Andrey Vatutin, Cska: The pandemic changed so many things. Mike James is in the right environment

Andrey Vatutin is one of the leading manager in Euroleague history.

He started his career in 1995 in Tass (Sports) after he graduated at Moscow State University in journalism. From 1997 to 2000 he was press officer of the Russian Federation. Then in 2000 he moved to Ural Great Perm as assistant of the CEO, while being in 2001-02 Assistant GM of the Russian National Team.

He finally joined Cska in 2002, where he became Deputy CEO until 2006, then vice-president in 2006-07, CEO in 2007 till 2009 and at the end President and CEO, the role he is currently playing in Cska organization.

And what about the trophies? 4 Russia Superleague, 13 consecutive Russian Championships, 2 Russian Cup, 9 VTB League (all except 2011) and, most important, 4 Euroleague Titles: in 2006 and 2008 as vice-President and CEO, then in 2016 and 2019 as CEO and President.

Thanks to Cska Press Office we had the opportunity of a Q&A with him.

– You were one of the first manager who talked about budget reduction in the first days of the pandemic, nevertheless you built  an outstanding team signing great players and being able, at the same time, to release some important profile. Was the sacrifice something you planned in order to be able to sign great newcomers as Nikola and Toko as well as renewing James, Hackett and Hilliard? 

«The pandemic has taught everyone a lot, especially the fact that any plans can go to waste due to a general change in the situation, due to financial issues, due to new legislative restrictions, due to decisions of Governments. Therefore, it makes no sense to talk about what our initial plans were: they were adjusted repeatedly. Now, indeed, many people highly appreciate our work on the formation of the squad, although I have repeatedly said that a real estimate can only be given by the final result. This work was fraught with painful losses. Kyle Hines decided to change the team himself, but parting with our veteran Andrei Vorontsevich and Howard Sant-Roos, who showed himself great last season, were solely due to economic factors. We really didn’t want to lose these players».

– In a recent interview you said “our budget is public and we are the only one to do that”. Don’t you think this is something all EL teams should do, at least with net salaries to players, so that all the european environment could have a better and more transparent idea? 

«The main thing that I would like to have is equal conditions for each of the clubs. It is quite difficult to live in a situation where all of Europe points the finger at you, calling you rich, and does not see the real numbers in other continental powerhouses. We are not trying to set an example for anyone, we only follow the rules established by the VTB League. Our budget figures are absolutely transparent, we regularly report to the inspection authorities. At the same time, we understand that we will not see a real economic ratio due to differences in tax systems, sources of funding and methods of payments to players (the existence of “image” contracts in many countries). As for the information about the players’ salaries, it can be made public only if it is authorized the players themselves. For example, with the help of ELPA. In most European countries such information is considered confidential».

– Let’s go back to that budget reduction, about 25-30% in your words. Some commentators were ironically laughing in Europe, saying that it was impossible due to the new signings of Milutinov and Shengelia. Can we say that releasing Koufos, Baker, Kulagin, Vorontsevich, Hines and Sant-Roos, including the buyout you got from Milan for Kyle, is definitely a bigger amount of money compared to the salaries of the newcomers? Am I wrong if I mention a 25-30% less? 

«We practically kept the salary balance, as several expensive players left the team at once. We saved money this year not only in means of quality, but also in quantity: last season we had 17 players on the roster, this year we have just 14, and two of them are yesterday’s juniors. At the same time, I agree, with a general budget cut it was not enough just to change the personnel. The club will cut many operating expenses. We are also actively working to increase the revenue side, to find new sponsors. In theory, we increase the quality of players, but lost the number of them, there won’t be such a deep bench, so it’s very important to go through the season without injuries».

– I’d like to underline something in my opinion very important, about Aeroflot and charter flights. Your team, and Khimki too, are definitely the ones facing bigger problems in traveling since any away game, except the derby, Zalgiris and Zenit ones, is a kind of “overseas” flight for you, so many hours on a plane, far different from central and western Europe teams. Is this something that could have a negative impact for the season and how are you trying to face it with Coach Itoudis and your whole staff? Don’t you think the whole EL organization should try to make a deal with an airline company in order to cover the flights of all teams and make conditions more fair and equal for all clubs? 

«It would be great if the Euroleague managed to get help in this matter, although, of course, I think it is unrealistic. The problem is not new for us, we have been living in this mode throughout the entire existence of the club. This season, of course, with the departure of Aeroflot as our official carrier it will be even more difficult. You are right, this adds some headache to the coaching staff, makes it necessary to adjust the training schedule, more closely monitor the physical condition of the players, and look for opportunities to provide the team with extra days off. At the same time, when all flights are available, we have more opportunities to conveniently move around Europe than, lets say, teams from Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod and Krasnodar, which also played in the Euroleague. We can’t change the geography, haha».

