It is never to make the transition from elite basketball player to rookie coach, but few have done that better than Zalgiris Kaunas boss Sarunas Jasikevicius. In his case, it was a process. It took "Saras" just a year and a half from the time he hung up his playing uniform until he coached his first Turkish Airlines EuroLeague game, which was against Real Madrid on the road on January 15, 2016.
First he joined Zalgiris as an assistant coach, even though he had other thoughts. "Truth to be told, I didn't want to be a coach, but throughout that summer, I was offered this option to be Zalgiris's assistant coach. I had offers to keep playing, but they were not very interesting, so I decided to take that step. Still, for a couple of weeks, even a month, the idea was to keep playing," Jasikevicius said.
"Truth to be told, I didn't want to be a coach."
Saras had time to learn his new job, slowly but steadily, and even had an opportunity to lead the team at some points. "It was a perfect situation because I was the assistant coach, but also had the head coach's role during the preseason, because my boss [Gintaras Krapikas] was one of the assistants on the Lithuanian national team. That forced me to run the team as a head coach during the preseason," he said. "That helped me a lot, to be honest. Then the boss came back and I went back to a secondary role, learning a lot about how things work and wondering what I would do in this situation, if I would take the same decisions or different ones. That helped me a lot, going little by little for a year and a half."
Though Zalgiris advanced past the 2015-16 EuroLeague regular season, a couple of ugly losses - by 21 points at home against Laboral Kutxa Vitoria Gasteiz and by 33 on the road against Brose Bamberg - caused the Lithuanian powerhouse to switch coaches. It was Jasikevicius's time to lead Zalgiris. "We had a big loss in Bamberg and I was offered to run the team. It was something that was already on the back of my mind because we had lost a lot of games by many points," he recalled. "I could see it coming; I didn't know what exactly would happen or when it would be, but the boss was fired and I was offered the team. I felt like I was ready, so it was time to get in and start working."
The fact that he had been a legendary player and the pride of a basketball country helped Saras in the beginning, but not as much as people may think. "In the beginning, changing things is not so difficult, because when a new coach arrives, you want to play tougher and it is like a fresh start. Everything started from scratch and I didn't change a lot of things because you cannot do much in a short period of time. The team was able to put out a better fight and as time goes by, you try to change more things and leave your mark on your team, little by little," he said. Knowing the players - some of them were former teammates - was important, too. "In the beginning, the fact that all the players knew who I was helped me. With the career that I had, my players respected me. But at the same time, if you don't teach things, make them work well and if you don't win games, that respect they have for you as a coach is going to fade away. I had that experience with coaches who had been great players," he added. "Nowadays, everyone sees me as a coach, not as the player who did so many good things. I had to earn my players' respect every day and of course, they have to earn my respect if they want to play many minutes and play an important role."
Zalgiris traveled to the Spanish capital ready to show a different attitude. Saras looked for a new approach, one based on his most recent games against Los Blancos, when he returned to play for FC Barcelona. "In this game against Real Madrid, it helped me the fact that I played for Barcelona in the recent past and had prepared to play against them with Xavi Pascual," he said. "I saw the way he prepared the games against them. I had my own ideas, of course, but prepared that game in a similar way. Of course, Real is a great team and beats you almost all the time, but I believe my players liked to change some things a little bit and we did some new things. From that game, the team started to fight and do things better."
"I felt like I was ready, so it was time to get in and start working."
Zalgiris lost 92-86, but kept its chances alive throughout the game. Real's big men made the difference - Felipe Reyes had a career-high 24 points and Gustavo Ayon added a monster double-double of 16 points and 15 rebounds. "When we play against Madrid, the main priority for us is stopping their point guards and their forwards. They are an all-around, deep team and anyone can smash you," Saras admitted. Renaldas Seibutis led five Zalgiris scorers in double digits with 13 points.
One thing Saras will never forget is how he was received by Real fans. "In Madrid, I am always remembered as a Barcelona player," he explained sarcastically. "Being a rookie coach didn't matter. I am a Barcelona fan and everybody knows that.". Meeting the press after the game was a different experience. "Meeting the media was not a big deal. It is a little bit different to meet the press when you are a coach because you go out there all alone and are asked these and those questions, but I had been through that experience as a player so it was not surprising."
"I had to earn my players' respect every day."
Things quickly changed for Zalgiris. In just his second game as a coach, Saras led Zalgiris to a 75-55 home win against Olympiacos Piraeus behind 18 points from Paulius Jankunas. "My first EuroLeague win as a coach is always very important. I believe we played a really solid game; we found advantages against them and made the most out of them," he recalls. "We played very good defense and managed to stop Olympiacos's leaders, limiting them to very few points. It was a very important win. Of course, I had a warm welcome, but you don't think too much about it because you have to focus on the game and how to prepare the next play."
The rest is history. A year later, Saras led Zalgiris to the 2018 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four. It was the club's first Final Four appearance since lifting the EuroLeague trophy in 1999. Last season, Zalgiris won its last six regular-season games to qualify to the playoffs against all odds and even managed to steal the home-court advantage from Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, which ended up winning the series. However, focusing on what's next is everything for Saras and Zalgiris. "I don't think about our recent success and I say it in every interview. I have to go day by day and work hard to make players follow you. Ultimately, they are the ones to make the effort, working on days off and stuff like that," he said. "With players like these, you can do good things. We want to implement this mentality of not looking too far ahead, take one day at a time, one practice at a time, be upset if we have a bad practice, knowing you can't come back the next day and have another bad one. If you practice the right way, it shows in the games."