The last French basketball legend to lift the Euroleague trophy was none other than combo guard Antoine Rigaudeau, an unique player due to his leadership, court sense and clutch performance. Rigaudeau broke barriers by becoming one of the very first tall point guards in European basketball. He made his French League debut with Cholet at age 16 and soon became a star in his country. Rigaudeau was chosen as the French League MVP five times before joining Euroleague powerhouse Kinder Bologna. He took Virtus to its glory days, winning the Euroleague title in 1998 and 2001, reaching two other finals in 1999 and 2002, as well as winning every domestic title in Italy. Rigaudeau finished his career with Pamesa Valencia, retiring right after winning the bronze medal with France at EuroBasket 2005. Euroleague.net took the opportunity to talk to him days before the Final Four in the French capital. "I enjoy watching good basketball and see how some well-built projects reach good results," Rigaudeau told Euroleague.net. "I love to see that hard work pays off and leads to good results."
Hello, Antoine. First of all, as one of the best French basketball players ever, how important is it to have the Final Four in Paris for basketball in your country?
"It is always important to host such a big sports event like the Final Four. It is tough for French basketball to have the opportunity to shine. There are a lot of important sports in the country and moreover, our basketball is mostly represented by its many NBA players, which makes it even more difficult to grow here in France. It all makes it a little bit complicated for French basketball to develop."
You started the decade winning the Euroleague with Kinder Bologna in 2001. How was it playing for such a great team, with players like Manu Ginobili, Marko Jaric and Matjaz Smodis as the leader on the court?
"It is one of the best memories I have in basketball. Of course, since we won the series, it is always easier to keep good memories of those finals. It wasn't easy, though, especially in that particular season. We didn't have a good start and it was difficult, especially for our new players - it was tough for them to adjust to a new club. We managed to play our basketball at a level that I didn't have elsewhere. We had the complete package - physical skills, tactics, talent... everything! It was really difficult to play against us. We had a very long winning streak that season, I can't remmeber how many games. It was a real pleasure to go to work with the team every day."
In 2002, with a change of format back to a Final Four, Virtus lost at home in Bologna when Panathinaikos rallied in the final. How difficult was that?
"It is always difficult to lose the Euroleague final at home. It is difficult to play it, too, because there is more pressure on your team. I remember that Virtus was not at the same level that season. We had some injuries and the atmosphere wasn't the same as in 2001. I don't know what would have happened if we had faced Panathinaikos in a playoff series. Panathinaikos had a very good team, too."
You won your first Euroleague title in 1998 - your first season with Virtus, too. How important for you was joining Virtus?
"I think that 1998 was a decisive year in my career. There is a lot of passion in Italy when it comes to club basketball - and also a lot of pressure. We played the Italian Cup semifinals and lost against Fortitudo and I think that if we had not won the Euroleague title in Barcelona, some of us would have had to start looking for a new team. Winning the Euroleague title allowed me and the club to have an unforgottable year. It was our first Euroleague title and put us at the top European level."
You were one of the very first tall point guards in European club basketball, before it became a standard for guys like Theo Papaloukas, Ricky Rubio and Dimitris Diamantidis. Do you think you opened a way for teams to think differently?
"Well, I don't know that I helped people to change their minds. What I do know is that a tall point guard gives you more tactical resources and a lot more options, especially on defense, where we could switch on direct screens. In that way, we managed to prevent our opponents from generating spaces. We know that defense and denying spaces are very important in European basketball. As a tall point guard, I could read the game better and make better passes, helping the team."
Your last team, Valencia Basket, just won the Eurocup title and earned the right to play the 2010-11 Euroleague. Its floor leader, Nando De Colo, was raised at Cholet, where you became a superstar early in your career. How do you see Nando's future in the Euroleague?
"I believe that Nando has the talent required to play at the highest level and to be a very good Euroleague player. It will all depend not only on his own effort, but also on his environment - teammates, dynamics around the team and so on. Nando has it all to be a very important player in the Euroleague."
You retired barely six years ago. How do you think that European club basketball has improved through that time?
"Truth to be told, I am a bit away from basketball these days, I see it more as a fan these days. Of course, basketball has improved at the physical level, with bigger, more athletic, more explosive players. Teams with bigger budgets or more talent always have players able to step up in crunch time, in the important moments. It has always been this way - even when teams play more physical and with more intensity now. It is talent what always makes the difference in the final plays."
Considering that your former teammate Predrag Danilovic is Partizan's president and that Smodis, who also played with you, is in CSKA... will you be rooting for any team at the 2010 Final Four?
"Well, I don't think I will be rooting for any team in particular. I see basketball as a fan now and I like to see a team's dynamic. I enjoy watching good basketball and see how some well-built projects reach good results. I don't like teams that leave it all to see what happens - as if a coin goes up in the air and find out if it wins or not. I love to see that hard work pays off and leads to good results."