The big interview: Joan Plaza on why Žalgiris is back in business, recruiting methods and dealing with goals & pressure
This season in the Euroleague, it is very difficult not to talk about the dramatic change Žalgiris has gone through since you took over. What is the most important aspect you changed in Kaunas: The “mentality”, as you mentioned several times?
We changed mentally. Players used to be troubled a lot by what had happened in the previous season. They always thought they were going to lose – against Efes, Olympiacos or anybody… It is something I do not allow, wherever I am. When I coached in Spain – Joventut Badalona, Real Madrid or Sevilla – our goal even when on the road was always trying to get the win. So at a team as legendary as Žalgiris, we work a lot on our mindset, to improve our chances of winning on the road and also at home. We work on a lot of things, but that in particular.
When you signed with Žalgiris this summer, a lot of people, including myself, were shocked. A lot of people wondered how you were convinced to work for Žalgiris because everybody knows that you are strongly committed to your principles. And Žalgiris is not famous to comply with that recently.
Everybody told me I am crazy to take this challenge, true. I talked to two or three top level coaches, whom I consider the best in Europe. I also talked to a person of the Euroleague organization. Everybody told me not to go to Žalgiris. It is a big challenge for me.
When I was younger, I needed to climb the ladder through all those different divisions. I coached every single category in basketball, from younger generations, even six to seven year olds, to senior level. When I was coaching in the Spanish first division in Badalona, Madrid or Sevilla, I always thought that I needed to coach outside of Spain in order to progress. I don’t know anyone among the greatest European coaches who only coached in their home country. They go abroad, and if I pretend to be one of the better coaches in Europe, I need to do the same.
It is true that there was no great opportunity before Žalgiris opened this door for me. Maybe other people do not consider this the best option, but I believe in my chances here. I also talked openly with the owner of this club, starting with the very first meeting. I talked about my conditions, my red lines. If they respect that, I can do a good job here.
During the press conference after your victory against EA7 Armani Milano, you mentioned the importance of keeping players ambitious every day. Isn’t it impossible to maintain those ambitions in a marathon like the Euroleague? How do you handle it?
I do not know what other coaches are doing but I suffered a lot in order to reach this point. I cannot imagine where this is going to end up. I think the first thing I need to try is to provide some kind of stability for this team. I am on a team that has had ten coaches in the last four years. I am on a team that has had no less than 20 to 23 players in the last years. I am on a team that has had many staff changes, too. So I need to provide the team with stability first and foremost, in order for us to improve. This way, players realize that we can be competitive and that we can beat every opponent in every competition. But this is not enough. We need to be ready for losses as well, but we must compete even if we lose tonight here in Istanbul. I am going to be proud of my players even if we lose tonight. What matters is competing all the way including the last two or three minutes of the game, leaving everything on the floor and not allowing ourselves to make excuses.
We have had a really bad week so far, without the chance of practicing with the whole team. But great teams such as Žalgiris, Efes, Fenerbahçe, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Panathinaikos, etc. cannot use such thing as an excuse. We also had a lot of problems last month, being without Javtokas, Klimavicius, dealing with the departure of Kalnietis, and in the last weeks, the Lavrinovic brothers’ injury problems… We had relatively young players carrying a lot of responsibility for the first time in their careers. And yet, I still don’t want to hear excuses. If we lose, we lose. But we lose while competing. Only then we can define new goals, new challenges to survive and keep ourselves on track. There are 16.000 people behind us in Kaunas. Other teams don’t have that. We have good reason to be competitive every single day.
Now players believe in you. We have seen some incredible defensive efforts from players we wouldn’t expect that from. What is your secret?
As I have always said: I have no secrets, no magical powders. I just try to be as fair as possible. I know that some of the players I am coaching are around 33, 34 years old, close to 35. Some other players are around 20. I do not treat them any different, never! I ask for the same things from every single player. They know that I don’t treat American players any different than I treat Lithuanian players.
My plan, my style is to be consistent in a way that seven footers like Jeff Foote and the Lavrinovics need to defend 12 meters away from the basket. If you don’t give them an absolutely perfect reason to do it, they are going to give up. They are going to tell you “Coach, I cannot do that”, “I cannot be that aggressive”, “I cannot defend that far away from the basket” because most coaches, and that is perfectly understandable, establish their big men in the middle of the paint to block and alter shots. But that is not my style.
They need to feel convinced about your knowledge. During the pre-season, we worked a lot on that point. I showed them a statistic from the best teams in Europe over the last five years. The best teams perform well on offense but even better on defense. They are consistent at home. In the last years, Žalgiris lost most of their Top 16 home games. That isn’t possible for a great club like Žalgiris. Therefore we need to be solid at home. We cannot lose at home. For that we need to be consistent on defense. They know that we have rules about who helps who when someone is in trouble. But they need to show me that they are giving 100 percent on the floor, not just on offense.
