|On the eve of the Top 16 Draw, one of the most successful players of the last decade in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague is riding high with his old team. After a one-year separation and several before it diminished by injury struggles, swingman Tal Burstein of Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv is one of several players with multiple Euroleague titles who will try their luck at getting another this season. After Maccabi posted the best regular season record, 9-1, Burstein will certainly be anxious to see Tuesday's draw results. But he also knows from long experience that it's time to keep perspective, because the Top 16 brings a new set of challenges as all the best teams start over in the fight to survive for a Euroleague title shot. "We can't look at how things were in the regular season and think things will come easy for us," Burstein told Euroleague.net. "It's a one-way street and you can't look back. We did gain good confidence in the first stage, so we should bring that with us, but we'll also have to bring the same energy we did so far if we want to win more games and continue to the playoffs."
Tal, on the eve of the Top 16 draw, you're back in yellow and Maccabi is flying high again in the Euroleague. How has this homecoming been for you?
"It's great to be back. Maccabi is my home and it's always good to return home. It felt like I've never left for a minute. The yellow jersey, Nokia Arena, the fans, the people around the club, everything is still there, so it made the return very easy. It was a good idea to go play in Spain for one season, but coming back to Maccabi was always a priority for me and the good performance we've have so far surely makes it even sweeter."
What does all your experience tell you about the challenge now for your team, shifting from a great regular season to starting from zero again in the Top 16?
"We can't look at how things were in the regular season and think things will come easy for us. Now, in the Top 16, all the teams are very strong and anyone can beat you on any court, so you must be focused and know that it's a one-way street and you can't look back. We did gain good confidence in the first stage, so we should bring that with us, but we'll also have to bring the same energy we did so far if we want to win more games and continue to the playoffs."
Ten years ago you put on a Maccabi uniform for a first time. What do you remember about that feeling?
"I still have clear memory from then. To come to Maccabi Tel Aviv is a dream for every basketball player from Israel and, I believe, from many other places, so obviously I was very excited. At first I didn't play much, so every minute I spent on the court I cherished and made me feel good, but at the same time I was also very hungry. I was lucky to become part of the starting lineup already in the second half of my first season. I played next to great players and in the first year we went all the way to win the Suproleague. It was a dreamy debut season and I don't think I could have had it any better."
What do you think, looking back now, about having been a full-time starter one of the best teams in modern basketball, the repeat champions of 2004 and 2005?
"That period was surely one of the best I had in my life. I don't know if people from outside know it, but what made that team so special for us wasn't only our performance and the awards we won on the court. We were, first of all, a great collection of people, and we connected in a way that rarely happens. There was great chemistry between us, we spent a lot of time together off the court, and it was just pure fun. Then came the success on the floor, when we were playing very well for a long stretch. That period was very, very unique because things connected almost perfectly both on and off the court and I was very lucky to be part of it. I don't know how many players get to be in such a situation."
After coming close to a three-peat in 2006, you suffered serious injury problems. How hard were they to overcome to get back to the point you are now?
"That was a very difficult situation. I had an injury that actually forces most players to retire, perhaps because it's such a huge difficulty not only physically but also mentally. Lucky for me, I had endless support from everyone around - my great family, friends and, of course, Maccabi. Then I came back and had another injury from which it took me longer to recover and had to go through another long period that was mentally difficult. I guess this explains just how great it feels now to be back in Maccabi and competing at the highest level. After all the things I've been through, to be part of the success we share so far is bliss."
What did you learn in your only season outside Israel, last season in Spain?
"I've actually learned a lot. It certainly wasn't an easy experience. It took me almost three months to make the adjustment to the role of a foreigner player, which is totally different than being a domestic player. It's not easy to be a foreigner on any team. Everyone expects you to perform your best every night and that's something I only felt before with the Israeli national team, but only for short periods. In Maccabi, during the course of the season, I never had to excel every night, even though I always tried to do my best. In a team like Maccabi, there's more balance and many players can share the load, while in Spain I had to be there for the team every night we went on court. All in all I had a great experience there. My wife and kids enjoyed it very much and we managed to make new friends who supported us the whole season and helped us feel good. It was a very good experience. At the end of the season, my wife and I considered very strongly whether to stay another season, but when Maccabi came with the offer, it was impossible to turn down."
Your return to Maccabi coincided with that of David Blatt, who coached you so much before. How has the reunion with him been for you?
"It's great fun to be with Coach Blatt again. We've known each other for many years and I know what he's looking for and what he's after. It's kind of like riding a bicycle to play for him. Even if he wasn't my coach for a long time, it would still feel familiar. I use that experience with him also to help my teammates to better understand him and what he wants."
Your role has obviously changed. How would you describe the difference now?
"It's true that I returned to Maccabi this summer, but I was here for 10 years, so it's not a totally different feeling. I was a veteran on this team already five or six years ago and helped to take in the new Israeli players as well as show the foreigners a good welcome to help them adjust. I obviously feel more experienced every year that goes by and now I try to help the younger players with the things I picked up during my career. I push them when it's needed and calm them down when they lose focus, while still trying to contribute my best when I step on the floor."
What does a 9-1 record in the regular season - as good as almost any team has done over the years - say about this Maccabi team?
"It says first of all that we're very hungry and that we're winners. We never give up and won't allow any game to slip. That has a lot to do with Coach Blatt, who keeps us focused all the time. For the last two games of the regular season we showed up to play that way even though we already secured first place and didn't have to win. To be at your best mentally in those kinds of games is a huge difficulty. Coach Blatt keeps us concentrated and always comes up with new challenges to make sure we won't slip off track. He keeps us ready all the time, but it also helps him that we're a group of fighters individually and we always push each other."
After such an unpredictable regular season - the example of CSKA says it all - what do you expect from the Top 16?
"Anything can happen, and we saw that already in the regular season with many games. That's the beauty of the Euroleague, but I do believe that as the season progresses and you play at higher stages, things start to balance out. Almost every season, we see at least one team come out of nowhere and shock the Euroleague, enough to make it to the next round and sometimes even to the Final Four, as Partizan did last season and others before them. I don't expect anything less than that this season, but in most scenarios the bigger teams find a way to win games in the later stages, and I believe that's what we'll see in this Top 16 as well."
You've done it all in the Euroleague, but what would it mean for you to return to a Final Four and fight again for the title?
"You never get tired of making the Final Four. It's a great experience and satisfaction. The best four teams in Europe gather for one weekend in one place. All these fans come from all over Europe, especially the Maccabi fans, who have become quite famous for their presence at Final Fours. There's a lot of media and attention while the show around keeps you pumped up. It's certainly an experience I will never taste enough of, but this season I also have big desire for the players on our team that have never been there before to get to experience a Final Four as well."
People say there's a very special connection and a great atmosphere on this Maccabi team. Does it resemble anything from the legendary 2004-to-2006 squad?
"We're still very far from doing the same things we did back then, and we'll have to keep fighting and playing hard if we want to move closer in that direction, but certainly the connection we have this season is special. You can say there's a resemblance, but I really think that each case is different. We have a great bond and it's certainly not a common thing, and in that sense there's a match to those years, but we've only been together a few months at this point. Let's see what the future will bring."