In more than one sense, he is the man at the center of the Final Four. His city, Bologna, is the host. His team, Kinder, is the defending champion. On the Final Four floor at PalaMalaguti arena, Ettore Messina has been known to conduct his team like an orchestra, but he was recently made to suffer through a soap opera to remain Kinder's head coach. Messina remains clear-eyed about the goal, making it this far, having already been met. Now, he can set his sights on a rare opportunity: making Kinder the first repeat European champion since the Jugoplastika teams of 1989 through 1991. "If we don't make it, that would be the normal thing, because the majority of clubs haven't been able to," Messina said in the first of Euroleague.net's Final Four interview series. "But if we do make it, that would be a great page in the history of Virtus."
First of all, congratulations for reaching the Final Four. Now you have everyone coming to your town in a matter of days. What does it mean to have this Final Four in Bologna?
"Bologna, as you know, is a big basketball town in Italy and in Europe. For our team, it put some extra pressure on us to make the Final Four. It would have been bad for us to miss it, miss the atmosphere and miss being part of everything happening in our own city. But at the end we made it and we are the team representing Bologna in the Final Four. That's an extra plus for us. Now, I think every team starts with a 25 percent chance to win it all. It's going to be very interesting and challenging. We'll have to see. Making any kind of prediction is difficult."
Does someone like you who has won it all before get excited or nervous before a big event like the Final Four?
"You always get excited and nervous. It would be bad if you didn't feel nervous. We are facing a great opportunity, to be the first team since Jugoplastika to go for back-to-back titles in Europe. If we don't make it, that would be the normal thing, because the majority of clubs haven't been able to. But if we do make it, that would be a great page in the history of Virtus."
Did any team surprise you or not by making the Final Four?
"Not really. The other three teams to make the Final Four certainly belong there. Maybe Benetton, if you think back to the beginning of the year, was not thought of so highly as maybe Tau or Barcelona. But the moment Tau and Maccabi ended up in the same Top 16 group, it was clear that one of the two toughest teams was going to be eliminated. So I think Benetton went a little bit further than maybe people expected, but it certainly deserved to. I also think that we did a good job making it considering we played such a long time without our starting center, Rashard Griffith and without Sani Becirovic out, too."
Kinder won the title at home last year in front of your fans. What sort of an advantage, if any, will the home court be for you this time?
"I feel our team and our club will be under extra pressure. We're at home and most of the people expect us to win, even though there is no home team at a Final Four. That's something that needs to be explained to our players and our fans. Being under the pressure of so many people's expectations is something that you are afraid can bother the players in advance."
You guys make winning look easy sometimes, but it's not quite that way, is it?
"This has been a very tough season for all of us, because it's not easy playing the season that follows one in which you won so much. Other teams wait to play the game of their life against you. You also feel, somehow, that you are forced to succeed again. For that reason, I think the mental part has been very, very difficult. And I think that's why this year we have lost more than last year. But the way to get through is to reach your goals, and so far we have reached them all. One was to make it to the Italian Cup final, and we won, but making the final was the goal. As a club, our goal is always to make the finals. You can win or lose once you get there, but making it is the goal. And now we have made the Final Four, too."
It hasn't been easy off the court for Kinder the last two months, either. Is the team back to normal yet?
"I think so. Besides the emotions that my personal experience surely created, I think that we are settled now. I think that letting Alessandro Abbio go to Valencia was very important, for Abbio and for the team, because he was clearly unhappy with his role on the team. When you have that kind of situation, you have to let everyone express what he thinks is best, decide and move on. This now gives an opening to Sani Becirovic and David Brkic, who has been playing well all this year and is developing into a fine young player. Surely, all the difficulties we have had are probably leaving doubts in our minds and left us wondering if we are still as good as were. But the answer can only be found in hard work at practice and that is what we are trying to do every day."
Looking back over the Euroleague season (only), was there a key game or moment for Kinder?
"Surely, in the first round, our two wins against Barcelona were big games. In the Top 16, our win in Madrid was crucial. That had special meaning not only for the win itself, but also because it was my first game back. The following game against Efes at home, too. Efes played tough all year long, and winning that game allowed us to take it easy the rest of the way."
Does it mean anything now the fact that you lost the last two games in the Top 16?
"No. Not at all."
Let's talk about your semifinal opponent, Benetton. What is it about Benetton that has brought it to the Final Four?
"I think they are not a typical team. They play a very peculiar system with big men outside the paint. It's a very interesting team. We have lost three games with them this year, all close games, but all losses. In terms of matchups, they are the worst team for us to play, but that could make it more interesting."
Tyus Edney makes them go and your team pride's itself in great defense on the ballhandler. Will that confrontation be key in your semifinal?
"It could be one of the keys for us, yes. I also think those moments that Benetton plays without a true center, with Garbajosa and Nicola playing 'five' and 'four', the way we handle that situation will be key."
Having won last year when teams like Maccabi and Panathinaikos did not play in the Euroleague, is the big motivation now to win a "unified" title?
"It was a great accomplishment to win the Euroleague last year. We didn't feel like it was any less of a European champion. But anyway, it's a great motivation for this Final Four because we definitely have the top four teams in Europe and to win it in the first year of unification would be a great accomplishment. It's not a matter of confrontation with the past. It's a matter of looking forward."