Coaching Fraternity, Israel Gonzalez, ALBA: 'Basketball was my hobby'

Dec 13, 2021 by Andy West, Print
Coaching Fraternity, Israel Gonzalez, ALBA: 'Basketball was my hobby'

ALBA Berlin’s trip to Real Madrid on Tuesday night will be a particularly emotional occasion for the visiting boss, Coach Israel Gonzalez, who has a special relationship with his Real counterpart Pablo Laso.

When Laso ended his excellent playing career – which included more than a decade as point guard for Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and two seasons with Real Madrid, where he won the Spanish Cup and the Saporta Cup – his coaching adventure began with brief spells at Castello and Valencia Basket before joining Cantabria in the Spanish second tier in 2006.

At Cantabria, one of Laso’s assistants was a young and ambitious coach, Israel Gonzalez, who was only able to devote some of his week to the club because he also held a full-time job as a sports teacher at a local school. But that didn’t remain the case for long, because Laso persuaded him to take a gamble on pledging his future fully to basketball – jump-starting a journey which, 15 years later, has now resulted in Gonzalez taking charge of a EuroLeague team for the first time.

"Pablo showed me how to still enjoy basketball even when it is your job... I learned with him that you can work but at the same time love what you are doing."

Looking back on those early days, Gonzalez recalled: “With Pablo Laso, I enjoyed a lot. I had a lot of fun, we did a great job and he made me a professional. I learned a lot in these years with him, and it was one of the greatest moments I had.”

Pinpointing exactly what he gained from spending time on the bench alongside Laso, the ALBA coach said: “I learned how you have to behave with the players, how to manage them. I learned how to force them to compete at 100 percent. He knows very well how to manage the players, how to get the best out of them.

"I also always remember that Pablo showed me how to still enjoy basketball even when it is your job. Before I met him basketball was my hobby, but I learned with him that you can work but at the same time love what you are doing.”

Gonzalez also noted that he has not been surprised by Laso’s rise to greatness with Real Madrid in the years that have passed since their initial meeting: “What I felt when I met Pablo was that he had a great talent to understand and to anticipate what would happen in games. I realized that he had something special.”

That early stint with Laso was by no means the last time that Gonzalez would benefit from the knowledge and insight of an excellent coach because his next appointment took him to Gran Canaria and a seat on the sidelines next to Pedro Martinez, who has coached several big teams in Spain and won the 2017 domestic championship with Valencia.

“Pedro is another of the best coaches in Spain,” Gonzalez stated. “With him, I learned how to organize everything, how to have a method of coaching and how to develop the concepts and ideas of basketball. Pedro knew how to build those ideas little by little. He showed me that the things you practice are the things you are able to do in games.”

The departure of Martinez from Gran Canaria led to perhaps the biggest influence on Gonzalez as a coach, with the appointment of the legendary Aito Garcia Reneses. As the winner of 15 domestic titles and five more on the continental stage, Garcia Reneses has long been regarded as one of the most important figures in Spanish basketball coaching history, and Gonzalez was understandably thrilled by the prospect of working alongside him.

“It was one of the dreams of my life,” he says. “Since I was a child I had seen Aito at Joventut and Barcelona and when I became a coach, I always kept an eye on the things that his teams were doing. Even before meeting him I always felt I was from that school of coaching; I liked the things that I saw in his teams, and it was great to learn and understand how he built teams.

“Aito is different. He is magic. What I learned is how to do things; the small details with Aito are very important. And how to build the ideas of basketball not with the concepts. He starts with the technique and then he develops the players from the very beginning.”

Garcia Reneses spent two years in charge at Gran Canaria and would later play another key role in Gonzalez’s life, but first, there was time for one more apprenticeship with the appointment of another vastly experienced and well-traveled Spanish coach, Luis Casimiro.

“He is very good tactically,” explained Gonzalez. “He always had a lot of new ideas that he introduced to the Spanish league and I was very happy to be with him.”

Then, in 2017, Gonzalez was given the opportunity to leave Spain for the first time as he was selected by Garcia Reneses to assist him at ALBA Berlin and he did not hesitate to accept the offer.

“Coming to Berlin was another big step in my career and I am very thankful that Aito called me to come here with him,” he said.

"I’m one of the luckiest men in the world to have these opportunities. I have been with the best and most experienced coaches in Spain, so it’s a dream."

After four years as an assistant at ALBA, Gonzalez was finally promoted into the head coaching role this summer when Garcia Reneses took a sabbatical from the sport, but he admitted he would have been perfectly happy to continue assisting the old master.

“I feel inside that I have been ready for this for a long time,” he said. “But I wasn’t in a hurry because I loved what I was doing, I always felt important in the team and felt that the team was mine as well as Aito’s. I’m very happy with this opportunity, but if it had never happened I would have been happy because I loved the things I did before.”

And after serving a long and fruitful apprenticeship under a series of outstanding coaches – from Laso to Reneses Garcia – Gonzalez certainly believes that he has been very well prepared for his new role with ALBA: “I’m one of the luckiest men in the world to have these opportunities. I have been with the best and most experienced coaches in Spain, so it’s a dream. When I first started wanting to be a coach, I never thought it would be like this.”

On Tuesday night, he will go up against the man with whom it all started.