Credit: HBF/INTIME
Credit HBF/INTIME

Rick Pitino is a remarkable speaker. After all, it was partly due to his persuasiveness that he managed to convince Vassilis Spanoulis for a "Last Dance" with the Greece national team. However, Spanoulis got injured and will not only miss the FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament in Canada, but he also announced the end of his career. Thus, the American coach, who is leading Greece's effort to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, has a very difficult task ahead of him.

2-pointers this season

62%
24,0
Points made: 24,0
Accuracy: 61,5%
Place in standings: 2
Record max: 24
Record min: 24
Most made 2FGs: Georgios Papagiannis

The EuroLeague legend is not the only one sidelined. Forwards Kostas Papanikolaou, Ioannis Papapetrou, and Giorgos Printezis are also facing medical issues, not to mention Giannis and Thanassis Antetokounmpo competing for the NBA title.

However, Pitino does not give up the fight. After his return to college basketball with Iona, which he led to the NCAA March Madness, the goal is to achieve another - even bigger - feat. The Greek team is required to overcome successive obstacles raised by Canada, Turkey, and the Czech Republic, its main rivals for the one and only Olympic ticket.

The 68-year-old Hall-of-Famer shares his love for Greece on any given occasion, citing it as the reason why he took over the national team for free. Having coached Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos in two stints and over a period of 15 months, the American coach is no stranger to the Greek mentality.

In this interview with BasketNews.com, conducted a week before the tournament in Victoria, he referred to the team's preparation, his relationship with the players of Olympiacos, and the future of the EuroLeague that can be bright "only if they co-partner with the NBA." Pitino also reminds that returning to an NCAA Final Four remains one of his main goals and reveals that he would be interested in investing in a Mediterranean basketball team, preferably a Greek one.

"The preparation started late because the team changed. Our plans were based on Spanoulis, Printezis and Papapetrou. I think we will have time to adapt to the changes, even without the talent that we lost. We missed maybe the most experienced players of all Pre-Olympic Tournaments," Rick Pitino said before the conversation tipped off.

Q: What makes you optimistic and what discourages you ahead of this tournament?

A: The only thing that discourages me is not the talent, but the lack of preparation time. Everything else I'm fine with. I was very close with Vassilis Spanoulis and Printezis. I don't know anything about the other guys. So, I've got to get to know them in the next few days.

Q: If you were to describe the Greek basketball player in a nutshell, which characteristics would you choose?

A: I think they have a love for the game. This is a non-shooting group because they don't shoot really well. It's puzzling to me. When Greece beat the United States, one of the reasons - besides them having a great team - was that the USA were not a great shooting team. Now, it's not important whether they're good shooters or not. It's important that we take a lot of threes, we need to take 30 of them to have a chance to win. If we don't do that, from an analytical standpoint and with the makeup of this team, we can't win.

Q: In this respect, how does a non-athletic team excel on defense, without players capable of exercising pressure?

A: We can play good team defense. That's what you can always do, regardless of your athleticism. Shooting-wise not much can change, but I think we can become a good defensive team. We'd better be. I'll give an example: the "beast" (Vassilis Kavvadas). He was an awful defensive player three weeks ago and he's become a pretty good one. He's the prime example of that. Of course, Nick Calathes is good on defense and Kostas Sloukas has improved a lot.

Q: You guided Puerto Rico in the 2015 FIBA Americas Qualifying Tournament. How important is it to keep a close relationship with the most impactful personalities on the team?

A: Oh, it's night and day. Puerto Rico was totally different. I was close with JJ Barea, with Spanoulis and Printezis and now with Calathes and Sloukas. I've got a good relationship with them and that's very important because when they leave me, the locker room has to be a happy one. I have a lot of faith in them. The Greek guys are wonderful people. There's not a doubt in my mind that they will have a great attitude.

Q: To what extent is the Rick Pitino 2021 version any different than his former self?

A: The one reason I came to Greece is to coach in the EuroLeague. I was 65 years old at the time and I had stopped learning. All I was doing was lecturing and teaching, giving motivational speeches to companies. I wasn't learning, even at Louisville. It was important to me to learn and grow. By coming to EuroLeague, I saw a totally different brand of basketball. Not all of it would I use, but some of it I would use and I took it back to my own college.

Q: You're referring to the offensive elements predominantly. Why not the defensive ones?

A: Because Europeans are not good defensive players.

Q: Is it because they lack athleticism?

