We can easily say this was the “perfect season”. He deserved it so much more if we think of what happened last year in Belgrade when, after dominating the whole season playing an outstanding basketball, the Final 4 was played with De Colo and Hines in very bad health conditions.
But time is a gentleman and it’s even more with whom worked so hard with an unbelievable commitment and passion. Andrey Vatutin understood that the end of 2018 was not the right end of a season and that this coach, this team and this organization were doing the things at their best. Confirming Itoudis was the right decision and the effect of this decision is now in books of the game. Vitoria and that proud and sincere hug in the middle of the court after the Final is one of the best image of the game.
Dimitris Itoudis is the most dominant coach of 2019 and his achievement in Vitoria showed us a man that we didn’t know and thanks to his being always so open to us we had the great privilege to understand and live.
– Coach, 9 years between Zagreb and Greece, then you get a call from Obradovic in ’99, a coach that had already three euroepean trophies in his career. What defintely changed for the young Dimitris?
I met Zele several years earlier during a Christmas tournament in a suburb of Amsterdam. I was there as an assistant coach of KK Zagreb and he was with Badalona. We exchanged our phones numbers, we then talked a lot. Some year before my head coach, Bosko Bozic, that the unfortunately passed away, wanted him as a guard for KK Zagreb but Zele refused and started his career coaching Partizan. Our relationship was progressive. The person that connect and introduced us was Duda Ivkovic. In ’99 we met in Thessaloniki where the mayor invited and hosted Serbian national team that was victim of an embargo and in that occasion we talked so much more, we shared ideas and guessed how could have been working together. After 3 days, it was june 23rd, we went to Athens and signed for Panathinaikos.
– 13 years with Pana, 5 Euroleagues, 11 greek titles (9 in a row from ’03 to ’11) and 7 national cups. How could that team maintain such a high performance level for such a long period?
Any kind of relationship, not only in sports, starts with some doubts and that was for us too. It helped a lot that Zele was so hungry, we could be stable thanks to that. We had to build a solid menthality and the owners were very important. All the 3 brothers Giannakopoulos, Pavlos, Thanasis and Kostas, unfortunately all passed away, gave us a big trust and it was fundamental. During that long stay in Athens we changed almost 3 generations of players, from Bodiroga to Diamantidis with so many great guys in the years. We did not have the biggest budget because before 2004 Greece was preparing to host Olympics and something happened like we had lo leave Oaka and play in Sporting, the oldest gym in Athens. 2500 spectators were not enough to improve our finances and all the environment was a bit suffering of that situation that happened to Olympiacos too. So we focused on developping the approach of competitiveness, investing time and money on players.
– Coach Obradovic told me that the 2009 Final 4 was the greatest ever thanks to talents and teams partecipating. Do you agree?
If he said that I definitely agree for talent, creativity and unity that we could show in our team too. Games were great and so closed, the semi we won with the “reds”, the final won only after “Siska” missed 3 pointer. But don’t forget 2011, when Maccabi, Real and Siena played in Barcelona and we were there after defeating the hosting team without the home court advantage.
– That 2009 Pana, with Anthony Parker’s Maccabi and Messina’s Kinder Bologna are the three best teams of the century?
Those are all great teams that won and lose, because there is always something you can’t be sure about like injuries or other situations that are part of the game and part of life. Panathinaikos influenced the game like no one before, Bologna had great stars playing huge basketball as well as Maccabi. Those were all team with commitments and dedication. Four capital lettters: TEAM. But I want ot underline also the importance of the phylosophy of continuity we showed in Moscow with 8 new Euroleague champions in 2016 and 9 last month in Vitoria. We are building a second generation of champs.
– After Athens one year with Banvit and then CSKA. What did you bring with you from Obradovic teachings and what you felt you were making yours?
