|His trophy case speaks for itself. Pini Gershon has coached Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv for just five full seasons. He reached continental title games in the first four and won trophies in the last three. This is the fifth time. If he wins again, Gershon will become just the second coach ever to take European titles in three consecutive seasons. Only the late great Alexander Gomelsky did so before, with ASK Riga from 1958 to 1960, the first three years that a continental trophy existed. But Gershon would rather not talk of history and records. He retired once and considers doing so again after this season. For the moment, his only focus is Prague.
Coach, you and Maccabi are going for three titles in a row. What do you think about another historic opportunity to be counted among the best ever in Europe?
"For me, it's the fourth Final Four in a row, and I won the last three, including the SuproLeague in 2001, but then was out for a couple years before returning to the club. I want to win three in a row in the Euroleague for Maccabi. But let me say that in this situation, when you are coming to the Final Four, you can't look backward, only forward. You have to look for the cup. The rest of the answers are the same. These are three days at the Final Four when anything can happen. It depends on the shape of the players, the coach, whatever can come about in three days. And it's not easy, even for a team with experience, like ours. We know what the situation is like, but we have some players who were not there last year or the year before. For them it's new, and they are anxious about the first time. But we are looking forward to trying to get one for them."
You said at the end of the quarterfinals that this would be the toughest season to win at the Final Four. Why?
"Every season it becomes tougher, because everyone wants to beat the champions. For us, this whole season was tougher. It doesn't matter why, but as far as I know, in four categories we still finished at or near the top in the Euroleague: index rating, scoring, shooting percentages, assists. And our defense was closer than ever to the top. We didn't come to previous Final Fours as one of the best defensive teams. This is new. This season we improved in that category. So even though it was tougher, we are still one of top teams in lots of categories. I still say it doesn't matter if you were first or fourth before. Only getting to the Final Four matters. As far as I remember, Malaga and Panathinaikos were 12-2 in the first round, and they're not here now. It depends on what condition you arrive in. And also on what you do in next days before Prague. We have tough games and some others have them, too. It's not easy to come in top shape after this weekend, but we will try to be in our best shape to Prague. Of course, we are coming with 9,000 people behind us, too, so that should help."
Has this been among the most surprising Euroleague seasons you've see, with teams like Panathinaikos and Unicaja, who had the best regular season records, eliminated?
"In the end, the best eight teams made it to the top eight. They were the best this year, I think. Fortunately, Maccabi, along with CSKA and Tau again, are back in the Final Four. Don't ask me if that's because of organization, coaches or players. But I don't think that Panathinaikos or Unicaja or Olympiacos or some other teams are not better teams than one or another of the teams here. You just need more to qualify. Experience, maybe, but I don't know for sure."
Remembering Derrick Sharp's shot two years ago to save your Final Four hopes and seeing Olympiacos miss an open attempt to tie your last quarterfinal game, could luck be another ingredient?
"I believe in god. You say luck, but you have to help the luck. Fortunately we were there, close enough with two or three minutes left in this Olympiacos game, and two or three seconds before the end of the Zalgiris game, or we would have lost. So luck for sure is part of it, but like I said, you make your own luck. You have to have the good-luck tools."
Maccabi has kept a core of five players - Vujcic, Parker, Baston, Sharp and Burstein – for three seasons, but how is this team different from the two before it?
"On defense, as I said. I think this is the point on which we've improved a lot in the last couple of years. We were third this year, much better than before, but we weren't all the way there, because in rebounds we are somewhere in the middle of the Euroleague, 10th or 11th, and rebounding is still part of the defense. I know that our offense is not the same as before, but still we are first in Europe. Maybe because of the better defenses other teams are playing longer offenses, and therefore we have less possessions or more turnovers. It has to be something like. Or maybe we are giving up too many offensive rebounds. I'd have to go over the figures to explain it, but I think our scoring average is down due to fewer possessions."
Your leading rebounder is a small forward, Anthony Parker, and a center, Nikola Vujcic, is the top assist man. Is that by design or necessity?
"Our offense changed a little bit with some of our player changes. If you want to be a champion in the Final Four, you have to know how to play under different circumstances. It's not always the same situation, the same players, the same habits. You have to take advantage of your strengths and hide your weaknesses, depending on the situation and players. Saras is out, Will Solomon is in. Will is a better defender, athletic, and in that way changed our game a little bit. Some of the smaller guys are having to rebound more. Maybe it just happens anyway, but it had to happen this year because most of the season we had a lot of injuries. Our big guys weren't in more than 22 or 23 minutes for more than a few games. Our new big guy, Jamie Arnold is just now joining the system, so he's better and can help more now."
You will face last year's title-game opponent, Tau Ceramica, in the semifinal in Prague. Did they impress you the way they knocked out Panathinaikos in Athens?
"Yes. It means that the semifinal will be a good fight. They are a very good team. If they joined the Final Four by winning without home-court advantage against Panathinaikos and 18,000 or 20,000 fans, that means they can handle pressure. They have very good players and, as far as I'm concerned, their coach controls the team very nice. As I said before, all four teams can take this cup. Tau has a very good team that has been there last year. If they are more experienced than last year, for sure it will help them. If only five or six of our players are back from last year, yes we have experience, but it might not be enough. The semifinal will be a very tough game."
You always enjoy coaching, but it seems that you really love to do it in the Final Four. Is Pini Gershon at his best with the title on the line?
"I really want to win. I know it's not going to be easy. For me, I won three in a row, but I want to take the third Euroleague title in a row for Maccabi, and I want to go home to our fans with the cup. Then, I believe that next year I will be there as a guest at the Final Four. Yes, I want to take this cup, but I'm not going to let the situation put me under special pressure. The pressure of trying again is something we want to take advantage of, but I don't want to be under more pressure."
Back-to-back titles have already put Maccabi in the record books at a time when European basketball is as strong or stronger than ever. Does that enhance Maccabi's accomplishment?
"Of course, when you talk about this competition, it's stronger every year. The clubs are putting more money into their teams. Wherever you go, most gyms are full, so the competition is tougher every season. For sure, Maccabi is one of the biggest clubs in Europe and its target every season is the Final Four. But there are clubs that put more capacity and budget than us to be there, too. This is a big reason that when the season starts, nobody knows who will be at the end of April in the Final Four. There are big clubs in Spain, Greece, Italy and Turkey who are out and spent more money than us. We are lucky to be there. As a big club in Europe, Maccabi for sure tries to have the budget to try its best for that target, the Final Four. Once there, you can only look forward to winning the cup."
You have just mentioned that this might be your last season. But don't you have to ask your mother first, as you have said before?
"I believe this season I will take the decision myself. It's not easy for me, and it's not easy for the club. Seven years in Maccabi is like 23 years in another club. Maybe it's about time to rest."