52 years old, Istanbul native, Ergin Ataman is writing european basketball history through 20 trophies, 17 in Turkey and 3 internationals.
We have met him in his hometown where he talked to our Deniz Aksoy about his whole career and his actual experience coaching Anadolu Efes.
– Going back to the first years of your career, you landed in Siena in 2001 and brought that club to another level. Which are your best memories of this two years?
There’s a first memory, very funny. In the press conference when the president introduced me to the media, when I said that my goal was to win an european trophy, many journalists in the room laughed. When we won the Saporta Cup at the end of the season, it was great honor to me and a great surprise to them. And one season later we made the F4 in Barcelona: it was great how the whole city reacted, with such an emotional relationship with the team. I knew we could do it, because I did it previously in Thessaloniki, with Efes. At that time italian basketball was dominant: great coaches like Messina or D’Antoni. The surprise was even bigger since it was the first time a turkish coach was working outside his country at that level.
– In 2002-03 in Siena you coached two outstanding players like Mirsad Turkcan and Alphonso Ford, that unfortunately died years later. Can you describe the impact of those two players on your team and which where their best skills?
We are talking about two great athletes, two great guys. Mirsad in one of the best rebounder in the history of Euroleague, while Alphonso is th egreatets offensive talent I ever coached. Everybody was astonished when we signed both of them, since nobody thought they could have landed in Siena. Mirsad play so many years for me, starting from the juvenile teams, he started to play basketball with me. He played great for me along the years, except that game in Barcelona F4, when he scored 0 points in 30 minutes. Overtime he tells me he played great for me, I remember him this game, obviously joking…
– In 2003 your reached with Siena the F4 : Turkcan was named TOP 16 MVP and Alphonso Ford was in the first ALL Euroleague Team: do you feel you that team could have reached the final and compete with Barcelona for the title?
Sure! We were up by two in that semifinal when Buller scored a 3 pointer that was a 2 pointer. Unfortunately there wasn’t any instant replay, so we lost the game against an unbelievable team, coached by Ettore Messina, one of the greatest ever. Defeating CSKA coached by Ivkovic for the third place was in any case something really successful for us.
– Which is your opinion about italian and turkish basketball? Are they somehow similar?
They are similar, but there is one big point of difference in the evolution through the years. It’s about the big investments that great soccer team did in basketball in Turkey. In Italy the teams are different, so while they where dominant at at the beginning of the century, with Bologna, Treviso, Milano and Roma, now is Turkey to have 3-4 great teams really competitive. And for the media we are now far more interesting than in Italy, where only Olimpia Milano can compete at the highest levels.
– The Grand Slam you won in Turkey with Besiktas in 2012 was the best satisfaction of your career?
I had so may satisfactions, it’s not easy to say which one was the best. The first one was the participation with Efes at the 2000 Final 4, when we lost to Panathinaikos, coached by Obradovic, that later won the title. You know, coaching and winning in Real, Barcelona or Moscow it’s something, but making it with teams formerly unable to do it it’s a far bigger experience and success. The Saporta in Siena was huge: the first title for me and for the city. With Besiktas we had 20 thousand people in Sinan Erden any playoff game, then it was unbelievable to win the turkish league with Galatasaray after 20 years, as well as the Eurocup.
– You won 4 turkish leagues and 7 turkish cups with 4 different teams: how did you manage so many changes keeping your coaching level so high?
(He laughs…) Maybe I wasn’t lucky enough… I should have stayed more years with the same club, but so many changes occurred due to economy so I had to take some decisions and move. I feel like I made a mistake in 2003, after I got a big offer from Bologna, that then disappeared due to financial problems. For some family reasons I got back to Turkey. Staying in Spain or Italy would have meant more titles and maybe one or two Euroleague titles.
– Let’s jump to recent history and your experience with Efes, after replacing Perasovic. What do you feel was the most important reason for the last place in EL, where you lost so many games, especially at home, with very little deficits?
