By Cesare Milanti / info@Eurohoops.net
In the past few weeks, on Unicaja Malaga’s official website and social media, a van has appeared. And apparently, there must be a lot of seats available to bring on the road all the guys who have decided not only to jump in but to stay for the next few seasons on the road in Andalucia.
Just to name a few: coach Ibon Navarro, Nihad Djedovic, Melvin Ejim, David Kravish, Tyler Kalinoski, Dario Brizuela. And Kendrick Perry, who has “found his home” with Unicaja after joining the Spanish side in June 2022, before playing a great EuroBasket 2022 with Montenegro.
“I feel good right now. I’m in a very confident place. I’m feeling good mentally, physically. Obviously, the team is doing well and is very successful, and I’m happy to be part of it. I’m excited to finish our season pretty strong, we have the chance to do some really special things. I’m excited to try to do what I can to put us in the best position to be successful”, he said in an interview with Eurohoops.
We’ve found our home 💜💚 https://t.co/PtISe63mZC
— Kendrick Perry (@kendrick3perry) March 30, 2023
“Hopefully, Panathinaikos can get back on track”
The 30-year-old playmaker has been hooping the European landscape since 2015, mainly between the 7DAYS EuroCup and Basketball Champions League, where he will have the opportunity to win the title for the first time in his career on May 12-14.
However, before starting his experience in the South of Spain, he also took the opportunity to play in the EuroLeague with Panathinaikos, averaging 4.8 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game in the 2021-22 Regular Season for a total of 19 games.
“When I was in Cedevita, my agent told me that an offer realistically came from Panathinaikos. We discussed potentially playing in the EuroLeague and the pedigree that Panathinaikos has: it was kind of a no-brainer. Of course, off the court, Athens is a hell of a city, one of the cities people aren’t familiar with Europe in the US talk about. Which is held in a very highlight. When I got the opportunity to sign, I was really excited. I was familiar with guys that I’ve played with, but obviously, I didn’t know them in that space of being teammates. So I was looking forward to it”, he said about signing with the Greek powerhouse.
But then, things got worse and Kendrick found himself shuffled in a negative mood. “When I got there I was playing pretty well throughout the preseason. I felt like I was kinda coming along and it felt like I could potentially make something happen there in the long term, not just for the years I was on the contract. Unfortunately, things happen, and I think with that first game in Monaco me not playing so well that kind of set people into a panic mode, I guess. Whatever the case is, I kinda saw a decline in my minutes after that. More so for me, I let it shake my confidence with it being my first year in the EuroLeague: I started questioning whether I belonged there and whether I was meant to play at this level. Thoughts that I shouldn’t have left in my mind. I should have stayed confident about who I am as a basketball player and as a person, and maybe things would have been different”, he added.
“To speak on my experience there, Athens was great. We didn’t do well as a team, unfortunately, but I still learned a lot. I was around some really great guys with whom I’m still in contact to this day, like Okaro White, Darryl Macon, and Howard Sant-Ross. All the guys, Nedo, and Papagiannis… were close in that team for the situation being what it was. Like I said, you learn from anything, and you grow as a basketball player and as a person, but the biggest player I took from there was always to remember who you are and continue to believe in yourself when things around you shake up a little bit and get a little different and tricky”, he went on speaking about his disappointing year with Panathinaikos.
The Greek team, which has found a complete agreement with Ergin Ataman for two years on the green-and-white bench starting next year, has been living his worst seasons in the recent past, and Kendrick Perry hopes they can bounce back. “A good friend of mine Paris Lee is playing there now and I’ve been following them throughout the season. It’s unfortunate what they’ve gone through this year. This year marked the worst attendance they’ve had in their history. It’s just unfortunate because when you think of Panathinaikos, the history, and all the great players who have come through that organization, it’s just unfortunate to see the position where they are right now”, he said.
