Interview: Sarunas Jasikevicius, Zalgiris: ‘We know we can beat anybody – we’ve proven it’


He is the only player to win four EuroLeague titles this century. He is the only one ever, in 60 years of European competitions, to become continental champion with three difference clubs. But he’s not a player anymore. Sarunas Jasikevicius goes to Belgrade at the head of the bench of his hometown club, Zalgiris Kaunas. And he brings the only Final Four experience that his team will have as they take on defending champion Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul – and his good friend Zeljko Obradovic – in the semifinal. Whatever else the other newcomers from Zalgiris have going for and against them as they aim for glory in Belgrade, they can take stock in a head coach who knows one thing above all – what it takes to win a EuroLeague title. “I am sure we will be considered underdogs because of the big names there, but you know what – who cares?” Jasikevicius told “When the ball is thrown up in the air, I think all the predictions and everything is thrown out the window. Then, it’s all a matter of what the coaches and players do, how they prepare, how they can concentrate and how they can follow the game plan… We know we can beat anybody – we’ve proven it.”

Sarunas, congratulations on a great season. As a home-town boy, is making this Final Four with Zalgiris really like a dream come true for you?

“Yeah, for sure. Growing up, you don’t have these dreams as a coach; you dream always as a player. But right now, it’s about as good as it gets. People are very happy here and, you know, I’m just really excited for the city and really excited for the club to be taking the next step. And hopefully we can do more.”

In 1999, you would have been in Vilnius when Zalgiris was winning the EuroLeague title in Munich. How did you experience that special moment for your hometown club?

“I went on the streets in Vilnius to celebrate. Lietuvos Rytas was just an up-and-coming club then. And Zalgiris was and still is the team of the country. I don’t think that they would celebrate too crazy in Vilnius as much now if Zalgiris wins again. But back then in 1999, the streets were full, people were high-fiving, the cars were beeping, and Lithuania and Zalgiris flags were everywhere. And I was one of them. It was a great evening. I celebrated a lot.”

This year, perhaps no one outside of your locker room and your city expected Zalgiris in the Final Four. Has your team performed or gone beyond what you yourself expected, too?

“To expect or not to expect, it doesn’t really help you a lot. You just try to concentrate on the next game, and by the time we hit the second part of the season we had a lot of good wins and beat a lot of big clubs, so it was obvious that the players could do it. And the fact that we beat Olympiacos twice in the regular season gave us confidence. And obviously, the win in Game 1 was huge. You steal their home-court advantage and when you come home in front of your crowd, you know you can really do it. You know, they helped so much, and the atmosphere here was unbelievable. It was just a great, great thing to be a part of.”

You’ve been to a lot of Final Fours. CSKA, Madrid and Fenerbahce have been regulars there lately. Should your team be considered an underdog or an outsider in this one?

“I am sure we will be considered underdogs because of the big names there, but you know what – who cares? When the ball is thrown up in the air, I think all the predictions and everything is thrown out the window. Then, it’s all a matter of what the coaches and players do, how they prepare, how they can concentrate and how they can follow the game plan. So, like I always say, experience is important. It’s one of the few components – with other stuff as well – that you need. But hopefully we can focus more, hopefully we can concentrate more and do what we have to do as a team.”

Without a single player who’s played in a Final Four, what can you do to give them something from your own experience and knoweldge about this event?

“I will tell them things that I know. It’s also my first Final Four as a coach. But I will tell them things, there is no question. But you can only tell someone so much. Ultimately, they have to beat this excitement, they have to beat this atmosphere, and then concentrate on just what’s on the court, and follow the game plan, and do the game plan to the maximum of their ability to give themselves a chance to win.”

Does having won 10 games decided by 6 points or less this season give the team confidence for the close games you can expect in a Final Four?

“Yeah, we know we can beat anybody – we’ve proven it. But, you know, the Final Four is a new setting and it’s a lot about controlling your emotions and a lot about controlling your nerves. And we’ll see if we can do that.”

You have defending champ Fenerbahce in the semifinal. How do you stop a team that executes so well?

“You just have to come up with a game plan. I think you have to risk certain things and then hopefully that goes your way. You have to give them something; you will not stop everything that they do. And then we’ll see. We have a lot of time between now and them. We’re watching them and we’ll really start preparing as we get closer.”

Your friend Zeljko is on the other bench. You both won this title together. Is there something you learned form him hat you can use now to try to beat him?

“I don’t think there is any secret. I think it’s daily work. They guy’s working with his team for eight months. He’s not just working before the Final Four, and suddenly doing changes or trying some magical tactic. It’s a process. I am sure he’s working with great direction from the beginning, trying to take the maximum from his team, and usually those types of things help you a lot at the end of the year. His team has been through everything over the years, they’ve been through all kinds of difficult situations, they can read the situations, and I’m sure they will be ready. And it’s up to us to match that energy and to be well prepared and to execute the game plan.”

As an ex-point guard, how important will it be for your three playmakers – Kevin Pangos, Vasilije Micic and Beno Udrih – to control the tempo against Fenerbahce?

“I think it’s very important, the guard play. They make most of the decisions. I think guard play is very important and our guards were great in the Olympiacos series, all three of them. And this is also one thing that’s huge about Fener, the fact of how good Sloukas, Wanamaker and Gudurovic have been playing, and all their decision makers. The fact is that they really take the team on their shoulders, make the majority of the decisions, and create the game. Guard play in European basketball is most important.”

You know the other semifinalists well. Can you scout that CSKA-Madrid matchup for us quickly?

“I’m looking for an extremely equal game. From now until then, it’s really important for everybody to come in shape. Both teams had injury problems. For CSKA, going to the Final Four without De Colo and Hines in the playoffs is huge for that team. Now, they might be back. Then, with Madrid, you are talking about Llull being out all year and Campazzo out now. Those are all very important players for both teams. It’ll be interesting to see how teams integrate and get them back. It brings more possibility for surprises and so on, because it’s not that easy to prepare, I’m sure, against other teams when you don’t know who they are going to play with.”

You won your first four Final Fours, Zalgiris won its only one. Do you feel that you and this club both know how to take advantage of opportunities like this?

“I don’t have a lot of feeling about luck. I think we’ve been working seven or eight months right now to try to put ourselves in the best possible situation. Like I said, it’s 40 minutes. A lot of it’s about concentration, not to get too crazy about the atmosphere and the greatness of the Final Four, and just try to go possession by possession, one possession at a time, and execute. Execution is the biggest key, and doing things to the highest level, giving the maximum effort physically, and also to make the correct decisions.”

What would it mean to Kaunas to win the EuroLeague title again?

“This would mean a lot. Kaunas is a basketball city and Lithuania is a basketball country, and Zalgiris is the team of the country. So, we understand what team we play for. Our guys will do their best.”