To those who breathe and live through European basketball, Aito Garcia Reneses is more than a coach with a prolific career.
After all, his resume speaks for itself. Born in 1946, Reneses has been voted twice Eurocup Coach of the Year and has led two Catalan clubs to European trophies in four different competitions: he won the Saporta Cup in 1986 and the Korac Cup in 1987 and 1999 with FC Barcelona, as well as the FIBA EuroCup in 2007 and the EuroCup in 2008 with DKV Joventut Badalona. He also guided the Spanish National Team to the silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games. He has won a total of nine Spanish League titles and five Cups in his country of origin.
On top of all his achievements, the man widely known simply as “Aito” remains one of the strongest links between different periods, styles, philosophies, persons and, in the last three years or so, countries. At the age of 70, he decided to leave his comfort zone in Spain and embark on a mission that seemed familiar at first sight: to work at Alba Berlin, with the view to developing and improving the young players on the squad. Obtaining results and getting wins is not bad, but instilling one’s philosophy is a longer process that has to be treated with care and the Madrid-born coach was the best fit for the Germans.
Alba has played five finals under his guidance, including last year’s Eurocup battles with Valencia Basket, as well as the German League duel with Bayern Munich. Neither of those match-ups had a happy ending for Aito’s team, although the ticket to Europe’s greatest stage was no small prize.
The start in Euroleague competition was hard for the Germans, who suffered six losses in a row after winning the first game of the season vs Zenit St. Petersburg at home. They were at 1-6 before their trip to Athens where Panathinaikos OPAP had been expecting them. The “Greens” were desperate for the win, coming off a shocking elimination at the hands of Promitheas Patras in the Greek Cup quarter-finals. However, Aito and Alba emerged victorious from a game that lasted 50 minutes, with the final score ironically resembling the Efes Anadolu-Berlin game that took place about a month ago, but in reverse. It was 105-106 this time, not 106-105, although both games were decided after double overtime.
On the occasion of that game, TalkBasket.net sat with Aito Garcia Reneses for an in-depth interview on some of the moments, the persons and the circumstances that have defined his 45-year-long career so far.
Q: First of all, how does it feel coaching Alba Berlin and why did you accept the job?
A: Because I like basketball and I also like the style of Alba Berlin. They have developed a programme for young athletes and strive to achieve progress, but not in the way other teams usually do, by trying to have great players at their disposal and make “big” signings. That’s not the style of Alba and that’s why I’m with them.
Q: This is your first time coaching outside of Spain. How is the experience? Were there any offers from non-Spanish teams in the past?
A: It’s good. Yes, in the past I did have an offer to coach CSKA Moscow, but I was content with what I was doing in Spain.
Q: This year you return to the EuroLeague after eight years of absence, since you last participated with Unicaja Malaga in 2011. What do you think of the competition? Did you miss being a part of it?
A: I believe that the level is very high and it provides a team like us with a way to learn new things. We may not have many chances of going futher, but it’s an intermediary step for us. It’s something good and difficult at the same time because the team was used to winning in EuroCup competition. Well, it’s time for us to accept and be realistic in order to make the best out of it and learn. From my point of view, there are too many games, stemming from the combination of national, FIBA and EuroLeague competitions. If this situation goes on, the problem will grow because there is an excess of injuries, traveling and saturation with less training sessions and less time to rest. So, I just think that we’ve got to address those issues before we end up like the NBA regular season, where the majority of the games are not so interesting. In Europe, they still are (interesting). It would be good to have an agreement on that.
Q: In this vein, you have suggested the harmonisation of all competitions as a viable solution. To what extent is it probable that this scenario will take effect?
A: Well, it’s very difficult. FIBA organises events in September or in June and has put those “windows” for the national teams to play, interrupting the flow of the season. I do not agree with that system, for I think there should be a period for the clubs, one for the national competitions and one for the EuroLeague. However, in order for all parties involved to reach an agreement that is going to be beneficial for basketball, one must not think only about oneself.
Q: You were born in Madrid, but never coached Real. How come?
A: I could have gone to Real Madrid back in 2007 when I had an offer from them. At that time, I felt very comfortable in Joventud Badalona and decided to stay there.
Q: In your career, you have given many players the chance to appear on the big stage. Who surprised you the most with the progress that he made?
A: I was surprised by many of them because all of them had physical, technical, as well as mental qualities -and this is probably the most important element. Perhaps, the most famous of all were Pau Gasol, Porzingis, Ricky Rubio, but there are many more that aren’t so well-known because they didn’t play at a high level. It doesn’t matter to me; I’m happy that they managed to explore their abilities. Apart from Pau Gasol, who was the greatest of all the players I’ve coached, the case of Ricky Rubio is extraordinary: he started out at the age of 14, helping Joventud win an away game; later, he got to play the Olympic Games final game against a great Team USA, getting close to beating them, plus being on the court for 29 minutes. Those two are the most important examples of the players that I’ve coached.
