In the summer of 2011, Pablo Laso was already an experienced and recognizable figure in European basketball. As a player, he had excelled during a long and successful career as a point guard, mostly with his hometown club Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz before finishing with shorter spells at a number of clubs including Real Madrid.
His coaching career began in 2003 with Castello, before a season in the EuroCup with Valencia Basket and four years with Gipuzkoa of San Sebastian.
Ahead of the 2011-12 season, though, Laso was given the opportunity to take on one of the biggest jobs in European basketball as Real Madrid offered him the chance to succeed Emanuele Molin in the head coach's chair.
"I was very aware that we had to be ready to compete against the best teams in Europe."
Real already had a strong team, with stars like Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez, Nikola Mirotic, Felipe Reyes and Ante Tomic, and had just reached the Final Four, losing against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the semifinal. So Laso knew that expectations were high. He further strengthened his new roster in the summer with a couple of high-profile signings in the form of Jaycee Carroll and Rudy Fernandez.
As he headed into his first season with the club, Laso recalls that he was confident of the quality and potential of his team...but he also admits he was fully aware of the scale of the challenge.
"I had been coaching for many years and also in Europe when I coached Valencia in the EuroCup, but when I signed for Madrid it was different because one of the main objectives was winning the EuroLeague," he recalls. "I remember as soon as I became coach, I was very aware that we had to be ready to compete against the best teams in Europe."
Laso's coaching debut in the competition came with a road trip to face Belgian team Belgacom Spirou Charleroi on October 20, 2011, in the opening round of the regular season.
"The first game we played was in Charleroi," Laso reflects. "The format was different then; it was a group so you had to qualify. So although Charleroi was not the biggest team in the competition, we knew it was very important to start on the right foot and immediately establish ourselves as a strong team in EuroLeague."
Despite the challenge of coaching in the EuroLeague for the very first time, Laso's prior experience of nearly 25 years as a player and coach, along with his faith in the ability of his players, meant that he was in a relatively relaxed state of mind as he prepared for that game at Charleroi.
"For sure there was some pressure in my first game, and it felt special to be coaching in the EuroLeague for the first time in my career, knowing that we were going to be playing against the best teams in Europe.
"It felt special to be coaching in the EuroLeague for the first time."
"But I knew we were ready to compete. And as a coach you try to look ahead and understand that the group would take 10 games. So I wasn't that nervous or anxious about the game in Charleroi specifically. I was more worried about how the team would compete throughout the whole season, knowing how difficult the competition would be. But at the same time, I knew we were ready."
The team certainly proved that it was ready by delivering a very dominant performance against Charleroi, leading from the start and scoring at least 22 points in every quarter on the way to a comfortable 76-100 victory.
"We played a very serious game," says Laso. "We did a very good job and we won convincingly. I remember Rudy and Carroll played well, which was important because they had just joined the team so it was also their first game. And I remember Felipe had a good game, too."
Reyes and Fernandez led the scoring for Laso's men with 19 points apiece, with Carroll adding 14 on 3-of-5 three-point shooting on his EuroLeague debut. That, of course, was a sign of things to come, and so was the fact that Real reached triple figures in scoring, the first of 16 times (and counting) they would do so under their then-new coach.
The Pablo Laso era at Real Madrid was underway.