Over the last two years during basketball season, adventurous Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach Pini Gershon could be found in the Alaskan tundra, on safari in Africa, or at least planning his next trip to some similarly remote place. As he told Euroleague.net in an extensive Final Four interview, a return to coaching was not on his mind. "I wasn't waiting to start my career again," Gershon said. "I was enjoying retirement and having fun. I went all over the world putting my Xs on the map." Next week, Gershon wants to mark his X closer to home, in Tel Aviv, in the form of victory for Maccabi in the 2004 Final Four. The chance to bring more basketball success to a country full of Maccabi fans is the reason that Gershon came out of retirement. "It was the only reason," Gershon said. "It was the challenge that attracted me."
First, tell us about your decision to come out of retirement. Was it based trying to reach this moment, the opportunity to bring Maccabi to the Final Four in Tel Aviv?
"This is a challenge that I took because the Final Four was coming to Tel Aviv and Maccabi wanted to be in it so much. That was a big challenge for me and it was the only reason I came back. It was the challenge that attracted me. Also, no Israeli coach who has one two European cups, and I would like to be the first. But no, I wasn't waiting to start my career again. I was enjoying retirement and having fun. I went all over the world putting my Xs on the map. In two, years I saw many places that I don't think I would have seen if I just kept on coaching. I went on safari in Africa. I went to Alaska. I went to other places that maybe I would go to as a coach, but even I went there with the team, it would be a situation of going from home to terminal to gym to hotel to terminal and back home again."
Every sports fan knows about Maradona's "hand of god" goal in soccer. Tell us about the "hand of god" shot by Derrick Sharp that saved this Final Four for Maccabi?
"I am a believer, and if this is not a miracle, I don't know what is a miracle. This season for us, there have been three times when we were down and we won the game in the last second. And these were hard games: against Skipper in Bologna, against CSKA in Moscow and then Derrick Sharp's shot to top them all against Zalgiris. That is part of believing, I think, even though you have to be good in order to put yourself in the situation. But once you are there, your belief will help."
What were you feeling before Derrick Sharp's shot?
"Besides believing, a coach has to understand - and it was a bigger coach than me in old times who said it - that it's not over until it's over. Whether you are six points behind, and we are talking about two three-pointers, or four points, with a three-pointer and a foul, anything can happen in the last seconds. I won't say we were practicing these situations, because even if you do practice a similar situation a thousand times, it never happens the same. This is what's nice in basketball. You play until the last second. You always you have a chance to win and you have to believe you can win."
Have you considered how you would have dealt with things if the shot had missed?
"I know what I should do in that situation, and that is take responsibility, as most good coaches are supposed to do. Maybe I would be going to retirement again. But I did not think about what would happen if we lost at the end of the Zalgiris game. Sure, in your mind, a movie can roll and you think about everything, losing and what will happen with the journalists after, with the fans and their great expectations, with the ticket buyers expecting to see us in the Final Four, about all the season and all the energy we put into our job for nine months. But those thoughts all happened so quickly. It's like a dream, sometimes good and sometimes bad, but you can think it lasts and hour, when it only takes a few seconds. Besides, in those last seconds before the shot, I was fighting at the table for the right time, trying to put in the right player to inbound the ball, to put the other players in the right position. A lot was going on at that moment."
And after what have you been feeling: lucky, relieved or a son of destiny?
"I came to Maccabi five years ago in the middle of the season, and that season we did not reach the Final Four. But since then, this is our fourth time in a Final Four. We've been to the final game once, and we one a final game once. What else can coach ask for? I think we did a good job in the last few years of making Maccabi one of best teams in Europe. We lead in most of the statistical categories this season. Yes, you need luck, but it only goes with good work and a good team. You can't be a bad or even an average team and be lucky in the last seconds."
The last time the Final Four was in Tel Aviv, in 1994, your Galil Elyon team had taken the only Israeli title not won by Maccabi in the last 34 years. So Maccabi missed the Euroleague entirely and Galil Elyon did not make the Final Four. Do you remember disappointment in Tel Aviv because of that?
