|He was a part-time starter as an 18-year-old when he made his debut in the Euroleague, but stayed only one season. Now, five years later, precocious point guard Sergio Rodriguez will lead Real Madrid into the Turkish Airlines Euroleague opening game on Monday against Olympiacos in Piraeus, Greece. The game marks the 10th anniversary of the same teams meeting in the 2000 opening game, but for Rodriguez, it will be more a question of personal history, of coming full circle back to Madrid. Having grown up in the Canary Islands, he played in Bilbao and Madrid before spending four seasons in the NBA. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a unique, entertaining talent, while also picking up the title of World Champion with the Spanish national team in 2006. His official return to the Euroleague on Monday is one that he has had in the back of his mind all along. "I am back now in a new situation to be part of a great competition that I have been watching closely for years from the States," Rodriguez told Euroleague.net. "For that reason, I am excited and looking forward to start."
Sergio, you are about to play your first Euroleague game after five years. What's that feeling of anticipation like?
"It's going to be great. Back then, my first year as a pro, I played in the Euroleague and I remember it was a tough situation for all of us at Estudiantes. We lost almost every game we played. I am back now in a new situation to be part of a great competition that I have been watching closely for years from the States. For that reason, I am excited and looking forward to start on Monday against Olympiacos."
How has the transition back to the European basketball been for you so far?
"It's different, for sure. Not difficult, but different. I try to work every day with Coach Messina and my teammates, who help a lot. It takes time and it will take time to be like I was when I went to the States. They were four years in the NBA and some time in the national team. But I need a little time to adjust and make sure everything works. Besides coming back, it's a new team, a new coach, so there's a lot to figure out, but so far I am very happy."
What memories do you have of your first Euroleague season in 2004-05 as a teenager with Estudiantes?
"I remember it was tough for everybody. The year before they were in the ULEB Cup, so it was a big jump after having a great ACB season, reaching the finals. Then, in the Euroleague, it was new for me and the team, most of us, and we had really tough competition. I am looking forward to winning this time."
The fans around Europe who might not have seen you much since then, what can they expect of the "new" Sergio who is returning here?
"First of all, I am in a great team that has to win everything to be OK. So I am going to be competitive, like all of my teammates. We will try to enjoy and play hard, play well and win. That is the basis we are working on."
Your last Euroleague game was in February 2005 against Olympiacos. How does it feel to meet them again on a big stage like the opening game of the competition's 10th anniversary?
"At that time, I remember that Olympiacos didn't have such a good team, due to money problems. We beat them at home, they beat us at home. This time, it's going to be tough for sure. We've got to be ready from the moment we get on the court. It's the opening game of a competition everyone wants to play. It will be interesting and we'll try to have fun. It'll be tough, sure, but we need to try to have fun and win."
What about facing the reigning Euroleague MVP Milos Teodosic, former MVP Theo Papaloukas and former Final Four MVP Vassilis Spanoulis?
"It's great, really, to play against Billy and Papas, who I have seen with the national team. I haven't played against Teodosic yet, but I look forward to facing all three. They are all among the top five guards in the Euroleague, and everyone wants to play against great players, so I can't wait."
After so much time away, do you have to study your Euroleague opponents more now?
"I will watch a lot of video, yes. Also our coach knows them very well, having coached Papaloukas in CSKA. He will try to give us some ideas for our defense and our offense against them."
You won't have Pablo Prigioni to help on the court, but can his experience help you scouting players?
"Of course. He has been playing great for so many years here, he knows everyone pretty well. We are unlucky to have him hurt, but that's the way it is in sports. We have to figure out how to win without him. But I will certainly ask him about those guys on Olympiacos."
How is it playing so far for Ettore Messina?
"Well, it's great. He's one of the best coaches ever in basketball. Every day is a good practice. Coming to the gym each day and having him to ask questions, to figure things out and to solve problems is great... So far, I am really happy with him, because I feel like we will improve a lot."
What would make this a great Euroleague season for Sergio Rodriguez and Real Madrid?
"One word; win. We are Real Madrid. We have to win. That would make it a great season. Everyone knows there are really good teams in the Euroleague. We have to play hard, enjoy and win."