The voice of Baskonia says goodbye

May 08, 2019 by Natxo Mendaza - Vitoria-Gasteiz Print
The voice of Baskonia says goodbye

If you were at Fernando Buesa Arena at the end of any game recently and saw KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz fans taking a selfie with someone who was not a player or a coach of the team, you might have wondered, 'Who is that guy?' The answer: Rafa Muntión, a journalist for Radio Vitoria who at the end of this season will complete a career of three decades announcing every game of Baskonia, the team of his life.

His voice has been the vehicle through which fans from Vitoria-Gasteiz have been able to follow the history of the team in all its games for 30 years. This journey includes, of course, the 19 seasons that Baskonia has played in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. Since October 18, 2000 in Zagreb and against Cibona, until last April 26, at home against CSKA, Muntión has announced more than 450 EuroLeague games and has traveled the equivalent of 24 round-the-world trips while accompanying the Basque squad – numbers that would grant him a place in a basketball journalists Hall of Fame, if one existed.

Along the way, Muntión has witnessed the evolution of the competition from its birth to the present. The EuroLeague has become, in his opinion, "the best basketball competition in Europe, because it's obvious that all teams – big, medium or small – want to be a part of it." For him, the EuroLeague did nothing but "grow and grow" over the years. "The EuroLeague has always made clear that every step it takes, it is for real," he said. "It has grown up a lot, in a very solid and steady way."

"The EuroLeague has always made clear that every step it takes, it is for real."

This growth, in his experience, is not only limited to the organization but also extends to the clubs and to the resources that journalists have at their disposal:

"If we talk about infrastructures, about the arenas of the EuroLeague teams, I believe that more than 90% of them are very good ones. From the point of view of the technology, we see here that changes have been quite good, too. Today, you have the opportunity to broadcast games with very good sound from virtually all places."

Muntión acknowledges that his case can be taken as "a little bit unique, because after 19 years following a EuroLeague team you end up being known everywhere." He wishes that more journalists had the chance to travel with the same team on all its trips, as he did.

"The journalist must be in the place, because that gives you the knowledge and several possibilities that otherwise you would not have," he says. Muntión is grateful and proud that his radio station, Radio Vitoria, "made the decision to follow the team, every game, even before it became a EuroLeague team. It's something remarkable, as we are not a big radio station in Europe, but a very little one."

All those trips, all those games, have allowed Muntión to know and to establish a strong bond with countless players and coaches, in many cases going beyond the strictly professional relationship.

"That's the big question that many people ask: Can a journalist be a friend of a player?" he remarks. "Because you can think that if the journalist gets too close, objectivity can be compromised. I sincerely believe it is not, because who better than a friend to tell you that you have been wrong? Someone who doesn't know you well will not tell you, and will give you a pat on your back and will say, it's ok, it's perfect, because today you won and you gave me an interview. I also think that, beyond stats or figures, that are obviously objective, everything else you need to deal with subjectively. And in sports journalism, even more."

"Or the last win in Moscow, after 14 years!!! They are beautiful memories, for sure."

This way of understanding the relationship between journalists and players has led Muntión to become a confidant for many of them, under many circumstances: "Many players tell you their stories. I felt very close to the Argentinians we have had, for example. I don't know the reason why, but it is true that I connected very well with Fabri Oberto, and above all with Hugo Sconochini, even though he didn't stay for long. I can tell you that I even bought some cigarettes for a player, secretly, and the coach at that point was [Dusko] Ivanovic, so it was a very risky and dangerous operation!"

He adds: "There are some confidences because you share a lot of time with them, and there comes a time when the player already knows how to differentiate when you are playing the journalist role and when you are not. There have been times when some players went to the team dinner, did it fast, in 10 minutes or so, and then left to get together with us to go for a 'real' dinner. At that point, they already understood that there I was Rafa Muntión, the person, not the journalist."

That trust is not only limited to the inner circle of Baskonia, but also extends to many rivals. Ettore Messina, when he coached CSKA, decided to consult Muntión before signing Zoran Planinic, as he needed some references about the Croatian guard as a person. Messina had never coached in Vitoria, so it's just an example of how Muntión was able to earn big respect beyond Baskonia borders.

"I met him the first time in the 2001 Finals against TAU, and the impression I got from him is that he was a very professional guy," Messina said recently. "Very serious, asking very good questions about basketball. We have spoken many times after that, and besides being a very good professional, I have always thought of him as a very honest person, very correct."

With Baskonia, Muntión has covered five Final Fours, but the one that he remembers as the sweetest is the one of 2005, "because it was the first one, and we beat CSKA, in Moscow, against all odds." He doesn't forget what Baskonia was like when he started as a journalist, and how far the team has been able to go in the last 30 years: "You come from being a very small team, and you are used to seeing all those great European teams like Panathinaikos, Olympiacos, Maccabi, etc., and you think, will I ever go to those courts? And, you know, when you are able to win the first time in Tel Aviv, for example, you think it's something impossible. And we won there with a buzzer-beater by [Elmer] Bennett. Or the last win in Moscow, after 14 years!!! They are beautiful memories, for sure."

Being the reporter who has brought his listeners every step of Baskonia's growth into a European power has built a special bond between Muntión and the fans. One player who stayed in Vitoria-Gasteiz for a long time, Fernando San Emeterio, explains it very well:

"When there was an important victory in Europe and you returned to the hotel, you could see Rafa, with his beer, looking happy. Also you could see him looking down, more silent, when things didn't go well. He was like a mirror, an accurate reflection of what Vitoria and the fans would be feeling at that moment, and I used this as a kind of thermometer to understand what was going on."

"I always try to tell the stories almost as if I were at the pub with some friends."

The key to understanding all this is probably the way Muntión sees his profession.

"It's important that you really like what you do. And I like it. If you have a good group around you, and if you're comfortable with people, you will have fun and you will enjoy it. In the end, we are here to enjoy, in this case to enjoy basketball, but it can be whatever," he explains.

Asked why he has been able to go so deep into so many people affections, he replies:

"I always try to tell the stories almost as if I were at the pub with some friends – taking care of the language a bit, of course! Being close, being familiar, sharing time with people after the games to have a drink with them and chat a little bit, it's important. Maybe you can feel uncomfortable some days when they ask you for a photo, but there is nothing wrong with it. I tell the players this many times: Stop and spend those five minutes with them, and that's it, it takes nothing from you. I think it's just a matter of being a good guy, nothing else."