By Kostas Giataganas/ email@example.com
The 40-year-old coach is on the staff of one of the biggest teams in Europe, which has a Greek flavor since he’s at the side of Dimitris Itoudis in CSKA.
He worked at Panathinaikos from 2005 to 2012 as part the Greens’ coaching staff, at the side of Obradovic and Itoudis (and for a short while in Pedoulakis’s era), then followed Itoudis to Turkey (Banvit) and then, since 2014, the great challenge that is CSKA.
In Moscow, the two of them, together with trainer Kostas Chatzichristos, make up the Greek “community” of the VTB Champions and a prominent part of the… exportable product of Greek basketball.
-How is the season going with the numerous and important changes, the most important being the replacement of Milos Teodosic with Sergio Rodriguez?
“We’re happy. The problem, in the beginning, was introducing the team’s already existing philosophy to the younger ones. Regarding the two guards, both of them have great talent and basketball instincts. They are creative playmakers who can make their teammates better. Sergio is simpler in his game, faster. In general, he makes us a faster team. He may not make the more fancy and unexpected passes that Teodosic made, but in terms of tactics for us coaches, it’s positive that he doesn’t shun the simple pass.”
-Do you agree with the view that Greek coaches and players are the best exportable product?
“It has been very good for Greek coaches that Panathinaikos and Olympiacos had brought top-level coaches like Obradovic and Ivkovic. Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in 2009 and 2010 had the biggest budgets, the biggest names. Now, Greek basketball has gotten smaller in that department, but all of us coaches climbed a level. It’s a shame that Greek basketball cannot redeem that directly. Europe is full of Greek coaches. In the future, there are going to be even more of them in big teams.”
-You have been working with Dimitris Itoudis for many years now. How is it like being at his side?
“We’ve been working together with Dimitris for almost 12 years. He took me on as a scouter at Panathinaikos in 2005. That was our first collaboration and after all these years, our collaboration is on… autopilot. The work has to be flawless and right in every detail. It takes great self-discipline and that is Dimitris’s strongest feature. He never asks for anything unreasonable. You can always talk to him and the players have this relationship with him as well. He’s not a man to whom you’re afraid to say things or speak with or express ideas.”
-How was your collaboration with coach Obradovic? Is he as perfectionist as he looks?
“He’s definitely demanding, a perfectionist, but also a reasonable man. He’ll help you when you need help when you slack off he’ll press you, and when he needs to lift you up, he’ll lift you up. That’s the best thing Zeljko does. Also, the small details are something very difficult for coaches to get right and, in the end, that’s the difference between a good coach and a great coach.”
-You had Saras Jasikevicius as a player. Everyone knows his worth as a player. Were you expecting he would evolve in the way that he has as a coach?
“He’s a man who understood everything he did on the court, why he did it and why it had to be done in a specific way. Saras was not just a player with great talent and instincts. He was a player who understood tactics and the essence of basketball. When you asked him back then he said, ‘No, I won’t become a coach, because I will have to deal with players like me.’ But when the time came, he himself realized that he would be good at it.”
-You also had Calathes from the first moment he came over from the USA. How do you see his evolution?
“Nick was a player with great skills. It’s not every day that you get a point guard with such speed, such ball-handling skills, and that size. There are players who like basketball, there are players who simply play basketball because they are 2,15m tall and simply didn’t know what else to do, and there are players who love what they do. Calathes is one of them.
Back then, he joined a team where his teammates were the best guards in Europe. He had Spanoulis, Diamantidis and Jasikevicius ahead of him, giants of European basketball. In the beginning, he couldn’t show any leadership skills because there was no room. But he saw how it was done. He saw what leaders do and what a great player is supposed to do.”
-You also worked with Vassilis Spanoulis. Do you believe his own course is a natural continuation of what he had already shown from his first stint in Panathinaikos (2005/2006)?
“Vassilis also belongs in that category of players who love what they do. He’s a man who never lets up. Everything has to be proven to him. If his teammate has to play a minute longer than him, he’ll have to prove he’s better than him in practice. He has a very strong personality and he’s one of the players I use in examples. He’s the yardstick you use to compare others with, to judge whether a player has the personality to play big-time basketball or not…”
-In 2013, a year after your departure from Panathinaikos, you took over at Banvit. How was the experience of being at a rising team, of the also rising Turkish basketball?
“That proposition was the initiative of Banvit’s president, who had a high regard for Dimitris. Banvit was on a different page than Turkish basketball at the time. They were a very organized team, in a very small city of 120.000 residents. The working conditions were very good. So for us, it was he ideal start.”
-What do you think of the level of Turkish basketball as you experienced it from the inside, at a time when there is an explosion of successes like Fenerbahce winning the EuroLeague?
“Turks generally love basketball and now they do so even more. The Turkish league has to be the richest in Europe. The budget that is spent there is big. That stadiums are full and perhaps now is a time when Turkish basketball is trying to turn a new leaf. The Turks don’t have a large base of native players and that is perhaps the only problem they have. I would consider the Turkish league just as competitive as the ACB right now. It’s a high-level league with great difficulty, long trips, tough home courts, teams that come up from the second division and suddenly create squads that make the Top 4, like Darussafaka.”
-Regarding Greek basketball, there are successes but the league is not where it used to be in terms of competitiveness. Why do you think that’s the case? What can be done?
“The financial aspect plays a very big part. In the golden age of Greek basketball, there was no longterm planning. What most are fearful of – for Panathinaikos and Olympiacos not to participate in the league but be in an exclusive EuroLeague – might help. That way, you would have a championship between more equal teams that might be at the same level but might be more competitive and offer more chances for players to evolve. This has to be the future of European basketball. Domestic leagues – except for the Spanish, the Turkish and in part the VTB – lack that competitiveness. Even in the VTB they introduced a Final Four this year, they changed the way the playoffs are conducted and they tried to make it as hard as possible for the better team so they can stumble and make it more interesting.”