“Hopefully, things can turn around, all it really takes is one good solid year for things that hopefully get right back on track. Hopefully, they can put the pieces together, and find the right balance between everything to get OAKA where it should be, where it deserves to be. Seeing those YouTube videos of what it was like when Panathinaikos was in its prime it’s unmatched. I think that’s important for not just EuroLeague but for all European basketball”, he highly spoke of his former team before comparing it to their fiercest rivals. “It’s delusional and it’s really unfortunate. Especially looking at the year that Olympiacos is having, and last season as well. They’ve been killing it. Hopefully, Pana can put some pieces together to get back in the playoff and to where everybody knows they can be in the EuroLeague”, Kendrick Perry added about Panathinaikos.
The dreaming season with Unicaja
Moving on with the van full of Unicaja Malaga’s ambitions. the Andalusian team has had a very successful season so far in all competitions. They managed to qualify for the playoffs with yet some games left in the most competitive European domestic league, the ACB. But most importantly, they won their second-ever Copa del Rey back in February and will have the opportunity to win the Basketball Champions League in May.
The Youngstown State product had doubts at the beginning of his adventure due to the related time the team spent together, but as the months passed, things got significantly better. “We didn’t really have a traditional preseason: me being with Montenegro, Alberto and Dario being with the Spanish national team playing in EuroBasket, we didn’t really have the full team until maybe five days before our first game, before our Champions League qualifiers. Maybe a week before. Personally, I was wondering how things would match because I know we wouldn’t have a lot of time to put things together once the official games started”, he first said about the beginning of the season, when they qualified for the BCL Regular Season in front of their fans against Patrioti Levice.
What’s really special inside that locker room, according to one of its protagonists Kendrick Perry, is the sacrifice everybody is putting in to perform collectively. “You’ve got to credit the management here, our GM, coach Ibon: they did a really good job not just recruiting guys who have all the same mindset, but really instilling the values we’re all true to this day. Stand together and sacrifice. That’s the biggest thing: sacrifice. When you look at our roster, you see guys who have EuroLeague experience and have played very high levels. It could just be easy for one of us to come in and feel like this is his team, his show, and then everybody else falls in line. Instead, everybody sacrifices to make sure the team is above everything else”, he said about the competitive mood he and his teammates are living in.
Before playing an amazing second part of the season in the Basketball Champions League Round of 16 and in the Spanish Quarter-Finals derby against UCAM Murcia, Ibon Navarro’s team made history by becoming the first team capable of beating both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in the same the Copa del Rey, winning it all in front of thousands of their fans in Badalona, Catalunya.
“We’ve just always had that confidence about us and it helps in a situation like Copa del Rey when you’re going against teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid. It helps to know that you’ve got 15 other guys including the coaching staff who are all on the same page, and nobody is thinking about what they can do individually to put themselves in a better position. The moment we knew we made history in the Copa del Rey had to be when we actually beat Real Madrid. That’s when you see all the articles, all the people in Twitter spaces talking about only one team beating Barcelona and Real Madrid”, he said about that historic moment.
“I was in our training room when they did the draw and we saw we had Barcelona first; but when we played against them, there was no sense of “trying our hardest and see what happens”: not to be overly confident or arrogant, but we are a confident group, and we know we can compete with everybody when we are locked in and focused. We took care of business with them and in the final against Madrid it was the same thing: we were going into a game where we felt like we didn’t have anything to lose, we could have played freely. Nobody expected us to be here after beating Barcelona, and nobody expected us to beat Real Madrid as well. I think after that that’s when we really started to realize the significance of the moment”, he added about making history in the 2023 Copa del Rey.
“When I think back at that time and I see captain Alberto Diaz shed tears in the locker room just because of how much it meant for him to be in that situation, to potentially bring a Copa del Rey back to his home city in Malaga. It’s big. You feel something bigger than yourself at that moment, and I think that obviously after we battle it out with a tough Tenerife team and ended up winning, then you get the scope of the whole thing. When you shed tears, you see guys just emotionally let it all out, because of what they’ve been through and their personal journeys. And then you take a sense of pride. Okay, we are bringing this trophy back to the city of Malaga where the fans have been just outstanding for us all season long. That sense of pride just hit differently. Not just for myself, but for all of us”, he finally commented on an emotional campaign.
