| Starting in the late 1970s, as a teenager playing in his hometown of Cacak, Serbia, knowing that he wanted to coach someday, Zeljko Obradovic studied for his future profession. He took notes after every practice as he moved up as a player to Partizan Belgrade and the Yugoslav national team. Now, after two decades on the bench, Obradovic has proved himself to be one of the best coaches in basketball history. His eighth Euroleague title, won with Panathinaikos at the 2011 Turkish Airlines Euroleague in Barcelona earlier this month, gave him double any other coach. And he has now lifted the continental trophy more times than anyone, player and/or coach, having surpassed the seven won by Dino Meneghin. Don't expect Obradovic to run out of motivation, either. At age 51, he has yet to repeat as a Euroleague champion with the same team, despite having won five titles in the last 11 seasons with Panathinaikos, which now stands just two trophies from tying Real Madrid for the continental record. "My desire is to see Panathinaikos to become the best team ever in Europe," Obradovic told Euroleague.net. "We have tied CSKA Moscow now with six titles. We only have Real Madrid ahead of us. So that's a great goal to shoot for."
How does your eighth Euroleague title feel? Does it surprise you in any way having won double the Euroleague titles of any other coach in European basketball history?
"The truth is that what I think about most is Panathinaikos getting one more title. The personal goals are not important to me. I am happy for Panathinaikos and for my players. They worked very hard for this and it was a difficult year, especially after everything that happened last season. When we put this team together, we told them they would have to fight for everything. Now, as for the personal side, the eight titles, as I said before, I can't do anything alone. My work is done with the players, my staff and everyone else at Panathinaikos, most importantly with the owners, the Giannokopoulos brothers. We are all here thanks to them. For a coach to have success, he needs the help of all those people, and the stability of the club and the staff has been important. The players, in the end, have to get the job done, and I think that what Panathinaikos does best is create an environment in which everyone understands what they have to do. Thanks to that, we are able to win titles."
When and how did you know that you had a gift for coaching?
"When I was very young and still playing in my hometown, Cacak. I was on my team, Borac, in the first division in ex-Yugoslavia and by the time I was 21, I was also coaching kids who were 12 and 13. That's how I know coaching interested me and in the future I would try to coach. I then spent a lot of time working with players and coaches at an elite level, playing for Partizan and the Yugoslav national team, and that helped me a lot to learn and prepare. Every day, I was writing down after practice what we did, how we worked. I did that starting at age 18, actually. I knew that I wanted to coach someday. But I had no idea it would be at a level like this!"
A famous American football coach believed that Super Bowls were won before the game starts, in the preparation beforehand. When are Final Fours won?
"The Final Four is a competition that is very unique. You normally prepare your semifinal most of all. You have a lot of time to concentrate on that and it's the most important for you. But you also study the two teams in the other semifinal because you will play one in either the final or the third-place game. Then, after the semifinal, you compare what you know about your next opponent with what they did on Friday night. The truth is they can't change much from Friday to Sunday: they can't and you can't. You have to recover from the semifinal and react in one day for the final, so there's no time to do all the work. You have to have it ready before. That's why it's very important to arrive prepared."
What is most important for you to accomplish in training before arriving at a Final Four?
"What I want to achieve most is that the players have a high concentration level at the time of practicing, watching video and working on the small details we want them to use in the games. That's what is most important before the Final Four, that they understand that our ideas are good and that they are our best way to win the game. If they see that and concentrate and work together and enjoy that work, that's what is most important."
After your semifinal victory, Montepaschi Siena's players said they lost it by missing open shots. What was the difference in that game for you?
"It's true that they missed a lot of easy shots. But it's also true that their offensive rebounds were the story of the game in the first half. So there are a lot of aspects to talk about. Once we started to control the rebounds more, as we did in the second half, it became easier for us. Lots of things happen in a game. It also depends on how each player feels, the speed of a game and the ability of the players to read situations that come up. Of course, shooting counts, but a Final Four game depends on many things. We try to tell our team that no matter how important the Final Four is, it's one more game, and we have to do what we always do."
What did you think of Maccabi coach David Blatt saying, a day before the final, that he would love to have a son play for you someday?
"It made me proud to hear a colleague that I respect as a great coach and a great person say something like that. If I hang around to coach Blatt's son, it also means that I'll be coaching a long time, and that would be great, too!"
What worried you the most about Maccabi coming into the game?
"The intensity with which they play. Also their defenses. They are always trying to change defenses. They do different things on defense. Then, on offense, they are a team with a lot of individual skill. They won a lot of games by taking advantage of opportunities to run and scoring the ball early. We had to prepare for that. We focuses our players on reading the various Maccabi defenses well and on not letting any of their players shoot comfortably. Of course, that is easier said than done."
Besides winning in the end, what key moments will you remember about the title game?
"The key for me was in the second half, when we started to play defense well. When we got up by 7, 8, 9 and finally 13 points, it was key for us in order play with more calm. It stayed that way except for a couple moments at the end, when they were able to pressure us, because we missed some shots. Those were a couple difficult moments, but we deserved to win the game."
Looking back, which was the most difficult Euroleague title out of the eight you have won?
"I think that each title is very different and very difficult. Not one of them has come easy. From the first in 1992 with Partizan, when I was a rookie coach and had the youngest team in the Euroleague, until the last one in Barcelona earlier this month, you always suffer. What I know is true about all of them is you have to 100-percent effort from everyone in the club to win the Euroleague."
You have never repeated as Euroleague champ with the same team. Is that the next goal?
"It's going to be very difficult. First, we have to see what kind of team we'll have. At the end of this season, a lot of contracts will end. There's also a lot of talk about an NBA lockout. We'll see what Europeans and American players there might want to come here. It will be an interesting summer. Anyway, I will think positive for now, and then after summer, we'll see. It's too early now to say anything about our chances of repeating."
Panathinaikos is two Euroleague titles away from tying Real Madrid's record of eight. Do you consider that a new goal?
"Speaking for myself, I would love to be able to do something like that. That's a challenge, however, for all the people at Panathinaikos, not just me. We have to see if we are all up to the challenge. My desire is to see Panathinaikos to become the best team ever in Europe. We have tied CSKA Moscow now with six titles. We only have Real Madrid ahead of us. So that's a great goal to shoot for. I hope that all the people in Panathinaikos think the same way. As for me, sure, that's something I would love to do. But as I said, it doesn't depend only on me, but on a lot of things. No success that we have had all these years together would have been possible without our fans. We'll need them to be at our side in the difficult moments, as always. So it depends on them, too."