It is the greatest mountain to climb in European basketball and here in Cologne, there are 13 players – plus three head coaches – who have already tasted the glory of winning the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. Naturally, that leaves many more participants who are looking for that fateful first EuroLeague crown. Among them are several Final Four rookies.
Not all rookies are the same. Some are youngsters first making names for themselves on the continental stage, others are well-known players who debuted in the EuroLeague this season and there are also several established veterans who after many seasons are now at the Final Four for the first time. No matter their route to Cologne, all of them appreciate what it takes to play in the Final Four.
"When I played my first game in the EuroLeague or my first game in the Italian first division, my goal was to arrive at the highest level. Here we are at the highest level in Europe. It's something that maybe some players don’t arrive to in their entire career," Milan guard Andrea Cinciarini, who at age 34 is in his seventh EuroLeague season, said.
"We are at the highest level in Europe."
Pierre Oriola of FC Barcelona may be six years Cinciarini's junior, but he sees his maiden Final Four appearance in a very similar way: "Being here is a reward to the effort and hard work I put in for many years. But it was just not me. I want to thank my coaches, teammates and all the people who have helped me. The fact that I am here also belongs to them."
The Barcelona captain is in his fourth EuroLeague campaign, which gives him some perspective on the difficulty of reaching a Final Four and the pressure of playing with all of Europe watching closely.
"If we talk about high-voltage situations, I played the Spanish League finals with Valencia, several Copa del Rey championship games and of course, the World Cup final. I had to guard Luis Scola in the championship game, so I have been in top-demanding situations before," Oriola explained.
Of course, no matter how many big games a player has taken part in, there is something different about the Final Four. However, the situation this season is much different, explained CSKA Moscow forward Nikita Kurbanov, who was just a teenager at his first Final Four in 2006 and has played in a total of seven such events.
"When you step on the court, you look at each other and you see so many people around you, not only your fans, but all the other teams' fans. This can create pressure on the players who don’t have enough experience," Kurbanov said. "I can talk about myself, but for other guys who are here for the first time, they don’t need to feel that pressure."
One player who received Kurbanov's message is his teammate Darrun Hilliard, who is at the Final Four for the first time in his third EuroLeague campaign: "It is not the full experience that guys got in the past, but there is good and bad about that. I am taking it all in and enjoying the moment," Hilliard said. "There are no fans, there is not a lot of media and things like that because of COVID. This Final Four is a little different."
No matter how different this Final Four may be, it is all basketball once the first ball goes up in the air. And Hilliard, like all the others, knows how to handle that part of the Final Four.
"Be aggressive! Just going out there and be aggressive on both ends and play as hard as you can. Get lost in the game of playing hard and everything else will take of itself," Hilliard said. "Guys get worried about making shots and other things they can't control. But the one thing we can control is playing hard and being as aggressive as we possibly can."
"Experiences like this only come a few times in a lifetime, if you are lucky."
Cinciarini and Oriola have also tried to employ healthy approaches to the games in Cologne to help avoid feeling the pressure Kurbanov mentioned.
"The best advice I got was enjoying this moment. In the end, we are here to enjoy this, and of course, the best way to enjoy it is lifting the trophy on Sunday," Cinciarini added. "We have to try to enjoy, have a good time and be aware that experiences like this only come a few times in a lifetime, if you are lucky."
"To arrive here is something that you have to enjoy. You have to enjoy every moment, every day, because then next week maybe everything disappears," Oriola said. "You can go in a good way or a bad way, but the moments from the Final Four stay with you forever."