Maurizio Gherardini: Sloukas is well-tied to us

Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul overcame the barrier of Olympiacos to capture their sixth victory in seven Euroleague games so far. Despite the fact that the Turkish powerhouse managed to beat its Greek counterpart at the Peace and Friendship Stadium for the first time after 3,5 years, the celebrations were very moderate.

Besides, as Maurizio Gherardini, the General Manager of last year’s Euroleague finalists, underlines “it is clear that most of the Euroleague teams have improved. This means that anything can happen, as we saw in the Buducnost-Baskonia game”.

The experienced Forli-born basketball executive, teamed up again with Zeljko Obradovic in 2014, after their common presence at Benetton Treviso. In the small city of northern Italy,  Gherardini established himself as one of the most effective administrators in the history of European basketball. During his tenure which lasted 14 years, he built Benetton into one of the most recognizable basketball organizations outside the NBA, winning 4 League championships, 7 Italian Cups, 3 Italian Supercups, 2 Saporta Cups (Cup Winners Cups) and appearing 4 times at the Euroleague’s Final Four (1993, 1998, 2002, 2003). Prior to joining forces with Obradovic for the second time, he was a senior executive with the Toronto Raptors of the NBA for a number of years, as the first European to hold a senior management position with an NBA franchise.

The 63-year-old executive discussed with TalkBasket.net about the construction of a winning team, the potential of Sarunas Jasikevicius and David Blatt, the passing of iconic figures of European basketball, as well as the future of Kostas Sloukas, who -once again- proved to be crucial in his team’s success over the “Reds”.

Q: Fener won the game, despite Vesely’s absence for paternity issues. Is it a proof of the team’s depth?

A: “In a strong tournament like this, any absence on a team is more obvious. Vesely’s athleticism and particular qualities are essential to the whole team. He is a guy that can contribute in many ways, since he can intimidate the opponent by just standing infront of the basket, without doing anything. A vertical player like him is very important”.

Q: In general, is it easy -even for a team like Fener- to attract NBA players and convince them to come to Europe?

A: “They must be hungry and eager to play. In order to build teams that have high hopes of being successful, one must bring players that have something inside. As time goes by, this kind of players will grow. Lovergne decided to sign with the team because he was seeing limited playing time in the NBA. He wants to keep playing on a high level -he’s too young to retire, after all- and we gave him the chance to work with a coach like Zeljko Obradovic. All the rest was easy”.

Q: Are you worried about his physical condition?

A: “Lovergne had been away from European basketball for 4 years and therefore it will take time for him to become familiar with the new environment. Right now, he is still a bit rusty.

Ennis belonged in the same category. He hadn’t been playing much and was still trying to understand where he landed. Thus, the leadership offered by veteran players, such as Sloukas, Datome and Melli, is important. They are the ones that give stability to the group. Dylan is from Canada, but has played many games with his national team, is aware of the expectations in Europe and his brother is also playing here. In short, he’s not someone who doesn’t know what international basketball is. In any case, we try to evaluate the pro and cons of every opportunity, as well as the evolution of our players”.

Q: What does the name Pavlos Giannakopoulos mean to you?

A: “We used to meet up and speak several times. Undoubtedly, he was a great person in general and a great basketball personality in particular. He possessed a great deal of sensibility and intuition, qualities that enabled him to create a powerhouse on a Pan-European level, together with excellent players and coaches. Above all, he conceived the model of a winning team. He was a man with sense and quality, despite the success he had throughout his life. During his presidency, Panathinaikos became one of the few clubs in Europe that every player wanted to join. Now, I would say that Fenerbahce is a team that falls into this category, capable of attracting all the players who aspire to be on top”.

Q: This year was also marked by the passing of other important basketball figures, Gilberto Benetton (co-founder of the fashion brand and former head of Pallacanestro Treviso) and Henry Williams (played at Treviso from 1995 until 1999). Which are your memories of them?

A: “This has been a very tough year. It’s difficult to explain … I still remember when we came at OAKA with Benetton Treviso for the playoffs of the European Championship the year that Panathinaikos won their first cup (1996). We lost the first game in Athens in the last seconds with Williams missing what could have been the winning shot. Then, we claimed the second game in Treviso, but were eliminated in the third. It’s a rather sad and bitter memory, but it’s normal”.

Q: How would you evaluate this season so far?

A: “We know that it’s going to be another really long season. Our objective is to remain competitive. When the Euroleague season starts, there are 15 other teams with the same dreams and desire to achieve things as we. It’s a difficult task to stay on top, but if you manage to be competitive, you’ll get your chance to win some titles. Looking at the rosters of the other teams, it is clear that most of them have improved. This means that anything can happen, as we saw in the Buducnost-Baskonia game”.

Q: Since we’re talking about rosters, not long ago Dimitris Giannakopoulos expressed the wish to sign Kostas Sloukas next year. What’s your view?

A: “Sloukas is well-tied to us (laughs)! He will stay with the team for as long as he wants. His contract expires in 2020. He might even acquire the Turkish citizenship. I’m joking of course! He is a good player and person. After three years, it is evident that he feels much more confident despite some mistakes he makes during the games”.

Q: In a recent interview, you singled out Sarunas Jasikevicius as the only European coach who could make it in the NBA. What makes him special?

A: “I said that he is an extremely appealing coach for a market like the NBA because he is doing a great job in his first coaching experience. He’s a man of charisma, but also someone who grew up in the United States because he went to Maryland, played in the NBA and became a multi-champion in Europe. It’s a beautiful story. He is also at the right age to enter his market of interest and the reference coach for that market. He had been interviewed by the Toronto Raptors but the process did not go any further. Undoubtedly, Saras is a coach of great potential”.

Q: Is there anyone else in Europe that could make a successful transition to the US?

A: “It’s not easy to find someone who combines all those elements; besides, Sarunas speaks the language perfectly. This is very important for any foreign coach who would like to go there. The mastery of the language is very important. David Blatt did the same thing, but Saras belongs to a different generation. Blatt has proven to be an NBA coach, in addition to what he had been in Europe. Of course, he’s an American, but -potentially- he can coach wherever he wants”.