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InterviewMagazineMR. GEPPETTO

He could be training Bayern right now but this interview certainly could not be narrowed down to a single team. So, we met with Yugoslavian coach in Istanbul, who, in his 33-year long career, brought up hundreds of players on the stage, just like Mr. Geppetto, who gave life to piece of wood...

*Published in April 2015 issue.

The terminology that is used in history books to describe the great people of a certain era doesn’t change much; The person that is considered a good leader is also foreseeing, brave and one that does not make his principles a matter of negotiation under any circumstances.

It is unlikely to see these kinds of notions in a sports related book unless you are reading history of Yugoslavian basketball. However, just browsing the Yugoslavian basketball education system, which Aleksandar Nikolic had changed entirely, is enough to understand the reason behind these countless basketball philosophers.

Svetislav Pesic, who, in the beginning of his 50’s, won every single cup that a coach in Europe dreams of, is also one of those philosophers. And the number of this society keeps decreasing day by day.

After the millennium, Turkish teams attached some large disappointments to huge budgets when it came to building squads. Was that the case with Zeljko Obradovic’s first season? Which destination is Fenerbahce Ulker heading to in your opinion?

Zeljko Obradovic’s situation is way more different than other Yugoslavian originated coaches. Zeljko is the first coach to work abroad and fully adapt to the conditions of that country. I don’t mean leaving Yugoslavia and winning championships in other countries. What Obradovic achieved is beyond a mere success. He analyzed utterly different customs and cultures of the countries he went and brought down the adaptation period to a minimum.

His first season with Fenerbahce was a tough one. Despite the new signings, he had limited room for maneuver because of the players without the contract clauses. Besides, he couldn’t have built his own squad. He finally established the squad this season that is able to follow his philosophy and meet his requirements. The new playing squad still differentiates structurally from the 1999-2012 Panathinaikos but this time we can say that the system resembles PAO.

Do you think it is reasonable to link Nemanja Bjelica’s “If Svetislav Pesic had never come into my life I would have been a mediocre player” statement and the period that he played as a point guard in Red Star? How often does allowing a truly gifted forward as him to play point turn out positive?

If there is a more “complete” player in Europe than Bjelica, I haven’t seen him yet. He can play in four different positions in a single game for Fenerbahce Ulker. Whether he can play in NBA or not should not be a matter of debate anymore but how much time he gets in a game should. There is no limit to what he can achieve if he goes to the right team and gets the chance to work under an open minded coach.

I don’t think it is fair to classify a player judging by his position. If we distinguish players by their playing characteristics, we might be able to see some extreme players like Bjelica, who also achieved success. How much can a player carry out his given duties? Can he go beyond the expectations? Can he contribute in more than one field? Such questions should be answered when classifying a player. It only highlights the offensive part of the job to divide them 1-3-5 when analyzing a player. Fine but, what about the defense?

Defense is tough. It requires a complete different set of skills. That is the reason that Bjelica is in forward, when Ricky Hickman gets the point guard role. There is no way Hickman can play better point than Bjelica on offence, if you ask me. But I only mean offence here. I don’t mean Hickman lacks tactical knowledge or anything. Zeljko is the one who trains with him every day. My opinion is purely and simply about the player who can control Fenerbahce Ulker’s offence best. I put Nemenja on top of my list, and write Emir Preldzic beneath him probably. But can Nemenja defend the opposing point guard? Difficult. Number two? That doesn’t seem very likely either. So that is why it is not a solution to classify players like 1-2-3-4-5.

Svetislav Pesic interview, from Socrates Magazine (April 2015)
Svetislav Pesic interview, from Socrates Magazine (April 2015)

It is known that the current NBA commissioner Adam Silver also supports David Stern’s statements about NBA involving a European conference sooner or later. Do you think it is viable?

I believe in dialectics of life. Change and sustainability of the motion are essential. So everything is possible in the future. Still, you have to be realistic to some degree.

