When Maccabi Tel Aviv takes to the court in Russia this evening, it will face a team that should be demoralized after not being paid for three months. Not so, though, because Khimki Moscow has something to prove.
Spanish powerhouse Barcelona is having a poor season in its domestic league but in the Euroleague it has lost only twice - to the two Russian teams, CSKA Moscow and Khimki. After beating Barca 78-65 just over a week ago, the Khimki players now talk openly about reaching the Final Four. In addition, the Russian media has begun to fantasize that the two Muscovite teams will be traveling to London's O2 Arena in May.
Last Friday the dream began to unwind. It wasn't only because of the loss to Siena, but because of an announcement by Vitaly Fridzon: "We haven't been paid for three months now - some of the players for three-and-a-half months even," Khimki's captain said.
"We approached the team's management before the season began and received assurances that the problem would be solved, but this hasn't happened. We love this club and really want it to continue to exist, but we are professionals with families and children to support. We are prepared to contend with this situation, and we've proved that, but to play for free without a time limit is something that doesn't exist in sport. We set them an ultimatum - if we don't get what is due to us by Tuesday, we will go on strike and not train or play."
It's not clear how the team got into this financial mess. City officials say that the club is draining its coffers by competing in three competitions simultaneously, and desperately needs to find an outside sponsor. Yet despite its wasteful image, Khimki is not doling out money on Europe's top stars. Its annual budget stands at a respectable $25 million, and its roster has remained pretty steady for the past few seasons.
Fridzon arrived at Khimki at the age of 18; Croatians Zoran Paninic and Kresimir Loncar, and the Russian Sergey Monia are in their third season on the team; while Australian Matt Nielsen and the Russians Egor Vyaltsev and Alexey Zhukanenko have been at Khimki for two years. Last summer the team brought in the Americans James Augustine, Paul Davis and K.C. Rivers, and the Finn Petteri Koponen. The club has also nurtured two of its own players: Anton Pushkov and Dmitry Khvostov. Khimki's Lithuanian coach, Rimas Kurtinaitis, has been with the team for two years.
This type of roster, based around a format that has remained steady for several years now, doesn't fall apart because of a few delayed pay checks.
Until recently, the media was unaware of the problem. "We haven't talked about it until now because we didn't want to wash our laundry in public. We have a good relationship with the management," says Fridzon.
Unlike other clubs, Khimki wasn't built in a day. It was formed on January 5, 1997, to represent the Moscow satellite city. It had the same coaching team for the first nine years of its existence, and in 2000 the team first qualified for Russia's top division, the Super League, with the help of the great Russian guard Sergey Bazarevich, who was then 35.
In its early years Khimki's roster comprised mainly Russian players, with a handful signing from other former Soviet Union countries. It was only in 2005 that the team started bringing in top hoopsters from other countries.
In its first year of European competition, in 2000, Khimki reached the ULEB Eurocup Final Four, losing to a Dynamo St. Petersburg side coached by David Blatt, now of Maccabi Tel Aviv. In subsequent seasons the team reached the Eurocup final three times, winning the trophy for the first time last season after beating Valencia.
In recent years Khimki has established itself as the No. 2 team in Russia - after local rival CSKA Moscow - and won the Russian Cup in 2008. This season is also proving to be a successful one. Its record in the VTB United League - featuring top teams from eastern and northern Europe - is 8-3; in the Russian Super League 6-2; and in the Euroleague 8-5. Between 4,000 and 5,000 fans turned up for its six home Euroleague games, all of which it won.
"We're a tightly-knit team, and that shows in the way we play," says Fridzon, explaining why his team leads the Euroleague in terms of assists.
Earlier this week, the local Moscow authorities offered a temporary financial lifeline to the club - which currently has a deficit of $5.2 million - and promised to help secure a sponsor.
Even though they still haven't been paid, the players are playing to win. Two days ago, in a game that was liable to be the team's last ever, they beat Poland's Turow 91-72. Fans waved banners asking "Where did the money disappear to? Give it back to the club," plus signs of genuine affection for the team, such as "I love Khimki."
It appears the players' and fans' passion for the club outweighs its problems.