Interview: Jan Vesely, Fenerbahce: ‘The mindset is the most important thing’


Now in his fourth season with the club, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul big man Jan Vesely has led his team to the playoffs each season and is eyeing his fourth consecutive Final Four. After winning the EuroLeague last season, Fenerbahce underwent some roster changes and Vesely has stepped to the fore as a leader on and off the court. He leads the team in scoring with a career-high 12.9 points per game, many of which come through his breathtaking slam dunks. Before taking the court for what promises to be a tough playoff series against red-hot Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, Vesely spoke to “Every season our goal is to win the EuroLeague. If you don’t have this goal, I think there is no point to play this league.” Vesely said. “If we play our game, stay focused and fight, anything is possible. We will do our best to win the EuroLeague.”

Hello, Jan. Congratulations on a great season. The playoffs are finally here, and Fenerbahce is in it for the fourth consecutive season. How satisfied are you with the season so far?

“So far I am very satisfied with the season. From Day 1 when I came to Fenerbahce our goals were the highest and every year so far we have made the playoffs. It is great to play on a high level until the end, to play for a trophy every year. It is very satisfying and we are still on the boat, so we just have to keep going.”

You are putting up some of the best numbers of your career, and even though your minutes are roughly the same, you seem to have more responsibility than ever. Do you see it that way and feel more responsibility?

“I think I have more responsibility in the way of being the most experienced guy on the team, being on the team the longest, also with Melih Mahmutoglu. We try to help the new players to fit in faster, to tell them how the system or Fenerbahce and Coach Obradovic work and to prepare them faster. So I think there’s more responsibility each year and last year our two best players left the team and somebody had to step up and that came to me. I try to still play my game and help the team win games. That’s what I try to do.”

Being the defending champions, what is it that changes going into these playoffs compared to the previous years? Is motivation any different? How much extra weight does being the champion carry or is it maybe less pressure this time around because of that same reason?

“To be honest, I don’t feel much different pressure than last year. I think last year we had pressure because the Final Four was in Istanbul and we played in front of our home crowd and everybody expected us to win. So I think, personally, there was more pressure on us last year. Of course to be the defending champion there is pressure, but the pressure was bigger when the Final Four was in Istanbul.”

Since you arrived at the club, Fenerbahce has not lost a playoff game. Three sweeps in three seasons, including the one last season without home-court advantage. What’s the secret formula that you hope to use again?

“It’s just concentration. The first year was with Maccabi; it was tough, but it was 3-0. After that I was injured against Real Madrid, so the team changed the mentality to play without one of the important players and they put even more than the maximum in those playoffs and beat Real Madrid. Last year playing Panathinaikos on the road the first two games and having the pressure to win the EuroLeague and play the Final Four in Istanbul, there was big pressure, so we set our mindset to always be much more focused than in the other games and to give our maximum. I think the secret was in our concentration to do the little things until the end, until the referee stops the game or we get the rebound or something. I think all those things are much more important now than in the regular season. I think the mindset is the most important thing.”

You were sidelined during one of those playoffs, so maybe you know even better how special is the feeling of playing in the playoffs? How different are these games from regular season games?

“The atmosphere, the fans, everybody, you can feel the focus from everybody. The coaches, the players are ready. So it is totally different. In the regular season, if you lose one game, you still have a chance to recover until the end of the season, but in the playoffs its three wins and that’s it, so you cannot afford to lose a game in a bad way or something.”

You face Baskonia, a team that in recent seasons Fenerbahce struggled with, but a team you swept this season. How important are those two regular season games in preparation for this series?

“Again, the playoffs is a new season and it’s starting from the beginning. Like you said, in the last few years we struggled against them, but sometimes you have a bad day, things happen. It could be against somebody else, but it was against Baskonia. This is a very tough team. They fight from the first to the last second. They are a good and very aggressive team. It is going to be a very interesting series.”

Baskonia’s frontcourt is one of the strengths of that team. What is the biggest challenge that the trio of Tornike Shengelia, Johannes Voigtmann and Vincent Poirier present?

“Like I said, they are a tough team; there are going to be tough matchups and tough defense. Shengelia is a strong guy, strong with the ball going to the basket. So it’s going to be very tough and very interesting. It’s playoff time and both sides are motivated to do their best. Like I said before, it’s all about focus, how we prepare ourselves mentally and start the games.”

Fenerbahce won more games and finished higher than last season. Does that make this team stronger going into the playoffs?

“I don’t think so, because last year we had a team that was together for two years. This is a newer team. Last year we ended up fifth, this year second and from last year’s team a lot of players went to the NBA. All the teams in the EuroLeague made changes to the roster. It’s good to have home-court advantage, but last year it was not that big. I don’t think that this year’s team is better than last year’s team or not, but last year’s team was more experienced in that we played together two years, almost all the team was together. This year two main players left to the NBA and we rebuilt the team, brought in some new players and they have to get used to the system. I don’t think the team from this year and last year are very different.”

Belgrade is the host of the 2018 Final Four. It’s a city that has a special place in your life and in your career. How much would it mean for you to qualify and play there?

“Last year’s Final Four was very special because we played in front of our fans in our city. Belgrade has a place in my heart and the beginning of my career. My wife is from there, her family lives there. My family will be coming like they come always everywhere. I have a lot of friends in Belgrade who will be coming to see us. So in this way I will have more people in the gym that I know. If we make it to the Final Four, it will be great to be in Belgrade, but we have to be focused on our job, to win the trophy and not get too excited that we are in Belgrade or something like that. But of course it adds something in my heart.”

You’ve accomplished so much and been a protagonist in the EuroLeague for so long, it’s hard to believe you are just 27 years old. Has a back-to-back title been something that’s on your and your teammate’s minds this season more now as the goal is getting closer?

“Every season our goal is to win the EuroLeague. If you don’t have this goal, I think there is no point to play this league. We have that on our minds. It’s a long way, it’s a hard way, but anything is possible. If we play our game, stay focused and fight, anything is possible. We will do our best to win the EuroLeague.”