|Jure Zdovc: "Once you are in a Final Four obviously you aim to win it"|
By Dimitris Kontos
Slovenian legend Jure Zdovc arrived at Royal Hali Gaziantep in late November and, as if by waving a magic wand, transformed the fortunes of a club that had just been promoted to the Turkish top flight.
Under their new coach, Gaziantep enjoyed an almost two-month long unbeaten run in all competitions, from late December to the end of February.
As a consequence, the Turkish side have improved from penultimate to seventh in the Turkish BEKO TBL standings and secured a berth in the EuroChallenge Final Four, in what is their maiden European season.
The 47-year-old Slovenian tactician will therefore return to the role he held during 2009, when he led his home country to an all-time best fourth-place finish at that year's EuroBasket in Poland.
Zdovc visited with fibaeurope.com and shed some light on the spectacular transformation of Gaziantep and Slovenia's future during his second spell in charge.
Coach, let's get this out of the way right away: do you perform miracles?
Unfortunately no, as much as I would like to, I am not a magician (he laughs). I have spent plenty of time telling journalists that we [coaches] don't have a stick to do magic. First of all, it's the players that get on the court. The players accepted my philosophy, which is the most important thing. We made some corrections to the roster, we brought in three players [Domen Lorbek, Baris Ermis and lately Mikko Koivisto] and this for sure changed the face of the team. We won some games and the players not only started to believe in our philosophy but also started to enjoy it and that was really important. They now work hard; they know what they have to do on the court, especially defensively. We have a good chemistry, a nice atmosphere and we really enjoy working together with the players.
|Baris Ermis has joined Gaziantep midway through the season, turning into one of the team's key players|
Making it to the Final Four in the EuroChallenge and entering the race for a play-off berth in the BEKO TBL is the goal that the club set for this season? Is this what Gaziantep asked you to deliver when you signed in November?
I don't know, to be honest. I always have so big goals personally, that usually my goals are bigger than those of the club. The key is to make the players believe, to [infuse them with] this winning mentality. You must always have high goals and you must do everything to reach them. There is pressure also on me at this point, but under pressure you concentrate more, you work more focused and you improve. For this reason, when I arrived here I set these goals, play-offs in Turkey and Final Four in the EuroChallenge. From then on, once you are in a Final Four obviously you aim to win it. As for the play-offs, we are still not there and we have a tough schedule, but we are also in a good position, everything is open and we will fight to make it.
In order to reach the Final Four you went through a quarter-final series against Tsmoki Minsk that did not make for beautiful basketball. Gaziantep won each game by a single point and you struggled in both games. Is it because your team has not been playing together for a long time or there are other reasons?
I've asked myself the same question, especially after the first game. I do believe we are a better team than Minsk, but somehow we had big problems in both games, so I asked myself what was going on, if it was the pressure. We have experienced guys on the team and also have some players who were not even close to this level of games before. For sure in the first game the pressure is on the home team, because if you lose you play the next away after just two days and you can be out just like that. Everything that could go wrong for us in the first half of the first game, went wrong. We were missing easy shots while on the other side they scored some very, very tough shots, on the last second of possession, over our hands, so all goes wrong. It could be the pressure, it could be a bad day, I still don't really know because as I said before I am not a magician. But we survived all that, we fought back and we won.
What do you think about your opponent in the semi-final, Grissin Bon Reggio Emilia?
I know some players and I saw them when they played against Krka [Novo Mesto]. They have a good roster, they play very well at home and have some very experienced players. I know James White for example, I have been following him for some time. For sure it's going to be a very interesting game.
A lot of people were surprised in November when Gaziantep, a club that was in the Turkish second division until last summer, announced that you would be their next coach. What made you accept this position and would you still have done it if you knew at the time that you would take over the Slovenia role later?
[Work at a] club is the priority for me. I still consider myself as a young coach (Zdovc retired as a player a decade ago) and when you search the market in September you don't see a lot of green lights. I decided to go to Turkey because it's a new country for me, basketball is developing here, the league is getting stronger and a lot of good coaches have come here and it was a great challenge. At the same time I already knew that most likely they (KZS) would ask me to take over at the national team. I feel very happy to have the opportunity to hold both roles, especially if you think how many good coaches are out of a job right now.
|Zdovc succeeds Bozidar Maljkovic at the helm of the Slovenian national team|
You were the Slovenia head coach as recently as five years ago, but several players that even played under Bozidar Maljkovic have now retired from international duty. You will have to have a different roster, should we also expect to see a change in playing style?
"For sure Boza (Maljkovic) has made a great job in these three years and it's now in our hands to continue along the same lines and try to improve it, if it's possible. We will follow this way and of course I will make some adjustments according to my philosophy. Yes, there is a change of generation since I coached the team previously, but I would not have taken this job if I had not seen a lot of energy and quality in our young players. We have again a good generation with real hunger and it's up to us now to show them how to succeed.
Erazem Lorbek and Zoran Dragic told us recently that, in their opinion, Slovenia had the best possible draw in next summer's FIBA Basketball World Cup. (Slovenia were drawn in Group D, together with EuroBasket silver medallists Lithuania and Angola, Australia, Korea and Mexico). Do you share that view?
On paper it's easier than some other groups, but in reality there are no rules that can make a good draw. Once the championship starts, once we are out there playing, it will not matter. We are playing against teams that I, as the coach of Slovenia, cannot claim to know, like Angola or Korea. For this reason it's impossible to say if it is a good draw, we will see it on the court. Everybody says that Mexico is a good team and the truth is that everyone (every nation) can play basketball now, let's remember for example what happened to Greece against Nigeria (in the 2012 pre-Olympic tournament.) So anything can happen on the court, even though it looks good on paper.
What is Slovenia's goal in the World Cup in Spain?
Like I've said, I always have high hopes, this is how I feel. I respect everyone but I am not afraid of anyone and this is the mentality I want to put through to the players, that we will go out to play hard and win in every game. We will see how far we can go and with this team in the world championship we will try to go as far as possible. A lot of people say that two medals are already reserved by the USA and Spain, but like with the draw, this is just on paper.
As the starting point guard of the Yugoslavia side of the late 1980s and early 1990s which, to many, is still the best European basketball team in history, do you agree with some of your former team-mates on that side which have suggested that your generation was better than today's players?
You know, you cannot compare different generations. Big players usually have a big ego and they will always say: "it was better when we were playing" (he laughs). I had the great luck to meet with the players who won the 1970 world championship in Ljubljana and when you talk to them, they all believe they were much better than we were. The ego of a player that was so good cannot accept anything else, it's in their character. But I am a coach now and, if you think like that, you cannot coach. Every generation has some great players, we were good in our time and today's generation also has its own good players.