Life in Barcelona did not start well for Finland international Petteri Koponen. After signing for the Catalan giants in August, the 28-year-old Helsinki native was the passenger in a taxi that crashed leaving Koponen badly hurt.
The Finn was hospitalized, under observation, for cranioencephalic trauma, but he made a recovery and was discharged but still ordered to rest. Remarkably, just under two months later, Koponen is back on the basketball court and last week, hit 14 points as Barcelona recorded their first win on the road in the EuroLeague against Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv.
For Barcelona as a team, they have not had the best of luck when it comes to injuries with Victor Claver, Shane Lawal, Juan Carlos Navarro, Pau Ribas and Justin Doellman all sidelined so far this season. Koponen’s injury was most definitely the most unexpected but he has recovered and is back on court.
Javier Cancedo of EuroLeague.net spoke with Koponen to discuss the incident plus how he is feeling the new EuroLeague format, Barca’s unfortunate injury list and goals for the season.
Of course, what happened to you was very unfortunate. How difficult were those days in which we didn’t know when you get back to playing basketball?
“You always think something can happen to you on the court, but bad things can also happen off the court. It was crazy: I was four years in Moscow, where the traffic is crazy and you never know what can happen, and I come to Barcelona and something like this happens immediately after I arrived. It is an example for everybody not to take things for granted. I appreciate every day and started to see things a little bit differently after that, because we are really lucky to be able to play basketball and do what we love. It really opened my eyes, because at one moment I didn’t know how bad the injury was. For almost one month, I couldn’t do nothing, just lay down and be in bed. When I got up, I felt dizzy and had to wait for the symptoms to go away. In the beginning, we didn’t know how long it was going to take: one month, three months… Of course, it was scary, so I had to wait and take it easy. In the end, everything was good and I am now happy to be back on the court and help my team.”
Everyone was concerned about you after your car crash. How much did you appreciate all the support messages coming from all over the world?
“Getting all those messages people were sending me was great support. Of course, in the first three weeks, I wasn’t allowed to use the phone or watch TV, so it was pretty boring. I had to lay down and do nothing! After that, my future wife Linda read those messages to me and I saw their support. Barcelona made a special T-shirt for players to wear, written in Finnish saying ‘Good luck, Petteri’. Tyrese (Rice) put my signature on his shoe. Those are small things that meant a lot for me. It felt great and like you said, I got messages from all over the world telling me to get well soon. It felt good.”
Has the accident help you put things in perspective and enjoy every minute you spend on the court even more?
“Yes, for sure. Like I said earlier, after that I started to see things in a different way and to appreciate more things. It is easy to forget how lucky you are and appreciate small things. You get to appreciate the kind of situation you have, the small things, the practices and just being able to do what you love. Like I said, everything can change so quickly! You never think something like this can happen to you but that’s life, for me and for everybody. It is an example that tells you that you need to enjoy every moment.”
Back to basketball. Even though Barcelona has been really unlucky with injuries, the team kept winning. How much credit does Coach Georgios Bartzokas get for keeping all available players together and ready to play?
“Our coaches are doing a great job preparing us for every game. We know it is not an easy situation for us, with so many players out. So far, everybody who goes on the court does his best to help the team and play defense as hard as he can. Right now, in this moment, we are showing what we can do on defense and are also sharing the ball on offense. I can say that every guy that goes on the floor is ready to do his job. We have to look forward, try to get guys healthy and keep winning.”
It is a new EuroLeague, with more games and in which wins count more than ever. As a player and competitor, how much do you like the new format?
“It is nice because like you said, every game now matters much more, until the end of the season. You cannot relax and this is what makes the EuroLeague so tough. I can say there are only good teams, so you need to prepare for every game. It is tough for every team, because with the new format, there are more games and no time to relax. You have to be ready to play from now until April.”
You will play against Zalgiris Kaunas at home this week, a team with talented point guards like Leo Westermann, Lukas Lekavicius and Kevin Pangos. How much are you looking forward to it and what do you like about Zalgiris?
“Every team in EuroLeague is a good one but we have to protect our home court in front of our great fans. It is going to be a tough fight but we have to stay focused and play defense the way we did so far. We have to play together on offense and share the ball. It is the only way to win this game. They have good players all around, not just point guards. Zalgiris is playing well and we need our best defense and, of course, our coaching staff will prepare us well. Let’s see how we approach the game but I don’t think we will change a lot of things. Playing together is the only way to win.”
You have played with Tyrese Rice for each of the last three seasons, ever since he won the EuroLeague with Maccabi. How do you like to play with him and how do you get along off the court after so much time together?
“Well, we have known each other for almost three years now and he is a great player: everybody can see what he can do on the court. For me, the biggest thing is that off the court, he is always thinking about basketball, watching our games and what he can improve. He is a great teammate on and off the court, we hang out sometimes. He is a great person, too. He is a great leader, he wants to make things happen in the game and most of the times he does it. He is one of the reasons why we are winning now: Tyrese is playing great. Not only he is one of the best teammates I had in my career, he is also one of the best players. I can only say good words about him!”
Barcelona has not been to the Final Four in the last couple of seasons. Is that the goal, to try to make it to Istanbul and fight for the EuroLeague title?
“Why not? We want to try to win every title – also the Spanish League and the Copa del Rey. For me, there is only one reason to play, and that is winning. Of course, we have to go step by step and try to fight for every next win, not trying to look far ahead. Every game is important right now and the way you play now can impact the end of the season. It is really important to stay focused all the time and play well. There are many teams out there who also want to win the EuroLeague title. It is the goal for a lot of clubs. It will be tough, but we are working hard to get better and improve as a team. Still, the only goal when you play basketball is trying to win trophies.”