Even at 36-years-old, legendary Finnish point guard Teemu Rannikko is still as hungry and competitive as his younger team-mates.
His Kataja Basket side open their FIBA Basketball Champions League season against Israeli champions Maccabi Rishon on October 19.
Kataja had taken part in three consecutive editions of the EuroChallenge, from 2012/13 through to 2014/15 and last season competed in the inaugural edition of the FIBA Europe Cup. It is fair to say the Finnish side wanted to take a step up this year, and they passed the test with flying colours, breezing through the qualifying rounds by thrashing Swedish champions champions Södertälje Kings by an aggregate score of 32 points.
And now, with various destinations and tough road games ahead of the new Champions League season, the professional grind would take its toll on most younger players but Rannikko thrives off the hard graft that comes with pro basketball.
“Besides, as a team, these kind of games will help us later on in the Finnish league,” Rannikko said the Basketball Champions League website.
“Playing with that kind of intensity, playing against the better teams is how you can get better. You go to play in Turkey for example and you are hyped-up even before you step on the court because you know you will play in front of some of the best fans. So it’s easier to motivate yourself to play against a team like Pinar Karsiyaka.
“I told the guys that now we’re going to have the chance to play with some really good teams and see where we really are, if we can compete.
“Our team is not at that level budget-wise so for both the American and the Finnish guys on the team this is a chance to compete against guys who are getting paid nicely and see what they have to do to get to that level.
“What’s for sure is that it’s going to be a very tough group, wherever it’s Venezia, or Le Mans or any team on the list, they’re all very good teams. So it’s going to be fun. We will go out to win every game, even though we will be the underdogs in almost all the games. Nothing is finished before it even starts, we will have 40 minutes to compete and try and get some wins.”
Kataja’s qualification to the Basketball Champions League has certainly raised the profile of the sport in Finland even further as they prepare to co-host next summer’s Eurobasket.
“Basketball is growing very nicely in Finland, we’re going to host the FIBA Eurobasket 2017 group in Helsinki next year and we’ve played in our first ever FIBA Basketball World Cup and three straight FIBA EuroBasket tournaments, Rannikko explained. “So the national team is doing very well, but the league needs to take bigger steps to reach where I would like to see.
“A lot of Finnish clubs say it’s great that Kataja is playing in the Basketball Champions League and as soon as we qualified over Södertälje many other teams sent us congratulations. To the rest of the clubs, this was a great step for Finnish basketball as a whole, because it means that the league as a whole is better and it deserves respect.”