Igor Kokoskov, 49 years old, serbian, is one of the most interesting profiles in the whole Euroleague. He is a rookie for this league, but his outstanding experience makes him a master of this game.
A basketball life spent in the USA: Missouri (NCAA), Clippers, Pistons, Suns, Cavs, Magic, Jazz and Kings, the last stop before joining Fenerbahçe, back to Europe.
He was the first european Coach sitting on a NCAA bench as an assistant, then the first one as head Coach on a NBA bench. Then years he was a key factor in the unstoppable Slovenian NT that won 2017 Eurobasket, with Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic.
American citizen since 2010 he got the “Order of Honor” from the President of Georgia, Saakashvili, in 2011, after coaching their NT from 2008 to 2015.
He spent a couple of years as assistant Coach under Zeljko Obradovic with Serbia and Montenegro NT: he was there in 2004 Olympics and 2005 Eurobasket.
His playing career was stopped after a car crash in 1990. Speaking a fine english as well as his top level work ethic were basics for his future. Just 24 years old, he was the youngest Coach in the history of Yugoslavian basketball. After the degree at Belgrade University he was promptly part of the staff with the yugoslavian NT, senior one and junior too.
Coach, after 20 years of experience in America, how difficult was to adapt to european basketball?
«Well, 12 years with NT, let’s make it 14 if we count the years with Zeljko, but FIBA basketball is different, it’s about two months. It was a big challenge, something new. Coaching needs flexibility, you just need time to adapt and to know the people you work with. I wouldn’t say it was difficult, basketball is basketball, you just need to work to find the best feeling with your group».
You joined Fener after the “golden age” under Zeljko Obradovic and Maurizio Gherardini: how much were those two guys important in your choice?
«You know, Zeljko is the first option of any team in Europe, no one can be compared to him. I’ve been knowing Maurizio since so many years, he is well known and highly respected in the whole basketball world. As soon as Zeljko stepped down he called me, he called my agent and I took my decisions without any kind of special condition. It was all about the challenge and the chance to work as per my principles».
You said several times that Zeljko is a friend and a menthor on the court as well as in your life. Is there something particular you took from the greatest one?
«He is unique, can’t be replicable, it’s impossible to try to be like him. We spent a lot of time together, I was in Istanbul once and we had a 24/7 basketball experience. There’s nothing particular I took from him but you know, coaching is a never ending story, there’s no final conversation in basketball. Everything is continuously moving on and we both approach the game this way».
This season started very well for your Fener, then two losses in a few days with Cska and Fener looked like a kind of losing some confidence: how much were those two games important in the problems that you faced later?
«I wouldn’t say a lack of confidence but sure we felt like losing while playing the right way. First half with Bayern maybe was the best game we played this year… Those were two games very important for the moment we lived and the way they came. You know, winning helps…»
Looking at your playbook we can see some special solutions and this is something very attractive in a world where too many coaches play the same way: how was the process with players? Did they face some problem with those really new things?
«Basketball is a game of reaction. I’m the most ferocious critic of myself and I want to coach following my concepts. “Teach what you know and know what you teach” is fundamental. We all steal something from our colleagues but we have to add something on our own, something new. If you know what you want to teach to your squad it means you are simplifying everything and that sounds easier for the players».
Your 10 W streak showed an excellent offense based on good rhythm and that helped a lot the consistency of your defense. Usually we say that offense and defense help each other…
«You can’t do anything without a good D but the two parts of the game are really linked each other. The most important thing is having healthy payers. Sometimes you can’t do something just because you have some player that is not perfectly healthy and this comes into a problem in doing something on the court».
At the end of the day it looks like you’re trying to move the ball and players as much as you can, to keep the opponent D always under pressure: am I wrong?
«Working with Larry Brown was definitely important: he was always about moving the ball and the players. Going back to the playbook there are basic differences from NBA to Eurolega».
Is it something that can go back to what is said from so many people, it is to say that NBA is a league of superstars while EL isa league of coaches?
«College basketball too is a league of coaches. It’s a matter of equal opportunities. In the NBA you have a larger number of sets: in EL you have less but all of them with multiple solutions. NBA knows exactly which player has to play in the clutch moments, the star that has to have the ball in his hands in these moments. But EL should change».
What do you mean by this change?
«Actually in Eurolegaue there are great players, real superstars so that this league could easily be a league belonging to stars. People are in love with the champs, they don’t watch a game to see what a Coach is doing. It’s like a Hollywood blockbuster: maybe you forget the title of the movie, but you remember Tom Cruise or whoever. Nba understood this a long time ago and the first one was to understand it was David Stern».
Going back to you season, turnovers were often a problem. 18,3 % of your possessions end with a turnover (stats updated before Milan and Lyon game). Then there some team stats definitely positive as the rating, offensive as well as defensive one. How do you explain these ups and downs in the numbers?
«I want to go back to defense. A good defensive transition starts from the offense and a good offence is taking care of the ball. Turnovers are killing the D because you need a double effort to erase the negative impact of those turnovers. All the stats that you mention are correct and we are working on it, trying to understand what we need to do to improve».
You lost 11 games and just 4 of them where under 10 point margin: 1 (Cska), 4 (Bayern), 4 (Valencia) and 8 (Milan). Then 7 games lost by 14, 42, 18, 20, 26, 37 and 32 points. Someone says that losing by one is the same as losing by 30 but…
«No, it’s not the same… Most of the time we lost by so many points it was because of bad offense, so it’s again about the defensive transition that needs taking care of the ball on offense».
In this particular ad dramatic situation, with the impact of COVID-19, how difficult it was to adapt your work system? Nothing is normal in practicing, playing games, traveling…
«It’s definitely complicated, everything is abnormal. In normal conditions we would be here having a cappuccino without a face mask… There are no fans and this is really important. We can’t do normal things. Hopefully at the end of the pandemic we will appreciate a lot of small things that we were taking for granted».
Coaching is abnormal too in this situation. At the end fo the day the players, even the most experienced one, are young men facing big issues. I’m particularly thinking of the guys coming from overseas that can’t meet their families…
«The most important thing the players understood is that we are lucky to have a game, to have a job. So many people around the world lost it due to the pandemic. NBA players realized this immediately and it was so important. Understanding that was fundamental to keep on working and moving on».
Editor’s note – Special thanks to Ilker Ucer, Fenerbahçe media officer, an outstanding professional making always things easier for the press.