In an 18-year head coaching career, he has reached 11 Final Fours and won six of them. No one else comes close. Both of those records make Zeljko Obradovic of Panathinaikos the most successful European coach ever and one of the greatest in the history of elite pro basketball. A trophy winner at every stop during his career, Obradovic boasts one Euroleague crown each with Partizan Belgrade, Joventut Badalona and Real Madrid, all before a trio of continental titles with Panathinaikos, for whom he has now coached 10 seasons. He has also won a pair of Saporta Cup titles, 16 national championships and cups, plus four medals with the Yugoslav national team. At age 49, two years after he and Panathinaikos claimed their last Euroleague crown together, Obradovic is poised to add to their legacy at the 2009 Final Four in Berlin.
Congratulations coach on reaching the Final Four. How is getting to the Final Four different now compared to when you first started coaching and do you still use lessons you learned in those early years?
"I have been a coach now 18 years, and the first time I made a Final Four, in Istanbul in 1992, we had a young team and I was a young coach, with no experience. With the years you learn, and you keep learning every day. That is fundamental. All of us in life have to learn new things every day. As a coach, there are a lot of opportunities to do a little better each day. It was difficult 18 years ago to reach the Final Four. Now, what has happened is the Euroleague has changed in a way that there are more teams with more quality now. Each year, of the 24 teams, there are 16 minimum that have some chance of going to the Final Four. I think it gets more difficult each year, and it was already difficult 18 years ago. But I also think that the system now - regular season, Top 16 and best-of-five playoffs - favors the teams with the most quality. Without doubt, I think the four best teams are in the Final Four this season."
What does it mean to you to be the coach with the most European titles?
"The personal things don't interest me much. I am just happy to arrive once more to the Final Four with Panathinaikos. We had difficult moments during the season, but we started playing well in the Top 16 and in the playoffs against Montepaschi Siena, a great team, we kept it up. What was most important was our players understanding that we are good enough. Thanks to that understanding, we are in the Final Four again. I am happy mostly for the players and the fans of Panathinaikos. The personal stuff doesn't interest me."
Did you think when you started coaching 20 years ago that someday you could be in the position you are now?
"Of course not. When I first one with Partizan playing against Joventut in Istanbul, I remember thinking that was the biggest dream that would happen. The truth is that I thought it was happening then only and wouldn't happen again. But you go back to work and every year you have in your mind a target and you work to get there. Early on, however, it was difficult to think this would be the case so often. I enjoy my work, it's true, but I never thought I would get to the position I am in now."
It is rare in any sport, anywhere, for a coach to stay 10 years in the same place. Why has that been possible with you and Panathinaikos?
"First, I think that it is thanks to the fact that we have good results. Also, my relationship with the owners, the Giannakopoulos brothers, is very good. I am also very happy working with my staff, the assistant coaches and everyone involved with the team. Finally, I have a relationship with the people of Panathinaikos, the fans, that goes beyond respect. I understand when a coach is respected, but they love me here, and that gives me a lot of reasons to be happy. But as I said first, results are the boss in our work. After so many years, I think we have played in 20 finals and won 17 titles. That is what matters most, to be honest."
What is the most important aspect of getting ready for a Final Four?
"To arrive there on your best form. You are playing against the best teams and players in Europe. It's most important to be in good physical and psychological shape. There is never a need to motivate players at a Final Four, so what's key is to be at the top of your game and then to play with calm. Of course, neither one is easy."
What does it mean for basketball in Greece to have the great Athens derby as the Euroleague semifinal?
"Everyone here in Athens is talking about the game already, weeks before. It's understandable, because they are two great teams. Greek as a country and Athens as a city have to be proud to put two teams in the top four on the continent. It's a game that everyone is waiting to see now. But we must remember, it's a Final Four and we are just two of the teams. I think we must see it that way. Yes, it's a rivalry, a derby and we know each other well. But we have to prepare like any game. My only desire is that we see good basketball and that the best team wins."
What influence can the fans of both teams have on that game?
"First, I hope and believe that this Final Four can be a great one, and in that sense, I believe that the fans of all four teams have to help do their part. I will be talking to our fans at Panathinaikos, and will try before we go to give them a message: they have to give an example of what great fans they are and they must help us, and that means they must forget other things. If that is the message that the fans take with them, then it is going to be a great event and everyone will be happy."
Your team features several dynamic backcourt players with great leadership skills, but different styles. What is the secret in getting players like Dimitris Diamantidis, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Vassilis Spanoulis and Nicholas to play so well together?
"Because in basketball these days, they have to help each other. If they help each other, the team wins and they win. All are good people with good character, first, and they are also good players who know basketball. For me as a coach, that makes it better and easier. All are protagonists, and each has to understand that how Panathinaikos plays depends on them."
One of your key inside players, Nikola Pekovic, will be on the big stage of the Final Four for the first time. How will you prepare him, specifically, for the moment?
"Although he's a young player, Nikola understands now, beforehand, that this is a great opportunity for him. I've been talking to him and I hope he'll understand what it means to play in a Final Four. He is a great player, important as are all of our players, but he has a big role. I have told him that what's most important is to be physically in his best moment of the season when he gets there. Then he just has to be one more player on the team, doing his job, not pressuring himself to do spectacular things, but just playing basketball as he has until now."
As someone who has seen the best basketball of the last 25 years as a player and a coach, how good can this Final Four - Panathinaikos, CSKA, Barcelona and Olympiacos- be?
"Everyone is already saying, before it starts, that it's probably the best Final Four ever. Just thinking of the size of the clubs, what they mean, and those four names - Panathinaikos, CSKA, Barcelona and Olympiacos - everyone is saying the same thing. I have talked with people in Greece, Italy, Spain, Serbia and other places, and everyone has the same opinion. For the Euroleague, it is something important for the season to have come out like this, with four teams of great quality fighting for the title. It's going to be a great Final Four. I want the best team to win. That is my desire and that of everyone who loves basketball."