A: Yes. They're good defensive teams, but there's not a Jrue Holiday, who plays pick'n'roll defense, or LeBron James. There aren't the unbelievable shot blockers and they don't have the speed of the NBA guys. The EuroLeague doesn't have the defensive athleticism that the NBA has. But... I like watching EuroLeague basketball more than any other brand. I love the passing, the shooting, the plays, and the fast breaks they run. When one guy is dribbling all the time and nobody's moving, I don't like that brand of basketball.

Q: Do you enjoy NBA games?

A: Depends on which team. I root for the Knicks because I'm a New Yorker. I like watching the Golden State Warriors. I also root for Giannis because he's from Greece, not because I like the Bucks.

Q: Watching Giannis and Thanassis Antetokounmpo play for the NBA title instead of joining the NT filled you with joy or did it also disappoint you a bit?

A: I don't think that way. I've really put too much thought into that. I wish them nothing but the best. Nobody says I was going to have them, anyway. I would put thought into Vassilis (Spanoulis) and all the guys that were here.

Q: When you came back to Panathinaikos in autumn 2019, Olympiacos players sent a letter to the Greek Basketball Federation to express their uneasiness. How did you resolve the issue?

A: You witnessed it first-hand. I got the greatest legend to come back and join the NT, I got Printezis and Sloukas to come back and give me everything they can.

Q: Yes, but that was the outcome. Did you have any talks with them about the issue?

A: Of course I did. I told them: "Look, I'm not a believer in any of this stuff. I respect Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, but I'm from a different school."

I like rivalries: Louisville-Kentucky, Yankees-Red Socks. I think it's harmful to the game when it reaches you. It's a sport, it's not life and death. The rivalry is even better when you can respect it - and brag on it. We (Greece) got the best rivalry in all the sports, but both teams are down right now. They didn't make the EuroLeague playoffs and hopefully, they'll rise again. The political game of Greece I don't play at all. I try not to play it in the United States either. I just try to play the basketball game.

Credit Basketnews.lt/D.Lukšta

Q: In the summer of 2019, you said that you want to be in another Final Four. Will Iona be your last destination or would you be willing to pursue another overseas adventure?

A: The one thing I've learned about life is although my feelings right now say I will end my career in Iona college, you just never know. Your feelings now, when you say it, are true. But who knows two years from now? A different president at Iona or new ownership at Panathinaikos all of a sudden ... You can't predict the future.

I'd like to get Iona to another Final Four. There are only two coaches in the history of the game to bring three (teams) - and I want to get rid of John Calipari. Where I live right now is more important than anything else. If Iona was in Pennsylvania or in North Carolina, I wouldn't have taken the job. Because Iona is five minutes away from where the New York Knicks used to practice, it goes back home.

Q: Apart from participating in the investment group that owns Pau Orthez, do you plan on further strengthening your ties to European basketball?

A: I have no involvement in that. I'm just a basketball advisor. I've looked into the ownership of certain teams. I can't say which ones. But certainly, the first place I would look would be Greece, the second would be Spain and the third would be Italy. I think that Greek basketball needs stability because it's unstable right now.

Look, I'm not a politician and I'm not the Prime Minister - he's a brilliant man. I think Greece is going to make a major comeback financially and prosperity-wise. Real estate in Greece is one of the best things you can invest in right now. When the housing market goes up, everything goes up.

Q: Yes, but you know how European basketball works. It loses millions of euros every year.

A: I have a feeling the NBA will take over European basketball like they took over NBA Africa. If the EuroLeague was smart, they would form a partnership with the NBA. The NBA has the greatest marketing tool of all time and if every team in Europe gets a million dollars, now you get 15 million. Your entire budget can be paid by TV rights because the NBA marketing is incredible.

Q: Don't you believe that the fans would react in that case, as they did with the European Super League in soccer?

A: No offense, but soccer is so different. The fans of Panathinaikos, Olympiacos, or Barcelona would love it to have the NBA connection. Love it! Season tickets, every seat would be sold out. I have a feeling that it's going to happen down the road. Right now, I don't think Jordi (Bertomeu) had been interested in that. But it comes a point when you ask yourself: "How do I run a business when no one's making money?" I understand that if someone is a billionaire, he doesn't like spending millions. But the model just doesn't work, unless you at least break even to make a little bit.

Most important: the value of your franchise goes up. That's what the NBA is all about. The NBA teams don't necessarily make money, but their values go up. There's only one way for values to go up in the EuroLeague: to partner with the organization that has the marketing arm, which is gigantic.

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