Credit: BasketNews.com
Credit BasketNews.com

"Where is our hero?" There was no need to ask who the receptionist was referring to while visiting the Hilton hotel. Partizan team was staying at the hotel, which is 10 minutes away from the Ulker Sports arena. It was Zeljko Obradovic who was about to return to his home during the Istanball Cup tournament. BasketNews traveled to Istanbul to follow the first Zeljko appearance in his former kingdom.

2-pointers this season

57%
21,1
Points made: 21,1
Accuracy: 57,0%
Place in standings: 2
Record max: 29
Record min: 14
Most made 2FGs: Jan Vesely

"Where Zeljko is expected to enter the court?" - I asked Ilker, the press officer of Fenerbahce, before the first Istanball Cup game Partizan vs. Monaco.

He smiled. Usually, the guest teams enter the court from the left corner of Ulker Sports Arena. But it's Zeljko, and it's his home, so you never know.

Zeljko is an old-school guy. He hates being in the spotlight. Believe me, he wasn't the biggest fan of the idea to arrange the special ceremony for Zeljko right before the Fenerbahce game vs. UNICS. But the GOAT deserves to be greeted with respect. And that's what Fenerbahce people did, arranging the pre-game ceremony and showing appreciation for his years and efforts with the organization.

It was nice to hear hundreds of Fenerbahce fans singing the Obradovic chant again. During the warmup, one fan even approached Zeljko with some gifts. I saw flowers and some bags of goods, which really surprised the coach.

Few people ran down closer to the Partizan's bench to get a selfie with Zeljko. You should see his face when he understood that he'd have to take a dozen of pictures. He shrugged his shoulders, looking at Maurizio Gherardini, his friend for life and former colleague at Fenerbahce, the way only Zeljko does. 

Of course, Obradovic couldn't return to the Ulker Sports Arena without making noise. Partizan and Monaco's game ended in a triple-overtime thriller. The whole thing was so exhausting that players were smiling in the end, thinking that the game was going to last forever. They were laughing through tiredness later near the locker rooms, trying to recover after a very long night in Ulker Sports.

It was not easy for Zeljko either.

I went next to Partizan's locker room with hopes to get a post-game comment from Obradovic. But I couldn't because Zeljko looked worn-out. Not just because the game lasted almost 2.5 hours. First and foremost, the return to the Ulker Sports Arena was simply too emotional for him.

You can always be that journalist who wants to get quotes no matter what. But out of respect to the greatness, I didn't think that a post-game interview was necessary by any means. Not in the pre-season, not after the night like this for Zeljko. 

Especially when I saw Zeljko giving a short interview for Fenerbahce TV. The reporter asked him in Turkish, Zeljko answered in English, but the translator was also involved in reaching non-English speaking Fenerbahce fans. But one time, I felt like a sign "HELP ME" was written on his face, so I decided not to bother Zeljko anymore and tried to interview him the following day.

But the Partizan-Fenerbahce game didn't help at all, even though its scenario looked like we were in for a great event, watching Zeljko and his former team fight in the final. Fenerbahce just rolled past Partizan 89-62 to win the Istanball Cup. The host team opened with a 10-0 start and never even let Partizan dream about victory.

In the second half, I found myself thinking that Fenerbahce should stop destroying their former coach. The game's outcome quickly reminded me of a legendary press conference in 2005, where Greeks beat up Serbs in OAKA by 19 points in an exhibition game. Zeljko felt embarrassed that night because seven thousand of all ten thousand fans in the stands were Panathinaikos fans. But contrary to Serbs 16 years ago, Partizan players weren't partying until 5 o'clock in the morning before the game. However, Zeljko for sure couldn't be happy with the way his first game against his former team ended.

It didn't look good. Yes, Partizan faced the toughest pre-season test so far in two EuroLeague teams. Yes, that triple-overtime win over Monaco the night before for sure had an impact. But in general, Partizan players were making lousy basketball decisions.

Zeljko couldn't hold himself from not grabbing his head when Yam Madar made all the way to the basket, but instead of an easy layup, he decided to pass the ball back beyond the 3-point line. It was one of many examples. Zeljko was calling out his players one by one on the sidelines, but his players couldn't provide it on the court.

Meanwhile, Fenerbahce was killing them from the beginning. Great ball movement, effort, energy, and chemistry impressed coach Sasha Djordjevic, who had many reasons to clap while watching his players perform.

The Serbian team had no chance. But despite a huge difference, it didn't feel like Partizan let their hands down. It seemed like this team was willing to listen to their general. You could see it from players' eyes, how hungry they were soaking that information and trying to do their best. And they knew they would learn through every possession to build for bigger things than just winning the friendly tournament.

I loved how Zach LeDay set an example. Partizan's Dennis Rodman jumped into the fourth row in the second half, trying to catch a loose ball. In a way, how much he was risking in an exhibition game, probably that wasn't the smartest move. But that's who Zach LeDay is. He's so passionate about the game that he doesn't care about the numbers on the scoreboard. He takes the best out of every possession. LeDay was so vocal on and off the court that he not only helped his team in some transition defense situations. He also pushed the referees to call for a 3-second violation on Fenerbahce when he was standing behind Partizan's bench.

Kevin Punter joined Partizan as the highest-paid player in Serbia ever. That's how much his scoring skills and killer instinct were valued. But at the same time, KP accepted the bigger role by being very vocal on the court and trying to help his young teammates. That's what I saw this weekend.

It all starts with them in Partizan. Not only their level makes the difference. But also their experience and basketball IQ. However, it won't be easy.

It's not the first time Zeljko is rebuilding the team. But it's the first time he's starting from scratch with so many young and inexperienced players.

His main floor general Yam Madar is 20. His best center Alen Smajlagic is 21. They both had exciting flashes (Smailagic scored 32 points vs. Monaco, Madar had 19 points and seven assists). However, they're still far away from being consistent and intelligent enough as Zeljko wants for his championship project. It will take a lot of explaining, teaching, turning them in the right direction, and building a winning team. That's what everybody around Partizan should take into account, despite this crazy hype and enthusiasm.  

"Good shot, good shot," Zeljko applauded his players' effort when they created an excellent open look but didn't manage to convert it into points. Being down by 30, he had to see not only negatives. After the final whistle, Zeljko didn't have any interest in staying on the court longer than it was needed. He had a quick handshake with Djordjevic and left the gym with his head down. Some Fenerbahce fans were still chanting his name, but the love from the fans didn't console him much.

This weekend was just too emotional for Zeljko. And this test in Istanbul also uncovered a long way this team still needs to go in order to fulfill everybody's expectations.

"Coach, can I ask you for a short post-game interview?" I asked kindly after a long wait near Partizan's locker room when Zeljko and his staff were about to leave the building.

Zeljko looked at me for a second and answered: "No, thank you."

Nothing that would have surprised me.

This was it. The last day of our trip to Turkey. From the Gloria Cup to the Istanball Cup, in 4 days, we managed to do eight exciting interviews and podcasts. You can already find some of them on BasketNews platforms. My preseason diary is over for now. Let's meet again when the EuroLeague officially tips off on September 30. We won't stop traveling and sharing our experiences from the hottest destinations in Europe.

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