When he walks on the floor at the Final Four in Athens, one player will be as hungry as any other to leave with a Euroleague title. Marcus Brown of Unicaja has not only earned his reputation as a supreme competitor, but is one of just two players in Euroleague history to surpass 2,000 points in his career. Brown did that after sitting out most of the season with an injury and losing his first-place rank on the all-time scoring list. Now, he will go against his former team, defending champion CSKA Moscow, in his return to the Final Four as a leader with Unicaja. "If people look at us like we're not supposed to win, we can go kamikaze and be free-wheeling and be dangerous," Brown told Euroleague.net. "For me, it means nothing. I've been an underdog all my life, in any situation, even coming to Europe and making a career here. People always have something to say. You have to be careful what you read and hold true to what you believe."
Hi Marcus. Congratulations on making it to the Final Four for the third time. Usually you have been playing big minutes to help carry teams into there. This time you came back from injury late to help get the job done. How do you feel about the Unicaja's accomplishment?
"Hopefully, the third time will be the charm for me. But I think going this time is just a good testament to these guys hanging in there, defining their character through a rough road and the rough times. It's definitely something they can be proud of, and it's just good for me to be back with the guys and on the court with the atmosphere and everything this time of year. I'm very proud of them."
What can you tell us about how you feel physically now, after a few games back, as you look ahead to the Final Four?
"I feel ready, yeah. I still have little kinks to be worked out to get back to how I am used to feeling, physically. But I feel great as far as not having any pain or anything. I'm just trying to continue to build up and and get some steam going into the Final Four and the Spanish playoffs. It's a question of getting a rhythm again playing with the guys, me knowing where they are and they knowing where I am on the court."
It was a strange season in a couple ways. Last year, Unicaja started the season on fire, but petered out in the Top 16. This year it's been the opposite, with a tough start and a strong finish. Is there a lesson that somewhere? You never know?
"I guess you can say we're battle-tested. We've been through the ups and the downs, for sure. I think that from a mental standpoint, you just have to stick with the good and the bad and be able to look at the positives the whole time. Mentally, we were definitely trying to do our best and were able to do that in the end. Last year, we were on fire and then just had two road games to start the Top 16. This year, we were up and down, all over the place with our play, but then with the Top 16 draw and the home games and so on, we were able to define our rhythm and catch fire late. It's a little luck, but we had to do what we had to do, and that was win games. You can never predict which games and when, but we took what was there and seized the opportunity."
Because of its newcomer status, more losses than any other Final Four team and injuries, many view Unicaja as the biggest underdog in this Final Four. How does that label suit you and your teammates?
"I hope the guys aren't reading anything into it. A lot of people say we shouldn't be there, but if that's true, we don't have anything to lose, either, and no pressure. If people don't expect you to be there, why feel pressure? Just go and prepare yourself and play and lay it all on the line. If people look at us like we're not supposed to win, we can go kamikaze and be free-wheeling and be dangerous. For me, it means nothing. I've been an underdog all my life, in any situation, even coming to Europe and making a career here. People always have something to say. You have to be careful what you read and hold true to what you believe."
One of Unicaja's biggest strengths on the way here was the play of center Daniel Santiago, who is now out with an eye injury. How can your team compensate for his absence?
"It'll be very hard. You have to find a kind of different way to play, without an inside offensive presence like his. The guards have to rebound better. The defenders have to be better one-on-one, and we've got to kind of force the tempo to compensate for not having the inside offensive presence and the blocks."
Some of your teammates, such as Berni Rodriguez and Carlos Cabezas, have had career-best seasons to make up for the slack when you were injured. How has the team dynamic changed now that you are back in the starting lineup?
"I think the main thing was more or less leadership. Everybody kind of just pitched in here and there. And one thing remained constant: We remained a team, unselfish, being able to pass the ball. We had one guy one night having 23 points and the next guy doing the same the next night. Berni and Carlos have definitely had real good years and picked up the slack. It has been a testament to all these guys and others. Jiri Welsch came in, started cold but found his way and is now shooting the ball well. We've done it by committee; this guy this game, that guy the next. It's all about being ready and being professional with yourself first."
It's the club's first trip to a Final Four, but you guys won the Spanish League last year and three players won the world championship this summer in Japan. How do all those experiences give you guys confidence going into the Final Four?
"I can't say yet. While we're getting ready for the Final Four, we have a situation of trying to make the Spanish League playoffs, too. We're in a fight here, too. For the most part, I think we have guys on the team who've had success, and when going into a big arena like OAKA, it's good to take guys who know about that. On the other hand, sometimes it's beneficial to be a first-timer. Sometimes guys who have been there don't go in as energized. But I'd rather have guys who are battle-tested in some way. Pepe Sanchez won an Olympic gold medal in Athens, and that can only help. It's sometimes different for different guys. We'll see when we strap it up."
Your previous trips to the Final Four came with the team you will face in the semifinals, CSKA Moscow. What can you tell us about CSKA today?
"I haven't had a chance to look at them too much, due to my injury and so forth. I definitely think we cannot play statically against this team or be irregular in any way. We have to know what we want to accomplish, run the plays, take the mismatches and attack. We can't play a static game against them. They're big and tough with guys like Van den Spiegel, Andersen and Smodis, plus they're talented with a lot of versatile guys on the perimeter. We can't play static, so we might have to force the tempo and get the game moving fast."
What does it mean to you personally to be back on the floor, first, and especially in a position again to play for this Euroleague title?
"It's been great. At the beginning of the season, it was real tough, with me being a competitor, and to watch the team struggle and not be on-court. Then I just had to be patient during rehab. It helped having a support system like my family to stay strong and be prayerful, knowing I would return. Now, it's just been real good to be back in arena, the atmosphere, the smell, the camaraderie. Being back on court is a blessing. An injury makes you sit back and think, 'Man, I used to run up and down, and now I can't move.' But now I'm back to running and doing a lot of the things Marcus Brown did before and will do again. Injury comes with the territory, with our profession. You need patience, to learn from it and believe in yourself, and to take life's ups and downs as they come."