With its stellar performance in the 2020-21 campaign, Zenit St Petersburg has put its city back on the map of Europe's basketball elite. Despite not having a top-class basketball team for many years, St Petersburg was always considered a basketball city since Spartak Leningrad was founded back in 1935. Spartak won two Cup Winners' Cup titles in 1973 and 1975, led by players like Alexander Belov, Valery Fjodorov and Vladimir Arzamaskov, all coached by the legendary Vladimir Kondrashin, who led the team from 1967 to 1995 and coached the Soviet Union to a gold medal in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Superstars like Sergey Tarakanov, Sergey Panov and Andrei Kirilenko also played for Spartak. The city of St Petersburg has brought out a lot of talent over the years, and Sergey Karasev is the perfect example of that. Karasev is now back in his hometown to play for Zenit St Peterburg.
Sergey Karasev, Zenit: "Move forward every year"
"Of course, it's special because it's my hometown. I'm born here, all my family were born here, and I had an amazing three years when I came back after the NBA to play here. And now, after I had the experience of playing in Khimki for two years, of course, I am very happy to get back and compete at the highest level," Karasev told us. "I think the fans, my family and all the people around me are very happy that I'm back."
There is more, however. Of course, going back to your hometown to play in a top-class EuroLeague team is great, but the whole Karasev family has a lot of strings attached to the club, even before Zenit was located in St Petersburg. Vasily Karasev, Sergey's father, was a Russian basketball superstar who finished his career in Triumph Lyubertsy back in 2009. He immediately started to coach the team after his retirement and in 2010. Sergey, then a teenager, started his career in that team, which later moved to St Peterburg and changed its name to Zenit. This is Sergey's third stint with the club in two different cities.
"When they moved from Moscow Region and built this team here, my father had been working in the club, I think, for like five or six years," Karasev said. "For me, that was a big part of my basketball career, especially playing back at home, and it's very important to support St Petersburg basketball."
Zenit, sponsored by Gazprom, was one victory away from reaching the EuroLeague Final Four last season, and Karasev knows that having an elite basketball team is great for the entire city.
"Fans here, they really love and they really cheer about basketball," Karasev said. "So I think this is very amazing that Gazprom built this kind of team and they invested money so we can compete on the highest level in the EuroLeague and bring teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Fenerbahce here to St. Petersburg, and the fans and people can enjoy watching those kinds of beautiful games."
Other than his three years in the NBA and most recently, a couple of Khimki Moscow Region, Karasev has always played for Zenit, and the fact that the team moved to St Petersburg only made things better. Now that he is back, he gets to enjoy the advantages of playing in his hometown. Asked about what he missed while being away, Karasev did not hesitate.
"Of course, my friends and all the people around me, because I'm born and raised here, basically," he said. "As soon as I came back from the States, I found a lot of new friends again in the three years that I was here. And when I moved to Moscow, of course, I was missing all my friends and the people who were around me. As soon I got back now, I made time to meet with them and to talk to each other again."
Reuniting with Zenit fans was also a plus, and one of the reasons that brought Karasev back to St Peterburg.
"When I signed with Zenit, I posted it on Instagram and a lot of fans sent good replies back to me and a lot of cheers about me coming back home," he said. "Fans in St Petersburg are some of the best fans in Russia, for sure, and they can compete with the fans in the EuroLeague... When I played here, and last year, like 50 or 60 percent of our wins were because of our fans, because they were cheering us, they were pushing us every game and they really give us a lot of energy."
Despite leaving in 2019 only to return in 2021, a lot has changed in Zenit in the time Karasev was away from the team. Zenit built its own basketball academy, a dedicated facility, available to players 24/7, not far away from the football stadium. Zenit is also focusing on young players to be even more competitive long-term, as Karasev explains.
"They try to renew something every year," he said. "So this is great, that they don't stop in one spot and rather try to move forward every year."
With the competition's current format, all EuroLeague teams travel to St Petersburg at least once per season, and fans have the chance to experience elite basketball the right way, not just seeing Zenit play against them, but competing hard and being better than most. Karasev pointed it out - the experience of seeing such teams is great, but beating them is even better.
"This is very important for the city, to bring these big teams here to St Petersburg. And now, I think and I hope that the top teams also want to bring Zenit to places like Istanbul or like Madrid, because we showed that we are very capable," Karasev said. "We have a lot of talent, and we can compete on the highest level. So now, we just need to try to be better every year and try to make every step forward every year. This year, I hope we can make the playoffs again and then we'll see what happens."