|15 April 2014|
|Kristjan Kangur and his team face Maccabi in the Euroleague play-offs in their quest to reach the Final Four in Milan |
By Dimitris Kontos
On Wednesday night in Milan, Kristjan Kangur will be taking a small step on a basketball court for a man, but an enormous leap for an Estonian player in Euroleague history.
When the 31-year-old forward steps out for EA7 Emporio Armani Milano's first clash in the play-off series against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague, he will be scaling heights that only an Estonian legend like Martin Müürsepp had reached before.
Far from surprising, it is rather a case of natural evolution, an almost inevitable step in the career of Kangur.
He is a player who progressed year after year in enviable linear fashion, with incremental improvements in performance and the level of the clubs he joined.
So he must have expected that, sooner or later, this moment would finally arrive.
"Honestly, no," Kangur told fibaeurope.com
"I was dreaming about it, of course.
"But, to be honest, I started playing basketball when I was 16, so before that I was just a big fan of basketball.
"Journalists asked me where I would like to play, what was my dream.
"I used to reply 'for a top European club'.
"Now I can say that this, where I am right now, is the top European club I dreamed of.
"So I am very proud of myself and I would like to continue at this level for a couple more years."
In order to be in a position where he can break new ground today, Kangur first had to break away from a proud Estonian sporting tradition, almost 15 years ago.
"I was doing track and field [up until 16]," Kangur explained.
"Right now maybe I cannot run so fast or jump so high, because of the injuries, but believe me, I used to be really athletic (he laughs).
"Physically, it prepared me well for basketball; athletics is great to prepare you for any sport really."
There has been a fair amount of running and jumping for the storied Olimpia Milano to reach the quarter-finals of the Euroleague this season, for the first time since 1997.
Why now though? Kangur, who joined Milano from Montepaschi Siena, where he conquered the Italian league and cup double last year and has also played for Virtus Bologna and Pesaro, must surely know the reason.
"I could not find anything negative to say about the organisation of the club, they do everything to make our life in Milan really comfortable, they are giving their heart for us," the Estonian international explained.
"But the main thing is that we have big, big talent on offence as a team.
"One night one player can score 30 and the next it can be somebody else, so we have many offensively talented players.
"And, lately, I think we have been more successful because we have also fixed our defence.
"The players now understand better what the coach (Luca Banchi, who worked with Kangur at Siena) needs and how he likes us to play."
|Estonia clinched a spot at EuroBasket 2015 as winners of the 1st Qualification Round|
ONE EUROBASKET EVERY DECADE
If Milano succeed in making the most of their home-court advantage in the play-offs against an experienced Maccabi side and qualify for the Euroleague Final Four at home, Kangur will be able to look back at a season when he accomplished two of the biggest achievements in his career, within the space of eight months.
The first historical success of the year came on 1 September, when he helped his national team topple Bulgaria 61-49 in the second leg of the EuroBasket 2015 1st Qualification Round.
That result meant that Kangur and his team-mates can look ahead at playing at their first ever EuroBasket, and Estonia's only third since gaining independence in 1992.
Their first participation was in 1993 and the latest until now in 2001, when a side led by Müürsepp qualified to the EuroBasket and finished in 14th place in the big tournament in Turkey.
"For our country it's a really, really big thing," Kangur said.
"Let's be honest, we were a little bit lucky in that the new system helped us, but we qualified on the court, so we deserved it."
As someone who has been suiting up for Estonia every single summer, during the good times and the bad, Kangur surely deserved this too?
"I guess you can say that this qualification was my reward (for his national team career)," Kangur agreed modestly.
"But I also hurt myself with this (the qualification campaign) a little bit and it has been a bit tough on me with all the injuries and surgeries.
"So there is always a good side and a bad side to everything."
Part of the good side must be that Kangur will be able to enjoy his holidays this summer while almost every other European nation is involved in either the EuroBasket 2015 2nd Qualification Round or the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
|Kangur will take the summer off to recover and be ready for another national team campaign in 2015|
"For me it's the perfect time, because I can recover and take care of my body for the next season, and for the next couple of seasons I hope," Kangur agreed.
"I think the other guys, the younger guys, are going to play some games but I, as the oldest guy, I am going to have some rest and fix myself (he smiles).
"I hope to recover this summer and be ready for the national team next summer, but in general I prefer to take it one at a time and don't think too much ahead.
"[EuroBasket 2015] is still far, so at this moment now we don't think about when and what is going to happen."
The Baltic nation's team went through a long period of crisis after EuroBasket 2001, but they had sent strong signals of a renaissance in recent years, before last summer's successful campaign.
Not least during the Qualifying Round for EuroBasket 2013, when they had played as equals against teams like Serbia, Montenegro and Israel.
"Yes, I actually think we have improved," Kangur asserted.
"Every year, more and more players go to play outside of Estonia.
"Another good thing is that the best Estonian team (his former club, Kalev/Cramo) is playing in the VTB league and our players are getting used to play against the best players.
"I think this is the reason why we are developing the game better and better.
"We have a limited number of people in Estonia, we are a small country, so we need all our players to be at a good level in order to compete."