At just 45 years old, he can be considered not only the most successful European coach ever, but one of the best of all times, anywhere that the sport of basketball is played. To say that Zeljko Obradovic of Panathinaikos has won five Euroleague titles, more than any other head coach in history, and has done so with four different teams, is to quantify his achievements with numbers. To watch him coach a game, however, is to see a master working at his art. Look no further than his last title, in 2002, when Panathinaikos beat two favored teams that had split the European titles of the previous season, Maccabi and Kinder Bologna, despite trailing against the latter on its home court by 14 points in the title game. When the ball goes up for the opening tipoff, as he says in this Euroleague.net Final Four interview, Obradovic is like a sixth player on the floor for his team. "I have always thought that our sport is one in which a coach can influence a game while it is being played more than coaches in any other sport," Obradovic told Euroleague.net. "I am always very happy if I know my team has done as much as it can possibly do. Then I am content, win or lose."
After nine Final Fours as a coach (plus one as a player), five titles with four different teams, it's almost not a Final Four without you. How does it feel to return for the first time since 2002?
"To be honest, I believe that personal success is not so important. More than anything, I am proud of Panathinaikos going to play in the Final Four again. This is the club that has played in the most Final Fours, and the credit goes to all the people who worked in Panathinaikos over the years and all the people who work in our club now."
Just the same, nobody knows better than you how to reach the Final Four and win it. What's the right way to approach the Final Four?
"When you are going to play in a Final Four, there are a lot of things that are important. I believe, for example, that the shape a team finds itself in at that time is itself very important. And also concentration. Right now, for example, we are only thinking intensely about the one game we know we are going to play, against Maccabi, the defending champion, a high-quality team that has been together for a few seasons now. I think it is going to be a beautiful game, and we will prepare ourselves to the very last detail to try to win it. In my opinion, we have to play our best game of the whole season if we want to have a chance to beat them."
There is talk already of this being one of the strongest Final Fours ever. What's your opinion?
"In terms of quality, I think that for sure the best four teams are going to be there. That is the case most years, but sometimes you have a surprise team make it among the four. But this year, with CSKA being the best all year, losing only one game; with Maccabi, the defending champion; with Tau, who has been one of the best teams in recent times; and with us having won on merit, I believe all four teams are at the highest level. It's true that the Euroleague this year had other teams of very high quality, but I do think that in the end the best four made it."
Your team won its thrilling playoff series in front of 18,000 fans in Athens. Are we seeing the start of a new push in Greek basketball?
"For sure. There is no doubt. I think it was very impressive to see our last few Euroleague home games, first against Climamio, an important one to classify for the quarterfinal playoffs, then both games against Efes. The last one the stands were full like never before in our arena. People are starting to talk about basketball again here. For the Top 16, the games started coming on TV, both home and away, and that was fundamental. When people saw the games, that is when things got growing up to 10,000 fans per game in our arena. When they saw we had chances to make the Final Four, that made it even bigger."
Panathinaikos uses all 12 players in most of its games. What's the importance of deep rosters in modern basketball and how difficult is it to keep everyone motivated?
"It's a logical question. But today, when there are so many games that players must play - in the Euroleague, domestic cups, domestic leagues, and in international competition with their country teams - it's very difficult to expect anyone to play 80 games at a high level. So bench depth becomes something very important. I just want each of the players on my team to feel that he is important to what we do. Thanks to all of them, we have won the Greek Cup, we are going to the Final Four and we are first in our national league. The motivation is that simple, that the player feels important and does what he can for our team to win. I think that is motivation enough."
Everyone thinks of Panathinaikos as having a lot of experience, but at least a few of your key players have never been to a Final Four. How do you prepare newcomers for this event?
"I am particularly very happy for those guys going for the first time to the Final Four. I think it's something important for each and every player to get to this event. When I talk with them, what I want is that they do not feel pressure and that they go there and enjoy this event. For young guys going their first time, many of them are quality players and it won't be their last time. But from the start, you want them to go on the court, enjoy and play without pressure."
We always talk about motivating players, but what motivates a coach who has already won more titles than anybody?
"It's a new team every season and a new challenge every season. We mentioned that we try to get players the chance to go to their first Final Four. Every year we work hard to try to arrive as far as possible in each competition. Now, we have won one of them, the Greek Cup, and we will concentrate on the Euroleague Final Four next. We know going into it that we are going against a great team, Maccabi, full of talent and history. And that's another motivation. I am always very happy if I know my team has done as much as it can possibly do. Then I am content, win or lose, if I know that at least we tried for everything we could."
Speaking of your semifinal opponent, is it fair to say that Maccabi is trying to change the formula for winning titles by doing so more on offense than on defense?
"Well, I think that what we saw this season has been a lot of teams playing very, very fast. In fact, I think all the teams in the Final Four play more or less like that. Look at Tau, CSKA, Maccabi, us too. All use very fast attacks and transition, and very little that is static. That's great, but depending on the game and your opponent, you might want to control the ball more. It's true that Maccabi tries always to play fast, and that's why they are first in scoring in the Euroleague. But I think that the other three teams going to Moscow can play fast, too."
For a coach in important games like those at the Final Four, how important is preparation before the game compared to making decisions during it?
"I believe that everyone tries to prepare every game, all season long, as best as they possibly can. Now, I have always thought that our sport is one in which a coach can influence a game more while it is being played than coaches in any other sport. I know coaches who work hard during games, trying to change what they can to help their teams. Sometimes it works out for them and sometimes not. We make errors, but we are always ready to try to help our players, who the game depends on ultimately. Coaches have to be focused and ready for anything that happens during the game."
Is there a difference between trying to win a Euroleague title today compared to when you won your first one, 13 years ago, in your debut season as a coach?
"For me, it's very much the same, because it's the same format, and the quality of teams is great. The difference is that in this Final Four, which people are talking of as one of the best ever, no one would have believed it before the season, when the talk was of all about the 40-something European players in the NBA. But here we are with a Final Four that is second to none, that everyone wants to see. This is to the credit of everyone working in basketball here in Europe, and I mean players, coaches, clubs, journalists, the leagues, everyone working behind the scenes, everyone. It is a tribute to all of them that we have a Final Four as good as this one. As long as we keep on this path, and keep improving every year like we have been, our basketball will be better and better."