He has only played in two Turkish Airlines EuroLeague games this season, but when the Final Four tips off at Stark Arena, reigning EuroLeague MVP Sergio Llull of Real Madrid will be present. Llull suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last August and endured an arduous recovery, which he shared on social media all the way through. When he was finally able to return, Llull helped his team in a pair of EuroLeague Playoffs games against Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens. He looked like his old self with 9.5 points and 5.5 assists off the bench and hit one of his trademark end-of-possession shots to ignite the Madrid crowd in a critical moment for Los Blancos. Llull is thankful to be able to play basketball again in time for the EuroLeague Final Four and tries to put a positive twist on the whole experience. "Having so many people supporting me made things easier for me, too, and my reward is being able to play again and have fun on the court," Llull told EuroLeague.net. "It was a tough season for us when it comes to injuries - sometimes when a player came back, someone else got injured. We never had a full, healthy team, but that helped us grow. We proved that this team does not depend on one player; we all add good things to the team and step up when someone goes down."
Hello, Sergio. Welcome back! How great is it to be back in action in time for the Final Four?
"Thank you! I am very happy to be back! I am also happy because our team made it to the Final Four. It was one of our goals at the start of the season and we achieved it. I am very thankful to all of our fans, who always supported me, and especially to all the people who worked hard for me to return to action. I wouldn't be playing basketball and enjoying it if it wasn't for them."
You shared much of your recovery process on social media. Did the positive messages you saw motivate you even more to work harder?
"Yes, for sure. It played a critical role in my recovery. It was a long, tough process, eight and a half months without doing what I like the most, which is playing basketball. All those comments on social media or people who stopped me on the street gave me support to keep fighting, they were very important in me staying optimistic and looking forward to coming back."
You are a great competitor. How difficult was it for you to sit down and watch your team's games without being able to help? How impressed were you by your teammates being able to cover not only your injury, but others?
"It was tough because you have to be there and watch, especially the home games, at the end of the bench, injured, unable to help your team on the court. I love to compete and play to win, so it was hard, but I understood I would be sidelined for a long time and prepared for it, too. Having so many people supporting me made things easier for me, too, and my reward is being able to play again and have fun on the court. It was a tough season for us when it comes to injuries - sometimes when a player came back, someone else got injured. We never had a full, healthy team, but that helped us grow. We proved that this team does not depend on one player; we all add good things to the team and step up when someone goes down. That made us strong and now, we have to get ready for this year's Final Four."
You returned in Game 3 of the playoffs, a home game. What do you remember about the crowd reaction?
"It was awesome. I got goosebumps when our P.A. announcer said my name. I stepped on court and everyone was on their feet and giving me an ovation. It was one of the most beautiful moments I experienced as a Real Madrid player, feeling that support, that affection. It was incredible, a very emotional day for me."
Madrid will face CSKA in the semifinals. The two teams have combined for 16 EuroLeague titles. How special is it to play such an important game against CSKA?
"It will be a tough, demanding game. They dominated the EuroLeague Regular Season and have a great team, very athletic, very physical, with a lot of talent especially in its backcourt. We will have to do things really well if we want to win the game and play another EuroLeague final."
You will play against Sergio Rodriguez for the first time since 2006, when he was with Estudiantes and you were with Manresa. How much are you looking forward to that matchup?
"Yes, and I believe this will be the first time that we actually face each other. I am not sure we played against each other in that game, if we were on the court at the same time. It will be special; we always played together not only in Real Madrid, but with the Spanish national team. Having to face each other will be a good memory for both of us. Of course, we will try to stop him in order to reduce CSKA's chances to beat us."
This is your sixth Final Four. From your own experience, what makes the Final Four so great and what are your expectations for this event in an important basketball city like Belgrade?
"Playing the Final Four is already very special. Everything happens in three days – semifinals and final – and those moments are truly special. Like you said, we will play this year's Final Four in a basketball-crazy city like Belgrade. Serbian fans love basketball and I am sure we will be in front of a great atmosphere. This is the most important title of the season and we have to be ready."
What is your take on the other semifinal, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul vs. Zalgiris Kaunas?
"Both teams had a great season. For Zalgiris, it is a great accomplishment to make it to the Final Four and they will try to play the underdog role, with a lot of excitement. I am sure the arena will be full of Lithuanian and Turkish fans. Fenerbahce has a little bit more experience and, being the reigning champion, it is the favorite, but in these games, being the favorite does not matter much."
You are a big football fan. Real Madrid made it to the Champions League final. No club ever won the top competition in football and basketball in the same season. How special would that be for you and for Madrid fans?
"It would be special, historic! Like you said, no club has been able to be European champion in football and basketball. It would be something historic and of course, we will fight for it. We want our fans to be happy because they really deserve it."
Your comeback has been outstanding. How amazing would it be for you to round it out with the EuroLeague title?
"It would be my dream recovery coming true. It would be amazing to lift the EuroLeague trophy just five-six weeks after coming back to action. It will try to contribute to the team as much as I can so that we can all together beat CSKA first, make it to the final and win again to lift the trophy. That would be a big joy."