When people talk about strong European basketball nations, very few include Cyprus in that conversation.
That, however, is beginning to change with Cypriot club DTK EKA AEL Lemesos advancing to the quarter-finals of the EuroCup, where they face Ukrainian powers SC Avozmash Mariupol.
AEL was a Cyprus power in the 1980s, winning six league championships in the decade.
But their fans had to wait until 2003 for the next crown.
And the team have been unstoppable since then, winning their fourth successive Cypriot title last season by going undefeated in the play-offs.
The architect of their success over the past two seasons has been Igors Miglinieks, who helped the Soviet Union to the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
The former Latvian point guard played on one of the greatest Soviet teams of all-time, a squad which also included Arvidas Sabonis, Sarinas Marciulionis, Aleksandr Volkov, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Tiit Sokk and Sergey Tarakanov among others.
He also served as assistant coach of the Chinese national team at the 2005 Asian Championships in Qatar and the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan.
Miglinieks took time to talk to PA Sport's David Hein on behalf of FIBA Europe about AEL's successful run to the final eight, Latvia's chances at the 2007 EuroBasket and China's chances of taking basketball gold at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Jeron Roberts leads AEL in scoring at 13.9 ppg.
Miglinieks: For sure we're satisfied. But we can't just stop and enjoy this success in the middle of the season. We still have the local cup and league. But still this is history for the club and all of Cyprus. The entire club earned this, helping us reach this target. We're getting better and better in Cyprus and in Europe, but Cyprus is still a small, small country - and not a basketball country.
FIBA Europe: Over the past 11 games in the EuroCup, your team has lost just twice - in a meaningless game against Virtus Bologna as Group H had already been decided and at Estudiantes. How disappointed are you that the team lost those two games?
Miglinieks: When you eat, you get hungrier, and you start wanting more. You have one steak, but it's so good that you want another. When you play against top teams, you feel you want more against them. Against Bologna, you can't really tell the difference between the teams because the game meant nothing. With Estudiantes, we saw that we were improving on the road. Even in the Cyprus league, we've had our troubles in away games. But Estudiantes played bad at home and we didn't use that. They played much better in Limassol and we beat them.
FIBA Europe: And since those back-to-back losses, AEL have collected five straight wins including a home win against Estudiantes. Talk about your club's presence of mind to rebound from those two losses?
Miglinieks: We analysed those games and showed the team how close we were to winning. We're close to beating some of the best teams in Europe. Sometimes it's technically, sometimes tactically. And they understood that and we've learned from our mistakes and are more concentrated.
FIBA Europe: A lot of coaches don't like to talk about goals for their teams, saying they just want to take it one step at a time. And I'm sure you said the whole second round that the goal was the quarter-finals. Well you're there now, so what's the goal, facing Azovmash in the final eight?
Miglinieks: For sure, we are now ready to win every game. We will have to win an away game to reach the Final Four. Two home games would have been a great advantage. But I believe we can make it after the team has caught confidence and the feeling of how to win games on the road. They're feeling better step-by-step. For sure we're not finished. We have to live the emotion. We can't just stop and say thanks everybody. We'll concentrate on Cyprus now.
FIBA Europe: Let's changes topics now. The Latvian national team has qualified for the 2007 EuroBasket in Spain. They face in their group reigning world champions Spain, Croatia and Portugal. The Latvians lost twice to Croatia in the qualifiers. What are you thoughts about Latvia's chances at the 2007 EuroBasket?
Miglinieks: Now they are a stable national team with a more experienced team with all our players playing in good leagues. It will be very difficult. If you're not concentrated then you're out. But we have a young defense and you can have them do what you want as coach when they're young. The old Latvian teams were full of Russians and young players who never saw Europe. Now, I feel we have become an established team that can make some steps with their new confidence.