Basketball is a global game like football. Everyone knows that this game was born in America. I don’t think someone can answer “England” right away if you ask for football. Because in football, the differences between the countries faded out over the years. Spanish; German; Italian teams became dominant.

But the structure in NBA is still different. They might want to cooperate with Europe politically and logistically but it is impossible to match each economic condition to one another. To say the least of it, even the difference between taxation policies is an obstacle. I don’t even feel the need to mention the language barriers.

Players in Europe don’t set NBA as their career goals anymore. They don’t want to cross the Atlantic. Because they are now part of a way more competitive league where much better basketball is played. I think, a whole lot more water should pass under that bridge.

It is pretty obvious that David Platt will speed up the integration process between these two cultures. However, my next question will be somewhat on Ettore Messina’s choice. After four Euroleague championships, a career as an assistant coach at the age of 55… Would you do it?

After 2002 Indianapolis, I also got an offer to be the assistant coach of an NBA team. Don’t give me that look, I am not giving any names here. I was supposed to be the assistant coach for three years first, then take up the team. That was the project.

Well, to start with I had never tried assistant coaching before in my career. So I asked them; “How can I assist someone if I’ve never tried it before?” Because it is a totally different area of expertise. A special piece of work. It has its unique tips and tricks. And I know none of them. So I had no choice but to refuse the offer and never thought of going to NBA since then.

Marc Gasol is one of the most mentioned candidates for MVP title nowadays. As someone who always argued: “Marc is a better player than Pau” – do you think you are proven right in the end?

My memory of Marc is from the time when I was coaching in Barcelona… Youth teams were training in Blaugrana occasionally but there was not a living soul from the main team that time. So I was on season break and in Barcelona only for a day or two to attend to a couple of meetings before the upcoming season.

Right before the meetings began, I went down to training court and saw 6-7 kids training. One of the kids was quite overweight and tall. I didn’t recognize him. The others seemed familiar though. Just after watching them for five minutes, I went by Antonio Maceiras’ side, who was the general manager then:

-Antonio, check that out!
-What is it?
-Who is that fat kid? Where does he play?
-He is Marc, Pau’s brother.
-OK, I got that but I mean which team? Does he play basketball? Is his high school in Barcelona?
-I know that he is in Memphis along with Pau.

I couldn’t catch Marc after the meetings that day. The day after that, he was playing basketball again, so I went downstairs and introduced myself to him:

-I’m Svetislav: coach of Barcelona.
-Hi Mr. Pesic.
-I saw you playing. Why aren’t you here, in Barcelona?
-I don’t know. We live in Memphis.
-Can you ask your father to meet me in my office tomorrow? I need to talk with him.

I remember; every member of the Gasol family was focused on Pau at that time. His father; his mother; they were all giving a great deal of attention to Pau’s development in Memphis. They had never even thought that Marc could be a good player. In my first contact with his father, I claimed Marc to stay in Barcelona by my side. His first question was: “Are you sure Mr. Pesic? Do you really think he can be a good player?”

I was able to make sense of their point of view since Pau had already begun his NBA career that time. And they didn’t give me any positive reaction until I explained at a length and told them: “Marc is going to be a magnificent player.” That period with ups and downs passed, and Marc started his professional career in Barcelona after high school. But this time, I was in some conflict with the club and left the job before 2004-05 season.

I don’t exactly know what the issue was between Marc and his next coaches; Joan Montes and Dusko Ivanovic. I was only aware that he didn’t get to play in Barcelona. So I added him in my plans while I was moving to Girona from Lottomatica along with Victor Sada from the same 1984-85 generation. Things went well for us in both seasons. We won the Eurocup.

The first time I saw Marc, his pace drew my attention the most. He was more mobile than everyone else on the court despite being very tall for his age and carrying excess weight. He always reminded me of Divac. His characteristics; strength of intuition; adaptation to all systems; post-up plays; passes; mid-range plays… They were all perfect. I am very happy to see him finally reaching his potential. Marc is always going to be one of my favorite players.

