| He already holds one of the highest places in European basketball history as the coach with the most continental titles ever. But at 51 years old, hungry as ever for success, Zeljko Obradovic of Panathinaikos has the opportunity at the 2011 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four to go even higher. A victory in Barcelona would not only give him double the titles held by any other head coach dating to the first such continental crown in 1958. It would also make Obradovic the single person, player or coach, to lift the most trophies as European club champion. He is currently tied at seven titles with Dino Meneghin, who won all of his as a player with Italian teams Varese and Milano in the 1970s and 1980s. Obradovic participated, and lost, in the very first Final Four, in 1988, as a player with Partizan. If anything, he has carried the intensity of a player over to the sidelines to make his incredible and ongoing run as one of the greatest coaches in the history of global basketball. "My motivation is always the same: I love my work and I love basketball," Obradovic told Euroleague.net. "That is the first motivation and the main motivation for me."
Hello Zeljko. After two decades and seven titles as a head coach, heading into your 12th Final Four, what motivates you most?
"My motivation is always the same: I love my work and I love basketball. I am happy each day going to practice, walking through the doors of the arena and working with my players. That is the key for me, that I love my work. That is the first motivation and the main motivation for me."
Almost as unique as your successes is staying 12 years with one team, Panathinaikos, something rare in coaching. Why you and Panathinaikos?
"I think the most important thing was that in our first year together, we achieved both the Euroleague and the Greek League titles. That had a calming effect on everything that was to come after. I was able to work the way I want after that and there was a trust between both sides, the Giannakopoulos brothers as owners and me as the coach. Moving forward, I was able to have the staff I wanted, my assistants and physical trainers and everyone who makes up that staff. Another factor is the recognition of the fans, who have respect for what I have been doing for their club. I can't emphasize enough that the relationship between the team and the fans is also very important in this process, which as you said, has lasted 12 years now."
What is special about this year's edition of Panathinaikos?
"We changed in respect to last year, after three very important players - Vassilis Spanoulis, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Nikola Pekovic - left the team. Everyone around the team understood that these were three great players, very important to our team, and so them leaving meant we would change. During the time of putting together the roster, we talked about what we wanted to do this year as compared to the budget. We always try to strike a balance, the Giannakopoulos brothers and me, to have a competitive team without budget pressure on them. When we were finished, I was satisfied with the team, because after a few practices together I saw that we had the quality that we needed. After that it was just going to be a question of sacrifice and hard work, and that depended on us. We had to get better every day, and we did, and I think we have played as well in the end as we did last year."
You have a mix of veterans with a couple titles and guys who've never been to a Final Four. How do you prepare the new ones for the event?
"It's true, I have half a team that has never been to the Final Four or won the Euroleague, and I think that you would have to expect they have a lot of hunger to do so. At the same time, with Dimitris Diamantidis, Mike Batiste, Antonis Fotsis, Stratos Perperoglou and Kostas Tsartsaris, we have guys who have won the Euroleague before, but are very hungry and keep working to get another trophy. They set the tone, and now it's a matter of the first-timers understanding they have to give everything they've got, first of all, to win the semifinal against Siena. We are always telling them how beautiful it is to play the Final Four, and I plan to keep telling them about that. To be in the top four teams in the Euroleague is something special, and I want them most of all to go and enjoy playing the Final Four. It's a moment of the season that you can enjoy like no other. And of course, if you play well, you enjoy it more."
Of the 12 times you have reached the Final Four, has this year's path - having to stop Barcelona in the playoffs - been among the most difficult?
"Without a doubt it was extremely difficult this year. First, we found ourselves in the playoffs against a team that every thought was not just a favorite to reach the Final Four, but to win the title again. That was true because the Final Four was in their city, but also because Barcelona is a great team, and I mean both last season and this season. They played well all season, in the Euroleague, in the Spanish League and winning the Spanish King's Cup. We are talking about a great team. From the first moment that I talked with my players about Barcelona, I said that we have our possibilities and we have to believe in them. That was true especially after the first game, which we lost by a point in Barcelona. As soon as I walked in the locker room I told them: 'Now, you see we have the possibility and the quality to compete with them, to surprise them and to win.' We had to win three games, however, and it was very tough, very difficult. They were very intense games, with both teams prepared down to the most minimal detail. We had to play every second to win, and thanks to the work of my players, we did. But it could not have been more difficult."
Some experts say that Panathinaikos and Barcelona played some of the best basketball ever seen in Europe. Do you agree?
"Yes, I do, because it was so interesting, from beginning to end. Like I said, both teams were prepared to the very last detail and the intensity on both sides was great. I think it was a series that will be talked about for many years, because the games were epic. In the last two games at our court, there were 50,000 people total who came to see these teams. None of us could remember OAKA so full. In that atmosphere, with games like that, basketball was talked about a lot in Greece in those days, and it continues now. I am proud of that, too, and I am sure it will be talked about for a long time."
Looking ahead to the Final Four, what impresses you about your semifinals opponent, Montepaschi Siena?
"First, it was impressive the way they lost so big to Olympiacos in their first game of the playoffs, but then showed the character to not only win the next three games, but to dominate them. They play with a high rhythm and show a lot of aggressiveness on both defense and offense. They have a quality coach who has been there a lot of years now. They changed players from last season, but put together a very good team. They are very dangerous in any game, offensively and defensively."
Panathinaikos beat Siena in a playoff to reach the Final Four two years ago. How is Siena different now?
"Their style of play, more or less, is very similar, which is logical considering they have the same coach and some of the same players. What I would repeat is that they know how to play, and have known all these years. They are very aggressive, always part of the game, and they like an intense rhythm. I am expecting a tough game."
Even though you've won seven out of eight title games you reached, it true that coaches want only to prepare for the semifinal now before the Final Four?
"In my mind, I have only the game against Siena to think about. Our Final Four is that game only, Siena only. You have to win that to play the final. We have time to prepare it. We just have to see what condition we are in. We've had Drew Nicholas out since the end of the playoffs. Mike Batiste has missed at least a week. We hope they can start to play well first in practices and then arrive in shape."
This Euroleague season has been as unpredictable as any. What can all fans expect in the Final Four?
"I agree that it has been very unpredictable. We saw great basketball and saw teams having to fight until the last minute to survive, and some didn't. When you begin the Euroleague each year, I truly believe that only a few of the 24 teams don't have the Final Four as a real target. That makes for a great quality of competition. Then we saw three teams without homecourt advantage in the playoffs advance, which is something of a surprise. Without doubt, we have the top four teams. There are others with great quality, but only four can be at the Final Four. It's going to be interesting. I don't think you can say that any team is the favorite. All four have the same possibility to win the trophy. Two or three months ago, maybe nobody would say a couple of these teams would reach the Final Four. But here we are. Along with injuries and physical problems, motivation and desire are most important now."
And what about experience. Doesn't your record give you the advantage in this Final Four?
"I don't think that I have an advantage. I don't think that's so important. Experience always helps, sure, but I think that the players decide it. So, I'll try to prepare them. They have to play and concentrate well. Only in that sense, preparing the team well, can you have a chance to win. I respect all the other teams, the players, the coaches who work so well with them. Lele Molin worked with me; I know and respect him. David Blatt has plenty of experience. Simone Pianigiani has won a lot with Siena and is now the Italian national coach. It's not just me. There's a lot of coaching experience in this Final Four."