Kinder players celebrate
Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, scene of the 2003 Euroleague Final Four, was also where the 1998 Final Four took place. With the same formula as in the previous year, and with some newcomers such as Turk Telekom Ankara of Turkey, Porto of Portugal, Hapoel Jerusalem of Israel, PSG Racing Basket Paris of France or AEK Athens of Greece, there were some surprises in the playoffs. In the eighthfinals, CSKA Moscow defeated would-be host Barcelona, and Partizan did the same with defending champion Olympiacos. In the quarters, Partizan got rid of CSKA and, against all odds, reached the Final Four. In a local duel, Kinder defeated Teamsystem, and AEK did the same thing with Alba Berlin, while Benetton was better than Efes Pilsen. Five years later, Benetton returns to Palau Sant Jordi with two survivors from 1998, the eternal Riccardo Pittis and Denis Marconato, the only players left from the team coached by Zeljko Obradovic. On AEK that year were Victor Alexander and Michalis Kakiouzis, two players who return now to Barcelona with CSKA and Montepaschi, respectively. In the semifinals of 1998, Kinder didn't have any problems with Partizan, while AEK prevailed over Benetton at the finish by only three points. In the low-scoring final, which finished 58-44, Predrag Danilovic, Antoine Rigaudeau, Zoran Savic, Hugo Schonichini, Alessandro Abbio, Raso Nesterovic and company dominated the game as Ettore Messina, the current coach of Benneton, won his first European title.
Interview: Antoine Rigaudeau of Kinder
Rigaudeau, top scorer
His nickname in French is "Le Roi" - The King - but the basketball fans of Bologna, Italy need no translation. Although Antoine Rigaudeau recently left Virtus Bologna after five seasons to take his chances in the NBA, he will not be forgotten soon in Basket City. His arrival marked a before and after in the long history of Virtus. In Rigaudeau's very first season, 1998, his versatility added to a already potent mix of talents helped push Virtus over the top to its first Euroleague title, won at the Final Four in Barcelona. Rigaudeau was the leading scorer, with 14 points, in a defensive-minded final game. After that, Rigaudeau and Virtus played two more Final Fours, in 1999 and last season, 2002, losing in the final game both times. In 2001, the inaugural year of the new Euroleague, they were champions again, this time after a five-game playoff final series with Tau Ceramica. Through all the success, which included the first triple-crown in club history in 1991, Rigaudeau was leader, captain, go-to guy, you name it. In other words, "Le Roi".
You had quite a first season outside France, didn't you?
"Yeah, it was my first season, and we played the Final Four in Barcelona. We won those finals, defeating Partizan Belgrade first and then AEK Athens. It was my first European trophy with a club, and it was my first trophy with Virtus. Both make me consider that Euroleague title very important, the most important moment of my career together with the silver medal at Sydney Olympic Games with the French national team."
Almost all the fans in Bologna say that that 1998 Virtus team was unique, with Danilovic, Sconochini, Savic and, of course, Rigaudeau.
"We got along well together. We had a great feeling about ourselves, which was converted into a great group spirit. We had a lot of pressure, because the competitiveness was very tough in Bologna with cross-town rivals Fortitudo, who had a great team, too. But we beat that pressure and took the Italian championship, too."
Your former coach Ettore Messina said "I would have faced the dangers of a jungle with those guys."
"Well, we knew we were a very strong team. But the most important thing was that we knew what we had to do to take home wins. That might sound silly, but it's not. We were angry, and I mean it in a positive way. We had great pride, and I'd say that that Virtus team always reminded me a rugby team, where every player gave his contribution on court even without touching the ball. That was a real team result, and of course a great memory."
You said it was your first final four. How do you get ready for those kind of games?
"I usually sleep before games, but I remember I didn't before the final in Barcelona. I had a book, and I read it. I hadn't played the difficult quarterfinals against Fortitudo, due to injuries. I came back for the finals and I was not in the best shape. I felt some pressure for the semifinal, but I had confidence and trusted in that team. Let's say that: maybe it's difficult to light up your own fire in the semifinal, because you have to adjust to much pressure and a different atmosphere, but once you're in, you have nothing to lose in the final. Paradoxically, the final could put less obstacles in front of you. I remember we were quite calm before the games, because we played a soccer game to warm up at the last practice before the final, with everything that goes with it. That team could allow itself to play soccer before a Euroleague final."
The great quantity of fans that travelled to Barcelona from Bologna will always be a unique image for Basket City history. What did you think when you stepped on court before the game?
"Have you ever felt an ice drop rolling down your back? That was the feeling. It was impressive, simply great. They made us feel that there was something more important beyond the important thing we were playing for."
Do you prefer the playoffs or the Final Four?
"I think that the playoffs are better for players, because you get accustomed to the atmosphere little by little. It is longer, it involves the players more than a do-or-die event. You have parachutes if you lose one game, you have the chance to revenge. But I understand the Final Four has its beauty, too. It's a drama, and it concentrates all the managers, the teams, the fans, all in the same place. It's fascinating. But I think that the relationship between the media and the event, playoffs or Final Four,is what changes the most if you choose one or the other. Playoffs are better for the press, because there's always something strange to write and talk about, and because basketball stays in the newspapers and on TV for a longer time than if you play a Final Four."