After the championship in 2003, there were livelong rumors of Sarunas Jasikevicius leaving the team. Would it be fair to say that the election of Laporta, who performed budgetary cuts, created a domino effect in the short Euroleague history? If Saras were to stay in team then, a superpower like Maccabi would not be created, so…

I know that Sarunas is still mad at me. Because someone told him: “Pesic doesn’t want you in the team. He’s the reason for you leaving.” I spent years trying to tell him the truth. However, I gave up trying since he’s not listening to me. He has a perception, his version of truth for the incident, based on what the people around him -mainly his agent- have told. It can’t be helped anymore.

I wanted to keep Sarunas in the team that season. I tried very hard for this, with all my heart. A player can only be as much a “winner” and as hardworking as Jasikevicius. Why would I ever want to lose a player like him?

I remember that his two-year deal was going to expire at the end of that season. If I am not mistaken, he had an extension option as well, but he chose not to use it and sat down with the club for negotiations. I was fighting for him to stay but I was also aware that he received an offer from Maccabi that Barcelona could have never match. Management made an offer to Saras: A three yearlong contract in which he gets a little less money on annual basis. He didn’t accept it and went to Maccabi. That’s it.

It is not true that I said: ”Sarunas is unmanageable” as written in Serbian and Spanish news. I’m speaking of these now that its asked. The summary of the incident is; much as he would have liked, Sarunas’ coach couldn’t manage to hold him in the squad. The others who did not put in enough effort as him were none other than the members of Barcelona board and Jasikevicius himself. If you took a look back on those days, you might easily remember how the fresh president Laporta has altered the operation in basketball from top-to-bottom; firing the general manager and replacing the position. Within those state of affairs, aren’t I already as good as resigned from the club?

Why didn’t you ever work more than two consecutive years in a country apart from Germany? Was that, as its said, always because of the financial issues?

I ended my coaching career in Germany because the basketball played in the country fell short of my expectations in 2000. I was too ambitious and wondering how the coaching was in other countries. My Roma and Barcelona picks were in this direction for instance. My family continued to live in Germany, while I pursued my dreams. If Bayern Basketball was not established, I might have ended up coaching in Turkey now.

I wanted to stay in Rome for many years in particular, I had a great relationship with the president Claudio Toti. But after a year there, as it was back in Germany, my expectations were not met. To say the least, we weren’t even capable of participating in the Euroleague. I’ve loved the city very much but it just wasn’t meant to be.

My following Red Star pick was made as a result of persistent pressure. My phone was ringing constantly and the subject of those calls were like: “Hey, Svetislav! You are almost done with your career and you never even trained a team in your homeland.” Finally, the idea of being able to speak my mother tongue and living with the rest of my family turned the scales. It was an emotional choice. But Red Star period also did not end very well because of similar reasons.

First of all, I didn’t want to go to Redstar in the first place. I had very good friends in the club’s management that time. They first approached me in order to get an advice for a main team coach. I gave them the name of the current coach of the team: Dejan Radonjic. But since they had just gone through a change in the management, they were looking for a bigger name than that. They were considering names that could motivate the public, attract sponsorships or even be used in political affairs. I spoke with Dragan Dilas, the president of the Serbian basketball federation at the time and Nebojsa Covic, the president of Redstar. And I’m not going to lie to you; after they both insisted, I said: “Ok then, I’m in for one year but I don’t want to continue after that.” We agreed under these conditions and I resigned after the end of 2008-09 season.

With all these speculations present, how come at least a bit of your 32-year career didn’t pass in Turkey? We regularly see news in Turkish media linking Svetislav Pesic to especially Efes and the National Team for over ten years…

I received some requests from Turkish clubs. Efes was one of the teams that wanted to negotiate with me. But I never received something serious. I’m not talking about money here. Efes declared their interest twice but never submitted an offer. So I never got to coach a team in Turkey.

The offers from Turkish Basketball Federation (TBF) were more serious than that. I held talks with them twice for the positon of national team head coach; first in September 2012, right after I took over Bayern, and the other one in 2013. We even met with the federation officials in Munich.

