Zalgiris Kaunas is headed to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague playoffs for the first time since the format became the standard prior to the 2004-05 season. One of the reasons for its success has been the play of EuroLeague newcomer Aaron White, who has been a perfect fit for Zalgiris at power forward. Now in his third professional season, White has learned a lot about European hoops, including about the legacy that his team’s next opponent and its archrival, CSKA Moscow. “I believe that for the past few years, they have been the top team in Europe, always at the top of the EuroLeague standings and going to every Final Four,” White told EuroLeague.net. “It will be a great challenge for myself and for the club. We all have the aspiration to play at the highest level and make it to the Final Four, be at the top of the EuroLeague. It is a good challenge for all the players on our roster, and we are going for it.”
Hello Aaron and congratulations on a great season. Zalgiris has made it to the EuroLeague playoffs for the first time in a very long time. How exciting and satisfying is that?
“Thank you. Yes, for sure, I am excited; we are still fighting to finish in as high a place as we can get, but everyone in the club is very excited. It is a great accomplishment for us to make it to the playoffs. I have to give credit to my team and the coaching staff, as well as to the organization, for putting together a very good year until now.”
You are also having a great EuroLeague debut season. What was it that allowed you to click right away and start playing so well so early?
“I think that when I got here, Coach told me what he wanted for me in his system. Always in my career, I have always been a team player that plays off his teammates, so all the credit has to go to our point guards for finding me and helping me out. I just try to play hard, and when you play hard, a lot of good things happen to you.”
Do you think that playing in Lithuania and breathing basketball has inspired you to do better than ever?
“Yes, you can say that. I would definitely say it is a big relation to our success at home, with our fans. I think our fans are awesome! They are the most passionate fan base I have seen and it has been a lot of fun to play in front of them; the EuroLeague games have been really great. I really like playing when there is a good atmosphere and I think it helps our whole team play with more confidence, play hard and try to give everything back to the club and their fans.”
Of course, being a Zalgiris player makes you a celebrity in Kaunas. How do you like that?
“It is really cool, a cool feeling. People here have been great, welcoming me and my family. It is really nice seeing fans who thank you for the way you are playing and stuff like that. It is a cool feeling; it is not why you do it, but like I said, it has been great. I really appreciate the fans here and how great they have been to me and also to my family.”
You will play against CSKA this week. The game has been sold out for three weeks. How much is everyone looking forward to this game, with so much anticipation?
“Yes, I think we are all really excited and like you said, the game has been sold out for weeks, so the fans are really excited, too. I know that they will be up for it because we are in the playoffs, fighting for the highest seed, so I think all the fans will be into the game and trying to push us forward. I am excited it is also the next challenge in our schedule, so it should be a good one.”
Not only has CSKA clinched first place, but also has experienced players at all positions, like Andrey Vorontsevich at power forward, your spot. Rivalry aside, how great is it to play against a powerhouse like CSKA?
“I believe that for the past few years, they have been the top team in Europe, always at the top of the EuroLeague standings and going to every Final Four. It is always a big challenge and they have a deep roster with players in every position, guys who can really play. It is great to play against Vorontsevich; this is already my second year playing against him. He is a great pick-and-pop player. It will be a great challenge for myself and for the club. We all have the aspiration to play at the highest level and make it to the Final Four, be at the top of the EuroLeague. It is a good challenge for all the players on our roster, and we are going for it.”
Coach ‘Saras’ was a legendary player and has started his coaching career with great results. How is it to play for him, a guy who did everything he did as a player?
“I really like playing for him. I didn’t grow up in Europe, but had heard of him and all of his success as a player. He has started to also have success as a coach, too. He is really smart and has a great basketball mind. He knows the game and anticipated a lot of things before they happen. I think that a lot of things that helped him become a great player are helping him as a coach – seeing the floor, seeing matchups and putting players in the right position. I give him a lot of credit. Going back to a previous question, I also having a good year because he put me in a position to succeed, asking me just to do what I am best at. I don’t have to do anything outside what I am really good at. I am happy I am able to play for him.”
The other power forward in Zalgiris, Paulius Jankunas, has been breaking EuroLeague records this season after a lot of seasons in the club. Did he help you adjust to the team as a key veteran in Zalgiris?
“Yes, he has been great. He is a legend here with the career that he has had and how solid he has been for so many years. I try to listen to all the advice that he can give me. It really helps that we play the same position; he will give me little tips here and there. It also helps that we are pretty different players. We can play together and when he is playing the ‘5’, I am playing the ‘4’. I think that, all around, we have great chemistry on and off the court and he has been like a mentor to me. Again, he has really helped me in my first year in the EuroLeague, adjusting and everything like that.”
Now that you have played against everybody almost twice, which teams do you see other than Zalgiris as the top contenders to go all the way?
“If you look at the standings, right now CSKA is first and Fenerbahce second. That makes sense, because I think they can do a lot of stuff switching defenses and have two great head coaches. You have to say they are in the top two positions for a reason. They have a really good chance to win, but on the flip side, we are very excited to make the playoffs and compete against one of those top teams, depending on the seed. In this EuroLeague, anybody can win! You can see it every week. We are excited for the challenge ahead and have already beaten a lot of great teams.”
It is a long shot, but it is also true that Zalgiris has not been this close to the Final Four in over a decade. It would take three wins to get there. What would it mean for you to advance to the Final Four Belgrade?
“Man, I would mean a lot. Me, personally, in my first year in the EuroLeague, it would mean a lot, but more so for the club, for guys like Jankunas, Milaknis and guys that have been here for many years and have done a lot for this club, it is really important. For the fans, for everyone! The whole community will be really behind us and it would be an amazing feat, but we have to take one game at a time. Like you said, we are three wins away. We have to focus as much as we can, follow our game plan and go game by game.”