FIBA Europe: How are Latvia's chances of advancing into the second group stage
Miglinieks: The new age players really believe in the team and I think we will go through in the first round. Maybe it was better not to go through last time. You have to learn to think game-by-game. It's a short tournament. But I don't think we can win the group. We're still too young. The target is to finish second. But we could even get out of the group with just one
|Latvia will be counting on solid play from Andris Biedrins at EuroBasket this summer.|
FIBA Europe: Andris Biedrins has confirmed he'll be coming to Spain. The 20-year-old center is having a great season with Golden State of the NBA. What are your thoughts on him and his potential for development?
Miglinieks: Now we have a real player in the NBA. I like him and his style, and I think he's enjoying himself and sees his chance. If the coach sees things another way, you can't show your level of play. But he's having a good time and I think the future will be very good for him. He's gone from just being on the team to really being one of the leaders. Next season he will show he's a real NBA player who everyone can count on. If he keeps developing like he is, he'll be a star. He just has to keep his concentration.
FIBA Europe: Looking back to the 1988 Olympic champion team from Seoul. Do you keep in contact at all with Arvidas Sabonis, Sarinas Marciulionis or the rest of your former team-mates?
Miglinieks: Everybody's really busy, but we keep good contact. We were all friendly and had a great spirit while we were together. Soviet teams before had problems between players with so many different nationalities. But it wasn't like that with us. We all knew how hard it was - with 250 million people - to be one of the 12 players on that team.
FIBA Europe: How often do you see each other?
Miglinieks: If we have a chance once a year we get together and find some time and go away for two or three days. Around Christmas we celebrated 100 years of Russian basketball and the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and the rest were there too. It was a good time. I went only for about 13 hours, I came for the celebration and left the next morning. It's nice talking to everyone, even though it usually ends in the job since we're all still around the sport.
FIBA Europe: Many of the players from that team have become big names in the coaching, management or ownership level in Europe. You have Aleksandr Volkov as owner of BC Kyiv, Rimas Kurtinaitis is head coach at Ural Great, Valery Tikhonenko head coach with Samara and Valdemaras Chomicius is assistant with Unics Kazan. In addition, Tiit Sokk is coaching Estonian side Dalkia Nybit and Sergey Tarakanov is manager of the Russian national team. Are you surprised that so many players from that team have stayed in basketball?
Miglinieks: It's not a surprise at all. To get to the 12 players you have to love what you do. And you have to work a lot - not just as a team but individually as well to make the national team. And you can't work a lot unless you love something. Not for money. If you want to do something for money, you try to find something to make it easier. Some young
|Soviet Union center Alexander Volkov at the 1987 European Championship in Greece|
FIBA Europe: With Volkov at Kyiv, Kurtinaitis at Ural Great, Chomicius at Unics Kazan and you at AEL, one day there could be a Final Four featuring four former 1988 Olympic champions in top positions.
Miglinieks: That would be funny. That would be unbelievable. Maybe we could somehow do that Final Four. That would be interesting.
FIBA Europe: Touching on another subject. You helped Jonas Kazlauskas as assistant for the Chinese national team at the 2005 Asian Championship in Qatar and the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan. The goal for the team at the 2008 Beijing Games is to capture a medal. Talk about that?
Miglinieks: Maybe you can call yourself crazy in thinking of winning the championship in China. But we're trying to make changes and get better. In China, there's not the style of marketing like in the United States or Europe, where they're more experienced. But the Chinese are starting to believe and trust the Europeans - the coaches and the business management. It's not easy for the Chinese. They're developing and everybody else is trying to catch up with the leaders too. But the Olympics are the Olympics, and of course you want to do something special and win a medal for your country at home.
FIBA Europe: What are the team's chances?
Miglinieks: If you make it to the quarter-finals then it's just one game until the semi-finals and then you're in the final. Everything depends on Yao Ming. He's the biggest part of the team. He loves this game too. He has become better and better every year. With Yao and some good tactics and good team-work, we can beat anybody in the world. It's just one game. It's not a season. Yao is unstoppable and if another player or two play well, China can beat anyone. And the players are playing better around Yao. Things like this always take time. We're in the fourth year now and the fifth year will be the Olympic year. And the new guys are starting to come to a new level.