The 2017 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four saw a very familiar face on top of the podium at the end of an unforgettable weekend for Fenerbahce Istanbul fans. Head coach Zeljko Obradovic had written a new, brilliant page in the EuroLeague history book, a book in which there are already many chapters about him. Obradovic won his ninth EuroLeague title, which is more than any other player or coach since European competitions started back in 1958. He has now led five different teams (Partizan Belgrade, Joventut Badalona, Real Madrid, Panathinaikos Athens and now Fenerbahce) to EuroLeague glory. The fact that Obradovic won his first EuroLeague title with Partizan 25 years ago in Istanbul takes his career full circle. Widely considered one of the best coaches in basketball history, Obradovic is a role model for almost every coach out there due to his work ethic, how he prepares his roster to peak at the right time and the privileged way he reads games, which allows him to be two or three steps ahead of everyone else. Perhaps what makes Obradovic most special is his love of coaching, as he explained to Javier Gancedo of EuroLeague.net. "My main motivation is to arrive to practice, be on the court and be able to work with my players. This is the biggest motivation for me, because I love my job, what I do," Obradovic said. "I am very happy doing my job and I don't need an extra motivation. It is what it is, and as long as it is like that, I will carry on being a coach."
Hello, coach. Congratulations on another EuroLeague title. This is your ninth title, but your first in six years. Did you miss that feeling of winning the EuroLeague?
"Thank you. Well, I didn't have time to think like that, you know? I arrived to Fenerbahce four years ago with the clear idea of trying to do some things which allowed the team to be one of the best in Europe. I think we did everything we could; we made it to the Final Four in the last three years, went step by step and managed to get the title today, a dream-come-true for all Fenerbahce fans."
Is it more special to win with a team for the first time, like you did with Partizan and Joventut in the past?
"Well, in a way, it is more special, but you always celebrate a title in the same way. Of course, everybody wants to be the EuroLeague champion. It is always special when you win it for the first time, of course, like it happened to me with Partizan, Joventut and now with Fenerbahce."
How important – and how difficult – was it to bring Fenerbahce to its best playing level at the right time, before the start of the playoffs?
"We prepared the season knowing what happened last year. We really tried to be in our best shape from the beginning of the season, but had a lot of injuries along the way. Like I said before, in 30 regular season games, we only had a full roster available in seven of them. Luckily, everybody was healthy right before the start of the key games, the playoffs. We practiced really well and after that, we have really played at a very good level. This has helped us a lot in the last part of the EuroLeague, because we were all healthy and, again, good practices allowed us to raise our playing level."
Were those two playoffs road wins against Panathinaikos the turning point of the season, when Fenerbahce became unstoppable, physically and mentally?
"Yes, without any kind of doubt. Like I said, we had started to work well right before those games and you could feel that in practice. When you have 15 players available, you can work the way you like. In that moment of the season, you need a lot more intensity and shorter practices, but with everyone working in the same direction. Of course, the best help is a good result, and beating Panathinaikos on the road not once, but twice, helps a lot. We kept it going until now."
In your previous win in 2011, you didn't have the home-court advantage against Barcelona, but won the last five games of the season to lift the trophy. How do you compare the experiences?
"Well, in a way, it was similar. Like you said, we played without the home-court advantage, but you play against a good team, in this case, Panathinaikos, with quality players at all positions and that plays in front of 20,000 people. You have to go in there with a lot of respect, but when you win, it gives you confidence and you believe in your own chances. This is always very important for a team."
Going back to the semifinal against Madrid, how much of a priority was it for your team to stop them from circulating the ball? They had 14 assists and 16 turnovers.
"Yes, we prepared the game that way. We knew that Madrid is a team that likes to move the ball a lot and always gets a lot of assists. We managed to make them play a different game from what they usually like to play. I believe we dominated the game all the way through, always with the lead. Of course, Madrid is a talented team and has players who fight hard, so they managed to recover in some moments, but I believe we were the fair winners, having the game in our favor from the beginning until the end."
Once in the final against Olympiacos, everyone played well. Was last year's experience critical to start strong and stay focused all game long?
"Yes, I think so. The experience we had last season helped the team, for sure; you could tell from the very beginning of the game. We were very focused and it was a very, very solid game in the end. Our level went down a little bit in the second quarter, in the final minutes of it. We were in a very strange situation, because we had no fouls and it was possible to play more aggressive on defense, but we didn't take advantage of it. On the other hand, we improved in all aspects of the game in the second half and in the end, we won comfortably, especially knowing how tough it is to play against Olympiacos. This is a team that never gives up and fights until the end, but this year, we really deserved to win."
A lot of your players had an excellent Final Four, but Ekpe Udoh was just unstoppable, doing everything right. How important has he been to this success?
"Yes, his performance index ratings were impressive in both the semifinal and the final, and I think he was a fair Final Four MVP, but other players did really well, too. It was not a one-player show; what [Nikola] Kalinic did in both games makes you tip your hat off, due to his hard work and how he helped the team. Also our point guards, Bogdanovic, Vesely, Gigi Datome... everyone who stepped on court. Pero Antic had eight good minutes in the final, giving us his experience. It was a team effort, but of course, if someone plays the way Ekpe played, that makes him a deserved MVP."
This is your fourth season with Fenerbahce Istanbul. How difficult has the process been to go from being a good team to the EuroLeague champion?
"Well, you need to take big steps, like we did. Everyone said last season that we were a good team and the trophy slipped away, as most people say, due to an offensive rebound. In last year's Final Four, we won our semifinal game in overtime, and lost the final in overtime. That means that small details decided who is the champion, who plays the final and things like that. In this year's Final Four, I believe that we dominated against both Madrid and Olympiacos. This is what happened; my team was able to show how talented it is. Above all, congratulations to the players."
It is also the first EuroLeague title for Turkish basketball. How proud are you to contribute to the rise of basketball in this country?
"Yes, I am very proud of that. Like I said before the Final Four, you can notice in every corner of Istanbul that people spoke about basketball. Istanbul has become a basketball city. Like I said, winning the EuroLeague was a dream-come-true not only for Fenerbahce fans, who have many reasons to be happy. We know what it takes to win the EuroLeague, so now it is time to compete in the Turkish League playoffs and after that, prepare the new season with same desire. When someone has dreams and desire, it all can come true."
You never won consecutive EuroLeague titles with the same team. Is that the new challenge in your career, reaching number 10 before any club, player or coach, ever?
"All this is good. Of course, it is something nice, but my main motivation is to arrive to practice, be on the court and be able to work with my players. This is the biggest motivation for me, because I love my job, what I do. I am very happy doing my job and I don't need an extra motivation. It is what it is, and as long as it is like that, I will carry on being a coach."