, its not something many Madridistas associate with the club full stop. There isn’t much - if any - prominent coverage on the team and Real Madrid’s game coverage is quite limited with halftime updates from the basketball matches a prominent part of watching Los Blancos’s football cantera on a regular basis. Nevertheless, basketball is as important and as successful side for the Real Madrid brand as football has been. Los Baloncesto have dominated the domestic and European basketball scene, contributed countless players to the NBA (Luka Doncic) and were a driving force in modernising and popularising the sport to a Spanish audience.

No figure provides a more perfect way to celebrate Real Madrid basketball than Raimundo Saporta. The Turkish born Madridista served as vice-president to Santiago Bernabeu and ran Real Madrid’s basketball department from 1952 until Bernabeu’s death in 1978. His legacy is multi-sport and, in his chosen sport of basketball, worldwide.

Saparto was born in December 1926 in Istanbul. His family were of Jewish descendants, hence, while living in Paris during the Second World War, they applied for Spanish citizenship to avoid Nazi persecution. Arriving in Madrid in 1941, the family was struck by tragedy when Saporta’s father was hit and killed by a tram in the Spanish capital, Saporta was just 15 at the time. The death of his father didn’t deter the teenager from completing his studies in the French Lyceum (a French international school in Madrid). It was here that Saporta first came in contact with basketball, a sport that would define his professional career in the years to come. Although he lacked the talent to play, the 16-year-old Saporta showed unrivalled organisational skills and later became a delegate for the team.

In his role as delegate, Saporta made frequent visits to the Spanish Federation of Basketball to organize tournaments and matches. He made such an impression that the then president, Jesus Querejeta, immediately wanted to make the 19-year-old a director, though Federation statues stopped him from giving Saporta a job until he was 21. Saporta joined the Federation as a treasurer and was vice-president within a year. He was hard-working and had already mastered several languages despite only being 22.

In 1952, Real Madrid’s president Santiago Bernabeu wished to set up a basketball tournament to honour the club’s 50th anniversary. Lacking any knowledge about basketball, Bernabeu turned to the federation for a recommendation and Saporta was sent to do the job. After an overwhelming successful tournament, Bernabeu offered Saporta a role at Real Madrid, when Saporta responded that he didn’t know anything about soccer, Bernabeu retorted that too many people do.

Saporta started at Real Madrid as an accountant in May 1953. Among his first tasks at the club was to act as the club’s emissary in the Di Stefano transfer, where he helped negotiate the deal that would have seen the Argentine player play for Real Madrid one season and Barcelona the other until the Catalans sold their rights to the player to Madrid. Saporta would later play a role in the transfers of Raymond Kopa, Ference Puskas and Franciso Gento. In 1954, Saporta was made club treasurer where he managed the club’s rocky finances, opening a savings account for every player on Real Madrid’s books to check their spending. Much like Bernabeu, Saporta was known for his paternalistic style of management earning the nickname “Uncle Rai” among the Real Madrid players.

Bernabeu also gave Saporta free reign on the club’s basketball team. Real Madrid’s basketball team had been founded in 1931 and had competed in a number of regional tournaments around the Spanish capital. The team was deeply unpopular with the Real Madrid board due to its lack of success and monetary profit. Saporta would quickly change that.

His influence started small. In 1955, he met Pedro Ferrándiz on a recommendation and gave the basketball teacher his first break in the sport in charge of Real Madrid’s youth system. In 1958-59, Saporta fought for Ferrándiz promotion to first team coach, a decision that proved extremely prudent with Real winning 12 national leagues, 11 Spanish Cups and 4 European Cups under Ferrándiz’s management.

Using his position in both the Spanish basketball federation and FIBA (basketball’s equivalent to FIFA), Raimundo Saporta launched the first Spanish basketball league in 1957 with the aim of better promoting the sport in Spain. The league was competed by six teams (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Aismalíbar, Estudiantes, Juventud and Orillo Verde) with Los Blancos winning the inaugural title.

Around this time, Saporta had also acted as Bernabeu’s interpreter during the meetings to set up the European Cup. Saporta used his influence within French newspaper, L’Equipe to pressure them into drafting a proposal for the competition and sending it to UEFA. The tournament success had encouraged FIBA to pursue their own version of the competition, setting up a commission in Bulgaria with Saporta as president.

As president of the committee, Saporta took the lead in drafting the competition and suggested a tournament of 23 champions competing in a direct elimination tournament. The first edition of the FIBA European Cup took place in 1958. Real Madrid reached the semi-finals, however, the Spanish giants were eliminated from the tournament when, having been drawn against Rigas ASK, the Spanish government refused the basketball team permission to travel to the Soviet Union to compete.

Four years later, Real Madrid reached their first European Cup final against Dinamo Tbilisi. The game was played in Geneva after the Franco regime once again refused to let Real travel to the Soviet Union for the away leg of the game. Madrid lost the standalone final 90-83.

Fearing for the integrity of the young competition and Real Madrid’s chances of competing, Saporta put his talents to work to get Real Madrid permission to travel to the Soviet Union in the future.

What made Saporta such a valuable asset to Real Madrid was his people skills. The Madrid vice-president had fantastic social skills and had friends everywhere.

One of those friends happened to be the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs and, in 1963, Saporta managed to get Real Madrid permission to play matches in the Soviet Union under the condition that the minster was informed if the team had a chance of winning beforehand. Saporta left that decision to Ferrandiz who, as head coach, had no choice but to say his team had every chance of winning.

The compromise was crucial as Real Madrid dominated European basketball in the 1960s, reaching seven European Cup finals and winning four. Among those victories was a 1965 win over TSKA Moscow in Madrid, by which stage Saporta had become Real Madrid vice-president.

Saporta continued to push basketball forward in so many ways. He created competitions that ushered in sponsorship money previously unseen in the sport, he created the basketball World Cup and brought NBA teams to Spain for the very first time.

In 1978, Real Madrid president and Saporta’s dear friend Santiago Bernabeu died. Despite being the clear favourite for the job, Saporta obeyed one of Bernabeu’s final wishes and refused the presidency, retiring instead

Saporta continued to work in basketball with FIBA and returned to Real Madrid for background roles in basketball during the 1980s. He was made FIBA vice-president in 1995, a role he would serve in until his death on February 2nd 1997, aged 71.

The club honoured Saporta by naming the basketball team’s home ground after him. In 2007, Saporta was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame.

Today, basketball is one of the most popular sports in Spain with many of the competitions Saporta spearheaded the creation of now major competitions within the sport, competitions in which Real Madrid lead the rest as Saporta had hoped they would. One can only wonder where Spanish basketball and Real Madrid as a sporting institution would be without Saporta’s influence, it is in this regard that despite all the wonderful coups Real Madrid have made over the years, Raimundo Saporta might just be the club’s greatest signing.