By Yarone Arbel
|Watching his team-mates from the bench, unable to help them, is how Matjaz Smodis remembers EuroBasket 2009. He is now looking to set the record straight in Lithuania |
One shot. That's all that separated Slovenia from a historical medal two years ago in EuroBasket 2009.
Thousands of fans got in their cars and drove to Katowice, Poland, to see their national team show a whole lot of pride for their small country.
But an overtime loss to Serbia in the semi-finals and a one-point loss to Greece in the bronze medal game put an end to the dreams despite a huge campaign.
Now, at EuroBasket 2011, two years before welcoming all of Europe to their country as the hosts of the 2013 edition of the tournament, Slovenia is back for another shot at a medal.
Veteran forward Matjaz Smodis is one of the bigger names in this championship, one that every European basketball fan knows very well and associates with one of the more decorated and winning careers Europe has seen in the 21st century.
Smodis started playing for Krka Novo Mesto and since the age of 21 has played for nothing but powerhouses. After a great start with the legendary Kinder Bologna, he moved on to archrivals Fortitudo Bologna and then spent six seasons with CSKA Moscow.
He won titles with each club and gathered national championships, national cups and the Euroleague crown in his fascinating career.
The only thing he's missing is a European title with the national team, and after coming so close two years ago he's coming back for another chance, though this time should be different.
In 2009, a back injury hampered him, limiting both his playing time and role on the floor.
Smodis played only 13 minutes in two Preliminary Round games in Poland, but followed, cheered and pushed his team from the bench in the following days.
Now he's back to contribute on the floor as well.
"We had a great run in Poland, and it's a great memory for all of us," he said.
"We were so close to get a medal but we're going to try to do it again here.
"Last time we learned that we need a deeper bench if we want to make something happen, because EuroBasket is a very demanding tournament.
"We suffered some injuries again coming here but I hope what we have is still enough to be successful."
One major change from 2009 to now is on the bench of the national team.
After leading Latvia to a fourth-place in Poland, former legendary player Jure Zdovc stepped down from his head coaching position, leaving a great challenge for the federation to find his replacement.
Eventually the pick was someone who has become a legend in his own right as well, only this time as a coach - Bozidar Maljkovic.
The Serbian head coach who won several titles with clubs in his career is a big boost for Slovenia according to Smodis.
"He's a great coach and everyone knows the things he has done in his career," he said.
"I believe this will play in our favour, because when you have such coach you get more respect from everyone, and it's also an important element.
"Coach Maljkovic won titles and he will bring from his experience to our team, it's something not every team can enjoy here and maybe will give us another advantage when we'll need one," he concluded.
EuroBasket 2013 will take place in Slovenia and obviously the big target for the Slovenians is to do something in front of their own fans in their home court.
Slovenia will have Erazem Lorbek, Goran Dragic, Jaka Lakovic and other big names next to Smodis, yet next to them some less familiar names will wear the green jersey for the first time.
"Some of the players we have with us here are young players who need the exposure and gain experience so we could enjoy their skills also in two years from now," Smodis explained.
"But that doesn't mean we won't try to do something here.
"Our minimum goal is to make at least the sixth spot because from there we will still have a chance to make the 2012 Olympics through the Qualifying Tournament.
"We're here to compete. As always."