If you talk about the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four and the dominant characters at the event, the first name that comes to mind is Fenerbahce Istanbul head coach Zeljko Obradovic. He has been to the Final Four with six different teams – Partizan Belgrade, Joventut Badalona, Real Madrid, Benetton Treviso, Panathinaikos Athens and Fenerbahce – and this is his 16th appearance in European basketball's signature event in the three decades of the Final Four era. His success is undeniable; he has been to 10 Euroleague championship games and won eight of them, which is the all-time record. Obradovic is now trying to make Fenerbahce the first Turkish team to win the EuroLeague. His team was one play away from glory last season and a good number of Fenerbahce fans are expected at Sinan Erdem Dome to cheer the team on this time. Obradovic obviously knows what it takes to go all the way and knows that playing in Istanbul may be important, but not as much as his team's desire and determination to win the title, as Coach Obradovic told EuroLeague.net in this interview. "We know we will have a lot of fans helping us, which is always good, but it all depends on the outcome. If you win, everyone will say it helped you a lot and if you won't, they will say we had a lot of pressure. We will see!" Obradovic said. "My opinion: in the end, you play five-on-five on the court and this is where you see everything."
Coach, congratulations on another Final Four qualification. What do you like most about what your team did this season to make it back to the Final Four?
"First of all, thank you. We started the season knowing that everyone wanted to put pressure on us because the Final Four is in Istanbul and Fenerbahce had to be there. I tried to talk to my players in a different way; no matter where the Final Four was, this team is built to compete against everybody and to be one of the best teams in Europe. We are proud to be back to the Final Four for the third consecutive season, knowing that Fenerbahce had never accomplished anything like that. We had ups and downs during the season, which is normal, because we only had a full roster in seven out of 30 games. We have been without one, two, even three players and with the team we had, if a key player is missing, you notice it. Still, we didn't cry about it and managed to play hard, fight and in the end, we finished the regular season without the home-court advantage, knowing we had to play against Panathinaikos and it is always hard to play on their court. We have a lot of respect for them but finally, we had all players available before the playoffs, in good condition, working well. We played a good playoff series against Panathinaikos and that was the key to be in the Final Four."
This was the longest, most-challenging EuroLeague season ever. Does that make the accomplishment of reaching this Final Four even more special?
"Yes, without a doubt, it is a different competition this season and this is good for basketball and for the EuroLeague. Everybody admitted that it is a great competition. I have to be happy about qualifying to the Final Four in the first season under the new format, of course."
How difficult was it for Fenerbahce to get any consistency with all the injuries your team had this season?
"Yes, we know this is very important. We knew that if we want to get where we are, we had to be patient and work very hard every day. When it was playoff time, it is important to be at the level you require to get to the Final Four and like I told you, the team worked really well for two weeks before facing Panathinaikos. That allowed our playing level to go up."
That consistency arrived just in time for the playoffs. Did you suspect at all that, once healthy, your team could make history like it did in the playoffs?
"Yes, yes, this is what I talked about with the players. We said that all that matters is strong health and practice. If we all managed to be well and work the way we like to work, it was going to be different, and this is what happened."
In the past, maybe you played the other Final Four teams before the event, maybe not. How does it help you, as a coach preparing for the Final Four, to know all of them, first-hand, already this season?
"In that sense, it is not that important, but like I said, this is good for basketball. You know you have played against everyone and are now in the Final Four after playing twice against our opponent, Real Madrid. We had a tough game at home against them which we won in the final minutes and the game in Madrid was very similar. We are also 1-1 against Olympiacos and beat CSKA twice, but that doesn't mean anything right now. Everything is completely different now. We are also a different team than when we played against Madrid in the Final Four two years ago. We now have the experience of being in the Final Four, which we didn't have in 2015."
What worries you most about Real Madrid, your semifinal opponent?
"Well, they are a very defined playing team since Pablo Laso joined the team, which everyone can recognize. They have changed the team a bit, have some new players, but their playing style is the same – a lot of defensive work to go in transition and get easy baskets. They have big players, three-point shooters and everyone powers the offensive rebounds after a three-point shot. It is a team that keeps playing the way it did in the last five years."
Pablo Laso used 10 players in the playoffs, and you used about eight. In do-or-die games like a semifinal or final, do you prefer a shorter rotation?
"It really depends on the game. I can't say it is always like that; it depends on each game. You have a game plan before you start, but also have to react during the game. It all depends on the actual moment, like it always was, like it always will."
Have you ever seen anyone shoot with time running out like Sergio Llull? How would you try to stop him at the end of a close semifinal?
"He is having an incredible season, hitting all those shots in the final seconds. You can tell he is working on that, this is not coincidence. He didn't hit one or two of these shots; he does it practically every time he takes a last-second shot! That tells you he is very talented and worked really hard to do this. I would like to congratulate him for everything he did because he is playing at an amazing level, not just hitting last-second shots. He is playing at a very high level."
Sinan Erdem Dome is not Fenerbahce's arena, but you will be the home team in terms of fan numbers. You saw the effect of that with Panathinaikos in 2007. How much of an advantage is it and how much pressure does it create?
"Look, this is a question I heard for a long time. As a coach, I had this experience in Bologna, back in 2002, on their court, and then in 2007 with Panathinaikos in our court. We played in Real Madrid's arena two years ago and this season, it is time to play in Istanbul, but it is different because we are the only team that has to change continents! Everyone else comes from Europe! I have asked the club how we will go to Europe from Asia to play this Final Four! Just kidding. Truth is, this is not our home court. We know we will have a lot of fans helping us, which is always good, but it all depends on the outcome. If you win, everyone will say it helped you a lot and if you won't, they will say we had a lot of pressure. We will see! My opinion: in the end, you play five-on-five on the court and this is where you see everything. The only wish that I have is that everything goes well. We have told our fans to help us, but also respect the others. Just the other day, I have to say I was really satisfied when I saw how Real Madrid fans reacted at Santiago Bernabeu when Leo Messi scored the third goal in the big football derby, Madrid versus Barcelona. This is sportsmanship and this is what basketball needs. So we told our fans to help us, but also respect all the other teams, especially Madrid in the semifinal, and any team that plays against us, anytime."
You know better than anyone what it means to win the EuroLeague. Will it mean something extra this time to take the title in the first season of this new, true EuroLeague?
"Being the first champion is not that important; when you win, you are happy. It is difficult to talk about this right now. I have to be really focused on the game against Madrid, nothing else, and so does my team. We have to try to do what we always did, take one game at a time, without thinking of anything else."