|Having just turned 28, the Euroleague MVP for December, Jorge Garbajosa of Unicaja, has entered the prime of an already-full career. Garbajosa has already played 10 seasons with three different Euroleague teams - Tau Ceramica, Benetton Treviso and Unicaja - during which his status as one of the premier power forwards of his generation has been cemented. In December, while marching Unicaja four victories closer to its goal, the Top 16, Garbajosa also showed that he welcomes his leadership role on a team whose ambitions match his own. As he says in this Euroleague.net interview, Garbajosa sees everything coming together now for him and Unicaja. "We have as a main goal to qualify for the Top 16, but to get there would make it one objective completed," Garbajosa told Euroleague.net. "We are on the road to get there and hopefully we will do it soon, but no one should think that getting there is our only objective. We will fight until we can do no more. We want to reach our maximum."
First, congratulations first on being named Euroleague MVP for December, and happy holidays. Would you say that after a season-and-a-half, things are truly coming together for you and Unicaja?
"I think so, yes, both at an individual and a collective level, we are moving forward, improving day by day, which is what is most important. Last year, we had success on a national level, with our first trophy, and this year we want to do good things in Europe. That has been our main goal coming into the season, and I think we are making progress towards it."
Indeed, you had domestic success last season, with the team's first King's Cup title in Spain, but not so much luck in the Euroleague. What is making the difference this year?
"Last year, the problem was how we started, which was very hard to come back from. Despite playing well after that, with so few games to make up the difference, we basically came up short on time. In the Spanish League, over almost 10 months, we had enough time to turn things around and the situation ended well. From the start in this Euroleague season, we have taken things very seriously so as not to let the same problem occur, and I would say things are going well now."
At the height of your career, when you could have chosen any number of places to play, you made a long-term commitment to Unicaja. What attracted you most to Unicaja?
"I took some time to make the decision, but it was not difficult to choose Unicaja, and once it was decided, it was easy to confirm that Unicaja is a club with ambition to grow to be among the best in Europe, a club that gave me responsibility and showed confidence in me. And that is exactly what I was looking for. I wanted a situation in which I could keep growing with a club, and as soon as I arrived here was able to do that right away. I just hope to work each day to get better and make the team better, and I hope that the best years of my career are still ahead."
Your joining Unicaja came with an implicit leadership role. How have you developed that part of your responsibility with the team?
"I don't know about being the leader, but I knew when signing to come here that it was a big step for me and the club, and that with it came both responsibility and pressure. But like I said, that's what I was looking for, and with the support of my teammates and coaches, my work is easier. I am trying to do the best I can and not hide at any time from that responsibility. It might seem difficult at times, but with the support of my teammates, I know we can get the job done."
Your career has had three clear stages: starting with Tau as a teenager, in a group of old pros at Benetton and with Unicaja now as the team leader. How would you describe each phase?
"I have always looked at everywhere I have gone as a place to be for some time, to get to know the city and the club, and not just be there to play. I went to Tau as a young guy, and grew up there as a player and a person. The club helped me with everything that I could have asked for arriving as a 15-year-old, and I still have some of my best friends in Vitoria. Making the change to Treviso wasn't easy. I knew I had to play well to get chances on such a team as Benetton. And with work and trying to add more to my game, I developed another form of playing, shooting more from outside. But in a club such as Benetton, it was easy to get adjusted and do things well, because of the help and confidence they give you. As we said, coming to Unicaja with an important role has been a challenge I could not reject. And things here are better than I could have imagined. There's a great group of guys, I have everything I need and I look forward to many successful years here."
How big a difference did leaving Spain for Italy make in your career?
"It was very important, on a playing level for sure, but even more so on a mental level. Going there I understood, after having been somewhat of a protected player who grew up with the team in Vitoria, that now I was just one more guy. In Treviso, I was either going to have to play well or find myself out of a job. But that in itself gives you motivation, almost an excess of motivation. I took it as a chance and a challenge and it really changed my way of going about my job."
Your coach, Sergio Scariolo, has made it clear that Euroleague success is the team's big goal this year. Does reaching the Top 16 remain the definition of success for Unicaja?
"The definition of success, no. For sure, after the club has been trying for a few years to get that far, we have as a main goal to qualify for the Top 16, but to get there would make it one objective completed. We are on the road to get there and hopefully we will do it soon, but no one should think that getting there is our only objective. When we get there, we will fight to make the next round, and if we do that, the next one. We will fight until we can do no more. We want to reach our maximum."
You have played the ULEB Euroleague every season since it started, appearing in two Final Fours so far. What is your opinion of the growth of the competition in the last five years?
"The Euroleague, I can tell you, is a very special competition for all players. You always are nervous before playing any games, but when it's a Euroleague game, you feel something really special. I do, for sure, but I think it's the same for all the players, the coaches and even the fans. It's the best competition you can play in, or as they say, second only to the NBA, and to be part of a Euroleague game is something everyone looks forward to. To play in the Euroleague year after year, for me, is an honor."
Looking ahead, what would make 2006 a great year for Jorge Garbajosa?
"First of all, good health, to avoid injuries in terms of basketball, something I wish for my teammates. And of course, health for everyone, family and friends. But as far as the team, last year we had no concrete goals, but we had success, especially in Spain. This year, we want to improve on that. Our objective is nothing less than to compete with the best teams in Europe. And we are getting there. By continuing good work within the group and showing confidence in each other, in the end, success will come."