Even when he's going with a third different team for a fifth time and has won two Euroleague titles before, for CKSA Moscow coach Ettore Messina there is something new about reaching the Final Four this season. In his first year coaching outside his native Italy, having to meet high expectations in Moscow even after a top player was injured midway through the season, Messina has managed to guide CSKA to a record fourth consecutive Final Four appearance. In the process, Messina says he has found more satisfaction than he could ever have expected at his new club.
Coach, you have been this way before, with several Final Fours, a pair of titles in 1998 and 2001. Even with all that, is making it this year a particularly satisfying accomplishment for you?
"It is, first of all, because this is the first year I am out of my country. Second, it happens after coming to a big club like CSKA that has great expectations. Plus we changed a lot here, made a different roster and a different situation. For all those reasons, I felt that it was a very important season. We had two crucial moments, when we lost two games to start the season and when David Andersen got hurt. But in both of those situations, what was important was that we felt support from the club management and Sergey Kuschenko the whole time. Everyone stayed supportive and focused, and that helped both me and my players a lot."
No one is surprised to see Ettore Messina or CSKA at a Final Four. Together, you seem like a strong match of serious professionals. How does it feel for you in your new club?
"I feel at home here. This club is as organized as an NBA top-level club. Plus they all maintain a family attitude. As one of my players, David Vanterpool, has said, they care about you, care about the team and care about CSKA. Everyone works hard for this feeling and it gives you an urge to give 101 percent, for the happiness of the club and the fans. It's a fantastic atmosphere. I thought that would be hard to find in any club in a town with 13 million people. Now, I think it's a great accomplishment for CSKA to be so professional and to have that family attitude. It's a rare combination, and we are fortunate to have it here."
Could you ever predicted even just a few years that you might coach in Russia? What does that say about European basketball's growth?
"My first talk with Sergey Kuschenko goes back to 2002, when we played in Perm with Kinder. I think he was in the process of moving to CSKA. He was probably interviewing a lot of people to exchange thoughts and ideas. A few months later, when I left Kinder, the issue came up again, but then we both took different ways. But I was left with the feeling that it could be possible someday. As for the growth here, I think that at this moment, not only with the financial means that most clubs have here, but also with the professional working level, recruiting and organization of at least the top five or six teams in our domestic league, Russian basketball is giving a totally different image to themselves and to European basketball. All the foreign basketball players here makes Russian basketball followed in other countries, such as Spain, Italy and France. And that's something that the Euroleague cares about, that basketball is spread out and liked all over, not just in so-called old Europe, or let's say old western Europe. Not any more. It's really all European basketball now."
When a new coach and organization come together, bumps can be expected. A big one was two losses to start the season. How did you get over that and avoid others?
"I think that when you meet different people on and off the court, even if being flexible is not our best thing as individuals, if everyone makes a step forward to try to be flexible, try to understand the other guy's mentality and behavior, that makes things easier. I think that the players, the coaches and the management made that effort to be a little more flexible, just a little, and that has helped a lot. If that had not happened, everyone would have remained with their fixed ideas and positions and behavior, and then it would have been more difficult."
As you mentioned, one of the players that CSKA built around, David Andersen, was lost to injury in January. How did you adjust to such a big loss?
"First of all, I think that if all the players would not have made a little step forward in terms of commitment and quality of play, we would not have made it. We got something more from everybody, from team captain Sergei Panov on down the roster, a little more in terms of production on the court. Technically speaking, we had to ask for a little different game from Matjas Smodis, more playing time and more inside play. To compensate for the lack of an offensive center, we have two centers who are more defensive, Alexey Savrasenko and Tomas Van Den Spiegel, using their size and presence more. And on offense, we've used two of our guards, Theodoros Papaloukas and David Vanterpool, more in post-up situations. Both are excellent post-up players who can help all the other players as passers from that part of the floor."
How much time did it take to figure out what kind of changes were needed after David was out?
"The problem is not figuring out the changes. They are not so difficult to understand. Everyone who understands our game could get to the same conclusions. But it took time for the team to make it their own game. Fortunately, it was really a short time, because we have a smart team that adjusted really well. I am not gambling by putting all the credit on the players. As a coach, you always look better when people follow and the team wins. Then, you're always a great coach. But if both those things don't happen, then you're just a normal coach. By the way, I think one of the changes these days compared to 10 years ago, for instance, is that it is becoming more important how a coach puts together his roster in the summer than how he coaches. How you make the team is becoming even more important than how you coach it. Before, it was more important the coaching during games. That's a big change in recent years, in my opinion."
You were the only team to sweep the quarterfinal playoffs. How did you make use of the extra time before the Final Four?
"We took about two or three days just to relax and work on our physical shape and enjoy a little of this great accomplishment. Then we went back to work like normal. I think we're lucky to be playing the Final Four of the Russian Cup. It's a tough competition and makes us concentrate rather just waiting for Prague. We are having to play hard and focus on good basketball to beat some excellent teams."
Let's look at your semifinal opponent. What impression do you have of the new Barcelona under Dusko Ivanovic?
"The impressive thing is the amazing depth of their team. They are one of the deepest teams in Europe, them and Panathaikos, in terms of quality and the number of quality players. Dusko, as everyone knows, is an excellent and demanding coach, so his teams are always prepared. It's no surprise they got better throughout the season. It will be an interesting game. We are not so deep as they are. Who plays for us is very clear, but on their side, there can be surprises. For instance, I've seen Bootsy Thornton play six minutes one game and 28 the next as a big factor. And there are others like him, too. So it's two different styles of teams. Probably the result will come out of the little things, but if we can get to the end with a chance, I like our options."
You and Dusko faced each other in the first Euroleague season, which your Virtus team won in a five-game playoffs. Can you use that experience as you prepare for this semifinal?
"I think we both remember that series as a very interesting one tactically. Every game was different than the one before. Both teams had adjustments to make every 48 hours, like we were answering one to the other. Both Dusko and I have our principles and each knows the other well. But the teams are completely different than those two teams before, and both Dusko and I are doing things a little different in respect to our general philosophies then and now. Playing each other that one time helped us to know each other, but the difference in teams means we have to be ready for some surprises."
Can your familiarity with several Barcelona players who spent many years in Italy help you?
"It's always the same thing: You know them, but they also know you. So there's not much space for big, big surprises, just little things. I agree with what I have heard the players say: that these kinds of games always come down to how much a team is capable of focusing in the crucial moments. That is most important.”
We keep asking it each year, but does this Final Four looks about as strong or evenly-matched as any before it?
"It's difficult to make comparisons of this kind, but I will say that the format of the playoffs at the end of the Top 16, avoiding that anyone qualifies by point spreads, really gives the public the best four teams at this time of the year. There are no complaints or second-guessing. The four best teams are here, and they proved it. They made it through the regular season, the Top 16 and the playoffs. They made it through all those traps and managed to survive. For sure, we have the best four teams in Prague."