Recognized world-wide for his basketball expertise, CSKA Moscow head coach Ettore Messina has built a monument to success from his 33-year career on the bench. From his beginnings as a teenage coach of juniors in his native Italy until now, Messina has collected trophies in bunches. At 49, Messina arrives to Berlin with the chance to move alone into second place among the most successful coaches in European history. His four previous Euroleague titles, split between CSKA and Kinder Bologna, already place him among the all-time greats in coaching. Just as remarkable, Messina has reached Euroleague finals in seven of the last 11 seasons with three different clubs. He has never been stopped in the semifinals. Now, as a defending champion in search of his first back-to-back continental titles, Messina will have all eyes on him at the 2009 Final Four.
Ettore, the Final Four has become like a second home for both you and CSKA over the years. Is just getting there still a measure of success for you?
"For sure, to be in the Final Four is a great measure of success, especially this year, when we had to make some major changes, had to go through the first part of the season losing two or three games, which forced us to find a different way to get through and become a Final Four team. And obviously, together with measuring success, there is also more and more pressure after you win titles. You are always expected to be there, but it's not always the case that you will be. So at this moment, we are happy to be going, and we want to enjoy a great weekend, even if as always you never know what will happen in a Final Four."
How do you avoid complacency and motivate teams that have already accomplished so much?
"Personally, I am very proud that this is the second time that we come back after winning the title to make the Final Four again. As you know, only Maccabi and Kinder have been able to do that in the last 10 years after winning the Euroleague. A lot of great teams didn't make it back the year after winning, so that was great motivation in itself, to come back, and a tremendous goal to accomplish. But like I said, to keep going adds pressure on a club, an organization, the players and the coaches."
Can you put seven consecutive Final Fours - both for CSKA and for J.R. Holden - in perspective?
"To me, it's absolutely astonishing for J.R. Holden to be in his seventh consecutive Final Four, an unbelievable record, really, for both him and CSKA. It's a great proof of belonging to excellence. In J.R.'s case, I think it has a lot to do with the great work ethic he has and his willingness to do what his teams need every year and to adjust to the different requirements that his coaches have made of him in these years. It should also be noted that he has had just two coaches in those seven years with CSKA. I think that continuity in coaching and management - we had just one major management change, when Sergey Kushchenko left and Andrey Vatutin took over - helps a lot. Not changing much over the years has helped the club maintain a strong philosophy."
Since your first Final Four in 1998, which you won, how much has changed in terms of the challenge getting to and winning this event?
"I keep believing that it's much more difficult to get to the Final Four than to win the Final Four. Don't get me wrong: to win you have to play two great games in three days against the top of the top teams. But during the season you have to stay consistent longer and making it to the Final Four every year, I think, becomes more and more difficult. If you look at this year, there are teams like Unicaja and the two Turkish clubs, Fenerbahce Ulker and Efes Pilsen, who couldn't make it past the Top 16. Those are great teams with great coaches. I think this year we had at least 11 teams competing for the Final Four. At the beginning of every season, I always split up the teams into groups: the ones that in theory can win the whole competition, which I usually think are very few, another group a few more that can make the Final Four, and another of many who plan to start the season and see where it takes them. And the number of teams that can make it to the Final Four is getting bigger and bigger every year."
You reshaped CSKA's roster last summer. What, exactly, did you have in mind?
"First of all, we were forced to switch around the roster. We would have loved to keep Theo Papaloukas and David Andersen if we could have. Also, after that, because of the rules and the different shape the team was taking, we had to let go of great guys like Marcus Goree and Tomas Van den Spiegel. But everything was dictated by the fact that Theo and David left. We needed to change then, and I think we recruited well. Even if we've had our ups and downs, we are where we wanted to be, and I think there are good signs for the future. The monthly MVP award that Erazem Lorbek just won is not only great for him now, but an injection of adrenaline for the rest of his career in CSKA beyond even this year's Final Four."
Lorbek and the other key players you signed - Terence Morris and Zoran Planinic - all had previous past Final Four experience. How much value did you place on that experience?
"For sure, experience was a major factor. I think it's very important when you have players who know what it means to play in these situations, when they are capable of isolating themselves from the surroundings. The Final Four is a big, big party, but you go there to win, not to celebrate. The celebration is for the fans, the friends and the families. As a player, you need to be ready to not be overwhelmed by that atmosphere. Those guys know that from experience."
This season, CSKA suffered some surprising losses, two at home, the worst Euroleague defeat in 10 years. But after each one, the team bounced back stronger. How?
"First of all, we never think that we're going to go through the season being better than everyone else. Even if I'm not very good at it, we have to analyze losses and learn from them. You can't win without losing some games and you can't learn without facing major difficulties at times. All losses teach us something. For instance, in Milano, we were up 20 points in the first half, got cocky, blew the lead and were not able to face their level of aggressiveness once they came back. Later, it was the same in our Top 16 loss in Siena. We made mistakes in preparation and in execution - everyone involved, coaches and players. But you have to go through those things. You have to be realistic and not think that every single thing you do is right. You have to have flexibility as coaches, as players and as an organization to get to the point where you want to be. It's always difficult finding the balance between the ability you have and the limitations on that ability. If you learn to evaluate well those limitations and make corrections, you will get on the right path."
You have great quartet of leaders on this team in J.R. Holden, Matjaz Smodis, Trajan Langdon and Ramunas Siskauskas. How are their leadership responsibilities balanced?
"Obviously, at the start of the season, we were all counting very much on their leadership and ability to carry the team. Sometimes, we might have also underestimated the fact that some of them were playing all summer and having it tough already to recover from that. They were also maybe waiting for the newcomers to do part of the job. It took time and came together finally in the Top 16 that the players began to understand who had to do what and we gave everyone the right role on the team. For sure, when those four players lead by example with their ability to take over, it helps their teammates, because it makes things easier for others, especially the newcomers. To do your job in the right way, it takes time, but you eventually get to the point where you want to be.”
What does experience tell you is most important while preparing a team headed to the Final Four?
"Most important, I think, is not to overwhelm the players with expectations. You have to resist the temptation to overload them by preparing everything. You can't be prepared for everything, but hopefully they have learned during the season also how to face unexpected situations, too. Most important, though, is not to overload them."
In Berlin, you will face one former player for sure, David Andersen of Barcelona, and perhaps at least one more, Theo Papaloukas of Olympiacos, if both of you are lucky in the semis. What's it like coaching against guys whose careers you helped mold before?
"As for David, I think there will be a lot of emotion involved with that match, which can be an advantage or a disadvantage, if you risk taking things for granted. At the same time, against him or Theo, you know what to expect from a great player who is playing against you now. So it works both ways, but yes, I think the emotional side of it can play a role."
From a historical perspective, how would you rate this Final Four going into it?
"It's one of the top Final Fours ever. There is a lot of talent. If I am not mistaken, all four teams won their Top 16 groups, but two of them managed to regain home-court advantage after early losses in the playoffs. I am sure many people think that, as the four teams with the highest budgets and expectations, we would all be here in the final act. But great players and big budgets don't always mean you know how to use them correctly. So it's a great accomplishment for each team, and now, based on the players and the teams that will be on the floor, I think it will be one of the top Final Fours in the history of the Euroleague."