The season of promotion to the top
After being the surprise of the competition in the previous season, Bilbao Basket’s task was to become an authentic reality confirming the good performance that had marked their trajectory. For this reason, the club took on an ambitious wager concerning Txus Vidorreta and contracted players of contrasting styles such as Venson Hamilton, Jorge García or José Luis Maluenda. The results soon followed and, once again, the Red team played a leading role in the commencement of a spectacular campaign coming up with six consecutive victories, thus maintaining their unbeaten record until 24th October, when they were beaten by CAI Zaragoza by 98-89. This was the start of a losing streak as visitors, however, the strength they showed in La Casilla, where they were only beaten once by Granada the whole season, kept them in the top places in the standings during the first half of the competition. This stage ended with a win-loss record of 11-6, which left them in third place behind an amazing Plasencia, CAI and in front of La Palma. These four teams would make it to the Prince Felipe Pavilion to play it out for the Cup from 31st January to 1st February.
One more time, the Bilbaons had to go up against the host team in the semi-finals, though this time they were defeated by 98-92 by the team coached by Alfred Julbe. It was a spectacular match, in front of 9,000 people, and which had to be determined agonizingly in extra time. CAI would go on to play the final against Plasencia, who had beaten La Palma by 106-86 inthe semi-final. The Cup, finally, was to stay in Zaragoza as Julbe’s men beat the team from Extremadura by 89-82.
It was time to concentrate on the League again and everything went on just like it had at the end of the first half of the competition, a crisis when it came to outcomes away from Bilbao and being untouchable in La Casilla. This meant that nobody could be proclaimed as the regular league champions until the very last match day round. Plasencia and Granada were threatening to do so and everything would be settled in the Bilbao pavilion, where the team from Extremadura and Vidorreta’s pupils had to measure up against each other in the decisive last match day.
It was a perfect training session for what was to come in the play-offs and the Reds did not disappoint by achieving a clear victory (88-52). This let them count on the home court advantage being in their favour throughout the entire play-off thanks to the 22 victories achieved with only 12 losses. People started to dream of something big. In the quarter-final they had to fight it out with “gordo/fat” Williams, Sergio Sánchez or Rogelio Legasa’s Cuidad de Huelva. An eliminatory that had to be determined in the fifth match and where the home court advantage was decisive and the general public at La Casilla completely behind the cause:
23-04-2004: Bilbao Basket-Ciudad de Huelva: 86-79
25-04-2004: Bilbao Basket-Ciudad de Huelva: 79-71
30-04-2004: Ciudad de Huelva-Bilbao Basket: 92-57
02-05-2004: Ciudad de Huelva-Bilbao Basket: 77-71
07-05-2004: Bilbao Basket-Ciudad de Huelva: 91-85
Following this agonizing eliminatory, Vidorreta’s men had to measure up against León Caja España, who had overcome Coinga Menorca also by 3-2 inthe previous round. In that team Ugonna Onyekwe, Warren Davis, Iker Urreizti or Julio González stood out. The semi-finals were marked by the first match played in La Casilla. Ángel Jareño’s men had gotten an important advantage in the first half that day but, spurred on by the staunch fans, the Reds were able to turn the tables, something which affected the spirit of the team from León, who perhaps suffered from this in the second match. Now in León, Jareño’s team wanted to make the most of their court to win the eliminatory but Bilbao Basket had left them no choice. Vidorreta’s men, spurred on by a large number of Bilbaon supporters who had travelled to León, wanted to assure the promotion in the best of three and proved themselves to be better from minute one until minute 40 of the game without letting their rivals get into the match at any time. The did it. Bilbao Basket made it into the ACB triumphantly on an already historic 21st May 2004:
14-05-2004: Bilbao Basket-León Caja España: 86-80
16-05-2004: Bilbao Basket-León Caja España: 84-76
21-05-2004: León Caja España-Bilbao Basket: 55-71
The news was received in Biscay’s capital like those that one has been waiting for over a long time, the dream that seemed utopian only a couple of years ago that has suddenly come true. The players and coaches had already done their bit; from that moment on it would be up to those in the offices to do theirs in complying with all the necessary requirements in obtaining the invitation to take part in the Second Best League in the World. A game that was also won in that hectic summer of 2004.
Even so, the team did not have the last word in the competition. Once the promotion had been achieved, the LEB final was still to be played against another team with a ticket to the ACB. Referring to Aaron Mc Ghee, Silas Mills and Ordín’s Granada. A great team who had to take risks in La Casilla as Vidorreta’s men had won the regular league with the home court advantage in their favour. Sergio Valdeolmillos’s men already knew what it was like to win in La Casilla, this season, thus the Reds did not let their guard down at any time and from the first quarter, they got an important advantage which they knew how to make the most of in a festive atmosphere with a public that was already dreaming of measuring themselves up against the country’s top basketball teams. Bilbao Basket won the championship by 85-81 and, from that moment on, free reign was given to the party during the trophy presentation and with fireworks inside the pavilion. Another historic day. One more for the list. The players who had achieved the gutsy ACB promotion were Patrick Saenz de Ugarte, Jorge García, Lucho Fernández, Bryan Sallier, Iker López, Joseba Iglesias, Brian Howard, Venson Hamilton, José Luis Maluenda, Juanma Rodríguez, Ricardo Úriz and Javi Salgado. Just as in the previous two seasons, the coaching team consisted of Txus Vidorreta, Rafa Pueyo and Alberto Ibeas.