Anete Jekabsone-Zogota was, is and will continue to be one of best the players in European basketball when she returns to Spartak Moscow Region next year.
The most famous player ever to wear a Latvia national team jersey, the deadly accurate shooter is one of just two stars to ever be voted FIBA Europe Young Women's Player of the Year, and FIBA Europe Women's Player of the Year (UMMC Ekaterinburg's France international Sandrine Gruda is the other).
Yet Jekabsone, who is 27 and in her prime, played to mixed reviews in 2009-10 - her first campaign with the four-time winners of the EuroLeague Women.
|Diana Taurasi's move to Fenerbahce will put Jekabsone-Zogota firmly in the spotlight.|
In a squad loaded with leading international players, including Team USA's Diana Taurasi - one of the best ever, if not the best ever player, in the women's game - Jekabsone's star didn't shine as bright as many expected.
The Baltic ace shot 42.6% (20 of 47) from long range, but averaged only 8.6 points in 19.6 minutes.
The neutrals might be forgiven for thinking that a player who had poured in 20.3 points per contest at the EuroBasket Women last year in Riga had an off year.
But minutes have to be shared.
She averaged less than 20 per game in Europe, in fact.
Taurasi, meanwhile, In 30.3 minutes per contest, averaged 24.3 points for Spartak and was for the second straight year named EuroLeague Women Final Four MVP.
Spartak, in the eyes of most, was Taurasi's team.
Jekabsone didn't mind.
"First of all, it's important to mention how terrific and wonderful a player Diana is," Jekabsone said.
"Being close to her during the entire season was rewarding.
"But the strength of Spartak is to have a combination of great and talented players."
Taurasi is now gone, having signed a lucrative contract to play for Fenerbahce.
Jekabsone, if she was lost in the Taurasi shadow, is no more.
"Diana was a leader and I'm ready to take my responsibilities to help the team as much as I can," she said.
"But if we want to reach our goals, we'll do it as a team."
Spartak have lost Taurasi, and may no longer be the favorites to win in Europe.
The team to beat could be UMMC Ekaterinburg.
They have an awesome team that swept a Spartak team with Taurasi in the Russian Superleague Women finals, 3-0.
Fenerbahce also have a tough team with Penny Taylor and Ivana Matovic among the many talented players that new coach Laszlo Ratgeber now has at his disposal.
But Spartak have a lot of talent and can't be discounted.
They have a chance to continue to make history, even post-Taurasi, with Lauren Jackson of Australia and Team USA point guard Sue Bird also on the books.
It is Jekabsone, though, who could be the key for this team that was originally put together by the club's late supremo, Shabtai Von Kalmanovic.
"Anete was a target of Shabtai for many years before we finally acquired her," said Spartak general manager Steve Costalas.
"She is, without a doubt, one of the premier European players who can punish her opponent in many different ways.
"Needless to say that as deadly as she is on court, she is equally sweet off it.
"We are very lucky to have her as well as we are fortunate that she decided to continue with us this season."
Jekabsone was under contract but could have paid a buyout clause and left for a new team.
Ros Casares, Halcon Avenida and Galatasaray were all teams thought to be chasing her signature.
But she stayed.
"The night before all the players left, Anete promised us that she will return this coming season," Costalas said.
"For us, her word was more valuable than any written contract or document.
"After this past season when things were looking bad, she was one of the players that helped the situation and it helped inspire all to overcome the ‘temporary' but serious problems."
The problems arrived at the start of November when Von Kalmanovic was shot and killed on the streets of Moscow.
Spartak made it through a difficult and very emotional campaign and clinched a fourth straight EuroLeague Women crown.
One question on everyone's mind is how influential Jekabsone can be now that Taurasi is gone.
"Anete is a born leader and even though last year in the eyes of many she played in the shadow of Taurasi, the truth is that she played a very important role in all that we achieved," Costalas said.
"We are positive she will step up, have a great season and do what is needed so that we can play competitive basketball and win.
"It's equally important that even though she is young, she is an experienced veteran who could help our young players and help us build the ‘new' Spartak.
In an interview with Basketball World News for FIBA Europe, Jekabsone gave her thoughts on last season at Spartak, and the one to follow.
Anete, how was your first year at Spartak?
Anete: My first year at Spartak was just excellent. First of all, wearing the Spartak jersey, which is an historical team, was a big honor for me and then being part of this huge performance of helping the club to its fourth Euroleague title in the row was amazing. Of course it wasn't easy, but we managed to accomplish it thanks to our hard work but most importantly, the great atmosphere we had in the team. That made the difference.
What did the loss of Shabtai mean to you as well as to your team?
Anete: There is no need to mention that the loss of Shabtai came as a bombshell. We were totally confused as everybody knew the big figure he was at Spartak, in Russian Basketball and in world basketball as well. He was the face, heart and soul of Spartak and for sure the club wouldn't have won all these titles without him. The team lost like a father and after his death we all had the objective to pay tribute to his memory by winning a fourth EuroLeague title in the row. And that is what we did.
How was it working with Pokey Chatman?
Anete: It is well known that Pokey is a great coach and the challenge wasn't so easy for her. She took the team early in the season (from Ratgeber) with many objectives already set and that was a big pressure. But she managed to keep this chemistry in the team and working with her also meant working with all her technical staff as she really shares and gives responsibilities to the assistant coach. Most of all, she makes you enjoy working hard.
Can you comment on the rumors that had you leaving Spartak this summer?
Anete: It is true that we experienced very tough moments as the loss of Shabtai made the team and the club tremble and one moment, I asked myself the question. But considering the reaction of the Moscow Region Government, the club administration, the club managers and the entourage, the way they kept the club together, it reassured me of their ambition, the roster and the respect of my contract. So, I'm more than happy to go to the end of my commitment. By the way, it's true that other teams contacted my agent, especially of one the other ambitious clubs, but I really don't care to comment too much on this. We know that at the end of every season, people like to talk and we can't do anything about that. For me, the most important thing is playing basketball.
Looking ahead to next season, what are your goals?
Anete: Well, like I said, I'm more than happy. It's a great honor and also a great challenge, both on a European and a Russian level. Of course the goal is winning the EuroLeague for the fifth time in a row but one of the big objectives is also to take our revenge in the Russian Superleague. Anyway, for sure it won't be easy as many teams have strengthened their rosters but for sure, we'll have the determination to reach our goals.