After Sergio Scariolo added to his coaching legacy by leading Virtus Segafredo Bologna to the 7DAYS EuroCup crown, he summed up his team's strong season in this interview.
Coach Sergio Scariolo, Virtus: ‘The team and the fans were one’
Sergio Scariolo will go down as one of the best and most versatile coaches in European basketball history. He was 29 years old when he led Scavolini Pesaro to the Italian League championship and helped Unicaja Malaga win its first domestic titles, the 2005 Copa del Rey and the 2006 Spanish League championship. Scariolo also helped Scavolini and Unicaja reach the EuroLeague Final Four for the first - and to date only - time and won another Spanish championship with Real Madrid. Scariolo has been hugely successful with the Spanish national team, which he has led to a Basketball World Cup title, three EuroBasket crowns and two Olympic medals, among other highlights. In the NBA, he helped Toronto win the title in 2019 as one of the team's assistant coaches. One of the only things lacking in his trophy case was a continental title and Scariolo just captured that by leading Virtus Segafredo Bologna to the 2021-22 7DAYS EuroCup crown. He has a reputation for getting his teams to peak at the right time and that’s what Virtus did by winning nine of its last 10 games to lift the trophy. "Winning teams usually have to do that. If not, then they are not winning teams," Scariolo said. "When you have to do it is when it matters most: at the start of the playoffs, in do-or-die games when final verdicts are delivered."
Hello, Sergio, congratulations on winning the 7DAYS EuroCup. It has been a long, tough season and Virtus went all the way? How satisfied are you with the final outcome and the way your team competed, especially in the final two months of the season?
"Thank you. I am satisfied with the whole season, the way we started. We played great basketball in the pre-season, at a level that I rarely remember in any of my teams, in terms of quality. Regrettably, we had two really unfortunate accidents that can break your season open: Ekpe Udoh and Awudu Abass, two of our defensive pillars, got injured for the entire season. And then we had more injuries - Jaiteh, Belinelli, Pajola, Teodosic, even Sampson when he arrived. It was a horrible streak of injuries that didn't allow us to play with good rhythm. In February, after the Italian Cup tournament, we started to be healthy and play with continuity. And then we completed the team's structure by signing Toko Shengelia and Daniel Hackett, who gave us a touch of maturity, experience and solidity that we maybe didn't have."
You played a EuroCup final with Khimki Moscow Region in 2009, but this is your first title. Was winning the EuroCup a pending issue for you after losing that final?
"No, it has been a long time! I won a lot of titles and played a lot of finals after that and I have been through a lot… I have to say I thought about it at some point because obviously, like you said, I played a EuroCup final before, but I didn't feel it was a pending issue for me. It was more of a great opportunity to win a title at home. I had never won a title at home. All the titles and medals that I won were on the road."
It is not the first time that one of your teams struggled a bit early in the season but finished really strong, bringing out its best basketball at the right time. Is it something that, as a coach, you look for?
"Winning teams usually have to do that. If not, then they are not winning teams. If you are a good team from October to June, fantastic, you are outstanding. But winning teams are good when it matters most, when it is time to win. Also, there are thousands of circumstances that may have an impact on your final outcome. Sometimes you don't win and your team did a great job, too. But when you have to do it is when it matters most: at the start of the playoffs, in do-or-die games, when final verdicts are delivered."
You talked about Shengelia and Hackett. How important was their commitment and their winning mentality?
"Like I said, this is a team that was already playing very well and at times, incredibly well. But at the same time, it lacked that ability to make the right play in the key moment. We won almost all Italian League games but in the EuroCup, a more physical league, you really notice it when you are missing three or four players. You don't have the bench depth for those absences not to be noticed. In the EuroCup, we lacked that extra toughness, experience and physicality. Toko and Dani knew how to adjust to the team, without looking for a role that they had in their previous teams which we couldn't give them now. They came in and brought out their best version, being experienced players that know how to help a team win."
Speaking of winners, Mam Jaiteh made the most out of his opportunity and became this season's EuroCup MVP. How do you evaluate the step forwards he took in his career?
"He surely was the most improved player of the year, too. He came from a lower level and his initial role was to complement a more experienced player [Udoh] who would theoretically teach him and help him grow. That was our initial plan, but soon he found himself catapulted into a main role. It was hard for him at the beginning because he had physical problems and didn't feel well until December. He kept learning and getting better. He is very humble and always says 'thank you', always wants to learn and improve his game. He is the paradigm of what we always say: that hard work pays off. I am happy for him because of that; he grew as a player during the season, working hard, listening to us and being confident, and accepting criticism and corrections. I got to know him a little bit in the last few months and I trust him not to change that mentality because he still has room for improvement."