You guys want big phrases, kind of titles but real life is different. It’s all about the daily basis of you job, your principles, the small details that build your own career. Zele is a winner, we all know that, but I’m asking you if this is something that somebody taught him or that he had inside… Sure, he has it inside. Do you fight or do you quit? I have nothing against mediocrity but if you want to build something extraordinary you have to fight every day. We stayed together 13 years and I do not remember another sport’s couple together for so many years. It was a privilege for me and it was great for both of us to share ideas. I was trying to bring something every day and he appreciated that as well as I appreciated working with him. I refused at least 3 good offers to stay with him. At the end you just have to build your own vision, your identity and your philosophy.
– In your first year in Moscow you won VTB but you lost to Oly in Madrid, a bloody loss. In that period it was used to be said from the journalists and the fans that CSKA was always there but almost never winning. How did you changed that situation?
Well, nothing is granted or given. I respect all the opinion but saying that CSKA had to be surely in the F4 every year is uncorrect. You can’t buy health and emotions with a budget, you need to work and improve and something is out of your control. So many great coaches never won and it happened due to injuries and many other particular factors. We did a great job because we had to convince management and fans too. 12 MVPs make a a great team? Maybe, but it is not sure. A team needs roles fiitng and comfortable, you need talent as well as you need warriors, as Daniel Hackett to give you an example. 50% of success is built during summer recruiting, especially with this market shortened by China, G-League, NBA development etc. It has to be clear that being at a Final 4 is a big success. How many great teams didn’t play F4 in these years? Just 4 are playing and 1 is winning. How can you talk about a good or bad season just considering lifting trophies?
– That brings me to Belgrade and an unfortunate event where you did play with Kyle and Nando injured, after dominating the season with the best basketball. After the Stark Arena everybody was talking about Itoudis far away from Moscow. How did you lived it? Was Andrey Vatutin’s masterpiece understanding the great value of the job done?
You can add Leo and Andrey in the first minutes of the semi… Well, I had a contract and Andrey never talked to me about firing me. Maybe he thought about it but never referred to me in that terms. The situation was exactly as the Fenerbahçe’s one this year: can someone say that they didn’t do a great job? Andrey’s decision was based on what he saw: we all were on the same page on the court, we were aware of doing a great job, we were able to handle wins and losses, changes in the roster, injuries…I’m happy and grateful now and the only thing that I promised him that I would have made him proud and that’s what he reminded me during that warm and respectful hug in the middle of the court in Vitoria. Then don’t forget that according to medias I should have left Moscow always on the second year… but I’m here working on my next roster and trying to improve it.
– There is something looking at stast that is impressing me: 132-34 in Euroleague games, never under 74,29% of wins, three times over 80% and one season with 86,67% of W. Ok, you are coaching a powerhouse, but this is something more than outstanding. How much passion behind these numbers?
I can’t but thank you for these things you are saying, my face is getting red due to your words, but yes, I do have a huge passion for this game and for my job, I truly love it. I’m so grateful of being healthy and having a big growth in front of me. Our job is 24/7, yes it is, and our brain must be focused on basketball 365 days a year, on the court as well as off the court. And about that passion you just have to show it to all the people that is working with you. It gives them the idea of who you are and what you want. You mentioned great records and records never lie, so I want to add something to those numbers. I was at a russian TV sport show and we were talking about our record in the VTB Playoffs, even considering the year when they introduced the Final 4 system, so that some team could have defeated CSKA… First thing I’d say is: ok the F4 system but for russian basketball is better to find a format to defeat CSKA or having teams improving and reaching CSKA level? Well, in 5 years we had a 41-1 record in those Playoffs: unbelievable and somehow scary. I’m proud but sometimes a loss is good to be back on earth, where I want to syaty stable on the ground. We need to be humble but passionate.
– Let’s talk about your basketball principles. Can I ask you to give me two basic points of your system? I’d say “timing and spacing” as far as I can see..
