If you ask KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz fans to choose the most important coach or best player in the team's history, many names will come to mind. But if you ask who is the club's most important figure in general, with no hesitation, they will answer Josean Querejeta. He took over as Baskonia's president in 1988 and, as soon as he arrived, he changed club's mentality, turning a small club with limited expectations into a European powerhouse with the most ambitious goals. During more than three decades at the head of Baskonia's journey, during which he has been named Euroleague Executive of the Year twice, Querejeta never forgot that success is not achieved thanks solely to what happens on the court. "A solid organization is essential if you want to grow," he told EuroLeague.net ahead of another basketball first in his city, the arrival of the 2019 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four to Vitoria-Gasteiz in May.
How, and why, did you decide to take over as Baskonia's president?
"Well, I quit playing basketball at the end of the 1987-88 season, around April or May. Then, I joined Baskonia's management team as vice president during an interim period in which Emilio Ruiz took over after the previous president had resigned. Elections were coming in October, and since I wanted to lead the club and become president after many years as a player, I spoke with Jose Luis Sanchez Erauskin, 'Santxon'. He was the alma mater of the club, from his general manager position at that time, and I told him that I wanted to be the president. I was excited about the idea, and I believed that we could build something. And, well, we have always had a very good relationship, so he helped me. It wasn't very difficult to achieve it, though, because nobody else stood for election, hahaha. So I became the president of Baskonia in October."
And what did you find when you landed? Which were the first steps to take?
"What I found was a club with very little ambition and little structure, as there was just a president, a general manager, a secretary and an accountant who only came in a few afternoons. I formed a management board with close friends of mine, and we started a journey with the goal of trying to grow, economically and in terms of basketball, because you cannot understand one without the other. Later, we added some pieces to the club's structure like a financial director, Manu Mendi, because we saw that we needed to put the accounts in order. Then some other people joined, like Carlos Izar, and that's how we started. Later we faced other challenges, like the ones related to the arena, the internal organization, the search for resources, etc. We started doing some things that were brand new at that time, about sponsorship, for example, and that's how we started to improve and grow, step by step."
"When things are done with passion...good results end up coming."
So, having a solid club structure is a keystone for you?
"Generating resources is a very difficult task, especially in small environments like ours. If you don't have a strong sponsor or a football club backing you, it is obvious that where you can get the most is inside your economic environment. We can improve in areas like ticketing, sponsorship, etc., and to achieve that, it is important to have a good team, to count on committed people. We have always opted to increase and improve our organization, and so we are doing right now, as well as thinking about how to develop new businesses that allow us to grow a little bit more. In the end, if you have an economy, you can be competitive. If you don't, it is very difficult to keep competing for long. Maybe, at a certain moment, if you are successful with player signings, you can be competitive, but that usually ends very soon if there is nothing else behind it."
A short time after your arrival, Baskonia surprised everyone by signings "Chicho" Sibilio and Ramon Rivas. How was that possible?
"Well, I thought that if a club like ours wanted to generate resources, it also needed to create enthusiasm and adopt a different approach in terms of basketball objectives. Until then, the targets had been just to avoid relegation. I knew Sibilio because I played against him several times. He was in Barcelona, together with Perico Ansa, Nacho Solozabal and Epi, among others. I had, and I still have, a good relationship with all of them, so since I knew that Sibilio finished his contract that summer, I thought, maybe naively, that we could try to sign him. I met him to make him an offer that, being honest, I didn't know how we would be able to pay. But I made it, and he ended up coming. That signing was a turning point, and I think that it was an important step forward. Things were a little bit weird regarding Ramon Rivas because we knew about him from one of our occasional trips to the United States. We knew that he could have an option to get Spanish citizenship, so I asked Carlos to stay by his side at all times. It was a complicated process because we were required to obtain a document that never had been granted before. But we managed to get it in the end and, although many people didn't believe it, Rivas acquired Spanish citizenship and joined us. That signing, obviously, gave us an important boost."
Which other key movements can you recall along the way?
"If you want the team to reach higher, you need to have a structure, you need high-level coaches and so on, and I think that maybe we were not ready yet at that time. When we signed Herb Brown, he allowed us to take a step forward in so many areas. He helped us adopt a more professional approach in scouting tasks, practices, game preparation, etc., so that was also a key milestone for us, too. After him, it was Manel Comas, and later all the names everybody know that have written this club's history, as well. It was also important the addition of young players like Marcelo Nicola, whose recruitment was also very difficult in those times."
Was the next big step reaching the club's first European title, in 1996?
