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Star Turn, Q & A: Nikola Vujcic, Olympiacos
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As a two-time Euroleague champion, five-time All-Euroleague selection and arguably the greatest passing big man in the world, Nikola Vujcic already has enjoyed his fair share of success. This season, his magic touch rubbed off on a new team, Olympiacos Piraeus, that had been waiting a decade to return to the Final Four. Not anymore. With Vujcic as top scorer over seven consecutive victories between the Top 16 and the playoffs, the Reds ended their Final Four drought in style. Now the Euroleague's top-ranked player all decade, and second-best in both total points and rebounds, Vujcic makes his fifth Final Four appearance, including four of the previous five seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv. He will not lack for motivation or know-how as he tries to push Olympiacos even higher in Berlin.
How special is making your fifth Final Four with a new team, Olympiacos?
"It's very special. This is why we play basketball, to be in the place where they are giving out trophies and to have the opportunity to win the biggest one. To be at this Final Four is also an achievement that makes lots of people from Olympiacos very happy because they and their fans have been waiting a long time, 10 years, for it. Seeing all their excitement and appreciation in the last few weeks and after we qualified for the Final Four makes me even more proud and happy that we did this."
With several newcomers like you, how did the team come together in time to reach the Final Four?
"Because so many of us came here new, it took time in the beginning for all of us to adjust to each other and to understand what Coach Giannakis wanted from us. On the other side, it was great to get a couple of new guys who have been so many times in the Final Four. They not only knew how to handle the pressure but also how to help others become team players and play well enough for us to make the Final Four. When you have Theo Papaloukas, a guy who has been to seven Final Fours in a row - if anyone can teach you something, it's him. He even teaches me, because he's beating me, seven Final Fours to five!"
What have you learned from previous experience about preparing for a Final Four?
"Of course, the Euroleague has been making the Final Four more and more exciting every year, with all the events and shows surrounding the games. It's easy to get over-excited in an atmosphere like that, but you have to do your work and not think too much about anything but the big game. As time passes, I am getting more involved in some of the other things, but I try to stay as focused as possible on the basketball in order to lift that trophy. That is the biggest challenge for me, to try to win one more time."
Having been both a favorite and an underdog at Final Fours, which do you prefer and which is Olympiacos now?
"If you are a favorite, of course, it is harder sometimes, but it also means you have a team to fight for the trophy. So I always prefer to go as the favorite. However, I really think that of the five Final Fours that I have been to, this year's is probably the hardest one to say, 'OK, this team is likely to do it'. The system this year, with best-of-five playoffs, really makes for fewer surprises and assures that the best teams are in Berlin."
You've seen and played in great rivalries before. How do you rate the Reds vs. the Greens in the semifinals?
"Of course, everyone has heard stories about these teams in basketball, football and other sports. But when you feel it on your skin, then you get the real point of the rivalry. It's really something special that I don't think you can get anywhere else in the world of sports. I just hope it will stay within the boundaries of sport. When it's only about sports, the atmosphere that these two groups of fans can generate is truly something amazing."
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
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