Bartzokas, Coaching In Times In Crisis

06 December 2013

BASKETBALL IN EUROPE

Olympiakos Head Coach Giorgios Bartzokas
Olympiakos Head Coach Giorgios Bartzokas found instant success when he took over the storied Greek club

By Dimitris Kontos

As Turkish Airlines Euroleague defending champions Olympiacos march on unbeaten on all fronts, having thrashed their all-time record for the best start to the season, the summer of 2012 seems a million years away.

It was when the Piraeus club, fresh off conquering the Euroleague title with an epic comeback in the final against CSKA Moscow, were in search of the coach that would replace Dusan Ivkovic at the helm.

As if the order was not tall enough already, the mandate of the new man in charge was to keep the club at the highest echelons of European basketball within the restraints of the harsh new financial reality in Greece.

The contrast between the Serbian maestro and the coach who was chosen to fill his shoes, the now 48-year-old Giorgios Bartzokas, could hardly be any more stark.

Ivkovic is a larger-than-life figure in European basketball, with nothing left to prove to anyone and the universal respect that his extensive trophy case commands.

Bartzokas on the other hand got his big break as a head coach in the Greek A1 league in 2006, when he took over at Olympia Larissa, and despite winning the Greek League Coach of the Year award in 2010, while in charge of the then Euroleague club Maroussi, had no silverware in his collection.

The announcement was met with scepticism by a sizeable portion of the media in the country, branded as a recession-era necessity, and since arch-rivals Panathinaikos were also slashing their budget across town, fans braced for the end of the good times, the end of title-hunting campaigns, the end of the era of success in Greek basketball.

Flash forward 16 months however, and Bartzokas is credited as the architect behind a second consecutive Euroleague crown in his first year at Olympiacos and a 16-0 start to his second season at the club.

If there is a recipe for sustained success in basketball, Bartzokas would be in possession of it and fibaeurope.com met recently with the Greek tactician to discuss his approach on success, working in the post fat-cows era and the state of things in the world of European coaches.

According to the cliché, the most difficult thing in sport is to retain a title, rather than winning it the first time. What is your first-hand experience?

Olympiakos Head Coach  Giorgios Bartzokas
 Bartzokas has thrived in the face of the financial crisis in Greece

What I need to say is that there was nothing more difficult than last season. I don't know where we are going to reach this year, I believe that we are going to go far again, and I know we are going to compete as we should in all competitions, but there is no way it will be a harder job than last season was. Every-day life was easy in the sense that we have very good staff, players and a front office that made things smoother, but managing a team that has just conquered the title the way it did in Istanbul, as an underdog, was immensely challenging. From one moment to the next, this team was travelling everywhere with the label of the champion and was expected to win accordingly. From the moment we achieved that, and considering that I now know the team better, it was easier to work [in the off-season] on our strengths and weakness, always within the limits of the budget. Our budget is not among the highest in Europe, but that's how it should be. The way things are now in Greek society, a basketball club's budget should not be higher than that.

There were substantial changes to your team's roster in the summer, yet Olympiacos have started off even better than in their title-winning campaigns. How does a team maintain its winning spirit through personnel changes?
Continuity in the backcourt was the first thing. Our back-line players are at a very good age, their career is going upwards, the players who make the core of the team are around 23 years of age and already have two Euroleague titles under their belt. [Vassilis] Spanoulis is of course a separate, most valuable chapter in all of this. The only player we have added on the perimeter was [Matthew] Lojeski, who is also at a very good age and is a winner. I think this was the most important, if there had been changes of personnel in the backcourt it would have made a big difference, so the fact that it has remained homogeneous is a big help. In essence we have only changed our big guys, because of special circumstances. What we were looking for was frontcourt players with athleticism and in selecting them the basic criteria was that they are good teammates and that they would arrive highly motivated. Motivation is a vital ingredient in sport if you are after success.

You became the first Greek coach to win the Euroleague, and not for lack of attempts, as other colleagues of yours had been in a Final Four on 10 occasions previously. What made you reach this milestone first?
I think I was someone who came to the right team at the right moment. By team I mean the entire club, as an organisation, which created excellent working conditions. But it can often be a matter of the right circumstances so I had luck in this respect and I happened to become the first one. The truth is I did not realise it at first, but as time passed and I saw the appreciation of European basketball people on our travels as well as the fans of the team in Greece, it's something that makes me happy.

All but one club in the A1 league have a Greek coach in charge and there are several of your compatriots working successfully abroad. Are Greek basketball coaches flourishing in a time of crisis?
It definitely has to do with the [financial] crisis up to some point. As the clubs started reducing their budgets they turned to Greek coaches more and more. But this did not only happen in Greece, it also happened in Spain for example, where (Pablo) Laso, (Xavi) Pascual, or (Joan) Plaza are now top-level coaches but maybe if it was not for budget restrictions, the decisions that gave them the chance to show it would not have been made. But beyond that, the Greek Coaches' Association (S.E.P.K) does an excellent job with its seminars in training, so Greek basketball always remains at the highest level from a tactical point of view. One could say that what coaches needed was the chance to work.

You ended your career as a player and started out in coaching in the 1980's, at a time when in Europe American players and coaches were still considered to live in a different galaxy. European players have evidently closed the gap, but does a coach who has won the Euroleague title still have reasons to be in awe of his American colleagues?
In order to improve, one needs to absorb elements from others, and that does not only mean to assimilate the positives, but also to throw away the negatives. The USA is the country where basketball was born, regardless of whether one likes the NBA style of play or not. Perhaps it's true that the game there is more of a show, where everything revolves around star power, but still it is the birthplace of basketball and we can take a lot of good elements from that. The European style developed differently, possibly because we used to have a lack of athleticism, so it was based more on team effort, but nowadays the European game also has a high degree of athleticism. I think however the fact that there is no European head coach on an NBA team means something.


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