If there is any coach who can teach his players about what a unique opportunity the Final Four represents, it is Sergio Scariolo of Unicaja. Despite performing at the top of his profession since 1990, when he became a head coach, the chance to live through a Final Four has come only once for him until now. That last time was in 1991, his second season on the bench, which makes 16 years since Scariolo has tasted the chance to win it all. His team is nursing injuries, lost more games than the other Final Four teams combined and is the newcomer to the event, but Scariolo knows that none of that matters if his team is inspired to play their best basketball on Europe's biggest stage. "We've got to be absolutely ready to seize the moment in terms of enjoying every second of the event, and especially every second of the competition," Scariolo told Euroleague.net. "We can't go there thinking we are happy to be here, we weren't lucky this season, and next year things will be easier. We know that we are not one of those teams who can think they will probably be back in the Final Four next year."
Hello, Sergio. Congratulations on making the Final Four. How important was making this step for you, your players and your club?
"For the club, especially, it was big. We have to think in club or team terms. We are team players, coaches and employees. This is possibly the highest level so far that Unicaja has reached. From a national perspective, obviously winning the Spanish King's Cup or the national championship is something great. But from an international point of view - and for the overall prestige of the club - the Final Four is something even higher than that. We have to enjoy it and regard very highly what the team did."
The way Unicaja reached Athens seems extraordinary. You're record ws 4-7 in the middle of January. Was there a turnaround moment or did this team just believe in itself as long as there were mathematical chances?
"I don't think there has been a breakthrough moment. Since the beginning of the season, we have had to overcome and to respond to great crises. First, there was the franchise man, Garbajosa, leaving. Then Santiago arrived just at start of competition, two-and-a-half months after his other teammates. Then, immediately, Marcus Brown, the co-leader of the team, was injured and out for more or less six months. Everything starting then was us trying not to fall down: stand up, react, adjust, find a way to compete, first defensively and then, step by step, offensively, too. When things started to come together after that, we started to feel, let's say, that we had a chance to do something good in the Euroleague, to compete. We had started bad, but we felt our game was improving and the chemistry with our many new players was starting to form. We felt we were going ahead, not too fast, but going ahead. We were able to incorporate Marko Tusek and finally we reached the Top 16 by winning several games in a row: Panathinaikos, Roma, Partizan. When we finally made it to the Top 16, we felt it was a group in which any team could compete with the three. When we reached the playoffs, we faced Barcelona, a team that on paper was bigger for budget and for names, possibly on higher level, but we felt we had a chance. Then, a few hours before game three, we found out we couldn't have Santiago, who had been march MVP, and more or less the player around whom our game moves, because we play a four-out and one-in set and the one inside player is key. We had to adjust again, but our guys gave 100 percent, the crowd was very helpful and finally made it. Fatigue set in, we lost three straight games in the Spanish League on the last shots. Tusek got injured now, too. The whole season has been a case of getting bumped and reacting. And possibly this taught our team not to lose faith, not to take any trouble as the definitive and final one."
You are on a three-year arc of accomplishments - the club's first Spanish King's Cup, then the first Spanish League title, now the Final Four. Is it fair to say that one of your goals was to build a 'culture of winning' at Unicaja?
"It's not a matter of the coach or any single person. What I tried to suggest to the cub was to bring in players who already possessed the winning touch: Garbajosa, Marcus, Pepe, even Zan Tabak, who came here but couldn't play the season was with us due to injury. I wanted us bringing in people who could communicate to their peers what it takes to win. I think that when in your roster you have more players who have won and know how to win, for a coach it's easier to convince everyone to do the tough things that make you win, especially without one of top three or four budgets in the competition. It takes extra effort on defense, being really unselfish, making many sacrifices over the level every play thinks he can reach. But sometime he doesn't know how far he can reach, and if someone has already won, he can explain to the team how great it is to win. That helps me convince them that everything is worth it in terms of practice, game preparation, whatever you have to do to reach such an enjoyable and fantastic goal as winning a championship and making a Final Four."
This is your first appearance in the Final Four since qualifying in 1991 with Scavolini Pesaro. What memories do you have of that weekend in Paris?
"We played Split in the semifinal, then the third-place game against Maccabi. First of all, it was another first time. Scavolini was making its first and unfortunately its last Final Four in its history. It was great for us to make it and represent a town of just 90,000 people alongside those other great teams. It was a matter of pride just being there and competing against the champs from Yugoslavia, who had won the previous two titles and was going to win again. We competed against great players and stayed even or a little ahead most of the game, then we lost in the last two or three minutes. It was a great experience. I can remember most that our Scavolini team was unbelievable from a human point of view - guys like Walter Magnifico, Darren Daye, Ario Costa, Darwin Cook - apart from being great players."
In this Final Four, your team is the newcomer, having lost more this season than the others and now with injuries: Unicaja is considered by many to be an underdog. How do you respond?
"I don't think we have to focus on this aspect. We have to just think and prepare ourselves as best we can and compete as best we can. All other statements and considerations that are out there do not have to affect us in either way. We don't have to feel more or less pressure for the fact that no one thinks we can win. We'll focus on own preparations, then focus on competing on every possession. We'll focus on our part of the job. We want a good game plan and good practices before, and then to go out and compete 100 percent starting with the jump balll. That's it for us. Predicting and forecasting aren't our jobs. That's for the press and the fans to talk about."
In the same way, it is assumed that with Daniel Santiago out and Marcus Brown back, you will be remaking some things in the style of play. How difficult is it to do that, especially with a team like CSKA waiting?
"We have had to change our style several times. Our general philosophy didn't change, but we had to make many many basketball adjustments in terms of places, defense and rotation. Now we'll have to make another because of the Tusek injury. In certain ways, the team developed a capacity to adjust quickly. On other hand, obviously, if you lose a piece every certain time, it becomes tougher and tougher. Let's just say it's a big challenge for our coaching staff and players to respond and readjust like this. Marcus is absolutely a core player in our team, no question, although he's not 100 percent and won't be this season. He's getting better, but all players reach their top shape three or four months after the preseason, and Marcus started his preseason a month ago. We know that, but at the same time his mentality, spirit and character are contagious. We feel that even when not 100 percent, he is still a very important player."
You and CSKA coach Ettore Messina go way back to your early days in Italy, hitting the big-time as head coaches with early success. Now you're the only Italians in this Final Four. How do you feel about meeting him in this semifinal?
"It's a bit strange. We are friends. Obviously, on the day of the semifinal we will still be friends, but once on the court we'll be opponents. My view is that I am going to face the best. So I have to put aside the fact we are friends since we were 25 years old, more than 20 years ago. I have to put before me the challenge that I am going to face the best and push myself to the highest level for that reason. This coach in my opinion is the best in Europe."
What kind of attitude will you try to instill in your players, especially the many first-timers at a Final Four, before you reach Athens?
"Since your team doesn't have a 20-plus million euro budget, you know that your Final Four chances happen once ever X years, let's say. We've got to be absolutely ready to seize the moment in terms of enjoying every second of the event, and especially every second of the competition. We can't go there thinking we are happy to be here, we weren't lucky this season, and next year things will be easier. We know that we are not one of those teams who can think they will probably be back in the Final Four next year. Hopefully, we'll have that mentality, to be ready to get the best from every second of every possible minute of this experience."