In the playoffs, you had three home wins and a single road victory against four-time champion Valencia Basket in the semifinals. Your first half was fantastic, arguably some of the best basketball in the EuroCup this season. What was the game plan against them?
"What we really wanted was to play at a high rhythm, which is what defines us as a team and to keep it as long as we could, as many minutes as possible. Controlling the boards was really important, as well as limiting Bojan Dubljevic's performance as effectively as we could. We tried to limit the connection between him and the rest of his teammates, especially against their other big man on the court. We had to try to be able to play good defense against him, inside and outside the paint, without sending big helps. And in that sense, Toko Shengelia did a great job, he used his versatility to go against him on both sides of the court, guarding 'Dubi' well inside and outside, one-on-one, without using big helps."
As we discussed, it's been a while since you last coached in the EuroCup. How did the competition change? Is it stronger than before?
"It is hard for me to compare because it has been a really long time. What I heard from a lot of people who followed the EuroCup a lot closer is that it has been the best and toughest season in the last few years. Again, it is hard for me to compare, but I can say that it had a really high playing level. For instance, our regular season group had a really high level and it was shown in the bracket; I wouldn't call it playoffs, it was a bracket, call it what you will. Our regular season group had a really strong level and the competition featured great teams with great players. That makes us have some extra pride, too, being able to finish on top in such a good, demanding competition."
In the final, there was the first sellout crowd at Virtus Segafredo Arena. Elite basketball is back to Basket City. How great is that?
"Bologna is a basketball city. Of course, results trigger the fans' enthusiasm and lead to massive crowds. But in Bologna, when you light the fuse, the city responds. Not many cities can brag about their passion and interest in basketball. It is at the same level as football, even when the football team is a consolidated first division team. It is not a normal situation. Like I said before, winning my first final at home has been special, because of the atmosphere. It generated certain pressure in the days before the game due to the high expectations. There is no doubt that we had some of that, but of course, the team and the fans were one. It was far from being a high-pressure situation, like all of Bursaspor's playoffs rivals. It was a strong motivation, an extra push."
AX Armani Exchange Milan made it to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four last season and Virtus is the first Italian team to win the EuroCup. How much of a good sign in this for Italian basketball going forward?
"Right now, we have a good technical level. The league doesn't have an extraordinary physical level but has a good technical level, without any question. Some teams are getting there - Reyer and Sassari are always up there, then Brescia and Tortona are new teams, with solid management, ambitious, and ready to keep growing. That can only be good for Italian and European basketball because, in the end, Italy has been one of the basketball cradles in Europe, especially in terms of coaches, speaking about what I do. It has been one of the greatest coaching schools in world basketball and one of the countries to see as a reference. Milan deserves a lot of credit to get back up there, pushed by Giorgio Armani, whose support has been fantastic. And then Massimo Zanetti deserves even more credit, I think, because he took Virtus in the Italian second division. He had the vision to bring to the only place that a basketball city like Bologna deserves. The City of Bologna gives you back like no other in terms of support, but you have to bring it up there. Our owner's effort has really been tremendous. Like I said, other teams are pushing, too, and I am intrigued to see where they reach, what they will be able to do."
Virtus locked up a spot in the 2022-23 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. How satisfying is it for you to bring Virtus back where it belongs, the very elite of European basketball?
"I feel happy and also relieved. When I got here, Virtus had just won the Italian championships in kind of an unexpected way. I could feel the disappointment for not reaching the EuroCup Finals last season, which gave you a spot in the EuroLeague, more than the joy for winning the Italian League title, which was an unbelievable win. I felt it and I was even surprised; 'the Kazan spirit' was in the air and all around, all season long, I have to admit it. It was a painful loss and this is why I wanted to include Sasa [Djordjevic] and his coaching staff in this win. Other than that, a wise man once said that big success is an entry ticket to a more difficult challenge and we all have to be fully aware of it, each and every one in the club, no matter what role they have. It is what it is. If we want to raise the bar, we need to have the skills and strong legs to jump over it again. That is our next challenge and everybody is willing to work in the same direction. We hope we will make the right decisions to do even better."