In a setting unlike any it has seen before, the first act of the 2018 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four in Belgrade, Serbia, officially got the greatest weekend of basketball going with the Tip-Off Event and press conference. With the walls of Kalemegdan Fortress – built some 2,300 years ago – serving as the backdrop, the was standing room only as representatives of the four competing teams were joined by local dignitaries and basketball royalty, members of the media and fans to discuss the games that will rock Stark Arena beginning on Friday.
First Mayor of Belgrade, Mr. Sinisa Mali, and Euroleague Basketball President and CEO, Mr. Jordi Bertomeu, welcomed the assembled crowd. Representing defending champion Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul were Coach Zeljko Obradovic and Luigi Datome; for CSKA Moscow Coach Dimitris Itoudis and Sergio Rodriguez spoke, Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius and team captain Paulius Jankunas attended on behalf of Zalgiris Kaunas and Coach Pablo Laso and Luka Doncic for Real Madrid.
Here are some of the highlights from each speaker:
Zeljko Obradovic, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul head coach
"It is very special for me [to be here], without any question. The only thing that is not good is that it will only last five days… Obviously, I am very happy that I have this opportunity, first of all, to spend some time together with all of them. With Dimitris, Pablo and Sarunas. We already started last night. The younger ones will use it [to their advantage]. I am sure Saras will try also tonight to go somewhere. This is logical, everyone plays his cards. I am very happy because I know how difficult it is to come and to be in the Final Four. I know how Saras worked very hard, and how special it is for his team to be at the Final Four. Not to talk about historical teams like CSKA and Real Madrid. So, I am really very, very happy that I see my friends here in Belgrade at the Final Four."
"Jankunas is one of the leaders of his team, and he is doing a lot of things for his team. One of our keys will be to stop him. Like Sarunas would say, in order 'to have some possibility at the end of the game'."
Luigi Datome, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul forward
"It was a great feeling [winning last year] that I for sure want to feel again. This is a beautiful sport, new Final Four, new game. It will be different, but I am very excited to be here… I think every Final Four is different in my little experience. I knew it before, but then you experience on your own skin that every ball matters, not only the final ball, but that every possession matters. That is the biggest lesson that everyone knows, but it is better to experience it on your own. Then I also learned that the most important thing is to be ready, to be prepared, to work in the right way the whole season. And to be lucky enough to be healthy and in shape. That is why I am confident. Every game is different, anything can happen, but I am confident in what brought us here."
"Our fans are a big part of our success. I always say that. We are very happy about their confidence, it is a great sign of confidence and trust they give us by booking the ticket before the Final Four. I know they will be loud in supporting us, I can only ask to respect all the fans that will be here in Belgrade, to make a beautiful weekend of basketball. But I am sure they are going to do it, and help make it a beautiful weekend."
Sarunas Jasikevicius, Zalgiris Kaunas head coach
"If you are at the Final Four playing against Zeljko, that is already a great achievement because you got here. Second of all, we understand the difficulties like I said before. I am sure they will be prepared. I am sure they play the correct type of basketball like they played all through the year. And I am sure it will be very difficult, like it is supposed to be. If you are here in the Final Four, there is no other way it can be. So we are hoping we are also prepared and hoping that it will be great basketball."
"I think like every coach you are trying to concentrate more on day by day, to work on a daily basis on the things. It's a long process. I am unbelievably lucky to have players who want to be coached, want to improve, who give me 100% day in, day out. I think one of the keys, as always, is to take it one game at a time. A club like Zalgiris cannot look much further than the next game. This is what we will try to do here tomorrow. Hopefully to come to the came as late as possible with a chance to surprise Fener. And nothing more. Step by step. Seems easy, no?"
Paulius Jankunas, Zalgiris Kaunas forward
"First of all, I am very happy that I am here at the Final Four. This is a big pride for me to be here with the club of my hometown, Zalgiris."
"I remember it was a big celebration, big thing for Kaunas, for Zalgiris, also for Lithuania. Everybody was happy. They didn't expect that season Zalgiris was going to win the EuroLeague, but they did it and it was for sure big. A celebration for our club. We have a good example of what to do. That team also wasn't one of the biggest in the EuroLeague, but worked like a family and we play like a family on the court and act like a family outside the court. So we are trying to do the same and follow that line."
Dimitris Itoudis, CSKA Moscow head coach
"As you can imagine, in 1969 I was not born, but it is special. There are a lot of legends that played that game. The outcome if I am not mistaken was a win by CSKA. So the outcome was great for us back then. These are two historical teams, of course, and so we are really honored to be here again."
"It was really a pity, Leo [Westermann] not making the Final Four. It was bad luck for him getting injured at the beginning of the season, and now having surgery. Thank God everything went good with that. But the fact is we showed character, too, with Nando [De Colo] and Kyle [Hines] during the playoffs. That made us come closer to each other and realize that we had extra strength with other players. They stood up and gave us the courage to face the adversity that we faced. That brought us closer and we have a strong belief in what we can do together. As for Sergio [Rodriguez] and I, we talk often. He's the last one on the court always. You don't need to go to him and say you've got to do this or that. He prepares himself for the big moments. His routine is what gives him motivation and power. I understand, and his teammates do, that he's doing to do his job. You mention that he had zero assists in our first game [against Real Madrid], but it was the second game of the season, players were still coming from the national teams and getting together. It's not an excuse, but it was the beginning of the season. But in the second game, he gave that boost to the team that allowed us to have an amazing start and win."
Sergio Rodriguez, CSKA Moscow guard
"It is a very special game [against Real Madrid], but when you are at this stage in Europe, you want to be here, ready for this moment at this time of the season. We have a good challenge and have to be really focused to give our best and to accomplish the goal that we set at the beginning of the season."
"You prepare yourself to be ready at this stage, and it is great to be here, back in Europe after playing last year in Philadelphia, having this opportunity to play this Final Four with a new team. We have to focus on what we have to do and how to do it, and be ready for the game, that's all. It is going to be special; it is always special when you play a former team, but you also have to be focused on doing your job and be ready. As for assists [he had none in Round 2 of the regular season against Madrid], it is the work of two! They have to make the baskets!"
Pablo Laso, Real Madrid head coach
"First of all, it is true that it has been a difficult year for us with a lot of, let's say, injuries, problems, wherever you call it, but it is also true that we finally got players healthy, ready to play these important games. Right now, we are just trying to have a good Final Four. We know how hard it is to get here. We are happy to be here and ready to play."
"Like I said before, first of all, we are very happy to be here. It is a great achievement to reach this moment, being two games away from winning the title, against great opponents. As a coach, I see my team calm and focused. These are top-level basketball games and in that sense, I see my players are focused, calm and ready to play."
Luka Doncic, Real Madrid guard
"These games are tough but when you go on the court, you try to enjoy and forget about everything else. You just try to play well and have a good time."
"I think our season was great. It is a difficult competition and anyone can beat you in the EuroLeague, but the team did a great job. CSKA was first in the regular season and is an amazing team with many good players. We need to play a perfect game to win."