What was your main recruitment strategy in the off-season? There were restrictions, such as ongoing contracts, budget limitations and a limited pool of domestic players that have the ability of playing at such a high level. What were your priorities?
Well, the club’s number one priority was to create a team with almost twelve Lithuanian players. They had some troubles in the past creating quality teams. The first thing that the club owner and sportive director asked me to do was to build a Lithuanian team. I could have accepted or not accepted this task, but I agreed to try. It is a double challenge for me. There is no team in Europe which plays exclusively with domestic players.
I asked them to try to sign the better ones. We weren’t able to do it because some of them preferred other offers – our budget is below last year’s after all. After that, we were aware that we may lose in talent a little bit, but that we needed “human capacity”. I did not want a franchise guy like Jordan Farmar or a Terrell McIntyre type who you can adjust your team offense to. I prefer to have players who can help create good chemistry. I wanted players who can help the team on both ends of the floor.
When recruiting, I talk to their former coaches, their parents and sometimes their girlfriends. I never stop talking to persons that can provide fundamental information on a player’s personality. My employers usually prefer more marketable players, who everybody enjoys watching, who sell tickets. I worked very hard to convince those people that we needed to have a team, with ten players – maybe not as spectacular, but players with good mentality.
We also know how crazy Lithuanians are about their national team and consequently their young home grown players. You are expected to improve those players’ games while at the same time competing in extremely tough competitions. You also have enormous experience – from Badalona to Sevilla – in working with young players. What do you think about this subject? What is your opinion about how to succeed in this area?
When they signed me, they asked me many different things. The biggest point was that they were worried about the quality of the next generation of Lithuanian players who represent both Žalgiris and their country. They are aware of the fact that their key players are getting older, same as in Argentina, Spain, etc., and that they needed to begin to play the players from the new generations. In my career, like you said, I showed that I am willing to do that. In Badalona with Raul Lopez, Alex Mumbru and Rudy Fernandez. In Real Madrid, I pushed to improve the likes of Sergio Llull, Pablo Aguilar, Bojan Bogdanovic, Nikola Mirotic. Satoransky, Sastre in Sevilla. In Badalona we traditionally push players to grow up by, for example, putting them into the starting five. This is what I try to do here.
I think Lithuania is not respected enough. They are just three million people and played in all six Olympic Games since their independence! And they are playing close to the top! It is incredible. In my opinion we need to push all players to improve but not by playing them just one or two minutes. We participate in three different competitions and there are enough games for them to play minutes and grow. For me, it is nothing new; it is just a new challenge. I try to help them improve while competing in tough competitions such as the Euroleague, VTB and LKL. I think there is enough quality talent. Also, the conditions here in our gym allow us working long hours per day.
If the players are ready to work, so am I, because I don’t know how long I will stay here, whether they will cut me around Christmas or whether they will cut me in the summer. I don’t know what is going to happen, considering this club’s past. Coaches don’t stay here for long. I’m trying not to think too much about what could happen. One of my challenges here is to push players like Juskevicius, Lipkevicius, Kuzminskas, Foote, Delas and all these guys, including two players from the junior team, who we have started to work with.
There are a lot of factors there, but the main thing is giving young players the playing time, right?
Yes. Those young players are starting plenty of games in the Euroleague, VTB League and LKL. They know they are not going to be left on the bench. Doing it any other way would not be my style.
What do you think is wrong with Real Madrid? Coaches are coming and going there, and looking at recent years, you stayed there the longest.
Real Madrid is not only the biggest club but also the biggest platform. There is a joke that says you need to win games before you have even arrived! The moment you are signing the contract, you are expected to win. That kind of pressure is both exciting and tough to deal with. Coaches really need to be ready for this battle. I was born and lived in Barcelona. I know that working for FC Barcelona brings a lot of pressure, a lot. But the difference between Barcelona and Real Madrid is: the entire country creates pressure on Real Madrid, from south to the north and the entire world. I travel around the globe for conferences and other things – everybody is watching Real Madrid, talking about Real Madrid. In Barcelona the pressure is coming mainly from Barcelona itself, plus the rest of Catalonia. Of course people outside Catalonia have expectations, but we cannot deny that Real Madrid is the biggest club in the history of European basketball, with the most European titles. Everybody expects them to win, and you need to be prepared for that.
I am absolutely happy with my time there. I was the first Catalan coach of Real Madrid. When I started, I knew that it may last for just a few months if things didn’t go well. But we won a lot. We had the best record in ACB history. I think people understand my style after my time there. There were 15.000 people in the arena for the first time back then. People knew that we didn’t have a huge budget, maybe two to three times less than it is now. But we were giving our best. And players were improving.
One of the guys that I appreciate a lot is Kerem Tunçeri, who is one of the best point guards in Europe. But at the same time, we needed to keep pushing and growing players like Llull. There was also Raul Lopez at the point guard position. No one knew him then, a player coming from the second division. I knew him from Menorca and Manresa. I kept pushing him to become a better player, at the same time we were fighting for the championship.
