History is in the air in the basketball city of Zagreb, Croatia, where the 5,400-seat Drazen Petrovic Basketball Center is sold out for one of the biggest local games in years on Wednesday: Cibona vs. Efes Pilsen in Group G of the Top 16, with both teams nursing chances to reach the Quarterfinal Playoffs. That sense of history is not lost on Cibona point guard James "Scoonie" Penn, currently rated the best scorer and overall performer in the Top 16. As Penn says in this Euroleague.net interview, he and his teammates have a chance to renew the legacy of one of Europe's great clubs: Cibona. "The tradition here, you can feel it whenever things are going well," Penn told Euroleague.net. "You feel it walking down the street or just being around the arena. People here know basketball. They understand what's going on. This is something that can light a fire and bring it all back. Lately, I've been seeing a lot of older players coming around again, guys who might have been Drazen's teammates, and it's a good thing to see. You know that with good tradition and history, great things can happen."
Hi Scoonie. Talking before the Top 16, you said that Cibona had nothing to lose. With a game to go and a good the chance to reach the Quarterfinal Playoffs, do you feel the same way?
"I basically feel the same. Not so much like we have nothing to lose, but I feel like the pressure is not on us. The budgets haven't changed, the rosters haven't changed. Maybe expectations in the eyes of other people are a little different now. But as far as my thinking, I'm a realist. We're not more spectacular now than what we were coming into the Top 16, so I feel like there's still no pressure on us. So we can come in relaxed and that can help us play well on Wednesday."
What would making the Quarterfinal Playoffs with this team mean for you? And what would it mean for all these younger Cibona players?
"For myself, it would mean a great deal. I was in the same situation last year with Scavolini, but this would be different, because I feel like on a personal level, I had to put forward an even extra effort to help us reach this situation. For the club itself, this would mean a lot, too. Cibona hasn't been this far in awhile, since the Euroleague started, I think, and it's about time. These young guys need to see that and feel success. When you feel success, you feel hungrier. And that's what they need, to become more hungry."
Everyone knows of Cibona for its great tradition in Europe, starting with the name of the arena, Drazen Petrovic Basketball Arena. Is this game on Wednesday the kind of game in which that tradition can be honored with a single victory?
"That is exactly what it could be. It's been a long time coming, too. The tradition here, you can feel it whenever things are going well. You feel it walking down the street or just being around the arena. People here know basketball. They understand what's going on. This is something that can light a fire and bring it all back. Lately, I've been seeing a lot of older players coming around again, guys who might have been Drazen's teammates, and it's a good thing to see. You know that with good tradition and history, great things can happen. And this week could really mark a special moment in Cibona history."
Players sometimes return to old teams in their careers, but it happens less with foreigners. What brought you back to Zagreb and Cibona?
"It's true that lot of people don't return to the same place twice. When I played here two years ago, I had a good time and was comfortable here. That had a lot do with my decision to come back. I also knew that our coach would allow me to play my game this time. The last time, I got injured right before the Top 16. We had a real good team that year and created some noise, so when it was over, I felt like I missed something. I wanted a situation where I could come and play my game, and now I am glad I made the decision to return here."
Part of the reason Cibona winning its first three Top 16 games was a surprise is there are so many young guys in key roles there. What kind of advice do you give them for all these important games?
I have a really good relationship with the young guys, especially with Damir Markota. He and I speak a lot, and he will listen when I say something to him. He pays attention. I get along well and communicate with him and the other young guys, too. They have taken on lots of responsibility and stepped up this season. What I like about it is that everyone is playing his role. When they come out, if they know it's for defense, they play defense. If a guy's a shooter, he shoots the ball. They don't try to do something out of the ordinary. Once you start doing that, you make mistakes, and mistakes cost games. Throughout the year, these guys have been learning and maturing to come in and take care of their roles."
The last regular season qualifiers to the Top 16 - that famous sixth-placed team - have done well each of the last four years. You have been part of two of them - Scavolini last season and now Cibona now. How can you explain the success of these sixth-place teams once they reach the Top 16?
"I think it's the underdog role. You play freely. You play as if you have nothing to lose. You play as if other teams are supposed to beat you. And when you play free and relaxed, your game is much better. It's hard for a lot of guys to play under pressure and tense. If you're relaxed when you go out there, then make a couple shots, your confidence starts to rise. Before you know it, you've got three or four wins and are in first place."
Let's talk about Wednesday's game. You guys have been magic against Efes Pilsen in three previous victories this season But you always hear people say they don't want to play the same team too much. Can that be true in this case?
"We've had excellent success against them, but I do kind of feel the same way. Every time we play a team that we've beaten already, I get a little more nervous. It's just hard to beat the same team a number of times in one season. After three times, the fourth is extremely hard unless yours is just that much better of a team or you just have the other team's number. That's not the case with Efes. They have a really good team and we're not much better at all. So this situation scares me a little, but it's also good. If you look at our group and ask me which team would I choose to play in this situation, knowing about Panathinaikos and Benetton now, for sure I would say Efes Pilsen. That psychology could work the other way on them, too, if they start thinking about whether they really can't beat us."
You in particular have been on fire in every Efes game you played. Did you know you had this effect on this team? Can you explain it?
"I had no idea. I just approached them like any other game, trying to play to my own strengths. What does help, I have to say, are the matchups with them. The matchups have allowed me to have good games against them. They have good guards, of course, but their guards have a hard time covering me. And if I am able to use the pick-and-roll, and their big guys come out, I still feel like I have an advantage. So looking at the matchups makes it easier for me, with more opportunity to attack. It's different against Benetton, for instance, because Goree and Bargnani can jump out high and they rotate three guards on me, the same as Panathinaikos does. I just think Efes doesn't have so many guys to switch on me."
You and Tyus Edney, two of the smallest guys in the Euroleague, are having a major impact on this round. Do you look on your size as an advantage in certain ways?
"I have looked at it that way my whole career. People say it's tough being smaller in basketball, and in some ways it is, yes, but in a lot of situations, we have the advantage. Most guys we go against, we'll be quicker. We can get around other guys much faster and it's harder for them to get around us. I've never had a problem with being smaller. I am not worried about guys posting me up, because I feel strong and quick enough to get around them and bother them that way. I am sure Tyus can say the same exact thing. And many times with a smaller guy, he has extra fire and so is hard to stop. Most guys out there have problem covering us."
Finally, if someone told you guys at the beginning of the season you would have a chance to enter the playoffs by winning the last home game of the Top 16, would everyone on Cibona have signed on the dotted line?
"I know I would have. And anyone on our team who didn't want to sign would have been a dummy. If you look at our situation from the beginning, our group in the regular season was unbelievable. Most of them are going to the next round now, and that says a lot. Then in the Top 16 we got matched up with Panathinaikos, Efes and Benetton. It's no secret we're not the deepest team with the biggest budget. So if you offered me the chance to be one game away from the quarterfinals and playing in our gym, I'd have taken that in a heartbeat."