Big man Milko Bjelica is one of Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade's most-experienced players and is certain to be a focal point as his team makes a late run to try to snatch a playoff berth. Since he won the EuroCup with Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius in 2009, Bjelica has played nine consecutive seasons in the EuroLeague and a total of 189 games for Rytas, Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, Anadolu Efes Istanbul and Zvezda. His big goal now is to advance to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four, which this season will be held in the Serbian capital and his hometown. "I played in the EuroLeague for nine years and from the beginning, I could only imagine that the Final Four would be in Belgrade. It is something big for me," Bjelica told EuroLeague.net. "Right now, we don't have a big chance, but I still hope we can make it there with Crvena Zvezda. If not, for sure, I will watch the games live and enjoy."
Congratulations on your win against Unicaja Malaga. You came off a tough loss in Bamberg, what allowed you to bounce back the way you did?
"In my opinion, Unicaja is a great team. They have a good coach and a really good roster this season and their results in the EuroLeague show that. For sure, it was also a very important game for them because both teams are in the race to make it to the playoffs. They were fully motivated to win because it was important, but so were we. It is a very important win because we still have a chance to fight for eighth place. After our big loss against Bamberg, we reacted very well and showed our character and won the game. We played very good as a team, which shows in the number of assists we had. If we continue playing this type of basketball, we can get more wins."
And you already got 10 wins so far. Coach Alimpijevic said after the game it was an amazing number, but you definitely deserved each good result you got. What do you think?
"Yes, I think we deserved each win and had some bad luck in some losses, too. If you look back at the beginning of the season, we started it with just three players from last season - me, Dangubic and Lazic. It was a new roster, all others were additions. It is very difficult to make a competitive team in such a short time, and not only did we do it, but we're also a playoff candidate. From that side, we can be satisfied and really happy that our chances are still open. We can't stop now, have to continue and look for more good results in the near future."
Speaking of Coach Alimpijevic, how different is it to have a coach who is younger than you? Does anyone joke about it, particularly Pero Antic, who is four years older than him?
"You know, this is the first time that I have a coach who is younger than me, but on the other side, I don't even notice this in our player-coach relationship. For me, every coach, no matter if he is younger or much older than me, deserves the same respect, and Coach is definitely respected by all the players; that is not a problem. Pero Antic is even older than me and also more experienced, and I listen to him as if he is my coach, too. I can learn from him and all other players. Of course, he makes some jokes, but in a way that is good for the team. Jokes are everywhere, but with a lot of respect."
You are averaging almost 10 points per game for the first time in four years. What is allowing you to play so well this season?
"Well, for the first time in... I don't know how many years, I didn't play for the national team and had a lot of time to prepare my body and joined the team from the beginning. That helped me start the season well and is the main thing I did differently. I feel good and comfortable this year. My age is not important as long as I don't have injuries."
Zvezda signed 7DAYS EuroCup champion Alen Omic recently. How is he helping the team?
"I think he can be a very big addition for us, but for him it is very difficult to switch teams in the middle of the season and adapt to a totally different system. Of course, the EuroLeague is the best competitions in Europe, so he needs time to adjust. I think he will bring us a lot of good things and everybody knows how talented he is."
Another of your frontcourt teammates, Mathias Lessort, is having a fantastic EuroLeague rookie season. Are you surprised about that?
"I am really happy that I can see a player improve so much during the season. He is very young and it was hard for him at the beginning of the season, but I think he has been a big help for the team. He is a very athletic player and I am sure he can have a very good future."
This is your ninth EuroLeague season. With that perspective, how do you like the new format, which is almost two years old now
"From one side, I think that the competition is much stronger than before. You have more games, more challenges to improve and less teams, too. That is very good, especially for the fans, who can see their favorite players more often than before. This is the good side and of course, everybody knows the idea is to improve the competition, to be close to the NBA, the biggest league in the world. The season is much harder and some teams are organized in a different way than other. For instance, some teams have private jets. There are lots of pluses in this system and some minuses to be solved as soon as
possible to make it perfect."
Being from Belgrade, how excited are you to have the Final Four in your hometown?
"I am very happy, because I played in the EuroLeague for nine years and since the beginning, I could only imagine that the Final Four would be in Belgrade. It is something big for me. Right now, we don't have a big chance, but I still hope we can make it there with Crvena Zvezda. If not, for sure, I will watch the games live and enjoy."
A lot of people will travel to Belgrade for the first time. What can they expect?
"Outside the arena, they can expect a lot of friendly people and a modern city with loads of things to do aside from basketball. For sure, anybody who has never been here and travels for the first time will be satisfied and wish to come back again. Inside the arena, it is a modern building that fits more than 20,000 people, and I am sure they have already seen the kind of atmosphere we have in our games. And the food is great! Whatever you try to eat, you will not make mistakes!"
Finally, you have six games left, some against the best EuroLeague teams out there. What will it take to make it to the playoffs?
"For us, it is very difficult because we will also have the ABA League playoffs coming up soon, and it is also very important for us this season. Like you said, we will play against good teams like Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, Barcelona, Valencia, CSKA and Fenerbahce, so we have to go game by game. Still, we have been playing these kinds of games all season. We will give our maximum in every game and hopefully reach our goal."