The dean of European basketball coaches, Dusan Ivkovic, came to CSKA on a mission three seasons ago. His challenge was nothing more nor less than to make one of Europe's historic clubs, and with it all of Russian basketball, rise again to the top of the sport. Most people would consider that mission to be complete after Ivkovic and CSKA have reached three Final Fours in a row. This season, they outdid themselves and any previous European basketball team by posting a remarkable overall record of 53-1 in the Euroleague and the Russian League. The last step of their incredible season comes on Friday, when the Final Four begins in their own city, Moscow. With a clear view of history, Ivkovic says in this Euroleague.net Final Four interview that for him, the last challenge of them all, to give CSKA its first continental title since 1971, is the most exciting. "It would mean a lot for such a big, traditional team like CSKA, led by my good friend Mr. Gomelsky, who has worked so hard, to see Russian basketball return to the same position where he had put it as a coach," Ivkovic told Euroleague.net. "I think everyone needs to see that. It will be good for European and for world basketball. It is our job, mine and the general job of CSKA, to make that happen. We are all trying our best."
Having seen and done as much in European basketball as almost anyone, could you have expected CSKA to have such a good season?
"Of course, we have very high targets. For sure, we need to respect all our opponents. Until now, we have participated in all three Final Fours since I've been here. Generally, we are among the most successful teams. In the previous two Final Fours, we had the disadvantage of the regulations putting us against two very good home teams, Barcelona in 2003 and Maccabi last year. But that doesn't mean that this year we can expect something the same. I would say it has been very hard work to qualify for the Final Four. There was a lot of pressure from the beginning of the season, with everyone saying we are the favorites, but first of all we needed to qualify. I think that now, in this moment, we have to enjoy. It is one real Final Four, for the simple reason that really the four best teams have qualified. It's not a situation like last year, when fans did not come to Tel Aviv. I expect lots of fans from each team this time. So our team has no real homecourt advantage. We are playing at Olympiysky Arena for the first time, like the other teams. The locker rooms, the floor, the baskets will all be new to us on the 5th of May. For all these reasons, I expect a great Final Four, but we also expect to have our chances to win."
How was CSKA able to win this season more than any team before in Europe?
"I think that this season, we don't have so many real stars, like for example Maccabi last year, with their biggest victory in the history of European basketball, and this year. I think we play with a team philosophy, a winning philosophy of winning basketball. We did not prepare the team to set records in consecutive wins or anything like that. Very simply, everyone knows his role and this team knows how to win the game. To me, now at the Final Four, we need to concentrate and we need to do more than ever. But we will do everything to be ready."
You have talked before about there having been a three-year plan when you arrived at CSKA. What are your thoughts now, at the last step of that process?
"About our organization and strategy for this year, this team is a little similar, maybe a little hungrier, more hungry for titles than the last two teams. The feeling until now is that this team is ready to play under big pressure. Now we are at the last stage. We are ready to do our best in this Final Four. Everything else is done until now. Personally, I am ready to prepare myself mentally as well as possible for the day of the semifinals. It is the day of a big holiday for me, my saint's day in the Serbian Orthodox Church. He is Saint George, and he is a winner and a fighter. I expect the same thing from myself and my players, to be at our best."
You changed some important parts of the team after last season despite making the Final Four. What were you looking for?
"I like athletic abilities. Even so, I think maybe our transition game is not on the level of our transition game in the first year. But this year we can score the basket when we need to score one. Maybe our defense is not as good generally as last year, but when we need to play it, to defend, we know how to do it well. Like I said, everyone knows his role. When we say go, everyone concentrates and fights. I think this team is very mentally tough."
At least four key players are new to the team this season - Dikoudis, Muursepp, Granger and Andersen - but the team showed none of the usual need to adjust for new players or wait for them to adapt. How was that possible?
"When you have to choose new players to replace old ones, most of the time you only do so with the possibility of getting someone with experience. With Dikoudis and Muursepp, I had worked with them five years ago at AEK, so I knew what to expect. Antonio Granger came and proved to be an absolute gentleman, a great guy. With Victor Khryapa leaving, and knowing we had problems last season against zones, we needed someone exactly like Antonio, who is also a great rebounder and jumper as well as a player who filled an important need in our offense. David Anderson was maybe the biggest surprise. I don't forget seeing him at the Olympics and saying that David played his basketball without rules, and even on his Italian teams came off the bench a lot. But we have guidelines, and everyone knows his rules, and with that he has been a big positive. It is them together with other guys. Papaloukas, an all-around player, is for sure to me the best sixth man in Europe. There is a role for Marcus Brown, our shooting guard, that is one of clear leadership. All our Russian players, Savrasenko and Panov and even Zakhar Pashutin, play very good backup roles, and even Sergei Monya is now playing some great basketball, most recently in the Russian Cup. So we have a lot of killers. We play generally with 14 players and each knows his role, even young players. That's our philosophy, now and looking towards the future."
Marcus Brown said that you talked to him last summer about cutting his minutes to keep him fresh. Were you thinking of now, at the end of the seaosn, when you decided that?
"Marcus has always been the player for tough jobs, always the player for different roles. I think that Marcus is a player for big, great games, but I wanted to keep his minutes down so he would be at full strength for this challenge. At the end of the summer, I gave the team more than the usual days off in preseason, something more like the NBA preseason. As such, he had a full two or three months off. He's a fighter, but his body is very heavy from playing so hard. And he needs to be fresh to use his body to fight."
Having been to five Final Fours with three different teams, do you have a philosophy for approaching and playing a Final Four?
"Of course it's a different mentality that you need. To me, always the most important game is the semifinal. After that, the final is much easier to play. This season I think we face the team that for sure is in the best shape of the last month, Tau Ceramica. I respect very much their team. We know each other well after playing four times in the last two years. That we beat them all four of those games doesn't mean we don't need to concentrate. For sure, it is not the same to play a regular season game and a Final Four. For sure this is special, mentally and philosophically. You need to know."
Can we say these are the four strongest teams ever to meet in a Final Four?
"I think so, yes, I think so. I think these are the strongest four teams ever to make the Final Four. That is my feeling at the moment. Like in other years, I expected a surprise result, a new team like maybe AEK or Efes, who played well all year. But I think now that all these teams deserve to be in the Final Four. And maybe this is the strongest four in the history of basketball. It is going to be great."
What will be most important for your team playing against Tau in the semifinal?
"We play so many games. As a coach, you either like or don't like some of them. With this team, Tau, you can't let them score easy points. They are absolutley covered in scoring with Scola and Macijauskas, so there is no room to give them more points. For sure we know how to play them, and we know better how to control the game at all its phases than Tau. That is our advantage."
CSKA and Maccabi, the teams a lot of fans hope to see in the final, build a bridge back to a previous era of European basketball in the 1960s and 1970s. Is the work of putting CSKA back in the elite complete, win or lose in the Final Four?
"There are expectations to relive those old successes. I can remember 1971, when CSKA last won the European league. I also remember when I was with AEK and we won the Saporta Cup, beating Kinder Bologna in the final, it was the club's first title in 32 years, from 1968 to 2000. Now, in this situation, I would like very much to repeat this feeling. It would mean a lot for such a big, traditional team like CSKA, led by my good friend Mr. Gomelsky, who has worked so hard, to see Russian basketball return to the same position where he had put it as a coach. I think everyone needs to see that. It will be good for European and for world basketball. It is our job, mine and the general job of CSKA, to make that happen. We are all trying our best."