|14 February 2014|
|Damjan Rudez emits a friendly outlook, but all possesses a killer instinct when required. |
By Dimitris Kontos
The good-natured, friendly and always polite Croatian international Damjan Rudez is the last person you would expect to cold-bloodedly twist a knife into an old friend's heart, even in the metaphorical sense.
Yet the 27-year-old small forward did something of the sort in plain sight this week in his hometown, Zagreb.
The Eurocup clash between CAI Zaragoza and his former club, Cedevita, was tied at 74 when Rudez positioned himself in the corner on the last possession, received the ball from point guard Pedro Llombart as the clock was running down and without even blinking he duly drilled a three-pointer that gave the visiting Spanish side a vital victory right at the buzzer.
Rudez had spent two excellent seasons at Cedevita, during which the club reached the Eurocup Final Four and conquered the Croatian Cup.
Several of the forward's family members or close friends were in the stands of Dom Sportova Arena on Wednesday night while Cedevita's current head coach, Jasmin Repesa, is also his boss on the Croatian national team.
"It was a day of too many emotions for me, a highly-disputed game and this last play was incredible, it will remain unforgettable," Rudez said after the win which kept Zaragoza alive in the race for qualification to the Eurocup Eighth-finals.
The 2.08m Rudez has always been an outstanding long-range shooter, so the fact he converted that game-winning triple with all eyes in Zagreb on him, does not come as a surprise.
Not even the most high-percentage shooter however can hit such a tough shot unless he is absolutely convinced the ball will drop in, even before it is released from his fingertips.
Rudez has been this kind of confident player this season and this confidence stems from events that took place in September.
At EuroBasket 2013 in Slovenia, the forward came off the bench to make short-shock impact displays for Croatia and help his nation reach the semi-finals of the big tournament, for the first time in 18 years.
|Sergio Rodriguez (left) had the last laugh on the weekend when his club Real Madrid knocked out Damjan Rudez and Zaragoza from the Copa del Rey |
"Oh yes, the EuroBasket did a whole lot of good to my confidence," Rudez told fibaeurope.com, almost prophetically, a couple of days before the game in Zagreb.
"I think our [Croatia's] success as a team transpired onto all of us individually and we came into our seasons with great confidence.
"I am really still feeling the effect of the EuroBasket and I am just hoping that we can continue this story at the World Cup too.
Croatia will face Argentina, Greece, Puerto Rico, Philippines and Senegal in First Round Group B of the FIBA Basketball World Cup in the summer.
"I think we can be happy with the draw," Rudez said.
"It's a good group but I think it leaves us with a lot of chances to advance.
"I think that Argentina will probably be the favourites if they come with all of their best players, along with Puerto Rico, Greece and ourselves.
"At a first glance I'd say that Philippines and Senegal are something like the outsiders, but in a tournament like this you cannot underestimate anybody.
"It would be very dangerous [to do so] because any team that gets into a good rhythm can surprise you."
Have fans and friends back in Zagreb (the ones at least who have forgiven him for Wednesday's game-winner) expressed the demand for Rudez and his Croatia team-mates to improve next summer in Spain on the semi-final finish of EuroBasket 2013?
"Not really," Rudez replies.
"People in Croatia are in a good mood right now, because we had endured 18 years of drought before this EuroBasket.
"It would be unrealistic to expect us to win a medal immediately.
"But since we are now in a good rhythm I think we should use this positive energy to keep us going, keep the good atmosphere in the team and help us stay confident about ourselves."
If he continues playing like this, Rudez will definetely keep his confidence intact until the World Cup.
In his second season at Zaragoza, he is averaging 10.6 points, 2.2 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game in the Spanish Liga Endesa and a very similar 10.9 points, 2.4 assists and 1.4 rebounds per night in the Eurocup.
|Rudez does not feel pressure from back home for Croatia to improve on their EuroBasket result at the World Cup, but as the same time believes Croatia can go far, riding on their current wave of optimism |
"This year in Zaragoza is excellent, excellent," he says beaming.
"Especially lately that we are in a great rhythm, so the atmosphere at the club is really positive.
"We are very happy to have been in our second consecutive Copa del Rey and for me personally it's a great satisfaction to be a part of this accomplishment.
"I am happy with my performances lately and life is good."
Zaragoza reached the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, where they were eliminated by eventual champions Real Madrid, and are well on track to clinch a play-off berth for the second consecutive year.
Following the big win at Cedevita, they have staved off elimination in a very tight Group P, where they are tied with the Zagreb side at 2-3 while Lietuvos Rytas and Besiktas stand at 3-2.
"I think we can be satisfied with what we've done so far, we have a team that is able to do good things in the Eurocup," Rudez said.
Unfortunatelty we had some losses at home but I think we can make up for them and we can advance out of the second round.
"For a club that is playing in the Eurocup for the first time, I think this is a good situation."
Rudez's optimistic outlook on his team's chances in the competition will be put to the test next week, when Zaragoza are playing host to Besiktas in the decisive last encounter in the Last 32.
If the crucial last play falls upon him once again, the Turkish visitors must know by now he has all the confidence needed to strike a fatal blow.