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Another team, another challenge

At the beginning of the summer me and my family came to Moscow to say hello to our friends at CSKA, to the fans, to all the people there. We were already in the process of moving to Spain at that time. So by the end of that week I went to Madrid to sign the contract and hold my first press-conference there. I met the press and was introduced to the club at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, which usually happens to football players exclusively. I have to say, I felt a lot of respect and at the same time a lot of anxiety, a lot of desire to quickly go back to the level where Real Madrid had been for many years. Unfortunately this will require time.

We had a very long summer ahead of us, because we wanted to change composition of the team. The first decision was to go after Pablo Prigioni, considering that all good point guards in Europe like Theo Papaloukas or J.R. Holden were under contracts. We thought that among those who were free Pablo was actually the best. We felt we needed a player like him at this position – somebody who can create for himself and at the same time gets his teammates involved.

The first decision was to go after Pablo Prigioni, considering that all good point guards in Europe like Theo Papaloukas or J.R. Holden were under contracts

As we agreed terms with Prigioni, a possibility to talk to Ricky Rubio came up. So, good offers were made both to Joventut Badalona and the player himself. After a week of thinking Ricky decided that he wanted to spend the following two years (before leaving for the NBA) in Barcelona, close to his family and friends. At that point there was no way persuading him to come to Madrid. Though, obviously, we still wish him good luck.

Secondly, after long negotiations we’ve managed to sign Novica Velickovic, so we had some players at the point guard and forward positions. Then we had the opportunity to add other quality players like Kaukenas, Hansen, Darjus Lavrinovic and finally Jorge Garbajosa, a very important big man able to connect our perimeter game and inside game.

I’d like to point out why we decided to keep Tomas van den Spiegel and still added Darjus Lavrinovic to the mix. The reason is simple – we felt that we needed their size. Felipe Reyes is an extremely consistent player under the basket and a very tough offensive rebounder. But sometimes we face opponents who are just taller and need to counter that. Van den Spiegel possesses a nice rebounding ability and Lavrinovic shoots well from high post for a big man, which gives us options at the power forward position. So, as soon as our five big guys are in good shape, we’ll have great versatility and ability to use different combinations. At the moment, though, with Tomas and Darius nursing injuries we’ll have to play small ball from time to time with Reyes, Garbajosa and Velickovic. Still, I hope those two guys will recover quickly.

We met at the end of August to start our preparation and it’s no secret that for me, Laura and Filippo it was a big adjustment. After four very nice years in Moscow we had to start from zero again. Here in Madrid Filippo started to go to the elementary school. He’s in the last year before first grade. He’s been fighting hard to learn Spanish from day one after picking up some Russian the previous year. Laura’s also learning Spanish and I will be practicing it every morning as well.

From basketball standpoint, it reminds me of my first season with CSKA. At these first practices everything is coming out very difficult. It’s hard for the players, they are thinking a lot about what they are requested to do rather than just setting their instincts and playing off them. Guys are getting to know each other slowly, they understand my ideas slowly and I slowly understand their way of seeing basketball. As a result, in first games we were mechanical and didn’t have a good flow. Sometimes we made very good strides, sometimes committed unexpected mistakes.

But that’s the way it is. I vividly remember that in my first year with CSKA it took us more than three months to start playing consistently. The opening was really hard as we lost two Euroleague games and even fell to Spartak St. Petersburg.

The difference is that here expectations are even higher. Local press is posing tons of questions to players and coaches. The general mood is “Let’s see. Those people have made a lot of changes. How will they fare now?” We need to live with the short time we have, put in effort and make the most of it. I ask players to understand that maybe we don’t play nice basketball now, but at the same we have to try to be consistent, win as many games as possible and get the feeling that we’re starting to play well together.

So, it’s another city, another club, another team but the most important thing, as always, is how we’ll manage to live together this season without forgetting that team concept is more important than individual achievements

Three aspects to keep focus on are defense, rebounding and fast-break points. Concentrating on them will help us win games and not depend on our ability to play nice basketball. When we get to know each other much better, games will become smoother. But I’m afraid this difficult stretch could last for two, three, maybe even four months. The good thing is we have some veteran players here who know that everything takes its time and you just have to continue working hard even if wins don’t come easy to you at first.

We also have three interesting young players on the roster. They are Sergio Llull, Vladimir Dasic and Novica Velickovic. The work and progress of these guys could guarantee big future to the club.

So, it’s another city, another club, another team but the most important thing, as always, is how we’ll manage to live together this season without forgetting that team concept is more important than individual achievements. We’ll see. It’s yet another challenge, another way to play and coach basketball.

As for Eurobasket-2009, it proved to be a long tournament as many teams had their ups and downs during that two-week period. I’m sorry that Russia failed to build on a very good first half of the competition and lost two important games down the stretch. Given the team’s age, injuries and absentees it would’ve been an incredible result to qualify for the World Championships. I hope Russian Basketball Federation gets a wild card to Turkey because it’ll be very interesting to see your national team once the top players are healthy and ready to go.

Naturally, I followed the Spanish team closely because many Real Madrid players were in the squad and also because of my friendship with their coach, Sergio Scariolo. I was sure Spain would do well in Poland, especially after they lost to Lithuania in the last pre-tournament exhibition game. I told Sergio that if they were able to overcome that, they’d become an even stronger team with more togetherness and toughness. And that’s exactly what happened. They overcame difficult moments by sticking together and obviously Pau Gasol’s return to form after a month-long injury also helped a big deal. It was the case where a couple of losses helped win the whole thing. At a major competition you can’t go all the way without facing stern challenges and proving to yourself that you’re capable of coping with them. Spain did exactly that, that’s why they’re the worthy champions of Europe.



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