I don’t think we had any large margin losses during my whole time with Real Madrid. And people understood that we were integrating new players back then. Players such as Mirotic were improving. They were no mercenaries, they were there long-term. There is a lot of pressure but if you believe in your style, like myself, you can make it there for three, four years. I think I am the third longest working coach in Real Madrid history. We didn’t win every title, but people would see that we were giving our best. As I said, if you believe in your style and handle the pressure well, you can survive there for multiple years and I hope Pablo Laso wins a lot of titles there.
Is there a logical explanation about the way coaches have been treated there? This approach doesn’t take them anywhere, unlike Barcelona, who are more consistent and are doing well in the last years. The departure of Ettore Messina in particular was miserable.
When they told me Messina is coming to replace me, I told them that I understand why they would fire me, if it was for Ettore Messina, or Zeljko Obradovic, or one of the other top coaches in Europe. There was a new president at that time and I understood that they were only looking for the very best. Ettore and Zeljko are the two best coaches in the last twenty years in Europe. It is easy to understand that they were looking for the best.
It is true that Real Madrid needs time and patience to improve and finally dominate again. But this kind of patience is so difficult to get at Real Madrid. You need to be really prepared before you arrive and understand what the fans expect. It requires that maybe the players you are signing are not the best ones but they should be the best ones in the future, and they need to understand that they are stars. There are many things you need to be aware of. That is the only explanation about Messina’s time.
There are coaches like Ettore Messina, Zeljko Obradovic, Aito Garcia Reneses, David Blatt, the best ones. I believe 100 percent in what they are trying. As a coach I can see what they are going for technically, tactically, but other people cannot. They are trying to integrate players that are going to be fundamental to their success in the future. But the pressure of the media, the pressure of the fans… that pressure on the players and the club is immense.
It is true that nobody backed me back then because I had only been an assistant coach (of Bozidar Maljkovic) before. When I left, I said I would keep working hard in order to one day coach again for a great club like Real Madrid. And now here I am – at Žalgiris.
Do you think Real Madrid can win the Euroleague this season? Actually, can this style win? They sacrificed shot selection, decision making for a high game pace. Also, defense is a lower priority than before…
It is difficult to know from the outside what they are really going for, their actual goals. As for Žalgiris, we are the second best scoring team in the Euroleague but also one of the top three to four defensive teams. We cannot do things in any different way. Offense helps you win many games. But if you want to win titles, you also have to defend well. You need to be consistent. I think they know that the same way as I do or even better. They will keep improving on that point. Maybe that is their approach, winning titles by scoring loads of points, but I really don’t know.
If they win the Euroleague, can it be a revolution like Žalgiris ‘99? Would it influence the styles of other teams significantly, thus creating a new trend?
I spend a lot of time talking to my assistant coaches who are head coaches right now, like Zan Tabak in Poland. As a coach you need to be aware of your capacities 100 percent, to know what to sell. You cannot cheat the players, you cannot cheat the fans. As I have said already: I have no magical powders, no secrets. I began coaching a long time ago, in 1977. I kept improving, defining my own philosophy with the help of Boza, Manel Comas, Aito and many of them. My philosophy is quite consistent on that, but it always depends on the coach at the helm. Everyone has their own philosophy on the subject of basketball.
Can we expect an autobiography from you, considering you have already written novels?
Well, talking about novels, my first novel is translated to Lithuanian. It is incredible that somebody believed my work would be selling in Lithuania. My second novel is hopefully going to be published in Spain in spring. I really believe my first novel could be translated into English as well. But the point is, I suffered a lot in my career to arrive at this point. I worked a lot but nobody gave me a chance until I arrived at Real Madrid. Now I take part in conferences for companies and many other organizations because my life is a good example that you need to be persistent, you must never give up.
The truth is: we need to eat, we need to provide money for our families, but we also need to enjoy what we are doing. There were many times when I was really close to throwing the towel. They said “you are not earning money”, “you are alone on the hill”, “nobody believes in you”… Now it is easy to use me as an example. But that is not accurate. People cannot wait for 30 years for one great opportunity. I work at changing tires, because I need to put food on the table. I work in a jail, because I need to put food on the table.
I hope that I will keep working for great teams such as Žalgiris, Real Madrid, Joventut Badalona, Sevilla and become one of the best coaches in Europe. Everybody has those dreams, but people that have reached this point have not achieved that just by talking. I am the first Spanish coach to work outside the country at this level for years. I may be 3.000 kilometers away from my family but I am going to accept it if I want to be one of the best. I don’t want to change my character.
Also, I want to help the people around me, I want them to be happy. If I do it without changing my personality, I think I would consider myself successful. I am different than other coaches and I may write my own biography in the future, when I’m old enough to answer all these questions.
Interview: Çağrı Turhan