Ukraine: Veteran Nicola Gives BC Kyiv A Steady Hand

18.04.2005

By Cindy Garcia-Bennett, PA International

Argentinian forward Marcelo Nicola has plenty to look forward to in the weeks ahead after helping BC Kyiv reach the FIBA Europe League Final Four and also stay in Ukraine's Superliga title hunt.

Indeed, the 33-year-old has so far repaid the trust given by the Ukraine giants, who signed the experienced player back in the summer.

Renato Pasquali's team is on course for glory, and a large chunk of the credit must go to Nicola.

His biggest European contribution came in the Game Three quarter-final decider at Nahariya, which Kyiv won 90-83.

The 2.07m tall forward made all five of his three-point shots and finished with 19 points.

It completed a great three games for the South American because in the opener he poured in 20 points and followed that up with 12 in Game Two.

"I'm very happy with my performances so far," said Nicola to PA International on behalf of FIBA Europe.

"I have been able to maintain my good form in important games and I just hope that I can continue to do so in what will be the crucial time of the season.

"It's great to have reached the FIBA Europe League Final Four, it's a great competition, with very important teams involved and it allows me to play against great players."

Kyiv will need their master of long-range shooting to be on the mark if they want to have a chance of upsetting their next European rivals, Final Four hosts Fenerbahce, on April 27.

The Istanbul club has already beaten Nicola and Kyiv twice in the preliminary round.

"The first time we faced them, it was early in the season," said Nicola.

"We had many new players, including myself, and we had yet to gel together as a team."

That first setback was a mauling. Fener romped to a 96-65 win.

"We conceded a bad loss at home," Nicola admitted, "but the second time we were unlucky on their own court, because we lost just by one point due to our mistake. We allowed one of their players free space to nail a three-pointer.

"Nevertheless, in that game we showed that we can play against them and maybe beat them."

Nicola is hoping Kyiv will be third-time lucky.

"We are confident," said Nicola.

"It's not going to be easy because they have good players and more importantly, they will have home advantage.

"I think the key will be for us to maintain intensity in our defensive play because that is our best weapon, and that gives us more confidence and more flair when it comes to playing in attack."

Should Kyiv succeed, they would face tough opposition in the final with either unbeaten Dynamo St Petersburg or Russian giants BC Khimki as their next rivals.

"They are both fantastic teams," admitted Nicola.

"St Petersburg have a great coach, David Blatt, who has had a lot of international experience with Maccabi.

"Khimki have very experienced players who have played in big European leagues and it's going to be even more difficult but not impossible."

On and off the court in Ukraine

For the time being, Nicola and Kyiv are concentrating on the Superliga, having beaten MBC Odessa on Sunday to join Azovmash at the top of the standings.

"It's a hard league," said Nicola.

"We are facing teams that have recently strengthened themselves.

"It's going to be challenging to maintain our current position but with eight games left to play before the end of the regular season, of which five we play at home, we have to take advantage and keep our concentration in order to arrive to the play-offs."

Times have been good for Nicola of late - not only on the hardwood, but off it as well.

"Life in Ukraine is much better than I expected," he admitted.

"At the beginning, it was difficult to adapt to a different country but once you get to know the city, everything becomes much easier."

There has been no lack of excitement, with Kiev making headlines at the end of 2004 because of Viktor Yushchenko.

The pro-western politician lost the presidential election in the country, but complained of fraud and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flooded the streets to protest, forcing an election re-run.

Yushchenko went on to win and take over the top job.

"It has been very interesting from a social aspect," said Nicola.

"I had a front seat, considering I live just across the square where all the peaceful demonstrations took place."

Moving to Kyiv wasn't an easy decision for Nicola, who has played at basketball clubs like Tau Ceramica in Spain and Benetton Treviso in Italy.

"Basketball is my life and sometimes you have to make difficult choices," he said.

"My son lives in Spain with his mother and of course, I would have liked to be playing closer to Spain but sometimes it's not possible.

"I know that I have a couple of years of basketball left in me and although it's a sacrifice not to be able to see my son as much as I would want to, I know that later I will be able to spend quality time with him."

Basketball is certainly a drug Nicola can't do without, having spent most of his life running the court.

"Although I am a veteran, nothing has really changed," he said.

"I still love this sport as much as I did back when I was 18.

"I enjoy every minute, the motivation and the excitement to win is still there and when that eventually fades away, I know it will be time to retire.

"I do hope that after my playing career is over, I can still be connected to this sport at another level."

But there are certain advantages that come with age, according to Nicola.

"Experience helps," he said.

"It allows you to look at certain aspects of the game in a different way, than with respect to when you are young.

"I face more challenging situations with more calmness now than I did back then.

"When I was young, I would look at other players for inspiration, like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, who were my heroes.

"But when you grow up, you are able to look at yourself with more conviction and in a more sincere way and somehow you take centre stage and your idols fade away."

With two World Championships, a European Cup title and an Olympic Games competition (1996) behind him, Nicola cannot help but look back with pride.

"I have played against the best," said Nicola.

"Playing against the great (Arvydas) Sabonis, (Toni) Kukoc and the Dream Team with Karl Malone in the Atlanta Olympics, it's difficult to beat that, simply unforgettable."

And to prove that he still has the edge, Nicola won the three-point contest in the FIBA Europe League All Star Day in Cyprus last week

"It's always nice to win," said Nicola, who nailed 10 of his last shots to beat Damir Mrsic in the final.

"The most important thing was to entertain the public, to have fun and celebrate what is a fantastic sport."

Aside from basketball, there is only one thing that could put the icing on the cake for Nicola, a big football fan.

And that is for his beloved River Plate to win the Clausura Tournament.

"We are currently second, one point behind Rosario Central," said Nicola.

"There are still 10 games left to play and anything can happen."


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