Credit: Burak Saltık | Fenerbahce.org
Credit Burak Saltık | Fenerbahce.org

A few days ago Maurizio Gherardini talked to Zeljko Obradovic. He said something that made Zeljko laugh.

"I miss you so much that I even watched the Partizan TV the other day when they showed 7 minutes of your coaching on the court. Because I missed that coaching for so long," Gherardini told Zeljko.

We all missed him when the legendary coach decided to take a year off after seven seasons with Fenerbahce Istanbul, including one EuroLeague title and five Final Four appearances.

Maurizio talked to Zeljko frequently during the season 2020-21.

"He was always more updated than me," Fenerbahce GM smiles. "That tells how much he loves basketball. There was no way that he could stay away from basketball and teaching the game. Coaching is his life."

Obradovic came back to where it all started, Partizan Belgrade. Serbians quickly sent a message by acquiring two of the three most efficient AX Armani Exchange players in Kevin Punter and Zach LeDay. Shortly the EuroCup team build a roster that could make a case for the EuroLeague playoffs.

"I think he made a very interesting and intriguing decision by going back to his first club. I think he's going to surprise people," Gherardini said in the Urbonus podcast. "I'm sure Partizan will be a very, very challenging team for everybody. Zeljko has the potential to bring Partizan back to the main European stage.

I think we all needed him back. It's not just EuroLeague, EuroCup, or Champions League. Basketball needed Zeljko to be back on stage. We all benefit from whether he is on your side or opposing. Because of the growth of the game, the popularity of the game improves with people of this type. He's one of the few true legends that we have.

I think it will be very exciting to follow Partizan this year. I have no doubts about the results because he's very, very special."

Solving an emergency in Fenerbahce

But not only Partizan will be exciting this season. Gherardini had a busy summer, upgrading the roster with four significant additions and reshaping the team's structure. Fenerbahce brought Pierria Henry and Achille Polonara from Baskonia, Devin Booker and Marial Shayok, and a few other local players.

Approaching his 41st season as a GM in the basketball business, Gherardini is still as excited as he ever was. Asked to rate his excitement from 1 to 10, the Italian was very clear.

"If the answer is not 10, you have a problem," Gherardini smiled. "I'm excited about the new season because we changed quite a bit. I watched the team a little bit in practice these first three days before heading to the mountains. But you can feel good vibes, the enthusiasm.

We're still trying to get to know each other, but I think we have a deeper and more physical team. I think each of them has a reason to push themselves to the limits. That's what you need to have from every player to have a better chance to be successful as a team. I feel the excitement. I feel it's going to be a very challenging season. I don't want to talk too early, but we could surprise some people."

Everything went smoothly, and Gherardini took time off after reshaping the roster in July. Until the unexpected news came from the US. Igor Kokoskov received a very intriguing opportunity to join the Dallas Mavericks. With a few weeks away from the start of the training camp, Fenerbahce were suddenly left without a head coach. Gherardini brought Aleksandar Djordjevic.

"Having to face an issue like this in the third week of July is very unusual and totally unexpected. On the one hand, we understood what was behind Igor's decision and his desire to go home. But we also understood very clearly, that we had a problem," Gherardini revealed. "My first concern was the fact that after basically creating a plan with one driver, we had to manage the same plan with a new driver. We needed to look for an as smooth as possible transition.

There were some other options on the table, but I liked the fact that Djordjevic was coming from a very significant season. That he has been a very successful player who knows how to manage a locker room. That he already coached some of the players in our picture, like Barthel, Booker, Guduric. I also liked the fact that we know each other for a while. It was just a matter of, let's say, making the sharing deeper and from a different angle to understand each other needs and desires.

I think we were lucky that he was still available on the market. He definitely did a very good job in Bologna, even if there was a very unusual season, especially how things happened in his situation. At the end of the day, we favored the best possible transition into managing a group he had not put together."

What's the future for the NBA coaches in Europe?

Looking from aside, Djordjevic appears to have an opposite character than Kokoskov. Mostly in terms of how demanding and challenging he is.

When Zeljko left and Gherardini had to find a new sheriff in town, he made an out-of-the-box decision by bringing the head coach with the NBA mentality. But after this experiment, which ended up with the EuroLeague playoffs appearance and getting swept by Anadolu Efes in the Turkish League finals 0-3, in an emergency, he turned back to more of European coaching mentality.

"Igor had a really innovative effect on the way we work, and we did a lot of things. But on the other hand, there was also a lot of the NBA in his approach to managing the group on and off the court because that's what he was doing for 20 years. Sometimes we realized that, especially at the top level of competition, you need probably more aggressiveness, discipline, or more of something.

But we can't underestimate what Igor brought to the picture and the quality of a lot of things that he brought to us as an organization," Gherardini explained. "We thought that looking at the options we had in July, Sasha was also the best combination of personality. A certain degree of aggressiveness in the approach. More disciplined. You try to bring in as many possible elements that you think can help in managing the situation that you are putting together."

Kokoskov left for the States this summer. Last year, Rick Pitino similarly didn't take too long to leave Panathinaikos without making a huge impact on their situation in the EuroLeague. Zalgiris Kaunas is still experimenting with a former G League coach of the year Martin Schiller, who's getting ready for his second EuroLeague season after failing to reach the playoffs last year.

Could the NBA style of coaching be successful in Europe?

"When the news spread around that Igor was going back to the States, four NBA coaches immediately called to make themselves available. And I tell you, the phone calls were made by very quality people," Gherardini told in the Urbonus podcast. "It's important to be open to the possibility of growth of new ways of running the basketball business. Not just on the court but also off the court. Opening to the best practices in the world is never a bad thing to do. But we need to be smart enough to adjust to the situation we're managing and to understand quickly if that works or doesn't.

You need to understand the moment that you're dealing as a club, the issues that potentially you can have. In our case, our situation was also very particular. End of July, a new team, already build... A lot of factors are coming in. Plus, we had an opportunity to go for Sasha, and we were comfortable making this decision."

From Glouchkov to unthinkable NBA scenario

Erdem Can, and Igor Kokoskov both left for the US. Coaches with a European background are still grinding for their opportunity in the NBA to get a chance at the highest stage. Different from the international players.

Gherardini is one of the ambassadors of international basketball. He put Treviso on a basketball map by making Benetton a transit to the NBA for many Europeans and creating the EuroCamp as the must-visit destination for NBA scouts.

But he never saw international players as dominant as they are now in the NBA. At the same year, Nikola Jokic became the MVP of the NBA regular season and Giannis Antetokounmpo became the NBA Finals MVP. Moreover, Jokic, Giannis, and Luka Doncic made the All-NBA first team.

"We have never thought to have the MVP coming from Serbia the same year that a Greek player dominates the NBA Finals and Slovenian player is probably the next model of the basketball generation worldwide. It was totally unthinkable when I started watching the NBA, and the first International players only generated some, let's say, smiles," Gherardini recalls. "I remember when Phoenix brought in Georgi Glouchkov from Bulgaria. They said there's no way an international player can impact the game. But today's international players are impacting the game in a way that nobody else did in the past.

The NBA has grown so much globally that the heroes of today's game are truly global heroes. It's a tribute to how successful the NBA business can be globally because there are so many basketball ambassadors worldwide. So many examples for the young generation, for any kid around the world who starts playing basketball.

This is the beauty of the game. But it's amazing what's happening today. It's amazing we're enjoying this International flavor at a very, very top level of the NBA."

BasketNews shared just a short part of the Urbonus podcast with Maurizio Gherardini. You can watch the full conversation here:

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