We discussed two options with the TBF: First one was to keep coaching Bayern and national team simultaneously, and the other was to resign from Bayern and move to Istanbul. They were positive for both options. Everything from their side was flawless and professional, top to bottom.

Then it was my turn. That same afternoon, I told about the situation to Uli Hoeness and to my son, Marko. I explained them the details of the offer and that the Turks see both options as viable. Unlike mine, Marko’s and Hoeness’ opinions were clear; they didn’t want me to coach Bayern and Turkey at the same time. Well, you are left all by yourself at the end of the day. After I evaluated the terms, I decided to keep working in the club. I didn’t want to abort a project as good as Bayern. I was and still am ambitious enough to coach a club.

As a person, who contributed to almost every generation in the past 30 years of Yugoslavian basketball, what are the details that are important to you in player development? The Mt. Zlatibor that hosted Divac, Kukoc and Radja before the 1987 World Championship is still generating players. Do you think it is fair to say that Mirko Novosel’s “Drazen might have made us lose many games but we never lost our faith in his talent” comment is the summary of the Yugoslavian school of basketball’s layout?

Zlatibor is truly a unique location. In former Yugoslavia, almost every team had their training camps there. I wouldn’t say it was spiritual, but it sure did have a mental effect on players. Consistency was the key in former Yugoslavia. I’m speaking of something on an ongoing basis like Nihat İziç achieved in the past 20 years in Turkey. İziç is always in the in Turgay Demirel’s shadow, behind him, but this doesn’t disesteem his leading part in the evolution of Turkish basketball.

Anyway, let’s go back to 1987… As you know there were not only Serbians in the squad then. Entire Yugoslavia was in company. Any memory from that period reminds me of Yugoslavia, so it is not easy to speak. We were the best basketball country in the world. When Divac and Kukoc were around 16-17, the highest grade basketball in Europe was played in Yugoslavia. Even though everybody was thinking about going to Italy for more money or professionalism, the standard of the game in our country was really something else. Best players, teams… In former Yugoslavia there was a saying: “He wasn’t born alone.” Those players were like that. They had examples to follow, role-models like Dragan Kicanovic, Mirza Delibasic and Kresimir Cosic. These names had already expanded the influence of Yugoslavia in the basketball world.

I remember that every player was at the same level back then. Over the time, Toni Kukoc stood out amongst others, by combining his out of reach professionalism and talent. Still, Ilic, Dobraj or Pecarski were no less than Kukoc, Djordevic, Divac or Radja. Domestic issues, injuries… In the end, some took the next step and some could not. I always think that a player’s development is dependent on two characteristic attributes; responsibility and selflessness. You can find these two on every great player. Let me tell you something I remember from my times in Barcelona for an example, of Dejan Bodiroga…

Dejan was a team player during his entire career. He knew that he had no function on hardwood without his team mates around. During a game with Ettore Messina’s Benetton, I took a timeout and said: “We are going to play 5-down on offense with Fucka” and pointed Dejan to play the ‘2-guard. He looked at me and asked me to change the game;

-Coach, I think Navarro would be better for 2-guard
-Please, let’s just try to play it over Navarro.

I said “not a problem” and sent Navarro, who was supposed to be on the bench for the moment, into the game. We won the game. Before going into the dressing room I drew Dejan aside and asked him: “Why did you ask me to change the set?” “It’s very simple, coach” he answered. “We are going to play two-guard at the end of the game one way or another. And I will be in the game when that happens. But before that, it is better for me if Sarunas, Navarro, Fucka or Duenas directs the offense so that the opposition’s defense does not concentrate on me alone. That way, I can score more and we can win the match.”

These I believe, are the details that make a great player off of a good player. Bodiroga was a player, who would take responsibility for the team rather than simply himself, an individual who stood far from selfishness. He knew that he wasn’t the only player in the team. Just like Michael Jordan not being the only person behind Bulls.

Translated by: Baran Yağmurlu.

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