Veteran forward Nikita Kurbanov of CSKA Moscow is a two-time EuroLeague champion and a veteran of seven Final Fours, so he knows as well as anyone what the Russian powerhouse needs to do to get ready for the trip to Belgrade and to challenge for another crown. The 31-year-old is CSKA's Mr. Reliable; he has not missed a EuroLeague game since he rejoined the team in 2015 – a run of 98 consecutive appearances and counting. Kurbanov's all-around contributions have played important roles on a CSKA side noted for its unrelenting attack. With the Final Four right around the corner, Kubanov skips right past the X’s and O’s when it comes to what CSKA has to do to win in Belgrade. "A champion is a team that has more desire to win than the others," Kurbanov said. "The Final Four format doesn't remember past achievements, they are shaded away. Then desire and luck come to the front. We need to be confident in ourselves and our teammates and play aggressive from the first seconds."
Nikita, what were the biggest obstacles CSKA had to overcome this season to reach another Final Four?
"Each team faced difficulties this season. First of all injuries. Our team faced that during the playoffs when we lost two key players, Nando De Colo and Kyle Hines. Also during the season, Leo Westermann had a very unusual injury. It became our main goal to go through the season solving problems and overcoming such difficulties. We needed to do so to stay together as one team."
You have played on great CSKA teams that specialized in defense, and now CSKA under Coach Itoudis always leads the league in scoring. How do you compare the different styles?
"Both styles of CSKA teams had the same goal – to first of all reach the Final Four. With CSKA under Itoudis, we have reached the Final Four every season and that's a huge result. My previous CSKA teams had almost the same results except for the 2010-11 season. CSKA always has big goals and each coach just chose his own way to go about it."
You have appeared in every EuroLeague game since returning to CSKA in 2015 – 98 and counting. How do you stay so durable?
"That's nice to know! I have two more games to get to 100. All basketball players and athletes, in general, are superstitious. If you hadn't told me, I wouldn't have known that. I’m glad to have such a streak and that the EuroLeague counted that. 100 games will be a nice present for the whole team and club if games 99 and 100 would be memorable for a good reason."
There are three weeks between the playoffs and the Final Four. What do you try to do as a player – and CSKA as a team – to keep your momentum and mental focus sharp until Belgrade?
"It’s hard. We know our semifinal opponent. To prepare to play against Real during the next two weeks is very hard because it’s a long period. Thanks to the VTB United League, we’ll have some games in the regular season. Those games will help us practice something, to prepare for the Final Four and get away from thoughts about the Real game for a while. We have plenty of experience from previous seasons and that will help us prepare the right way."
You’ve witnessed Belgrade’s great love of basketball many times in games against Partizan and Crvena Zvezda, and you also have had several Serbian teammates. What excites you about playing the Final Four in that basketball-crazy city, in particular?
"I think that the Final Four is a huge basketball event regardless of the city where it takes place. Even if the local team doesn’t take part in the Final Four, the event is always sold out. Everybody knows how Serbians can support, so we hope that some of their loud voices will help us too."
You competed in the first Euroleague Basketball ADIDAS NEXT GENERATION TOURNAMENT in Barcelona in 2003, then won it with CSKA the next season in Tel Aviv. What do you remember from those experiences?
"I remember our win in Tel Aviv. That was great. At that moment we didn’t understand how important those games were. We were juniors and we liked taking part in a new tournament where a lot of our foreign friends played too. We knew each other very well. It was a new format and experience for us and we had fun, of course. The most interesting thing was also to come to the games of our senior team later. The atmosphere in the arena was wonderful. Now we all know that to become the ANGT champion is an honor."
The semifinal between CSKA and Real Madrid features the two best offenses in the EuroLeague. What are the keys to that game?
"Desire. A champion is a team that has more desire to win than the others. The Final Four format doesn’t remember past achievements, they are shaded away. Then desire and luck come to the front. We need to be confident in ourselves and our teammates and play aggressive from the first seconds. The Final Four is actually two finals, so we need to give it all for the win."
With a healthy Sergio Llull back in the lineup, Madrid is a much different team than when you faced them this season. How will that affect your preparations?
"Llull is a key player, we know him very well. So we can’t think that he just came back and isn't in good shape yet. That would be reckless. Sergio is a dangerous player who can change a situation in two-three possessions. We need to be fully concentrated."
The other semifinal is Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul vs. Zalgiris Kaunas. Who do you think will win that game and why?
"I can’t predict it. They say that Zalgiris has a lack of experience with its roster in Final Fours. But this season Lithuanian team proved that they are able to fight with any team. This deserves respect."
You have already played in six Final Fours. Can you share some of your favorite memories?
"My favorite memories are connected with victories – in Prague 2006 and Berlin 2016. In 2016 it was more valuable for me because I played a bigger role on the team. The perception of victories differed. But in 2006 the win was sweet too."