|Despite many obstacles along the way, head coach Zeljko Obradovic has Panathinaikos exactly where he wanted his team to be now – preparing to defend their Turkish Airlines Euroleague title at the 2012 Final Four. The winningest person player or coach in Euroleague history, Obradovic is trying to lead Panathinaikos to its seventh Euroleague title and first repeat. To get that chance, they first needed to ace the same kind of stern tests that prevented them from reaching Final Fours in the years following their previous three titles, in 2002, 2007 and 2009. Now, Panathinaikos has the chance not only for a historic repeat, but to move into second place on the list of all-time titleholders with seven. To do so, it must win a semifinal against CSKA, the team it now ties with six trophies, and prevail in a title game against either Barcelona or Olympiacos. The Greens couldn't have a better coach in the world to try with. Obradovic returns to Istanbul 20 years after he started his coaching career by leading Partizan Belgrade to its only Euroleague title there. If he and the Greens can win again next month, it would close a perfect circle for one very best coaches the sport of basketball has ever seen. "Anywhere would be beautiful, ha, ha! I'll accept winning it in any country, any city, because just winning again would be phenomenal," Obradovic told Euroleague.net "It's going to be difficult, but since we're in Istanbul this year, OK, let it be there."
Hi Zeljko. This is your team's first chance to truly defend the title and repeat as champion. What does going for two Euroleague trophies in a row mean to Zeljko Obradovic?
"We are very happy right now, all of us, because last summer was a difficult one in which we didn't know what kind of team we could build. We made a few changes, of course, but our nucleus stayed. So we are happy now to have this opportunity to win again. After we won the title in 2000, we also played another final in 2001 in the SuproLeague, but with two competitions that year in Europe, it wasn't the same. This time, after all our problems last summer, I am very happy to be where we are. The team responded, and we have this opportunity."
Twenty years since you became a coach and won your first Euroleague title in Istanbul with Partizan. Will you be thinking about that anniversary during this Final Four?
"A few days ago, on the 20th anniversary, we had a celebration in Belgrade, all of us together. It was a beautiful event. Almost all the guys from the team came and we got to see each other in the same place again, which was very nice. So personally, I had that party and I won't be celebrating that anniversary again in Istanbul. I will go with my team to concentrate on our work as we always do to see if we can celebrate this one."
After two decades, what do you remember most about 1992 in Istanbul?
"It was my first year as a coach, we had the youngest team ever to win the Euroleague, and we couldn't play on our own court all season. I will always remember those things. With those young players, spending all season in Fuenlabrada, Spain, where we played our home games, we made it. In fact, there were people from Fuenlabrada who came to Belgrade with us for the anniversary party a few days ago. It's very difficult to forget all that. All those factors made it something to remember forever."
Let's talk about this season. Again, Panathinakos had to suffer as champion to survive. Was the suffering good preparation for this Final Four?
"Ha, ha! I don't remember any time we haven't suffered, in all these 20 years! Sooner or later, you have to suffer: that's life as a coach in sports. You have to suffer to win something important. None have been won easily. This year, it was suffering against Maccabi to the end. They beat us in Athens and went ahead in Game 3. The fourth game was very equal, but we won in Tel Aviv. And the last one, when it seemed we had it in our pocket, we let it get away and the season went down to the very last play. That's basketball. You have to suffer."
Everyone is still buzzing about that playoff with Maccabi. For someone like you who has seen it all, how good was the basketball in that series?
"Excellent. I received calls from people all over Europe in the days before that fifth game. Everyone was waiting for it. Everyone wanted to see which of us would play the Final Four or not. Everyone's eyes were on it. Even before the series started, everyone knew it was going to be historic, since both teams, Panathinaikos and Maccabi, are historic. And the series lived up to that. I believe it was great for the Euroleague and great for basketball in general."
Now to the Final Four, which seems to have it all, except Maccabi. How good can the Final Four with Barca, Panathinaikos, CSKA and Olympiacos be?
"This is the same Final Four as Berlin in 2009, the same four teams, and that was great, too. The semifinals are switched this time. Then it was us against Olympiacos and CSKA against Barcelona. Now it's the opposite; we play CSKA and Olympiacos plays Barcelona. What I have no doubt about is that these are the best four teams in Europe right now. It's going to be the Final Four that everyone wants. I believe that as we are talking now, many days before it starts. Then, we will see in what condition the teams are a few days before it starts. We've started playing the Greek League playoffs, but our team is not at a Final Four level yet. In two and a half weeks, I hope we'll be in condition to try to play against CSKA."
You go from the Maccabi rivalry to an equally strong one with CSKA, after meeting them in the 2007 and 2009 title games. Is this semifinal like a final to you?
"We are going to think of it as a final, for sure. We won't think at all about the other game, Olympiacos vs. Barcelona. Our life has to be the CSKA game, and that's the one we'll prepare for. What's true is that we played them twice in the regular season and they beat us twice. In overtime in Athens, after we led at halftime. And even in the second game in Moscow, we led 49-47 at the half, but they had a great second half. So they beat us twice. We have to be better if we want to beat them in the semifinal."
What makes this CSKA team special?
"It's a super team that has great players for every position and a great coach who handles the team well. They are great attacking players first. On defense, they are doing great work with the things that seem right for the type of players they have. But on offense, they have everything, tons of individual talent. At the same time, however, they play like a team. That's important. None of them plays for himself. They play like a team, and that's why they've been so good all year."
What advantage do players like Dimitris Diamantidis, Mike Batiste, Kostas Tsartsaris and Sarunas Jasikevicius and their many titles give Panathinaikos against such a powerful team as CSKA?
"I am very happy because I have spent years and years with these players. They have to be an example for the others and calm our team before we go to Istanbul. They have a lot a lot of experience, and they have to use it. There is no doubt that experience and winning means something, for both players and teams."
Speaking of those players being around so long and your 13 consecutive years with Panathinaikos. How much does loyalty, as opposed to continuity, mean to a winning club like Panathinaikos?
"I believe it is very important. Our coaches and players here have been together many years. I am with Dimitris Itoudis, my assistant coach, 13 years. With Kostas Tsartsaris 10 years, Mike Batiste nine, Dimitris Diamantidis eight, Saras four. It adds a lot to a team. It's logical to have to change players, too, but if you have players who you know for that long, it makes things easier. We know very well what it means to defend our colors. I am very proud of my players and of those guys especially, because they have done everything for Panathinaikos. Whatever happens, I will thank them forever for all they've done for me."
There's a 50-percent chance of Panathinaikos playing Olympiacos on Sunday. If you make the final, do you prefer to play Olympiacos or Barcelona?
"I have no preference. Like I said before, the game for me is against CSKA. Let's hope we make the final. If so, it doesn't matter who we play."
Would it be perfect for you to win the seventh Euroleague title for Panathinaikos and your ninth in the city where everything started for you, Istanbul?
"Anywhere would be beautiful, ha, ha! I'll accept winning it in any country, any city, because just winning again would be phenomenal. It's going to be difficult, but since we're in Istanbul this year, OK, let it be there."