There have not been many players in the history of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four history to arrive at the pinnacle event of the basketball season in a situation similar to Iffe Lundberg's. Rest assured, there is nothing unusual about the 26-year old guard being one of the key cogs in the CSKA Moscow machine other than the fact that he has only 13 career EuroLeague games under his belt.
Having made his competition debut in late February after starring with Polish club Zielona Gora during the first part of the season, Lundberg has been instrumental in CSKA's late-season success and the nine-game winning streak it brings to Cologne. Such a jump between competitions can be overwhelming, but not for Lundberg who averaged 12.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals in CSKA's playoff sweep of Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul.
"I want to inspire the next couple of generations to really strive to be the best versions of themselves."
"It's been very fun so far," Lundberg said of his first EuroLeague experiences. He is only the fourth Danish-born player to play in the competition this century, but has become the first to reach the Final Four.
Lundberg grew up in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, a country that has had plenty of success in team sports, such as soccer and handball, though not much in basketball. He started playing because his oldest brother used to take him to practice or to the gym to shoot around.
"Through that route, I just developed a certain love and passion for basketball and I still have it till this day as much as I did when I was 10 or 15 years old," Lundberg said.
Interestingly, Lundberg might be the first Danish-born player in the Final Four, but he is one of two Danes competing for the EuroLeague crown along with AX Armani Exchange Milan forward Shavon Shields, whose mother is Danish. The two have been among the big reasons the popularity of basketball in Denmark is on the rise. The sport has gotten more attention with Lundberg's success at the club level, but also with the national team, which he helped lead to wins over Lithuania and the Czech Republic before narrowly missing qualification for EuroBasket 2022.
"In Denmark, the talk about basketball grew significantly", Lundberg pointed out. "And that's one of the things that I want to do. I want to inspire the next couple of generations to really strive to be the best versions of themselves because if you just work hard and you have your passion, I believe you can do and reach any goal you might set."
The goals he has achieved this season he could not have even dreamed about achieving when the season was starting. He had a sub-par 2019-20 season with Spanish side Tenerife and was persuaded to join Zielona Gora by the team's head coach, a former three-time EuroLeague champion Zan Tabak.
"I've always kind of been good at adapting quite fast to the situation regardless of the level."
"He told me 'I'm going to help you with a thing or two, and you're going to be able to bounce back. I'm not gonna teach you anything. I'm just gonna unleash you.' He just gave me confidence," Lundberg recalled.
Lundberg averaged 20.4 points in the VTB United League and had a stellar performance in a win over CSKA, with 26 points and 6 assists in early February. By that time, he already heard rumors about CSKA having interest in him, but was assured those were not true. So, when his agent called him to tell him he had an offer from CSKA, Lundberg was surprised, to say the least. He was also delighted.
"CSKA is one of the best teams in Europe, if not the best team. A historical franchise, a historical organization, with a really good coach, really good players. When a club like that wants to buy you out of your contract, it speaks for itself," Lundberg said. "Not many players are fortunate enough to ever make that jump to play with CSKA and my first EuroLeague experience is playing with CSKA. That was mind-blowing. And as a person, you've got to appreciate those things."
Nevertheless, it was a bit strange for him to join a team he just defeated. Also, it was the first time in his career he had changed clubs in the middle of the season. That, however, did not stop him from shining with CSKA from the start.
"I've always kind of been good at adapting quite fast to the situation regardless of the level," he said. "If you trust yourself, if you trust your work ethic and you trust and believe in your own talent, then that's not going to be a problem."
In his first game, he logged in 26 minutes for 13 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals in a 1-point road win at Olympiacos Piraeus. And while the basketball world was looking at it as the feel-good story of the season, Lundberg was not all that surprised. He added that he also had some really good talks with Coach Dimitris Itoudis.
"They did a really good job of implementing me in the concepts and also making sure that everything clicked with the teammates", Lundberg explained. "Gaining teammates’ confidence, their trust, it was easy just to go out there and play basketball."
He gave CSKA energy and served as another creator, someone able to create opportunities for himself or his teammates. And the teammates embraced that.
"Since I came here, obviously it's not only been all ups. Everyone experiences ups and downs. That's life", Lundberg said. "You just have to be a professional. You got to stick with it. I believe in my capabilities and if you just work hard on your game, and if you just stick with the flow and be patient, it's going to come."
"Gaining teammates’ confidence, their trust, it was easy just to go out there and play basketball."
Patience, he said, might have been the toughest adjustment for Lundberg since he joined CSKA: "I've always been patient, but just understanding that sometimes you're not going get everything you want at one time. And whenever your time and your situation occurs, be ready to go out there and take it because nothing is given. You got to earn it."
He has taken his success in stride. Lundberg went from facing CSKA as a highlight of his season to joining the team and then getting ready for the EuroLeague Playoffs and now the Final Four.
"It's kind of surrealistic to play in the Polish League and then a couple of months after that you are facing the best players in Europe. It's something you can't really imagine," added Lundberg. "Everything happened so fast, so you've just got to be able to take it in, be able to adapt and go out there and enjoy it. That's the most important thing. Go out there, enjoy it, and be true to yourself."