Tuomas Iisalo is conducting the orchestra in Bonn

2022-12-21T11:13:38+00:00 2022-12-21T23:08:09+00:00.

Cesare Milanti

21/Dec/22 11:13


The Finnish head coach has changed Telekom Baskets Bonn’s ambitions in the Basketball Champions League

By Cesare Milanti/ info@eurohoops.net

Since the 2003-04 season, the city of Bonn hasn’t had a lot of success basketball-wise, dragging less interest than expected compared to the big development that was seen recently in Germany.

Last year, however, saw a drastic reversal of gear, with a shortcut that put the pink-and-black team going from the 13th place in the Bundesliga all the way to a thrilling semifinals loss against Bayern Munich, surrounded by drama.

It can be no coincidence, because this achievement arrived with a new head coach who grew as an opponent for five straight years, getting the jump from Crailsheim Merlins after a solid run with that team.

Suddenly, in the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven, basketball started to be seen more and more as a musical opera. The Telekom Dome was the perfect theatre where Tuomas Iisalo could have played the conductor role.

But before stating what the 40-year-old Finnish head coach is accomplishing right now in Germany, a stepback toward his first days on Tapiolan Honka’s bench is necessary.

Since that 2014-15 season, when he began his head coaching career, Tuomas Iisalo has grown. “My first year was a big challenge and I have improved a lot as a coach since those days. I would describe my development in three stages”, he said in an interview with Eurohoops. “When I began my head coaching career, I had an idea of what type of basketball I wanted my team to play, but no tools to bring it to life”.

Then, he went on to talk about the second and third stages. “In the second stage we, along with my staff, developed our daily process of bringing these ideas to life while refining them along the way. The third step, which came in early 2019, was developing an uncompromising attitude and setting much higher standards for everyone involved. Right now, our process is better than it’s ever been, but we are looking to constantly improve it”, he added.

Moving from Finland wasn’t easy, since he spent his whole playing career in his homeland between Kouvot Kouvola, Espoon Honka, ToPo Helsinki, and Tapiolan Honka, but he had to do it in order to get to the following stages of his growing process.

Germany came up next, with the Crailsheim Merlins. “I had a lot of luck ending up in Crailsheim as a BBL head coach. The club gave me a rare opportunity and I made the best of it. The first weeks were very challenging: everything was new to me and the team was in a very tough situation. But in the end, all the challenges really improved me as a coach by throwing me into the deep end”, he commented on his early Bundesliga days.

And then it came to Bonn, with Tuomas Iisalo working as the deus ex machina that brought the club all the way to second place in the BBL Regular Season. “Even though last season was a big success for the club, we did not manage to go all the way. The key to any great season is the players: you cannot out-coach bad recruiting. We made very good personnel decisions with an average BBL budget and everybody committed to the team’s success which in our case means always giving maximum effort, always playing for the team, and learning new things”, he said on the 2021-22 season.

Even though only a few months have passed since the beginning of the current season, Bonn is clearly going toward a great result in the second part of it. “We are proud of the way we play basketball. It’s both entertaining and efficient – a combination that’s not always easy to find. The best and the worst occurred in the beginning when we lost to Reggio Emilia at home in the 1st round. That loss put our backs against the wall, but at the same time it brought out the best in us in the next games. We have played with a great sense of urgency since that, which was the key to our highly competitive group”, Tuomas Iisalo said.

But let’s be honest. If Telekom Baskets Bonn is having a fairytale season, a big credit has to be given to TJ Shorts II, who is dominating the domestic league and the BCL.

The American guard became the only player in the history of the European competition to score more than 25 points in five consecutive encounters, literally dragging his team.

Tuomas Iisalo can’t be anything but proud of him. “TJ is having an amazing season and that’s what we also expect from him. He’s a tough competitor, who does not shy away from challenges but is still a good teammate and very coachable. I think that’s why he’s already had a lot of success in his young career”, he said.

The comparison between him and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who was named MVP of the 2021-22 Bundesliga averaging 19.3 points and 7.4 assists per game, comes out naturally. “He and Parker are both quick downhill guards, but other than that, they’re very different players with different strengths. The common thing is the success they have had in different situations”, he commented on his two most decisive players coached in Bonn so far.

Just like PJC last year, TJ has been the hero of Bonn even against high-level teams like Pinar Karsiyaka in the BCL or Bayern Munich in Germany, but Tuomas Iisalo prefers to not look too much at what others are doing: “There are a lot of competitive teams in the BCL this year, but obviously, the ACB teams have been very impressive so far. In the BBL, ALBA and Bayern are the favorites basically every season. They have enormous quality and depth in the roster and are very well-coached. At the end of the day, we don’t compare ourselves to other teams, but focus on our daily work and try to maximize our own potential”.

The competition has been fierce since the first stage of the BCL Regular Season in Group B, as known as “Group of Death”, as defined by Errick McCollum. “When they held the draw in the summer, I definitely thought we could have had a little bit more luck! We have enormous respect for our opponents on the group stage. They are all very serious clubs with a lot of tradition and expectations to win. It took a huge effort to advance as the group winner”, Bonn’s head coach commented on their opponents.

If Tuomas Iisalo has rapidly emerged as one of the best head coaches in the Basketball Champions League and in the Bundesliga, it’s also due to the growth of the Finnish basketball landscape. “The development of Finnish basketball in the last 20 years is impressive and there are a lot of reasons for that. I’m honored to be part of that development and I’ve always wanted to represent not only Finnish basketball, but also Finnish coaches, successfully in Europe. Overall, Finnish team sports (basketball, ice hockey, football) have had more and more success which I think reflects our ability to compete collectively”, he said.

The national team reached the Top-8 at EuroBasket 2022 also thanks to another former BCL head coach, who recently left SIG Strasbourg but will live the World Cup dream with Finland. “Finland has a very good head coach in Lassi Tuovi, who knows the program very well and has done a great job also at the club level. I enjoy being a fan of the national team”, he said before talking about a potential new Finnish colleague who retired from basketball in the last few months.

“We were both at Espoon Honka when Petteri started his career and later both played for the Finnish NT. He’s a good friend and had an amazing career both on the club and national team levels. He worked very hard to become the player he was and if he takes that same approach to coach he can have success there too. He’s strong-willed and that is an advantage as you must have very thick skin to be a successful coach”, Tuomas Iisalo said about Petteri Koponen and his coaching future.

Telekom Baskets Bonn is fighting with the top German teams in the Bundesliga, while continuing its adventure in the Basketball Champions League, moving to the Round of 16.

There, they are already certain to face last year’s runner-up BAXI Manresa, the surprise of the 2021-22 season. Don’t be surprised if they follow a similar path.

“Our goals are very simple. In the short term, the most important goal is to have the best possible practice today. The long-term goal is to play basketball that all of us, team, club, and fans, can be proud of”. The director has been clear: they’re ready to play.

PHOTO CREDIT: Basketball Champions League