Though young by the standards of his accomplishments, 37-year-old Ergin Ataman is destined to be known as the first globetrotter among Turkish coaches. From his first club, Efes Pilsen, Ataman went to Ankara to guide Turk Telekom to the Turkish League finals and the President's Cup title. Then he added a season as a Stanford University assistant to his curriculum. Upon returning home, he and Efes made history in 2000 as the first Turks to reach the Euroleague Final Four. Finally, two summers ago, he moved to Montepaschi Siena. where he boldly promised - and delivered - the Saporta Cup last year. Others may be surprised by Montepaschi's arrival at the Final Four, but as he said in a Euroleague.net interview this week, Ataman is not.
In the preseason, you predicted you could reach the Final Four, just as said last year you could win the Saporta Cup. Are you a prophet?
"No, I'm not a prophet, but I can say that, already at that time, I had a lot of trust in the job we were starting to do, in my experience to reach the Final Four, and in the team we built during the summer."
You also said you would use the "Turkish system", and it worked well. Which were the tactical keys to make it to the Final Four?
"Our growth came just in time to reach our goal. Early in the season, we were in trouble with the injury to Vrbica Stefanov, as I think the point guard is the heart of a team. Then we had a team full of stars - Ford, Turkcan, Vukcevic, Chiacig - and those guys never played all together before this season. They needed time to find the right balance on the court, and it came by working hard in practice. We had two crucial moments in the season: first, the comeback of Stefanov, and second the arrival of Kakiouzis, who allowed to the team to have versatility on offense and to increase its energy."
The signing of Mikalis Kakiouzis could be the decisive key to give balance and to play with four small players?
"Beginning the season, we thought the duo of Chiacig-Turkcan was going to be able to give us what we need, playing 35 minutes apiece, but the knee problems of the big man and performances not at the same level during the same game for Turkcan put in our mind the idea that we needed to add to the roster another top-level player. So, Kakiouzis arrived and now we have a strong and versatile trio."
Not many teams show a fullcourt zone press like Montepaschi. Could it be decisive?
"We can't exaggerate. I think you cannot win a game at this level a game with just a fullcourt zone press. But you can change a game, change the pace of it, and a zone press can help you to do it. Don't forget, that zone press changed our season: In the first Top 16 game we were down by 12 against Ulker, and we came back and won the game. It's true that we use this tactical defense more than any other Euroleague team, but it's in our philosophy. Offensively, the job we start to do in the pre-season is used for all the year, while our defense is adapted game by game. There is a lot of work before every game.
You already were the first Turkish coach at a Final Four with Efes Pilsen in 2000. Now you have reached the same goal with a non-Turkish team. How do you feel about that and what are the differences?
"I think both participations are very important, because to reach a Final Four with a team going there for the first time has a unique taste. For me personally, it is a big honor, because it's a reward for my job, and reaching it twice in four seasons is a big success. But there is a substantial difference between the two. In Turkey, it was the first time that a club obtained such a result in a European competition of any sport, and all the country talked about this success. In Italy, it is normal because every season almost there is a team in the Final Four. I saw many happy people happy here in Siena, but not in the Italian basketball world, where many people were surprised!"
It was your first time in the Euroleague. What is your opinion of the competition?
"After the NBA this is the highest-level event in the world, better than the NCAA. The organization is perfect, but in my opinion they should have hard rules for the arenas. Several were not arenas for the Euroleague! I want to launch a new idea for the competition formula, to reward the fans with 10 more days of great atmosphere and hot competition: a best-of-three playoffs after the Top 16 in which the first two of each group will play. I think it could be possible with the new national team calendar."
Talk about the other Final Four participants: CSKA, Benetton and Barcelona. What is your take on each one?
"All three teams were predicted at the beginning the season to reach the Final Four. All three are great teams. Benetton and CSKA dominated their regular season and Top 16 groups while Barcelona added to its roster the best players they could during the summer. They have a lot of talent, but I would say each has a key leader: on Benetton, Tyus Edney, on Barcelona, Dejan Bodiroga, and on CSKA, Victor Alexander."
You have Benetton first. What kind of a team do you consider them?
"In my opinion Benetton is the best team in Europe this season. They play the best basketball, the most spectacular, with the highest scoring. They have the best coach, great quality in each player and everybody is involved in the team system. I like them and they have performed always at a high level."
To face a team that beat your team twice in the Italian League could be a negative in your mind?
"Absolutely not! It's true that Benetton stopped us twice, but on our home court they won just at the buzzer, while in Treviso it was a strange game that finished 110-100. They managed the game, but we were close all the time and never gave up. Here there will be a different atmosphere, and it will be a game with different sensations. We'll have 2,500-3,000 supporters and I think also the local fans will root for us. I think they prefer to have Montepaschi than Benetton in the final, if their team makes it, too."
Many Siena fans will be in Barcelona. Could they give a your team the push it needs?
"They can give us a big push to reach our goal as they did last season at the Saporta Cup final in Lyon. But I have to say two things to them: First, let's enjoy the time in Barcelona, because we are part of the most important event in European basketball; and second, we will fight to make the final, and if we do, we'll start then to think about it. Let's see what happens."