It is time to consider the obvious: we have before us, in the prime of his career, not merely Europe's most successful coach, past or present, but one of the all-time greats to ever sit on a basketball bench. In capturing his sixth Euroleague trophy a week ago, Panathinaikos head coach Zeljko Obradovic has added to a legend that could grow untouchable before he is finished. His first continental title after a four-season gap now gives Obradovic two more any other coach who has walked the sidelines during the half-century that Europe has crowned annual champions. And, at just 47 years old, Obradovic remains plenty motivated to keep collecting trophies. On the floor at OAKA, while celebrating his team's latest triumph, Obradovic went from player to player, talking over the noise and into the ear of each. He was congratulating them for what they had just won, the first Euroleague title for most, but he was also planting seeds for the future. "I told them to remember this feeling," Obradovic said in a Euroleague.net interview days after the victory. "This is the feeling that you want to have in mind when next season begins."
Coach, congratulations again. You have been through this five times before Sunday. Personally, how was the sixth time around for you?
"It was very important for me, because before the season started, I saw on my team a lot of guys with the desire to arrive to a Final Four and play for this title on our court and in our city. Only two of them had ever won a Euroleague title before, so for almost all of them it was a major, unfulfilled goal in their careers. That's what made it so important. More than anything, I am very happy for those guys, for doing great work to achieve something that was on our minds all year."
What makes you most proud of this team, this time?
"From the start, we talked how important it was going to be to maintain consistency in our play, even while we worked daily to improve things. I think we did that all year, maintained consistency and got better, and once we were at the Final Four, surrounded by our people as we had been all year, the connection between the fans and players was fundamental to achieve what we did. So I am happy for the fans, too. There is also something in my work that is important to mention: I have spent eight years with almost the same staff. Everyone knows their jobs and how to do them, and there's a mutual respect between us that makes everything easier. That, in turn, has been influenced by the great working atmosphere in the club, which helps us do our jobs as well as possible."
Many people were impressed by how Panathinaikos played from the start of the season with six new players. How did you accomplish that?
"The truth is that with six new players, it was quite difficult. We tried to talk with each one personally. We gave them a lot of video to look at so they would understand our philosophy as quickly as possible. In the games at the beginning of the season, we gave them opportunities to play a lot. Just the same, the season started very tough for us. Practically our first official game was in the Greek Cup against Olympiacos on their court, and we had to win to continue. So we had to be ready right away, and luckily, we won that game. That victory gave us a little tranquility to be able to work day-to-day thereafter. With six new players, we had to work even more than normal, more than the previous year or two, for instance. The other thing that helped is that the new guys felt good here. We tried to make sure each new guy didn't feel new, but part of our team right away. I told them all that there were no new players and no return players; everyone is the same."
What is your philosophy on how to play a Final Four? you must have one after winning 6 titles?
"It's difficult to say. I think every team at a Final Four knows that it has possibilities. The only thing we talked about was making sure to play at the Final Four like we had been playing all year. Yes, the motivation is special, but more and more, I think it's the little details that decide the games. You can prepare everything, analyze everything, but it still depends on how the players react on that day. I try to prepare everything down to the last detail, but staying consistent all 40 minutes and eliminating errors is fundamental. You need to play the game you want to play, the style with which your team thrives, and like that, you always have better chances. There are no secrets."
How much coaching do you do at practices the night before a semifinal or a final? How important is the week or two before the final four? how important is that your players feel prepared before Thursday of semis?
"First, they are different. Before the semifinal, you have lots of days to prepare, almost a month since the last playoff game. The final is different because you don't know what team you will play. There are two possibilities, and you have to be ready for both. What we do before both games, however, is the same we do the night before any game, all season long: We go really soft and light. We make sure they stretch really well, but otherwise we do very little. We want the players to feel good and relaxed for the game the next day. It's the same thing we do all year long."
You said that against Tau in the semis, you only had minor worries only when Serkan Erdogan cut the difference to six points in the fourth quarter. You took a timeout then. What did you tell your team?
"I took the timeout to cut their run and to calm our defense. It wasn't a big problem. We knew Tau was a quality team with a good fastbreak based on their big guys - Splitter, Scola and Peker - running the floor well. That gave them the capacity to score quick, easy baskets, but only if they could receive the passes easily. I didn't want them receiving passes, and the first time they had those opportunities during the whole game, Erdogan got them close. That was also thanks to our bad attack, however. So I got a timeout, we scored and went from there."
Between Friday night and Sunday at tipoff, what was your main concern about playing CSKA?
"I first sat down with my assistants, who had everything ready for CSKA, and we prepared the game. We already had ideas of how we wanted to play against them. After we had prepared that, we talked to the team the next day before practice about how to play against CSKA. The difficulty is that they play so well as a team, thanks to Ettore, besides having lots of players with individual skills. We knew a lot about them, and we tried to touch on every detail with our players. But when you play the champions, more than anything else, you simply have to fight. You know that if you want to win, it has to be your best game."
Were you surprised when CSKA erased your team's 10-point lead at halftime in a matter of minutes?
"I knew that it was going to be difficult to keep that lead. Much worse was what happened in the closing minutes, after we again led by 10 points. Thanks to their great players and our errors on defense, we let them shoot wide open. First, there was one by Smodis, any easy shot, because we missed a rotation. And then the first of Langdon's three-pointers was similar, although on the second one he was covered and just made a great shot."
After the game, you personally celebrated when Dimitris Diamantidis was chosen MVP. Why were you so happy for him?
"It made me feel good because he's an exceptional player and an exceptional person. And I know how hard he has worked to get the things he has won. He's there after every practice, working individually. Without a doubt, he does more for his team than most players, but without his teammates, he couldn't ever be successful. I was just as happy for him as for other players, like Ramunas Siskauskas, who played exceptionally and played almost 37 minutes, something very rare in a final. The same for Dejan Tomasevic and Milos Vujanic, and all the guys who had been trying and are now champions for the first time."
You also went to every player and talked in his ear about something. Later, it was reported that you were already telling them they could do it again next year. Is that true?
"As a way of understanding all of it, yes. We have Greek playoffs now, but later, like we do every year, right after the season, I will talk with the president and his brother. I know they love Panathinaikos and the club is an important part of their lives. And I know that they are going to do everything to keep this success going. So yes, I talked about that with many of the players. I told them to remember this feeling for the future. This is the feeling that you want to have in mind when next season begins."