They are so important, they are fundamental. But you always have to look at the roster you have available. When I came here I had a very athletic roster with guy like Kaun, Kirilenko, Hines so I imagined a team that was running, a big transition team that could also be a great show for more fans. You know, in Moscow we are the 5th sport, after winter ones and soccer, so we need to engage the fans. But I knew that transition means also turnovers so I had to manage the situation between spectacle and effectiveness. So you have principles but you have to adjust to the situation, lucky ones as well as bad ones.
– Timing and spacing are two main ideas of Ettore Messina, a Euroleague multiple winner that is now back in action with Olimpia Milano. What do you think Ettore can bring to our (EL) basketball?
First of all Milan had a great growth from an environment point of view. Every time I play there I see a passionate and full arena, Milan is a sport city with an outstanding owner such as Mr Armani, that brought financial stability. Ettore is an experienced coach with great basketball ideas. The contract he signed, I guess a 3+2, shows how confident Milan is in Ettore’s job. You know I had the privilege to play in Milan so many year ago, with KK Zagreb, against Recoaro Milano wher Djordjevic, Antonello Riva and Dino Meneghin where playing. It was a Korac Cup game in a group with Caja San Fernando Sevilla and Paok. We lost by 30 at home but then won in Milan.
– Coach, which is the player that impressed you most during these 20 year sof Euroleague?
If I can do more than one names I’d say so many of them… From Stojakovic to Christodoulou, from Bodiroga to Diamantidis, Spanoulis, but I’d like to underline how the game changed and how my answer could have been different from the times of Nikos Galis, Antonello Riva and Carlton Myers to the times of Papaloukas and Diamantidis. In the 80s and 90s, who was scoring 30+ points would have been indicated as the top one, then came the era of players with less impact on numers but more complete players and now I can proudly add a player like Will Clyburn or Cory Higgins, guys with an outstanding full impact on the game. You know who helped a lot to change the situation? Michael Jordan, when he was top scorer and also in best defensive team. And people like Stockton and Malone, guys that did not win but made something historical in the game.
– Is there any colleague that, when you have to face him, it’s a kind of «hell of a coach» that you are sure will make something special and will create you some problem?
No, it’s not about that, it’s about being ready to face everything. It’s about working to be ready to go out and know what will happen on the court. It’s about working hard during practices, video sessions and everything. Sometimes we have games we are about sure to win, maybe with big margin, but in that case too we have to work on details and try to be ready for whatever can happen on the court.
– I can’t but ask you about the players’ movement in this period of the year. Higgins is signing with Barcelona, as for Nando we heard so many rumors about going back to his wife homeland (Spain), “El Chacho” could be back to Madrid, while you had Will extending is contract. If all this is true you look like needing to rebuild almost the whole guards roster…
It’s a hard work summer with 9 players with expiring contracts. Then I signed the extension a bit late. Now Cory is going and I can’t but feel proud for him and wish him all the best, to his family too. I want to thank him for letting me coach him in the best way. I’m talking with the guys you mentioned and you know, as I told you it’s about working 24/7 and trying to find the best for your future roster.
– At the end I want to ask you about Daniel Hackett. We talked several times during the days in Vitoria about him, that’s a guy who had been rated a bit difficult to coach sometimes in the past. But every time I talked to him about his coach, I saw some special light in his eyes, as well as what I can see in your eyes when you talk about him. Is such a special relationship?
It’s mutual. Minutes after being Euroleague champs, during a hug, he told me «Coach, you cannot imagine how much we did trust you» and this is the biggest award from a player to a coach. When I first talked to him, even if I heard some comments in the past about him, I wanted to see and check with my eyes. He promised he would have brought something we needed to a team that already had talented players. And that’s what he did. I’m so proud he is one of the new Euroleague champs.
Itoudis basketball is about commitment, desire, passion, and hard work. As Dima’s (how Zele calls him) life: fighting 24/7, 365 days per year. A winner, simply Dimitris Itoudis.