When Sarunas Jasikevicius became Zalgiris Kaunas's head coach early in the 2015-16 season, not everybody expected he would so successful right away. One of the people who always knew he would be a great coach, however, was playmaker Nick Calathes.
The two were teammates for two years, in the 2009-10 and 2011-12 seasons with Panathinaikos Athens. They never faced each other in a game; Saras kept playing for a couple more seasons, but Calathes went on to win the 7DAYS EuroCup with Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in 2013 and play in the NBA. They competed against each other when Jasikevicius was with Zalgiris and Calathes with Panathinaikos and this season they have reunited at FC Barcelona as player and coach. Calathes went from admiring Saras to disliking him only to become good friends after that and to now finally work together.
"The first time I heard about Saras, actually, was when he played for the Indiana Pacers. That's when I first heard about him. I used to watch NBA. I think I was in college then. So I saw him play a couple of games there," Calathes said. "And then obviously once I came to Athens my first year, I met him and, you know, I didn't obviously know him as a person back then. But, you know, I see this big name. I had no idea about European basketball, really, and they said that this guy has won everything in every country."
"I wasn't a huge fan of him back when I was 20."
Back then in late 2009, Jasikevicius had just become the first – and to date only – player to win the EuroLeague title with three different teams; he lifted the trophy with Barcelona in 2003, Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2004 and 2005 and Panathinaikos in 2009. Calathes was a newcomer, fresh out of college, arriving to the reigning EuroLeague champions and to a backcourt that featured Jasikevicius, Dimitris Diamantidis, Vassilis Spanoulis and Drew Nicholas. His first thoughts about Jasikevicius were not great.
"I met him, getting used to European basketball - being 20 years old, I didn't know what to expect. And he, obviously being older, one of the older guys just destroying me in practice every day, yelling and things like that. So I wasn't a huge fan of him back then when I was 20," Calathes said.
"Then I played with him my third year and we became great friends. I think he respected me more as a player. When I was 20, I don't think I would have liked myself either. I wouldn't have liked me as a player if I was one of the other guys, because I was the young kid who thought I knew everything," Calathes said. "But my third year, we became good friends, teammates... and there was a lot more friendship that year and ever since then."
There was definitely a change, as Calathes earned a lot of respect by winning the EuroLeague title with Panathinaikos in 2011. He was his team's top scorer in Game 4 of the playoff series against Barcelona to reach the Final Four and in the EuroLeague semifinals, scored 17 points against Montepaschi Siena. When Jasikevicius returned before the start of the 2011-12 season, everything had changed.
"I think his feel for the game is unique."
"I remember he had a lot of injuries in 2012, but at the end of the season, he was playing his best basketball and had a great Final Four game" (19 points in 22 minutes in a semifinal loss against CSKA Moscow, J.G.), Calathes said. "It was always a battle in practices. You know, when I was 20, I wasn't expecting much to play. I'd try to get minutes but we had Diamantidis, Spanoulis, Saras and Drew Nicholas. There weren't enough spots, obviously, for everyone to get playing time. And there was me, I was the odd man out. But I thought that Coach Obradovic trusted me a lot. And then we played a lot together also the third year with a rotation of me, Saras and Diamantidis."
So when Jasikevicius took the step to become a head coach, Calathes knew he would do well. "I wasn't surprised. I knew. When you play with him for two years, you know his skill for the game and how he knew the game. The players that become coaches and have that feel for the game are always great coaches. He uses his IQ as a coach now just like he did as a player. So I think his feel for the game is unique. And that's why he's so good as a coach as well.
"What he did in Zalgiris was unbelievable. He built a system there that, when you played against them, you knew it was going to be a difficult game because they never made mistakes. They always did the right thing. And even with the budget that they have that, they were big names and played hard. You knew every game was going to be tough against them. And I think he built that culture that way and was successful."
One thing that everyone expected and is not happening is Jasikevicius getting as many technical fouls as he did as a player. Asked about it, Calathes made a good joke: "I think this is because his best friends are always the referees from back then. So I think that they know that they have given him enough technicals, they think he's had enough. So I think they let him off a couple of times here and there!"
Most people say Jasikevicius got a lot from Zeljko Obradovic as a coach. Others say he is following Zmago Sagadin's footsteps, but Calathes can tell that paying close attention to small details is something that he learned from Obradovic and is seeing in Jasikevicius, too.
"That is one thing he asks players. In that way, he is like Obradovic, where he is very detailed and if you don't do the right thing, then he'll make sure you know about the attention to detail," Calathes explained. "He respects that tremendously and wants that from his players. And obviously, we need, as a team, to get better at that. We'll get better and better, I'm sure."
Jasikevicius has become the ultimate player's coach - someone who was wildly successful as a player and who understands perfectly what a player can go through during the season. The fact that Calathes and Jasikevicius are friends doesn't change anything: "For me, coach-player relationship is all business. Okay, I can tell him anything, but he's a coach that you could talk to him no matter what if you didn't know him. You can go up to him and ask questions. He's a player's coach, and I think it's good for the players that we have to be able to communicate with him."
"He knows exactly how we feel as players."
"We all know that he's been a player for however many years in Europe and he knows exactly how we feel as players. He understands there are situations that a coach that has never played the game before doesn't understand."
A lot of players want to become head coaches one day and Calathes is no exception. He believes Jasikevicius's example can inspire him when he stops playing basketball which, at age 31 and right at the prime of his career, is not anytime soon.
"You look at him and I think not just me, but any player, you see a guy that was very successful in Europe and has really built his resume for coaching as well as a player. As players who want to be coaches, we can learn a lot from him and how he transitioned from player to coach because it's different," Calathes said. "It's different when you're on the court. It's different when you're on the sidelines. And he's a guy that you can ask and see how he did it. And I think that for me, when my career is done, hopefully, I could be a coach one day. I get the opportunity to, it would be very nice."
Calathes and Jasikevicius were not able to win the EuroLeague as teammates in 2010 or 2012 and now they have another shot. If they are successful, Saras will join Armenak Alachachan, Lolo Sainz and Svetislav Pesic on the list of people who won the EuroLeague as player and coach. Other than Jasikevicius, only Dejan Bodiroga has won the EuroLeague title with Panathinaikos and Barcelona. Calathes hopes to join that list, too.