The word legend sometimes gets overused, but not in the case of Zalgiris Kaunas head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius, the only player in European pro basketball history to have won as many as four continental titles with as many as three different clubs. Saras – as he is known to everyone – enters his second full season on the Zalgiris bench this week, but he was known to one and all as a coach on the floor throughout his playing career. Seeing that dynamic from both perspectives is the subject he discusses in this season-opening segment of Coaches Corner.
I never felt any pressure from the role I had as a coach on the court. It seemed very natural for me to be in the middle of things. You would do anything for a win, so, as a point guard, it became natural for me to just make sure everybody was in the right place, to make sure that everybody understands that you see some kind of detail where you can punish your opponent, and you simply try to tell that to somebody. To make sure everybody is together.
Later on, as you gain experience by playing, you really understand the importance of that. Now, as a coach, it is even better when suggestions come from one of the players and not from the coach. In the end, players are kind of sick of hearing the same voice. But at the same time, it came naturally to me. I never forced it. Sometimes you can be annoying to your teammates, but I was just making sure we won and tried to give us the best shot possible.
I think that coach-on-the-court role is equally big in both games and practices. I think practices are as important as games. That's where you do your court preparation. A lot of times, after that, you gain confidence with your teammates and they come to you for advice, which was nice for me. But I also think it is something you have to earn, and certain coaches have different styles and you have to adjust to the coach. Some coaches really like to be in control of game situations, other ones let you call plays for them and run the team like that. I think the older you get, they allow you to do more things because they know you've done that in the past, so coaches kind of appreciate your experience.
Pini [Gershon] was, for example, one of the coaches that allowed you more freedom, but if you made a mistake you got punished just like with any other coach. Zeljko [Obradovic] was very systematic, but he let you create the game from within the system. Some other coaches just give you complete freedom and in the right moments the team could look amazing, but when it is not going good, it can look really bad. So the ups and downs are bigger.
Throughout my playing career, I felt like a coach on the court more with some teams and less with others. And it depended a lot on the system. Like I said, Obradovic was a very system-oriented coach, everything is pretty clear what you have to do, where you are supposed to attack. So as a player, you have to do less by yourself because he takes care of it. With some coaches, you become more involved and if you see something from your earlier years, maybe you want to implement it. And just like it is an adjustment coming from the coach, it is an adjustment for the players as well.
Now as a coach I understand that I'm young, I need more experience. Some players might challenge me as far as tactics go. Maybe they'll say, "Let's do this," or "What do you think if we do this?" That's always a good thing. You get into good and healthy discussions and those are the best ways to come to the right agreement. It is also very important for the players to be involved in what they do and to believe it is the right way to play and the right way to act.
That does require some coach-player syncing, though, and it comes with time. The more time players are in your system, the easier it becomes. If the player has already played for you, he has been in so many situations with you and more or less will know how to act. And if it is a young guy, for instance, he might think through the old habits from another coach he had and might react the way he was taught before. You have to teach because, in the end, the job of a coach is to understand that all 12 players must go in the same direction. It's a process.
A lot of times, allowing a player to be your coach on the court is all about adjustment. I have to understand what I can get from a certain player. You usually have a vision when you sign players, when you offer them contracts, and then some visions fall in place, some visions don't. The idea is to ask realistic goals of your players, but to demand 100 percent from them.
When you retire from playing and start coaching, you are changing an amazing habit that they give you good money to do, for a difficult job that you love. It's still pretty good, but being a player is that much better. And as a player, even as a coach-on-the-court type of player, you still go home mostly thinking about how you played personally. As a coach, you think about how each of the 12 players played.
As a coach on the court, you are sort of still thinking about certain situations, mostly short-term situations, a thing or two where you can punish the other team. As a head coach, you just have so many responsibilities. It's unbelievable. Starting with the practice process, the traveling, hotel, meals, media, sponsors. It's a never-ending story. As a player, you just think about competing, about the basketball part. I always try to tell players to just enjoy this because, playing basketball and being on the court, it's never going to get better than that.