In the 1960s basketball in Scotland was an enthusiasts' sport which enjoyed decent levels of participation and keen competition among its leading clubs but could not claim to exert a hold on the public imagination. Despite its Scottish roots – its inventor in 1891 was Canadian James Naismith, son of a Scottish immigrant father from Lanark and a Scots- Canadian mother – it had never threatened to dislodge football and other mainstream sports from the back pages. When therefore, almost exactly 50 years ago, Scottish champions Boroughmuir were drawn against Spanish kingpins Real Madrid in the first round of the European Cup, this sent shockwaves throughout the domestic game.
Considered dispassionately, the Edinburgh team should never have been allowed on the same court as their illustrious opponents, given the yawning chasm that separated them. On a scale of all-time sporting mismatches, this had to be near the top.
On the one hand: Boroughmuir, totally amateur, in existence only since 1961 and with no membership to talk of apart from its team. Composed of former (and some current) pupils of the eponymous Edinburgh school, it played its home matches in the school gym with room for a handful of spectators. Self-financing, its players paid for the privilege of taking to the court and between them footed the club's bills.
On the other hand: Real Madrid, the game's aristocrats, kings of European basketball; professional players boosted by three top Americans in their ranks; perennial Spanish champions, who played in their own 7,000 capacity arena; reigning European champions. They existed in a different world.
Stuart [Mel] Capaldi, one of the Boroughmuir team who played in the tie, recalled: 'When we found out who we were to play we were astounded. It was hugely exciting. This was a totally different level for us. Much of the credit for bringing this about was due to our best player, the late Bill McInnes OBE, one of our five Scottish internationals with Tony Wilson, John Tunnah, Brian Carmichael and myself. Bill was the catalyst for us entering the competition. He and others organised fundraising dances in the Palais dance hall at Fountainbridge as we only had a small sponsorship from the Milk Marketing Board.'
While its name is more identifiable with rugby, Boroughmuir also encouraged its pupils to play basketball through two members of the PE staff, Gary Taylor and Stewart Ballantine, and the club soon made its mark winning national trophies. They took part in the intra-mural league at the US airbase at Kirknewton, where they were also able to observe the base's team in action. Mel added: 'We would go out there twice a week to play. An added attraction was getting to watch the base team in action as they played in a higher level league. As conscription was still in operation and it was a big sport in USA, they could field some excellent players. We used to study their technique and then go back to our gym to practise emulating their moves.'
Although the result was predictable, the tie attracted huge interest and a problem for Boroughmuir was where to host the home leg to accommodate the anticipated crowd. They settled on Murrayfield ice rink – but for commercial reasons the game had to take place at a time which minimised loss of skating revenue and as a result it was played on a Sunday (29 October 1967) at 11am. Another problem was the laying of a wooden floor. Army Scottish Command performed the task and immediately after the game ended, lifted it, much to Spanish bemusement.
A crowd of almost 3,000 from all over Scotland, a record for the sport, took their seats amid much excitement to watch the first continental team ever to play here. A convincing win for Boroughmuir in their previous match against Dalkeith Saints would, however, count for little against classy Real who boasted 621 caps among their side, not to mention an average height of five inches greater than their hosts.
The game unfolded as expected, a 108-69 win for the visitors. Real were gracious afterwards, complimenting the Scots for their performance while commiserating over their comparative lack of height. Reflecting their different status, Real's next destination was Antwerp for a game against a Europe select three days later.
The return match took place in Madrid on 16 November in front of 3,000 fans at the Ramon Saporta sports pavilion, their state of the art facility built in 1966, and was televised live. As the local sports newspaper, Marca, rather unkindly headlined it, the Scots were 'flattened', losing 43-126, and 112-234 on aggregate. Their hosts extended warm hospitality, taking them on trips round the Spanish capital including a visit to the famous Bernabeu football stadium where Mel remembers 'sneaking' on to the pitch with teammates about 11pm during a lull in the reception.
This was an unforgettable experience for Boroughmuir. It led the way for Scottish basketball in Europe, inspiring the club to return and others to make their debut. They were proud to become the first British club to record a win in European competition, beating Reykjavik. Fifty years on, the surviving team members recently took to the court again in a Masters competition in Manchester, reviving wonderful memories of an exceptional sporting occasion.
Return to ambit homepage