At the beginning of the season Efes changed so many players, due to a reduced budget for turkish economy reasons and so the roster was pretty new. They came from a season where they missed the F4 just after 5 games with Olympiacos, it was a great journey. Some injuries happened, some problems occurred and they decided to change Perasovic. I fully respect him as a great coach, but you know, it’s our job. I was in the USA, where I visited San Antonio, with Messina and Popovich very warm and friendly, they organized my visit to Golden State too, with Steve Kerr and Ron Adams, then I visited Cleveland, Miami, Houston and Philadelphia. It was great. I could have rest, but I love this game, it’s not only a job for me. I love practice, I love games, so I wanted to make something I never didi in my life in the last years: studying different systems. They love Euroleague basketball and appreciate how close are games, different from some NBA ones. They love watching EL basketball, it was a surprise for me. When Efes called me I decided to go back to the team where I spent 10 years of my career, a top club for me. It was a tough season, maybe the worst ever in Europe, but at the end we succeeded in bringing home the Turkish Cup, defeating strong teams like Fenerbahce, Darussafaka and Tofas.
– Which kind of changes did you do in Efes?
It was simply about team strategy. Most of the losses were because of injuries. When we lost Dragic and Simon, it is to say a fundamental player and the MVP of the national cup, in the two following months we could find some balance and the games won could have been far more with the available. We signed new players as Douglas or Weems, all of them very good ones, but what I really missed was the practice during the preseason camp all together. That’s the most important part of my job.
– Which is your opinion about the new Euroleague format?
Every year EL improves everything. As an organization, as a format, as about the media, the players and everything that is involved in the game. 16 teams, a round robin format is perfect. Maybe they could improve something about Eurocup teams: not just the winner but maybe 2 or 3 could reach EL in the following season. And maybe the last 2/3 from the EL classification could be back in EC the next season. This would be more as a european menthality, different from the actual NBA one.
– About recent Final 4 in Belgrade, how do you judge the level of play? Did we have the real best 4 teams over there?
After a season of 30 games and a best-of-five playoff series, it’s sure the best team are in the Final 4. The big upset was Kaunas, since everybody was thinking of Olympiacos doing another Final 4, but they deserved it after a great season. CSKA didn’t play its basketball in Belgrade, while I thought that Fenerbahce was the favorite, but they too did not play well in the Final. But you know, in a single game anything can happen… We have to give credit to Laso and Real: they came strong after a very difficult season full of injuries and they deserved the title.
– I can’t but ask you an opinion about Luka Doncic.
He is the european young Lebron James. He will be drafted in the first three positions for sure and we will see him competing with the best ones. We have to give great credit to Pablo Laso that helped his growth so much. He really played like Lebron in the Euroleague season.
– Which is the best european coach actually?
Pablo Laso! He won the Euroleague.
– Along your career you always looked like leaving the players free to express their talent completely. Was this a precise choice or something you managed adapting to players during the years?
It’s simple… you have to let them express their talent within an organization. They can play as per their skills but they do not have to feel to be left alone in a system. What’s more important is to use your talent for the team. And you have to give them an organization to avoid any possible mess. You know, at the end I believe that as a coach you can win some game, but players win championships.
– At the end, coach, what do you expect from the next season and what do you expect from your players?
We are trying to build a well balanced roster: new players with talent and winning mentality. You can build a winning season only starting from the preseason, as I told you is the basic part of my job. We have to correct the mistakes we did in the recent past, we need to create the right chemistry through my coaching and scouting staff, that I fully trust. We are working avery day to build it, we discuss and we do everything needs to bring back Efes to the level of competition that is part of this club history. We will be back fighting for a playoff berth, trying then to compete for the Final 4. You know what… 18 years ago I was 34 and we made it to the Final 4, now I’m 52 and we will do our best to be back in that event.
It’s all about the challenge: coach Ataman is ready.