"For sure. I needed to talk to Raimundo Saporta, with whom I also had a good relationship from my time in Madrid, to be able to bring the final of the European Cup [which was renamed the Saporta Cup in 1998] to Vitoria that year. But I remember that, in the previous two finals that we lost, head coach Manel Comas used to tell me: 'President, don't worry because we are going to take the Cup.' He told me that in Lausanne, he repeated the same thing in Istanbul and, that year, in the hotel the team stayed in before the final, I said to him: 'Manel, don't tell me anything, because I know what you said before and what happened in the end, hahaha.' When I look back at the team that won that title, I think it was a miracle. It is true that we had great players like Rivas, Nicola, Perasovic, etc., but I think the team had some limitations. I remember myself, leaving the dinner with the team before the final, and thinking, 'Bfff, it is impossible that we win.' Because PAOK had a great team, with players like Stojakovic, Prelevic, Garret, Rentzias, etc., but we won. And it is true that all those finals and that title helped us a lot, as we generated enthusiasm, we were building a project. And to carry out that project, we also understood that we needed to make the arena bigger. Not only as a response to the [Spanish League] requirements at that time but also as a tool to grow in areas like ticketing, sponsorships, etc. Thus, step by step, we managed to create a solid foundation, because without that everything else is worthless. We managed to create tools and structures to continue progressing."
"I am more interested in the future, in what is going to come."
To build that enthusiasm and commitment, what do you think is more important: Words, facts, or a little bit of both?
"Always, the facts, because you can get excited with words at a given moment, but if you do not have facts backing them, words won't last for long. Of course, you need to give hope and explain what you think you can achieve, but the most important thing is the facts. There was a period in which I think we played like 25 finals out of a possible 27 or something like that. That was something amazing because we were playing in practically all the finals, with very good teams, and people were extremely excited because the team was even able to win many titles: the Spanish Cup, the Spanish League, and in the Euroleague we reached the first final and then several Final Fours. So, in the end, beyond words and expectations, the facts were out there."
Is this Baskonia like you imagined it would be when you started?
"Honestly, I have to say that in my first two or three years here, it seemed to me that it was impossible to compete. No matter how passionate I was, how hard I worked, at the end of the day the same thought came up to my mind, 'It's impossible!' Madrid or Barcelona always beat us. But, we kept on working. I've said it many times before, but even though winning a title is very important, to me it's much more important to always be there, competing. And that competitive spirit is the thing we all need to have; it must be present throughout the whole structure of the club. That's why Baskonia is where it is right now. When I started, I didn't have a clear idea of where the club could be in the future. I am not the kind of guy that looks at the past very often, nor do I spend too much time setting specific goals for the long-term future. I believe more in daily work, thinking and deciding what we need to do, every day, to improve. I have a solid conviction that, when things are done with passion, and when you have a good team around you, when you have an idea and you keep that idea over time, good results end up coming."
Do you remember any title or championship in a special way?
"Vitoria is a city dedicated to basketball."
"The truth is that I don't. Well, maybe the first one, the first Spanish Cup, because as I told you before, in the first years it seemed impossible to me that Baskonia would be able to compete at top level. Logically, all the titles and finals are there. But I will confess you something: I have never watched any of them later. They are, for sure, a big part of the club's history, but I am more interested in the future, in what is going to come. I like it more, I enjoy it more, and I feel better when I think about what we can do to keep competing. I think that the current basketball map will be probably very different in five or six years, and we have to be prepared."
Looking back, what makes you feel proudest?
"Above all, I'm happy that we have managed to take a small team from a small city to a place where it can be a part of the best European basketball competition, both as a competitor and as a shareholder. And we have achieved that with a lot of effort, and it is not a matter of one single person. It's something that has been accomplished thanks to a lot of people, who I was lucky to lead, and who have worked very hard every day, throughout a long period, from players, coaches, etc., to all the people that work in our organization. One of the things that makes me feel happiest is to see that people who have been here, and who are in the club right now, have understood from the beginning what we wanted, and that they all have contributed, always showing great commitment. Then, titles and all that stuff came, and I won't say it's not important because that's something that remains. But without all that work, without all that dedication and all that passion that people brought along, none of this would have been possible."
How do you foresee the upcoming Final Four in Vitoria?
"I foresee a great Final Four. I am convinced that everything is going to work out well, that there won't be any problem. We are going to organize many things around the Final Four, and I think it will be something different from whatever has been done or can be done in bigger cities. Everyone will have the opportunity of experiencing the event in a much more close and intense way because the way you live a tournament like the Final Four in a city like Vitoria or similar has nothing to do with how you live it in big cities. Vitoria is a city dedicated to basketball, that breathes basketball and with a long tradition, something that other cities with greater economic capabilities do not have. The Final Four seems exciting to me, despite all the work that lies behind, and hopefully, we will be able to continue and bring another one in the future."