|Three months ago, no basketball expert would have predicted that Armani Jeans Milano would be where it stands now: alone in first place and unbeaten in its Top 16 group. In fact, few would have thought Milano could even reach the Top 16 after starting 0-4 in a shortened,10-game regular season. Since then, however, Milano has won seven out of eight games, ended champion CSKA's undefeated season and made itself a contender to reach the quarterfinal playoffs. The team leader in Milano's transformation has been defensive ace guard David Hawkins, who leads the team in scoring (14.3 ppg.), assists (2.8 apg), steals (1.8 spg) and free-throw shooting (85%). In his third Euroleague season, Hawkins belongs solidly among the elite do-it-all backcourt players on whom the best Euroleague teams tend to rely for heart, soul and big minutes. Now, as Milano travels to face mighty Tau Ceramica to mark the halfway point of the Top 16, experience tells Hawkins that he and his teammates must seize the moment. "Right now, we're in a position that can't be better," Hawkins told Euroleague.net. "So we have to capitalize on it. We don't want to look back with any regrets. We've got to go out, leave everything on the floor and take this opportunity we have, because it's a great one."
Hi David. You've been around the Euroleague a few years. How difficult is to get to the position Milano has reached now, 2-0 in the Top 16?
"The Top 16 is basically when it gets real. You have the teams here that are built to get to the Final Four, and you have sleeper teams like us, I guess, who can surprise people. In the Top 16, you can't take any games off. Every game is important. The fact that we started 2-0 is a great thing, but now we have to capitalize on that, if possible, and try to put a lock on first place. We'll try to do that with 100 percent of what we've got."
Few people realized, back when the team was 0-4 in the regular season, that Milano was capable of winning 7 out of the next 8. How much did you guys know?
"Basically, that was a tough moment for our team. We had a lot of bad breaks early in the season and hadn't been lucky at all with injuries and everything. We had a tough start in the Italian League, too. And what was important is that we didn't push the panic button. We knew we were shorthanded, and besides out first loss at CSKA by about 30 points, all of our other losses were close even though we were missing guys. We had to keep working and keep believing that things would turn around when we got healthy. And eventually, that started to show."
The turnaround game seems to have been CSKA at home, ending their win streak. What kind of night was that?
"It's true that a win is a win and you don't get two victories for any single one. But a win against a team like CSKA - with the history they have, their coaching and everything, makes them one of the best teams, if not the best, in Europe - does a lot for your confidence, for the city, for the people who support you. It was very emotional, even more so because we came back from down 20 down in the first half. To do that against a team like CSKA showed that we have character and that we can't settle for less. We're a good team, but with a great work attitude, we can be great."
In the Top 16 opener, Milano beat Olympiacos and your old college teammate, Lynn Greer. You guys held him to 6 points. Were you applying any secrets from the old days as his teammates?
"Not really, because I've known Lynn many years, but there's not much you can do to stop him. You can try to contain him and hope he has an off night. We tried to attack him and keep him busy on defense so that he couldn't put all his concentration on offense. I think he got in a little foul trouble that way and his time on the court that night was limited, so it helped. But you have to remember that a team like Olympiacos is not just Lynn, and we remembered that, too."
Going to play Tau on the road this week, do you see it as a chance lock on first place in the group?
"It's definitely a big possibility and a big opportunity for us. We just have to go into this game to win it. We can't go to Tau just to play because it's our next game. We have to play against Tau like we have against everybody lately. We know they are a great team, especially at their place, but that just means we have nothing to lose. We just have to go play."
Every one knows you as a top defender, too. This week you'll face the Euroleague's top scorer this season, Igor Rakocevic. How do you stop him?
"I know he's a great shooter and very experienced. And like I said, there is no way to totally stop a team's top offensive weapon. But it's not going to come down to one player, either. You've got to play great team defense. I guess he's going to get his shots up, but we'll try to make them difficult shots. We can't let him get into his game with easy buckets. We'll play him tough like any great scorer, but personally I will take it as a challenge to go up against the top scorer in the Euroleague. I consider myself a good defender, so it's a challenge for me. I can't reveal him, but I plan to stop him as best I can."
Head coach Svetislav Pesic brought took you to Lottomatica Roma a few years ago and then you played alongside Dejan Bodiroga the next season. How important were those two guys to your career?
"Pesic is knows as a very tough coach and everything, but I'm glad had a chance top play for a coach like him. He just gave me the truth, and didn't butter it up. He put defense first and said that if you play good defense, then you can play free on offense. But the first thing was defense, and that's pretty much where I made my mark at, while he allowed me to do my thing offensively. With Dejan Bodiroga, I was playing with one of the most decorated players in European history, and that was an experience I can take with me for many years. His professionalism, how he approached the game, the respect he had in Europe and worldwide, all were just amazing. No matter where we went, to the toughest gyms in Europe, he got a standing ovation every time. And he was a real class guy."
You are a steals specialist, one of the leaders in the Euroleague year in, year out. Do you have a special feel for steals, do you practice to improve in this topic?
"It really takes a lot of something that's not really skills, but more about anticipation. Basically, you have to have the will to want to get the steal, even though seven times out of 10, you won't get it. The three times you will get it, you have to go get it, but the other seven times you have to be ready to go. A lot of coaches don't want gambling, but once you have that feeling and think you steal, you have to be free to try. It's easier to sit back on defense and let the play run, but I try to be as disruptive as I can. I guess I have a feel for the type of situation where I can gamble and when I can't. It's a lot of instinct."
Some years you have been asked to be a scorer, some years just a defender. Where is the balance for you at Milano?
"Well, my thing is defense. I take pride in my defense. I take it as a challenge. When I step on the court, I don't want anybody beating me or saying that David Hawkins couldn't check this guy. That's why great defenders are that way. They take it as a personal challenge. So I do that anyway. No matter what a team asks of me, they will get my best defense. But this year is a lot different from the last couple years in Rome, where I wasn't asked to score as much and last year wasn't needed to, because we had scorers playing down low like Erazem Lorbek and we played inside first a lot. This year, Milano is more guard oriented, so my scoring load is up, and I'm not shy about scoring, either."
Looking ahead, as perhaps the guy with the most recent Top 16 experience on your team, what does Milano have to do to keep this good thing going and make the playoffs?
"It's true that few players on the team have as much Euroleague experience as me. Coach Bucchi has a lot of confidence in me and tells me I am the leader on the team. Basically, we have to continue to do what we did to get to this point, believe in ourselves and work hard. No one expected us to be in this position in the Euroleague, not at the beginning of the season for sure. But we can't worry about what people outside are saying. We have to believe in ourselves and right now we're in a position that can't be better. So we have to capitalize on it. We don't want to look back with any regrets. We've got to go out, leave everything on the floor and take this opportunity we have, because it's a great one. I'm not saying we're going to win every game, but if we lose, we have to bounce back. I am trying my best to let the guys know that it's not every day that a team has this opportunity to move forward in the Euroleague. I'm going to try to get them ready."