To say that the Final Four is an international event of the tallest order could be taken two ways. The global basketball community is certainly paying attention, both in person and from afar, due to worldwide coverage. And there is the international flavor on the court – players from 20 different countries – one of the tallest being CSKA Moscow center Thomas Van den Spiegel, the only Belgian ever to reach a Final Four – or win it. Just 15 months ago, Van den Spiegel was in Italy on the end of his team's bench, but a call from CSKA to replace an injured player changed his career. Now, he and CSKA are looking at an historic opportunity to repeat as champions. "Back-to-back would be incredible," Van den Spiegel told Euroleague.net. "One was already incredible; another would make it sensational. We don't want to think about it right now, though. We just want to go and win the first game and see what comes to us."
Hello, Thomas. Congratulations on making it to another Final Four. That's your third in four seasons. You're making a habit of it. You must be proud of that fact, yes?
"It's pretty good, yeah, but not on our team. Dave Vanterpool and I were talking about it the other day, because it's his third Final Four, too. That's nothing on our team. It doesn't count if only have three here. A couple of the guys have way more. But it's great to be going again. The atmosphere is great, you can invite family and friends, so its different to be part of a five-day thing instead of a one-day game. We'll focus on winning the whole time, but we're certainly happy to be there. It's always great to go."
Do you consider your team the champs, this season, until another team takes the trophy. Or consider them the champs of last season and this is a whole new endeavor?
"That's a hard question. In theory we are the champions, but we also try to take this season as a new season. We are trying to repeat, but we try to avoid the stigma of being champs, in that everyone sees them as favorites. We'll just play our game and concentrate and not think about last year. So it's an in-between thing. We consider ourselves the champs, but next week in Athens we have to be ready to prove it or it'll be over."
Winning back-to-back is a rare opportunity. How much do you and the guys appreciate that fact and feel the chance to do something historic here?
"Back-to-back would be incredible. One was already incredible; another would make it sensational. We don't want to think about it right now, though. We just want to go and win the first game and see what comes to us. It would be sensational and great, but we don't want to get ahead in these discussions and talk about it. We'll do our thing, prepare well, and see where we get."
Of course, your two previous experiences couldn't have been more different. How much did last year's title with CSKA erase the memory of the record loss with Climamio against Maccabi two years earlier?
"It will never erase it, I'm afraid. We felt that we didn't deserve what happened to us in Tel Aviv. We didn't deserve to go in the record books that way. In Tel Aviv, we came out and Maccabi grabbed us by the throat, and we had a young team and we didn’t know what to do. Last year made up for it a little bit for me. But more than making up for Tel Aviv, it made up for an experience that didn't go as it should have in Rome earlier last season. Then I came to CSKA before the Top 16 and in three months I won everything: the Final Four, the Russian League and the Russian Cup. Rome had been the first time in my career that I was confronted with a situation that I didn't have under control. I was happy more with that revenge than any other. After all, we were happy in Bologna to make the final. We were still runners-up in the Euroleague and that wasn't too bad at all."
Let's talk about this year's performance by CSKA. Best record, longest streak and back to the Final Four: could it have gone any better at all in your eyes?
"CSKA two years ago had an almost perfect year but didn't win the Final Four. It went well for us this year, with a good regular season, a good Top 16. But it doesn't count how you play during the year if you don't finish the end of the season right. That's true in every league: the NBA, the domestic competitions and the Euroleague. Once you get to the Final Four it's an achievement already, but if you want it to be a perfect year, the only way is to win it all. No one is going to talk about your great regular season or Top 16. This season went well, but now we're going to Athens to enjoy ourselves and see where we get."
You are one of the best shot blockers in the competition despite playing fewer than 16 minutes per game. Now your semifinal opponent, Unicaja, probably will play without two key big men, Daniel Santiago and Marko Tusek. That changes the dynamic for them. Does it change anything for CSKA?
"We haven't seem much of them yet because of our Russian Cup and Russian League playoff games, but it should probably change our outlook a bit, because without Santiago, Unicaja has a different dynamic. He's one of the few tall post-up centers in the Euroleague. Taking him away is taking away more than a change for Marko, I'd say, because whoever subs Marko might have a similar style. We are already talking about the fact that Unicaja will probably go small, but they have guys with experience, like Jimenez, Welsch and Pietrus, who are able step up and make the right plays. It will be different, but they will be equally as dangerous."
You're the only Belgian to play in a Final Four, and of course, to win the Euroleague title. Now that you are playing for it again, do you carry a little national pride for Belgian basketball with you to the Final Four?
"It kind of makes me proud. It reminds people that we play basketball, too, in Belgium. It's still a small country that doesn't mean a lot basketball-wise, but still guys come out of there who play well: Eric Struelens before me, then Axel Hervelle after. Let's hope the young kids in Belgium take us as an example to reach for more, to try to be ambitious enough to take the next step in their careers and always go further and get better."
Only 15 months or so ago, as you mentioned, you were injured in Rome. Could you have imagined that you would now be a reigning Euroleague champion, with the chance to win another title?
"Not at all. I got injured in Rome, they signed a replacement for me during the injury, and I was trying to come back. The team was deep, and now I was at the end of the bench, healthy again, but not playing. Suddenly this opportunity with CSKA came up out of the blue. It's truly great to be here winning and part of a winning program. And it's amazing. I'm happy just to be back to what I wanted, to play and be on a team with ambition."
Last but not least, one of the classic moments in CSKA's season came in Game 1 of the Quarterfinal Playoffs against Maccabi, when you had four dunks in the last 2 minutes, to the delight of the entire bench. How was it for you as the main character in that scene?
"It just happened. It happens sometimes in practice, sometimes in games. The guys know where to give me the ball, and everyone knows I like to dunk. That game was already over, so it was good for the fans, but it didn't mean anything. It's just fun to have a situation like that sometimes. I enjoyed the moment, but it's history already."