A young veteran in his eighth Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul big man Nicolo Melli has his first real shot at the continental crown. Like many other experienced players on the team, Melli is in his first Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four and will try to help Fenerbahce defend the title. Melli seemed to only get better as the season went on; he is averaging 8.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in 34 games, but posted 10.8 points in the playoffs against KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, including 21 in Game 4 of the series to clinch a Final Four berth. Melli was close to reaching the Final Four in 2014, but his team at the time, EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, came up short despite having the home-court advantage. Melli is finally through to the best, most thrilling and most exciting event in basketball and knows that traveling back home with the trophy will make it even better. “I am approaching it knowing that it can change your life and your career, because you work all your career to be here. But at the same time, I am trying to enjoy the moment as much as possible and trying to live the experience 100 percent,” Melli told EuroLeague.net. “You don’t know; it may be the only Final Four that you play. You have to be grateful and know that being in a Final Four is already an achievement, and only a little bit more would make it unbelievably great.”
Nico, congratulations on reaching the Final Four. How long has this event been a goal of yours?
“Since I was a kid, you always think about winning the biggest games and winning the EuroLeague above all. And to do that, you have to be in the Final Four, so this is like a dream-come-true. I came close in Milan, but you overcome that disappointment and you keep working for the goal. Otherwise, there is no point in playing. That was a long time ago now and the effort since then has paid off.”
To reach this goal, you made two long-distance career moves outside your comfort zone. Does it make this moment even more rewarding?
“When I decided to move from Milan to Bamberg, it was to try to become a different player than what I was before. Then coming here to Fenerbahce was about being a better player than I was in Bamberg. The Final Four was one of my goals in coming to Fenerbahce, and now we are going. So I can say I am happy with the choices I’ve made.”
How much are your teammates helping you understand the Final Four and what it takes to win that event?
“Of course, we are talking about it. We are excited to go there and we are trying to be in the best shape possible to get there and perform in the best way. So it’s a matter of preparing ourselves and learning from their experience, too.”
What has working under Zeljko Obradovic done for your understanding of the sport and what it takes to win big games?
“He’s obviously taking care of everything to prepare us for this. And whether it’s practice or a game, there’s always something to learn about how he sees basketball. It’s not complicated; he makes it easy. He is adding something to each basketball philosophy I learned before. I want to learn as much basketball as I can from him to help the team as much as I can in his system. But I know that whatever I learn now will help me throughout my career.”
What is the secret sauce that makes Zeljko the best?
“If you ask the secret ingredient to a chef, he will never tell. I am not allowed to say, either.”
On Fenerbahce, any player can be key on a given night. How does this team know whose turn it is to step up?
“I think one of the qualities of this team is the group itself. We know that we are all here for the same thing and having those 15 guys on the same page is the most important thing. There are guys with more experience who can lead us in the big moments. But the fact that each of us can step up whenever we need to makes this team special.”
They say that winning the EuroLeague is all about peaking at the right time, like Fenerbahce did last year. What are the elements needed to peak in Belgrade?
“I wasn’t here last year, so I am not sure what they did to peak. But what I believe is that the daily work will pay off. You have to do your best possible work, as we have done all season. But especially you have to do it now to be in your best possible shape and be ready when it counts in just a few days.”
Your first challenge is Zalgiris in the semis, a team you lost to at home and then beat at their place. What did you learn about Zalgiris in those two games?
“They are an incredibly tough team, very well coached, and they are doing great things in the last years, but especially in this one. Nothing is going to be easy, because they are a tough team. But when you go to the Final Four, if you expect anything to be easy, you can stay home. I believe that Zalgiris is a very good team that deserves everything it has achieved and also to be in the Final Four.”
With Fenerbahce having a trophy to defend, how would you define the pressure going to your first Final Four?
“Personally, I don’t have any trophy, so I don’t feel the pressure of defending one. Others who have won might feel they want to keep it, yes. But at the end of the day, you have to win two games, and it doesn’t matter if you won last year. You don’t go on the court thinking that you won last year. You have to win the game you are playing and be focused on that. I think this is going to be our philosophy.”
Can you give us your scouting report on the other semifinal, CSKA Moscow vs. Real Madrid?
“I believe that CSKA was the best team in the regular season. They have problems with injuries now, and that can change things, but when they were healthy they were the best. Real Madrid, on the other hand, is in full shape for the first time, and very talented. So I believe it will be a nice semifinal. As I said, when you get to the Final Four you already have the four best teams of the season. All of them can win and all of them would deserve to win the EuroLeague.”
You played each Final Four team twice. How much confidence does Fenerbahce feel going to Belgrade?
“We played against them, yes, but we know that the Final Four is a different story. We know them, but it’s one game, so no matter what you did during the season, one game can change it all. We are approaching it confident after a good season. But we have to be fully committed and focused. There’s no confidence that can play the game for you. You’ve got to focus, take care of many details and play the game like it’s your last one.”
How much does that dream of lifting the EuroLeague trophy occupy your thoughts as you get closer to that chance at the Final Four?
“I am taking everything very easy. I am happy to be here. We all worked hard throughout the season, and this, I believe, is the reward for what we did. There are two games missing. We have to take one at a time. I am approaching it knowing that it can change your life and your career, because you work all your career to be here. But at the same time, I am trying to enjoy the moment as much as possible and trying to live the experience 100 percent. You don’t know; it may be the only Final Four that you play. You have to be grateful and know that being in a Final Four is already an achievement, and only a little bit more would make it unbelievably great.”