|08 May 2013|
|Marko Popovic is a familiar face in Croatian national team colours|
By Dimitris Kontos
When Croatian international Marko Popovic visited with fibaeurope.com, he still had no way of knowing he would be celebrating his fourth Lithuanian league (LKL) title with Zalgiris Kaunas on 7 May.
He certainly had no way of knowing that the Lithuanian powerhouse would reach their goal with a clean sweep over arch-rivals Lietuvos Rytas in the final series.
The soon-to-be 31-year-old guard knew however that, if they won the title, this time around he would be the first to lift the trophy, as the Croatian leader of a team laden with Lithuanian internationals.
"In the absence of our real captain, [Paulius] Jankunas, I became captain, which is a great honour for me and I am really proud to be the captain of this team," Popovic said.
Jankunas underwent shoulder surgery in February and has been sidelined since then.
"These guys are playing for the team, despite whatever crisis and ups and downs we faced during the season," Popovic said of his team-mates.
"There were so many things this year, from departures like [that of American/Bulgarian guard Ibrahim] Jaaber or serious injuries like [that of Tadas] Klimavičius, or [Robertas] Javtokas and then our captain Jankunas, and it was really hard.
"But we keep on fighting and we keep showing character.
"Kaunas has been my second home, it's my fourth year there and I am really happy."
Popovic conquered his first two LKL titles during his first spell at Zalgiris, from 2006 to 2008.
He then joined Russian side UNICS Kazan and won the Eurocup (was also named MVP of the Final Four) before returning to Kaunas in 2011 to add two more LKL titles to his collection.
He has also suited up for Efes Pilsen in Turkey, Pamesa Valencia in Spain, as well as Cibona Zagreb and Zadar back home.
The one constant in Popovic's career had been, until recently at least, the Croatian national team.
Since becoming a senior international at the age of 20, he played in five consecutive EuroBasket tournaments, the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Championship.
WHO WILL HOP ON THE EUROBASKET TRAIN?
Last summer, and for the first time in years, Popovic did not pull on the chequered red-white jersey of the national team, as Croatia competed in the EuroBasket Qualification Round.
That does not necessarily mean however that we will not see him playing for his nation at the big event in Slovenia.
"At this point I cannot really tell you I am going to play 100%, first of all I have to talk to the coach, whether its [Jasmin] Repesa or someone else," Popovic explained.
"I have to wait for the end of the season to see how my health condition is going to be.
"There is a wish to play, definitely, but sometimes your body tells you not to go, because I am no longer a 20-year-old guy, sure that I will in perfect shape.
"I will be glad if I can help the national team of course
"But only (he stresses this word) in the case that all the players come with the same wish."
"I am thinking about [Zoran] Planinic, I am thinking about [Ante] Tomic, [Stanko] Barac, [Luka] Zoric, all those players.
The Unicaja Malaga forward/center Zoric was the only of the four mentioned that played in the Qualification Round, but Croatia still topped Group C with an imperial 8-0 record.
If Popovic wants to see everyone committing before he makes his own decision, it's not because he was not impressed with the team last summer.
"Some players had good reasons not to play [last summer] but the thing is that Repesa did a great job in selecting a young team and you could see the new prospects for the national team.
"I think first of all [Dario] Saric is a really talented guy and he still has plenty of room to improve.
"But let's not forget that playing in qualification is not the same like playing at the EuroBasket."
AVOID 2011 MISTAKES, REACH THE MAXIMUM
|Kaunas is a second home for Popovic |
If everyone else is on board, and Popovic feels healthy by the time Zalgiris' campaign in the VTB United League has concluded, chances are he will take part in the sixth EuroBasket of his career come September.
"I've got to admit that this season I feel like I can keep my form for longer," Popovic said.
"Usually I have a drop in December/January, but this year it was the opposite.
"I hope that I can play at the same level both for the club and the national team, although some times it's not possible.
"Ultimately, my body is going to tell me at the end of the season what is the right thing to do."
Croatia were drawn in Group C in the first round, together with reigning European champions Spain, hosts Slovenia, Georgia, Poland and the Czech Republic.
"Spain and Slovenia are definitely the favourites, but Georgia are also going to be good, Poland are going to be good," Popovic assesses.
"I mean, everybody is playing good basketball today, you have to respect all the teams the same.
"We don't want the same like last time around in Lithuania [at EuroBasket 2011], when we lost to Bosnia and Herzegovina, we lost to F.Y.R. Of Macedonia and maybe that win gave them confidence and they did the great story that they did in the end."
F.Y.R. Of Macedonia reached the semi-finals in EuroBasket 2011 in a historical for the country tournament, while Croatia, who had arrived as one of the favourites, failed to qualify to the Second Round.
"But what we really have to think about is ourselves, how to improve and grow as a team game by game," Popovic warns.
"Like this, we can hopefully reach our maximum.
"What that maximum is, I don't know."