The veteran leader at Anadolu Efes Istanbul, point guard Zoran Planinic, has a long list of accolades to his name. He played in the inaugural Euroleague season in 2000-01 and was the MVP of 2001 Euroleague Opening Tournament. He reached four Euroleague Final Fours with two teams, and in addition was the MVP of the 2012 Eurocup Finals. Now, at the age of 31, and in his tenth Euroleague season, Planinic is approaching a place among the Euroleague's all-time top 10 assists leaders, while he and Efes aim to repeat last season's success, when the team reached the Euroleague playoffs for the first time since 2006.
If last spring Efes lasted until the fifth and final playoff game before losing to eventual Euroleague champ Olympiacos Piraeus, this year a 0-3 start to the Top 16 has put the Turkish powerhouse in a hole. To dig itself out, Efes will need Planinic's veteran on-court presence. Throughout his career, the 1.99- meter point guard has proven to have what it takes on the big stage, from when debuted in the Euroleague in 2000 as an 18-year-old, starting and playing big minutes in the playoffs with Cibona Zagreb.
"That was a big honor for me. I remember thinking I made it in basketball just for playing for the first team in Cibona, with players like Gordan Giricek who was a huge star, Nikola Prkacin or Josip Sesar," Planinic said. "It was huge thing for me, and I was very happy and very grateful for coach Neven Spahija to put me in that position."
In his second pro season, Planinic was the MVP as Cibona won the Euroleague Opening Tournament, and after two more seasons with the perennial Croatian champs, he was drafted into the NBA by New Jersey. In three years across the pond, he learned the playmaking traits behind one of the best ever at that position - Jason Kidd. Upon returning to Euroleague in 2006, Planinic quickly realized everything was much different from his younger years, but he also had a feeling he was ready for it.
"When I was younger everything was faster and stranger, I felt I had more respect for everybody," Planinic said. "After I returned from the NBA, I felt I belonged more. I was ready to make an impact and be one of the main guys."
Indeed, Planinic was ready enough to reach the next four Final Fours in succession, two each with Tau Ceramica and CSKA Moscow, a rare occurence for any player. The first one in Athens with Tau in 2006-07 season, when it had Igor Rakocevic, Pablo Prigioni, Luis Scola, Tiago Splitter and Mirza Teletovic on the roster, sticks with him.
"We were ready to win it, but we played against really good team Panathinaikos in the semifinals and lost," he says. "I remember the atmosphere, the fans, and the passion. It was beautiful."
He came closest to the title in 2008-09 with CSKA, losing the title game against Panathinaikos again. Despite not winning a title, as someone who played four times at the main event, he knows well what makes a Final Four different.
"The difference is the level of your performance," Planinic says. "You know that all the world is watching, and you try to raise your game to another level. Regular season games are also big, but at the highest level you have to perform high."
If raising your game to compete at the Final Four is an unchanged Euroleague truth over the years, Planinic believes that there is also something quite obviously different between the Euroleague back in 2001 and now.
"The quality of the game changed. Basketball is becoming so much better, year by year. Players are so much physical now," he says. "I remember I was a skinny 18-year old kid, and I could play back then. Now, with that frame, they would push me around. I think the physical aspect of the game has changed a lot."
What also changed over the years is the goal Planinic has set for himself. His bar is set high as possible now.
"I was already there four times at the Final Four," he says. "At this age now, I'm trying to win it all. It is not enough to come to the Final Four. I've been there, and already done it. I expect in the years to come to win it one time."
This season, the climb ahead for Efes is long, but it is not too late for the change of fortune, especially with Zoran Planinic running the offense.