– Let’s move to Dimitris… I was there, in Belgrade, and had the opportunity to make an interview with you after the loss in the semi. You told me you you had to review all the positions in the club, examining everyone’s role. Which was the first reason why you decided to keep on working with the Coach?

«The summer of 2018 was very difficult. We are accustomed to big expectations, and the failure only added pressure to the team and management. The easiest way was to take sharp and quick decisions. It is much more difficult to take a break, weigh everything out carefully, and come to key decisions with a cool head. We talked a lot with Dimitris. I have said more than once that we believe in our head coach, we perfectly see all his professional qualities. Dimitris promised that we will be proud of this team. And he kept his word».

– Can you tell me something we don’t know about the man Dimitris, something you appreciated while working with him? 

«I’m not sure I can say something new. I appreciate Dimitris for being a very honest, straightforward person. He will not have any conversation behind your back, he will always express to your face what really worries him. In addition, Dimitris literally lives with the needs of the club, he is constantly thinking about basketball, about what will help all of us become even better».

– In my opinion he is actually the best Coach in Europe thanks to his versatility that allows him to work with so many different players. Is this the secret to build another generation of champs, as the Coach loves to say?

«Itoudis is tough enough as a coach, but at the same time he communicates a lot with the players. It is important for him to build the right relationship, with no hidden talks, carefully and reasonably explain his ideas. I think this is the best approach for dealing with the current generation of players».

– The famous “HUG” in Vitoria. In one word how would you describe it? I’d say there isn’t any president living the games in such an emotional way as you do…

«In a single word? We have already said it. “Proud”. I was proud of the team that achieved this victory after going through so many obstacles, of the coach who kept his promises, and of myself, because I chose the right path. This victory was a significant moment for me and for everyone on our team. I stayed in the arena until the last person left it. This title meant a lot to me, to Moscow, to Russia. As for the emotions: one of my friends, who was in Vitoria, told me an hour after the final game: “Tonight you became champion twice.” “Why?” I asked. He said: “First of all, you won the title. Second, you didn’t have a stroke”».

– Last year move, with the signing of Mike James, was full of doubts from so many journalists that were discussing about the player attitude. Then you show that a great club, with a great Coach, can work with any kind of player and Mike is actually perfectly fitting for Cska. Which were the reason while you and the Coach decided to make that move? 

«In the summer of 2019, Mike appeared on the market quite unexpectedly: few people expected that Milan would dare to get rid of the top scorer of the past season. There is a saying: a bad reputation runs in front of you. We heard a lot about his actions, but decided to trust our own feelings. We talked to people who know James well and came to the conclusion that he is capable of doing a lot of good things in the right environment. Mike says that he feels great at CSKA, and we are happy about it, because he is one of the most talented players in Europe right now».

– Euroleague recently published a list of rules and protocols to be followed for the resuming of the season. Don’t you think it will be difficult to apply all this rules due to the fact that 10 different countries are involved in the league?

«I have already said that during the pandemic, many plans have to be constantly adjusted. The Euroleague understands this very well. Now we need not the rules, but clear protocols of actions for different ways of development of the situation. This is the main thing we are working on together».

– Recently it looks like the numbers are increasing in terms of positive case to COVID-19. There are still so many doubts pending about the new season and  I know that EL board will meet early september to discuss about the whole situation. Could it be possible a kind of “bubble” like NBA one at least to start the season or is it totally impossible due to the domestic leagues ( a team in the bubble couldn’t play domestic games…)?

«In fact, you answered your own question. The clubs play in several different tournaments. The Euroleague is closely monitoring the situation, changes in restrictions. It is difficult to predict something, but I hope that we will be able to start the season in a mode close to normal. Though it is hard to believe right now, because there are still so many restrictions in place».

– Last one is a curiosity about the new captain. You lost Kyle, a guy perfectly fitting with that role. Now when can we expect the new captain? Will  it be a choice between you and Dimitris or it will be more about a team’s choice? 

«You’re right, Kyle was almost a perfect captain, he is a great player, a real fighter, a strong character, a great person, a good friend at the same time. Of course, it will not be possible to find a copy of Kyle. But we have a few guys who deserve to be called the captain of CSKA – Nikita Kurbanov, Will Clyburn, Dany Hackett, Semen Antonov, Mike James. The coach and I plan to talk to all candidates and other players, to understand the general attitude. After that we will make a decision – closer to the start of the official season».

A special thanks to Mr Nikolai Tsynkevich, press officer of Cska, who gave a fundamental contribution for this interview to happen.


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