By John Rammas/ firstname.lastname@example.org
Back in November 2021, the roster of the Spanish national team in the first FIBA World Cup qualifiers games, commonly known as “Windows” was the following:
Jaime Pradilla, Xabi Lopez-Arostegui, Jaime Fernandez, Dario Brizuela, Alberto Diaz, Quino Colom, Dani Diez, Joan Sastre, Yankuba Sima, Fran Guerra, Joel Parra, Dani Perez.
Fast forward to the Eurobasket 2022 final.
Pradilla, Lopez-Arostequi, Jaime Fernandez, Brizuela, Diaz, Parra, plus Sebastian Saiz, who also played in the qualifiers, will walk out from the Eurobasket with a medal. During last season, they were neither EuroLeague nor NBA players, but they are key parts of the Spanish national team.
Joust hours before the final, Eurohoops had the pleasure to talk to Sergio Scariolo, who is the right man to explain not only what’s the Spanish formula, but also how the FIBA Windows can be used for the benefit of a national team program.
And as he clearly states, he fully understands that his experience as the head coach of the Spanish national team might be different from the challenges other national team programs face and that’s why he prefers to stay on the Spanish facts: “My forward is that I am not judging the overall concept of the windows. There are many different angles, there are many different standpoints, all of them respectable. So I am just telling the facts, about what we did back in 2017 because we have many players in the NBA and many players in the EuroLeague. Immediately we got the feeling that our best 12-14 players will not be available for this competition, for this qualification, and that at the same time we have to do something to prepare. So what we did was bring together a group of players, even if most of them were not even going to participate in the following training camp with the team that won the bronze medal in the European championship in Istanbul”.
Spain and Scariolo didn’t hesitate to create a second team, which will be totally linked to the main roster: “We would bring them early during summer, we had a 10-day training camp and a couple of official games against Israel. We created a “B-Team” where we wanted to make sure about basically putting some things first. They were starting to work on the concepts that he had in work already with the U20 team, which was the first team we started our – let’s say – little revolution in the youth categories. Those players had already that experience before plus a group of players who are considered “middle-class”, who are not predictably going to participate in any NBA or EuroLeague activity. And we put them together while we were trying to be very efficient. It was not only basketball-related, but it was more about the values and the morale of the team. We said to them: “Guys you are going to be Spain, you are going to be the main team, the guys who will wear the jersey which is one of the most admired and even envied in the world of basketball”. So that’s an honor, that’s a privileged itself. Basically, we made them feel that they were “the guys” and not promising absolutely anything in terms of what was going to happen at the end of the summer but trying to make the participation in these national team games a value itself and it actually worked”.
That was a risk, but in Spain, things worked to perfection from the reaction of the players to the love and appreciation shown by the fans: “All the country got really empathetic with this team, we beat Montenegro, we beat Slovenia. We inspired a lot of emotion, and a lot of passion because people appreciated the effort of these guys. The players understood that they didn’t have to think too much about what was going to happen afterward. Just stayed focused on here and now. We are wearing the jersey, we are playing for the national team, we have great exposure because these guys probably never dreamed about this kind of exposure in their life, and then due to circumstances, three of them two years later ended up being world champions. It was a nice story because of course we gave them priority when we had to choose three players to compliment the top nine rotation guys. And that continued in the next years and we have been very successful in the Windows. I think we just lost two games, by one or two points, because those guys were a unit and felt part of a family. A few years later, most of them are here and most of them are wearing the jersey at the main competition because of this experience, their team feeling, and their knowledge of the system. Sometimes in the Windows, after two days, I step aside and think about how these guys are playing together like a team. But it’s after two years of practice, much more time compared to the time our team of legends had. Yes, there was more talent, but the way those guys are playing, they are sharing the ball, they are so generous, so cohesive, so ready to give the effort, they are a joy to watch”.
The fact is that nobody expected that things will go so well, not even Scariolo himself: “In the beginning honestly, before everything started, we were really afraid because we were the team overall maybe along with France which was going to lose more players from not being available during the Windows. So the fear makes you, I don’t want to say smarter, but more alert, trying to anticipate everything. But then, when it all started in my first Windows, we were happy. Sometimes they told me from the federation: “You know this EuroLeague or NBA player may be available for this specific game”. But I told them, let me alone, those guys are playing in the EuroLeague and the NBA, don’t mix up it, I am happy with the players I have. And those guys deserve this chance, at least in the Windows. We may lose a game but the ultimate goal is that we got to compete on the floor and that’s what we are accomplishing every time. In the long-term, the goal was to have them ready, even if most of them don’t play in the Euroleague. Still, they were ready to form a unit with a special feeling of “what’s my role in the team”. They think they would be a team player and they will be available to do it”.
So who are the players, who are really the prime examples of how the windows can help, or even how they can really help a successful national team program during the windows? “I got to give you a few names here. The first name whom we got, in the beginning, is Quino Colom who’s not here actually. He was the real soul of this team from the very beginning. Surprisingly in recent years we had kind of a problem, behind our legends, in the point guards and he step up and he was always available. He was the first leader of that team back then in 2017 and then as you can see here, we are the only team who have three Millennials in the rotation. There is no other team in which three Millennials are actually having playing time in the Eurobasket. Usman Garuba is a different thing because he was busy with the NBA and Real Madrid, but Joel Parra and Jaime Pradilla made an unbelievable adjustment. In one year, or even less, they jumped from the U20 to the main team through the windows. It was a great experience for them and those are typical examples of guys who were working in our youth program. That’s the benefit of starting deep from the youth system”.
Meanwhile, Sergio Scariolo was an assistant in the Toronto Raptors, making a special arrangement to travel back to Europe and coach during the Windows, while he is now a EuroLeague head coach, on the bench of Virtus Bologna.
So he totally understands that the system and the calendar have their flaws: “Windows are not perfect from any standpoint and I have to tell you the truth, ’cause I am also the coach of Virtus Bologna. So, I am not that happy to see my players leaving. Not because I don’t like them to participate in their national teams, on the contrary, but because of the risk of injuries. We had a couple of injuries during the windows and I understand the clubs. What’s the solution? We have to sit at the same table and harmonize the schedule. Even from the fans’ point of view. Just look at the friendly games in August, we had 15.000 people in Madrid, in Athens even more, for two prep games between Spain and Greece. They were warm-up games, not even Windows. There are several angles, but we don’t have to think that everything is perfect with the windows. We got to find a way to take the goods part of the thing and to merge it with the club activity”.
Still, on a personal level as the head coach of the Spanish national team, “Project Windows” has been a huge success for coach Scariolo and he knows it.
“Honestly, it’s easy for me now, having a team that plays together for long and has roles. That’s how you can have an identity as a team. The difficult thing to do was to win with a roster full of stars on their teams, great personalities, that didn’t have a lot of time playing together and had to co-exist in the national team maybe play for 10 minutes each game, coming off the bench, changing their role. That was really, really tough. Honestly, I feel proud because I started this program a few years ago and at the same time I’ve been selfish as a head coach for the senior national team because now I get to benefit from it and I can enjoy the fruits of those seeds”.