Since he arrived to the Euroleague just five seasons ago, Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach Pini Gershon has marched straight toward the history books. From 2000 to 2005, with a two-year retirement in the middle, the colorful Gershon has taken each of his four Maccabi teams to a Final Four. Just as impressive, each so far has reached the title game, where he and Maccabi have won twice, the 2001 Suproleague trophy and the 2004 Euroleague crown. Last season's triumph was highlighted by 11 records set in the title game, including the most points scored and biggest margin of victory ever in a final. After the trophy was raised to the Tel Aviv crowd, Gershon was next, tossed in the air by the Maccabi players he had molded into immensely entertaining champs. A year later, Gershon again stands at the doorstep of history. With victory in Moscow, he would be the sixth coach to win three European titles, just the third to do so in the Final Four era. One thing is sure from this Euroleague.net Final Four interview: Gershon will have plenty of fun trying. "I believe that people love to watch high-speed basketball, attractive basketball with high scores, and of course you have to win the games," Gershon told Euroleague.net. "But it's not easy to lose when you score 96 points and up."
Is it true that you now want to change your last name to Gershonovic?
"Yes. To be part of the best coaches in Europe, you have to change your name to something that sounds Serbian. Then you have Ivkovic, Obradovic, Ivanovic and Gershonovic. I think it sounds good. It might help me."
There are rumors that you have a new box-and-one defense to play against Panathinaikos in the semifinal on Friday. Can you tell us something about it?
"Also true. As you know, in a normal box-and-one, four guys play zone defense and the fifth one man-to-man against a good player. Against Panathinaikos, I am thinking of a new box-and-one. We will go with one guy playing zone and four covering Obradovic."
Is it fair to say that the pressure is off for Maccabi going into this Final Four, certainly as compared to last year?
"We don't have any pressure. The pressure last year was on us because we were finalists with the homecourt advantage. Now, I believe that the same pressure is on CSKA. I can tell you one thing that is important: One team from this Final Four will finish fourth, another will be third, another will be second and only one will be champion. Somebody has to be happy and somebody has to be upset when it's over. That is the Final Four, but we are still the European champions until some other team takes the title away from us."
You hear a lot about coaches trying to lower the pressure on their teams. Does less pressure make for better basketball?
"I believe that the best four teams reach the Final Four. I don't feel the pressure so far, not here. I don't know what the pressure will be in the coming days, but I don't feel it here so far. I know how the situation was last season, two or three days before the Final Four, and we have experience from that situation. Maybe we won' t have any pressure. Maybe it will come now. I can't say. But right now, we are trying to prepare the team professionally, not psychologically, because I don't feel the need for it."
Some of your players have said that Maccabi has played better basketball this season than last, in part because there was less pressure. Do you agree?
"I can tell you that it's an advantage to play two years on row on same level with a lot of the same players. If they say we are playing better, what can I say? The second years are usually better, and a third year together would be, too. I think the communication is better. In the Top 16 we played better defense, while during most of the season before that we were better on offense. In the Top 16, we played better defense, and so did Panathinaikos and Tau. If the players feel that way, even if I don't agree, what can I say? I think we can play better. I don't know if that will be in the Final Four."
Is it fair to say that Maccabi is trying to break the old rules by winning titles based more on offense than defense?
"I think that idea started from the season that Zalgiris won the championship, in 1999. It was always said that the best offense is a good defense, but now maybe the best defense is a good offense. As I said, we played very good defense in the Top 16, but each coach has to know his players and what they can do, and then take the best from each one of them. If you have better offensive players, you have to take advantage of that. I believe that we have shown in the last couple of years that our system works well and that's why we score more. It's not that the offense only is good, but you have to play good defense and force the opponents to play your basketball. You've got to get the possession first. You need possessions to make points, and then you need to make the best of every possession."
Is having fun and entertaining the fans part of your offensive philosophy?
"When I came to Maccabi seven years ago, the gym was half empty, maybe more than half empty. What I said was that we had to play attractive basketball and, of course, win games and titles. I believe that people love to watch high-speed basketball, attractive basketball with high scores, and of course you have to win the games. But it's not easy to lose when you score 96 and up. You still have to play defense, and we also put that in the team, and so far we are succeeding."
You and Panathinaikos have met in many big games. Are you happy to see that rivalry continued with the semifinal on Friday?
"I can tell you Panathinaikos is no easier to play than another team. When you come to a Final Four, you can't expect any easy team in this situation, and you don't expect one. The best teams led by the best coaches are the ones in the Final Four, which will make for good basketball. Anything can happen, and that's what we want to see in sport. I don't think anything is for sure. I don't put my money on any champion team or any other to finish fourth. As for us and Panathinaikos, of course I like playing them. Why not? It's like a derby. Most of the games between these teams were exciting games, tough games, and I believe the next will be the same."
Do you expect something like a chess match against Zeljko Obradovic of Panathinaikos in the semifinal?
"I believe that what you did the whole season good and what led you to the Final Four will work best for you at the Final Four. If you change something, you don't believe in your team, in what you did, what brought you to the Final Four. Zeljko is a very, very smart coach. We will try to expect everything and to think ahead about everything like you do when you play chess. But there's no great chance that he will do one thing or another. We have to be ready for everything, and he will do the same. During 40 minutes, we must expect everything, without ever knowing for sure. So you have to prepare your team in what we and they did the whole season."
I don't want to say success came late to you, but you were nearing 50 before you coached a Euroleague team. Did you always know you could succeed at this level, or was it something you had to prove to yourself?
"When I got to this level, and I saw the other coaches, I wanted to know if I was good like them. I wanted to be the best. I was the best in Israel when I started with Maccabi. And when I reached European basketball, I wanted to be one of the best there, too."
You've been to three previous Final Fours and made it to the title game each time. Would anything less than that be a disappointment for you this time?
"I want to win the title. But first you want to be in the Final. To win the title you have to be there. When we make it to the Final, then I'll tell you if we'll win or not. Maybe I give up and retire before that, on Saturday."