Dusan Ivkovic has won everything, or almost everything, in his long career as a coach. He was three-time European champion with the Yugoslav national team (1989, 1991, 1995), world champion in 1990 and an Olympic silver medallist in 1988. There were also another European (1997) and another world title (1998) shared with his friend and protege Zeljko Obradovic when the latter was head coach and Ivkovic team selector for Yugoslavia. At the club level, Ivkovic is one of only two coaches to have lifted the three European trophies: the Euroleague with Olympiacos (1997), the Saporta Cup with AEK (2000 and 2001) and the Korac Cup with Partizan (1979). He has also won national club titles in Greece and Yugoslavia, and is heading for another in a new country, Russia, this season. When last summer, after a year's sabbatical, Ivkovic signed with CSKA Moscow, he said he believes in the talent of Russian basketball and the tradition of that great club. Now, Ivkovic and CSKA have the chance to add to their already mighty credentials at the Final Four in Barcelona.
What do you say now, on the eve of the Final Four?
"I say our qualification has arrived a little early, and a bit unexpectedly, because in our plans the Final Four was the objective for 2005, when we want to host it in Moscow. Of course, I am not complaining about anything. I just wanted to say that our basic objective this season was to return the Russian League title to the club. But the Euroleague season came out well for us and we have to try to take advantage of that."
What was key to CSKA's good season?
"I signed my contract quite late, in August. The player market was quite close and CSKA had under contract only one player, Zakhar Pashutin. I had the option to sign all the Russian veterans there or look for younger ones with an eye toward 2005 and beyond. I was inclined toward the second option, combined with some European players and Americans whom I knew well. With the hard work and sacrifice of the players, who were open to working hard, we achieved good results."
How do you see the Final Four in Barcelona?
"I think it has been a great Top 16, very exciting. I believe that three teams who were favorites in their groups have made it to Barcelona, plus Siena was able to take advantage of the weaknesses and problems of Panathinaikos to win first place and qualify. Without doubt, we are going to have a great Final Four and that is very important for the Euroleague and for the future of European basketball."
You already have three "experiences" in the Final Four, including the title in 1997. What does experience tell you?
"That never, or almost never, does the favorite win. I felt that in my own skin in 1993 with PAOK. Even though we didn't play in Thessaloniki, but in Athens, the atmosphere was like a home game. In addition, we had a good team that played good basketball and were beating Benetton during 39 minutes, but the Italians went ahead one time only in the final minute and won the game. And then they didn't even win the title, even though they had Toni Kukoc and Terry Teagle. Neither was Real Madrid, with Arvydas Sabonis, the champion. Limoges, who had not great star on the court, but Boza Maljkovic on the bench, was the winner."
According to that logic, Barcelona - the top favorite for a lot of people - would have less chances that expected?
"I haven't said that. I have a lot of respect for Barcelona and its stars. They are the favorites for me. Everyone wanted to avoid them in their Top 16 group and in truth they have a great team, well prepared by my colleague Pesic and led by a magical Dejan Bodiroga, who will be playing his fourth straight Final Four. But I believe my team has a psychological advantage. Barca is obliged to win, but we can play more relaxed, but with no less motivation. I expect a great duel. The Final Four is very special competition. You have to live it to know it well."
How do you rate this Euroleague season in general?
"Very positively, any way you look at it. It was a very good competition, with many surprizes, with a team like Real Madrid out of the second phase, with good refereeing in the whole. I really like one idea the Euroleague has applied since its creation: I'm talking about the meetings between coaches and referees, above all like we did together this winter in London. For the first time, the coaches feel like protagonists, like part of a common project that has a clear future. All the objectives haven't been realized yet, but I am convinced that we are on the right track. The basics are established and now it's necessary to refine the project. The big events, like this Final Four will be, will do wonders for the competition."