From one basketball capital where he learned the game to another where he turned knowledge into titles, Maccabi center Nikola Vujcic has proven to be one of the sport's steadiest inside forces all decade. A funny thing happened, however, when Vujcic decided in 2001 to trade the yellow of his original team, the historic Split of Croatia, for the yellow of Maccabi. Forced by domestic league regulations to choose between a pair of foreign centers, Maccabi decided to loan Vujcic to another Euroleague team. Vujcic returned the following season, and the rest is history, with him as Maccabi's secret weapon. During Maccabi's record-breaking title run last season, Vujcic led Maccabi in scoring. Now, at the Final Four in Moscow starting May 6, he and Maccabi look to become the first team since Split in 1991 to repeat as European champions. "It's both a great challenge and a great motivation for us," Vujcic told Euroleague.net. "It would be great for me to be able to say that if you want to win two in a row, you need to get a guy from Split!"
Nikola, you have had another great season, the team is still a scoring machine. Except for your injury, has everything gone according to plan?
"Yes, everything is pretty much according to plan. Our main goal was to pass to the Final Four, to be there and get the chance to get a trophy again. It's both a great challenge and a great motivation for us. The last team to do it back-to-back was my home club in Split. It would be great for me to be able to say that if you want to win two in a row, you need to get a guy from Split!"
You guys actually qualified easier this year than last, when there was so much pressure to make it in Tel Aviv. Did this time around seem easier?
"It was a little bit easier, yes, because we had less pressure and expectations. On the other hand, it's never easy to reach a Final Four. The only thing that made it easier this time was that all the players on our team knew each other better this season. The more you play together, the better you play, and I think we played better basketball over the whole season this time."
Are you less nervous going into your second Final Four as a champ?
"I don't know. I think it's the same nervousness and tensions. Last year, we had the same goal of getting to the Final Four and the same coming into it, to win. In a Final Four, you can't predict what will happen, because just one game can change it. It depends on so many things that need to go right in just one day. So I am happy to be there because that was our main goal. And I am nervous, yes, but it's a positive nervousness."
Do you guys see the need to put on a different mentality this time, considering you won't have a homecourt advantage?
"It's not all about the homecourt, because these games would be difficult to play in our gym or in Moscow. At least we will bring the crowd with us, and they will be just as noisy and give us just as much energy during the game. Of course, this year the advantage is on CSKA's side, and until now, the last two seasons, the home team has used that advantage to win."
There is talk of this being perhaps the strongest Final Four teams ever seen together in one weekend. Do you agree with that?
"Yeah, I can agree with this. Especially this year, the way the Euroleague changed the competition format; it gave the perfect chances for the best teams to get to the Final Four. I think the teams playing the best basketball in Europe are in the Final Four. In years before this, there have been good teams also, but maybe also a team that finished sixth in the regular season. Now, I don't think that will happen again."
Your semifinal opponent is Panathinaikos, whose rivalry with Maccabi started before you got to Tel Aviv. Does that kind of recent history matter at this time?
"Of course, these two teams have been in the Euroleague so long and played each other almost every year. They have made history between them, great history, with both teams holding good and bad memories. But this is a new chapter. This will add to the history they have together. It is good for basketball to have this rivalry and good for history that we are playing each other again. Everyone wants to watch and see what happens."
How will Maccabi's frontcourt make it in Moscow without Deon Thomas, an important backup whose injury on the practice floor really affected you guys?
"Deon was a very, very big and important part of this team. Especially at this point of the season last year he helped us a lot. He has so much experience, he knows how to play at this stage of the year. We are going to miss him a lot. The other big men have to play two games without him, but we have the people to get the job done and achieve our goal. We won't make excuses."
Maccabi has added three friendly games to keep sharp during the run-up to Moscow. How much more do players prefer that to having all practices?
"The players take these games very seriously. Our league in Israel is not so strong this season, so we need these kinds of games to keep sharp, as you said. We did it last year and it helped us to be in good shape for the Final Four."
Not to say that Maccabi's defense has been a question mark, because it obviously got the job done after the regular season. But will defense be the big challenge for your team in Moscow?
"You cannot beat anyone without defense, especially at this stage of the year. But we scored almost 100 points in almost every Euroleague game, so I think that other teams must play their worst defense ever against us. In the Top 16, we played great defense, just 70 to 75 points per game. I hope we do it now again, because it could help us a lot."
The offense is almost never a question because you guys play on one of the highest-scoring teams in modern pro basketball. How fun is it to be a part of that offense?
"It's great, great fun. You have so much confidence. It doesn't matter who will get the ball, because he will score. We made this team like a team. No one matter who scores, we enjoy passing the ball. It is such a good team game, everyone enjoys. That’s why we score a lot and play nice basketball that people enjoy watching. And that's important, too."