"Of course, there was disappointment. Let's say I am paying Maccabi back this year for that year. I had started as a player in Maccabi's club, as a young guy, and then went into coaching. I went to most of the good teams in Israel, but only five years ago, when it was late in my career, after 20 years or so in the first division, did I come back to Maccabi. It's not enough that you think you are good for Maccabi. They choose the coach, not the other way around. There were others better than me then, but finally I came and I am happy to help take Maccabi to the right place in Europe."
Do that 1994 season and last week's ULEB Cup title by Hapoel Jerusalem prove that Maccabi has real competition in Israel, and that its dynasty is not a gift?
"First of all, we have a good competition this year in Israel. Not only Jerusalem, but also Hapoel Tel Aviv. There will be good playoff and cup competitions the next month in Israel. If someone thought we were going to get to the Final Four easily, without many challenges at home, you can see that we are first in many statistical categories in the Euroleague. No one can shoot for us; no one can rebound for us. We have weaknesses, but no one helped us reach the Final Four. And now that we are there, we can see that we have no homecourt advantage, either. CSKA and Skipper both won their games against us in Tel Aviv. The home advantage in Europe now is like it is in the NBA. It is not worth 15 points playing at home, like before. As the days passed by this season and the Final Four came closer, the pressure on us was great. I can say now that it didn't help us, although maybe I would have said at another time that it could help us. The pressure within the team itself, from the crowd, from the media, in my opinion made us play 20 percent worse than we should have. Even now, at the Final Four, when I believe the pressure is behind us, maybe we can play like most of the season, maybe not. All I know is that we still we want the cup."
Everybody is saying now it was surely best to be in the "killer" group of the regular season? Did you think that way before the regular season started and you saw CSKA, Maccabi, Skipper, Montepaschi, ,Zalgiris and Panathinaikos on the schedule?
"Yes, all the Final Four teams are from our first group. I said at the beginning of the season that it was the worst group to be in, but that if you got past that group to the Top 16, I thought it would then be easier to reach the Final Four. Of course, we were fortunate to beat Zalgiris in the last second, but it's not easy to play against the same teams three or four times in a season. I thought it would be easier in the second round, but it wasn't. The fact is that since before I retired until now, I have seen much better teams in general and have found this Euroleague a much harder competition."
Some teams always live with the pressure of being expected to win in their domestic leagues, or being a favorite even in Europe. But the pressure from the start on Maccabi this season was something different altogether. How would you describe it?
"First, because the Final Four was in Tel Aviv, there was much, much more pressure on us than ever. Everyone in Israel just expected us to be here. In Israel, Maccabi Tel Aviv is like second national flag. Each person in Israel, it doesn't matter if you are young or old, or not even a basketball fan, everybody you meet on road, at the beach, wherever, you could not walk by without them saying something about expecting to see you in the Final Four. It was like having to play through 20 games was nothing. We had to be there. It was that simple."
You said have said that a whole country's mood depended on your team. Even in Israel that is unusual, isn't it?
"For us it is not just the 10,000 people in the arena. For all of our Euroleague games, there are two or three million people watching on TV, every game. You can drive 150 kilometers outside of Tel Aviv when those games are playing and you will find that the streets are empty. It's like the country is on strike. For sure, the expectation was much bigger this year than ever, much tougher than previous seasons when I coached Maccabi. Everyone thought that if you bring this player from here, that player from there, a Jasikevicius with two or three trophies from last year, then we just have to show up and score 100 points per game and that's it, easy. It was like we could put all the names of the players in a computer and the Final Four qualification would come back. But it doesn't work that way."
Is the pressure off now?
"It's not off, it's only less. We all, and especially me, we want to take the cup. Still there is pressure. But I believe that everyone who comes to a Final Four, no matter from where, they want the cup. There have been many surprises in these three days over the years, if you remember teams like Zalgiris in 1999. It is not always the team expected to win that does win. Anything can happen. No result is predictable. That is what is nice in basketball."
Sarunas Jasikevicius said recently that for him, it wasn't about making the Final Four, but about winning it. What about you?
"I like him and I like that attitude. And that's why he's here. He's a winner and a winner plays for the title only. No one remembers who finished second. I can't remember who was second to Zalgiris in 1999, or who played the final other years. Everyone remembers the cup holder. That is why we are here."