As previously said, Kendrick Perry and Unicaja Malaga have made an amazing run in the Basketball Champions League as well. “In terms of the Champions League, it’s obviously no secret how competitive the competition is this season. It’s only my second year playing in it, but just watching from afar it feels like this year is way more competitive than other seasons. We really took the challenge to take one game at a time, trying to not look too far ahead, because we can’t overlook any opponent, and that’s for ACB or BCL. We’re a very confident and humble group, and we just love each other’s company, on and off the court. Those are some of the factors that have helped us be as successful as we’ve been so far”, the 30-year-old added about the level of the competition which they are two games away from winning.
— Basketball Champions League (@BasketballCL) April 14, 2023
Kendrick Perry is “hungry for more”
The icing on the cake for Unicaja Malaga in the 2022-23 season would be lifting the Basketball Champions League trophy, and they could do it in front of their fans. As officially announced, in fact, the Final Four will be played for the first time ever in the Martin Carpena arena of Malaga.
“Hosting the Final Four means a lot. We pride ourselves on taking care of the home court this whole season. I would be missed If I don’t mention how great the fans have been since the beginning of the year. They’ve shown up in great numbers to support us in Badalona for the Copa del Rey, so it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring back not just the Copa del Rey, but to bring a BCL championship to the city of Malaga, doing it in front of our fans and families. That would be huge”, Kendrick Perry said about potentially winning the BCL at home.
In the three-day competition hosted in Malaga, Unicaja will face one in the semifinals Telekom Baskets Bonn, Hapoel Jerusalem, or Lenovo Tenerife, after they respectively beat SIG Strasbourg, AEK, and BAXI Manresa in their Quarter-Finals best-of-three series.
Kendrick Perry shared some thoughts on the three other teams which will take part in the BCL Final Four. “Tenerife is the team we are most familiar with. The experience they have and the core group that they’ve been able to keep together throughout all these years speaks highly of them as an organization, it speaks highly of the returning guys. How close they are and how successful they’ve been. I haven’t seen too much of Bonn, but I know they’ve been killing it in the BBL. They have one of the most dynamic players in the BCL with TJ Shorts, so that would be a great test for us. I have a very close personal friend in Speedy Smith, who I grew up with and plays with Hapoel Jerusalem. Coach Dzikic was my coach in Buducnost for a few months after I left Panathinaikos. So there’s a familiarity there. For me, it doesn’t really matter who we face. I’m honestly on it to be able to compete at this stage in a tournament like this, with this high-level basketball. I’m excited to be a part of it, so whoever it is, we’ll prepare how we usually prepare. Whoever we face, it will be great”, he eventually said.
However the end of the season will go for Unicaja, they laid the foundation for the next few seasons, extending the contracts of several assets, Kendrick Perry included. “I think this speaks to the job that management has done, in putting the right pieces together for everyone to be successful. The mood and the atmosphere have been great. I would love to have everybody back next year, but we understand this is a business and things have to pen out how they pen out. But the atmosphere is really good here. The guys who resigned and who are currently under contract now, we’re very locked in on the present”, Montenegro’s playmaker spoke about these moves.
“We could easily say we won the Copa del Rey, we’ve got the Final Four of the BCL, we made the playoffs in the ACB, and that’s enough for this year. But we’re a hungry group and we want more. We want as much as we can earn. We know nothing is going to be given to us, but this is a hungry, dedicated, and confident group. I know I sound like a broken record, but I’m happy to be a part of this. I didn’t think going into my 10th year that I’ll be able to find this type of stability and peace of mind on and off the court that I found here in Malaga. I’m grateful to be in this position, I’m grateful for everyone who gave me these opportunities. I’m grateful for this life I continue to live. That’s all I can say”, he finally stated on Unicaja Malaga’s final part of this dreaming and unbelievable season.
As he said following the victory in the 2023 Copa del Rey, “Job is done. For now”. Unicaja Malaga will have the opportunity of a lifetime to add another piece to an outstanding puzzle that will make history. And Kendrick Perry is there to help, driving the van. To keep enjoying the ride.
Job is done….for now 💜💚🏆
— Kendrick Perry (@kendrick3perry) February 19, 2023
PHOTO CREDIT: Basketball Champions League