Q: Which are the players that you didn’t coach but would have liked to?
A: I don’t know. I guess anyone who has all mental, physical and technical qualities. As far as talent goes, it must be accompanied by hard work. For those who want to improve, I am their coach. Since we’re in Greece right now, I had Efthymis Rentzias and Nikos Economou on my team, FC Barcelona. Economou was very intelligent but lacked athleticism. Rentzias was a magnificent basketball player. Galis was a great player whom I got to know less than Giannakis, who became a coach and I had the chance of meeting at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They were both tremendous players. Especially Galis was the absolute idol in Greece and deservedly so because he was spectacular to look at. I would compare him to Epi (Juan Antonio San Epifanio), if I had to choose a Spaniard look-alike, but they were also a bit different.
Q: I know you’ve been asked that a lot, but what’s the taste left in you after reaching three continental finals and not lifting the trophy?
A: The taste is not so bitter, as the majority of the people might think. To them, the only important thing is winning. I believe that more important is to give 100%. If that gives you more chances of winning, the better. But if not, you must feel satisfaction from your team’s effort. If winning only matters, this means that those who get the best players in the world and don’t win, are a failure. On the other hand, if you get players that tend to get better, play their hearts out and don’t win, you can accept the situation with tranquility.
Q: Was the goal-tending violation by Vrankovic on Montero’s lay-up effort in the 1996 European Championship Final the worst moment in your career? You came so close to winning your and Barca’s first title.
A: From the public’s point of view, yes, because people are more understanding when you win. I would say that I was less influenced by what happened, although the ambient can easily carry you away. Surely we could have won if the referees hadn’t made a mistake, but they are entitled to their mistakes, just like we as coaches and the players also may commit some. In retrospect, I’d say that it was an illegal block because the ball had hit the glass first. The referees acknowledged their mistake and thus there’s nothing more to say. We have to accept it as another mistake.
Q: Do you agree with the EuroLeague Final Four format or would you prefer a series to define the champion?
A: I think the Final Four is fine because it’s a celebration of basketball. It resembles the Copa Del Rey that we have in Spain. The world is enjoying it. The only thing that could be made concerns the harmonisation of competitions.
Q: Until some years ago, your career was compared to the trajectory that Greek coach Giannis Ioannidis has had. None of you became European champion, despite playing six Final Fours and three finals. Many went so far as to call him a loser. How easy is it to keep your self-confidence, when the public opinion or the press is against you?
A: Well, it can take a toll on my prestige, but not on my self-esteem. At a certain point, I was -like Ioannidis- criticised by everyone, but now I’m lauded by everyone. That’s because people understood that we were playing good basketball and that we were ahead of our time a little bit. They used to say that we should use more or less players, who were taller than the ones we had etc. Nowadays, no one uses only five players. Back then, we received a lot of criticism; now, we realise that what we did was followed by others at a later time.
Q: Do you feel a certain sympathy for Ioannidis?
A: Yes, in that sense (laughs). Because in Greece there was surely more pressure than the one I was dealing with in Barcelona.
Q: Which coach has influenced or impressed you lately?
A: In my first years, all the coaches that I had as a player were very important; later on, the coaches next to whom I sat on the bench as an assistant and the ones whose clinics I visited, like Dean Smith and John Wooden. There were also many coaches from Yugoslavia who influenced me with their style of play that was more advanced than in the rest of Europe. Aleksandar Nikolic and Novosel had the most impact on the style of other Yugoslavian coaches. Obradovic has always been fantastic. Despite the notion that someone may have of him as exceedingly impassioned and heated, I personally think he’s terrific. The fact that he has been on top for so many years is the proof that he remains a great coach.
Q: What do you think of Sarunas Jasikevicius?
A: I had him as a player. As a coach, he is the same, with regards to his explosive personality. However, he’s a very interesting person.
Q: What’s your take on Rick Pitino’s presence in European basketball, since he coached Panathinaikos last year and he recently agreed to take over the Greek NT?
A: Pitino has been an extraordinary coach at the college level. However, he didn’t have the same results with professional athletes. For sure, he was at a very high level coaching younger players, but it’s a bit different having to deal with professionals. I guess that he knows perfectly that it was at college where he succeeded best.
Q: How close or how far are you from retiring?
A: I suppose I’m getting more and more close to it, but I haven’t planned anything. When the time comes, I will leave the benches.
Q: Did you ever get an offer to coach an NBA team?
A: No, never. I believe that in order to be a coach somewhere, before being able to impose your ideas, you have to start from scratch; from college level, that is. It requires a lot of time.
Q: Are you satisfied with the direction to which basketball is heading? You have proposed certain changes, such as widening the court and increasing the distance of the three-point line. Do you agree with Popovich?
A: Yes, Popovich is the most “European” of all NBA coaches, in relation to the good style of basketball that his teams are playing. I don’t possess the only solution to the problems of basketball, but I do believe that we have to proceed with the reforms that can improve the sport even more.