This may be Tau Ceramica head coach Neven Spahija's first Final Four appearance, but that doesn't mean he is lacking experience. Spahija has been a winner at every step of his career, lifting trophies in five separate domestic competitions, not to mention reaching the first ULEB Cup Final. Now, while leading Tau to its fourth straight Final Four in his first season with the club, Spahija looks to add his name to an exclusive list of Euroleague champions as well. Coming from humble beginnings and traveling a long road before getting this chance, the importance of this Final Four moment - and the opportunity it represents to become a champion - is very clear to Spahija, one of the most devoted coaches around. "I have done everything in my career with the idea of coming to the Final Four someday," Spahija told Euroleague.net. "But, of course, not one of us can say that just going to the Final Four is enough. To win the Final Four is a dream for all of us, the best thing that we can do in our careers."
Congratulations on a great season and your first Final Four. As someone who has been in the competition many years, how do you feel about this accomplishment for you and your team?
"It's a great feeling. I have no words to explain it enough. First of all, I've had six years in the Euroleague and nine as a head coach, and this is my first time in the Final Four. All of us who coach do everything in our professional lives with the idea of participating in the Final Four. I am happy and I think that our team deserves it. We had problems with injuries and with being a completely new team, but in the end, we succeeded, and because of that, I'm happy for myself, for the players and for the club, of course, which can be proud to make it four times in a row. Everyone sacrificed to make it happen."
This Final Four is unique because of the 50 Year history celebration. What will it mean to coach your team with some of the greatest players in European history watching in person?
"It means a lot. I have attended other Final Fours, and it's always a very big event. To be on the bench when all of the basketball community is watching must be a great feeling, especially now that you know this event can be seen all over the world. With all of these former stars in the gym also, it will be something unique this time."
One of the biggest legends being honored, the late Drazen Petrovic, was your childhood friend. Do you feel you will be sharing this stage with him a bit at this Final Four?
"It's very difficult for me still when someone asks about him, because I feel so strong about Drazen and what happened to him. I can still say today, after so many years, that I miss him a lot and that all of us in basketball miss him. That he will be honored at this Final Four, in a city where he played one of his special seasons for Real Madrid, will be emotional for many of us."
Let's talk about your team. Having a new coach and several new players can sometimes mean unsteadiness in a team. What did it take to maintain Tau's very high success rate?
"First of all, we did it with the quality and personality of the players. Sometimes, to put the best players together does not mean you have the best chemistry, especially if we are talking about a new coach with new players. But every day that we worked hard on the court and off the court made me stronger and made us better. Especially now, we are very happy. After qualifying against Partizan, we had a bad Spanish League game against Barcelona, but the team reacted immediately, with a good week of practice and two other good Spanish League games. We have one more domestic game before the Final Four, and if we can play that game as well, it will give us big help going to Madrid."
Was there a key moment of the season when you knew your team had the right stuff to be in the Final Four and compete for a title?
"First, when I became the head coach, the team was already made by the club. I was the one who signed last, but I said to my owners, this team is good enough to compete in every competition that we play. And I was right, but I just didn't know how good and how fast we could find chemistry in the team. I think key moment was our last King's Cup game in Spain, and the game immediately after that, when we won our Top 16 opener against Lietuvos Rytas in Vilnius. It was very, very, very important for the team to come back so quickly after such an important loss in the cup final and win such a tough game away. Only a team with personality could do that, so I think that was our key moment this season."
It's your first Final Four, but your team's fourth, all in a row. What influence does that streak of four in a row mean to the expectations of your team?
"Expectations are always high, but not one team that qualified for the Final Four can say that it's good enough only to be there. Because of that, we want to win: me, the players, the fans and all of the club. We also know it's going to be very, very difficult. The Final Four is the strongest competition possible at this moment in Europe. Like always, we will try to do our best to take the cup, especially because we are playing in Spain in front of our crowd. I know we'll have a lot of fans with us and with such strong support we have a better chance."
In the semifinal, your team faces CSKA Moscow, a team you lost to twice in the regular season, once at home loss although they were missing several starters. What do your players need to learn from that experience?
"Already in our second game against them, in Moscow, we played much, much better, even though we lost. CSKA played the first one, in Vitoria, without four players, and showed us how strong they could play under any conditions. We had won a lot of games in a row before then, and after the defeat, we played with much more experience than before. Very simply, those games showed us what we have to do better."
CSKA's roster presents all kinds of problems to opponents. How do you choose what to focus on when preparing for them?
"There is no one thing. I think that CSKA, along with Panathinaikos, has the best roster in Europe, but why I consider both the best teams right now is they have the best coaches with the experience on this level. CSKA has a coach and players who have been to a lot of Final Fours and won. Because of that, there is no one simple thing that you can resolve and be sure to win. There are too many things, and you have to be ready to answer everything if you want to win against CSKA."
Do you have a philosophy for playing knockout games like those in a Final Four?
"Not really, no. There is only one philosophy: go step by step. You have to concentrate and focus and think about only one game. After that's over, you can think about another. Anyway, in such a semifinal, if you win, you don't need such big preparation for the final. First, there's not enough time. Second, when you are in a final, it means so much that players are always going to do their best to win it. Because of that, we will go step by step and concentrate on CSKA first.
You started with the Euroleague in 2000-01. What do you think about the evolution of the competition during the rest of this decade until now?
"I am so happy because I am one of the persons who supported ULEB at that most important time in the beginning, when they recruited the teams and I was coach of Cibona. I do feel proud of my work and my opinion at that time, because after the NBA, we now have the strongest basketball competition in the world."
Finally, what would it mean for you to take Tau Ceramica to win the Euroleague trophy in Madrid next weekend?
"As I said before, I have done everything in my career with the idea of coming to the Final Four someday. But, of course, not one of us can say that just going to the Final Four is enough. To win the Final Four is a dream for all of us, the best thing that we can do in our careers."