Back in 2019. Evening time, early November. Long before the pandemic disrupted our lives. LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne, coached by Zvezdan Mitrovic, played against CSKA Moscow for the first time in Villeurbanne.

It was a close game but came down to a final shot, which Mike James likes the best. And boom! He missed. Astroballe went crazy.

It was that night perhaps, the name of Mitrovic, the man who was in charge of ASVEL more thoroughly recognized. 

But before that, Mitrovic had a well-established history of success. Titles in ex-Yugoslavia (YUBA League as an assistant coach, Ukraine domestic title with Krivbas, Cup victory with Budivelnik).

He came to French Riviera then to carry Monaco into the top-tier of the French League and win three more domestic cups. In his first season at ASVEL, they became national champions. But after that, 2020 happened. It was not a good year for none of us.  

"We start Euroleague, and we were the most surprising team in the first part of the season," Mitrovic said in an exclusive interview with BasketNews. 

"Then corona started," he continued. "Everybody went home. At one point, we started to prepare for the new season, but then I received the message from my agent that they want to terminate the contract."

Then Mitrovic hesitated for a while, just to go back into that very moment.

"That's all for me was really huge surprise for me. A huge surprise," he added.

After that CSKA game, Mitrovic's ASVEL refused to lose at home in the first five games and came 8-8 after the first 16 games.

After the breakout of the pandemic and the cancellation of both EuroLeague and the domestic season in France, Mitrovic never returned to the ASVEL bench. That story would end prematurely. 

2-pointers this season

51%
21,2
Points made: 21,2
Accuracy: 50,6%
Place in standings: 4
Record max: 26
Record min: 16
Most made 2FGs: Donta Hall

But he is not a person who would accept being left in oblivion, either. He might prefer changing places, not ever afraid of challenges.

BasketNews sat and talked with the Montenegrin coach to reflect on his earlier career, his current season with Monaco, his relationship between the players, referees, and ASVEL, of course. Enjoy. 

Credit AFP or licensors

Coach, how did you get into basketball coaching at the age of 30? 
Life. I started coaching the team about 30 years ago in Podgorica, Montenegro. Everybody was playing basketball there. And after I finished the basic school army, I set up to be an assistant coach in Pro B Division, ex-Yugoslavia. And that was my start, certainly in a small team. 

After that, I continued with Buducnost. Working with different levels of coaching; cadets, junior team, and the young team gave me some chance to work with like Pro B division with Budva, the touristic city where I was coaching players older than me. 

It was really a priceless experience when you're coaching the team when you are young enough.

You worked with some great names in the process. Is there anyone particularly special?
Do you know what was great? The president of Buducnost sent me everywhere to this clinic, on everywhere, and for me, it was very, very important to be close to work on the court with such great names in Yugoslavia and the basketball world.

I worked with Bogdan Tanjevic, with Bozidar Maljkovic as well. I followed Duda Ivkovic's works for a while.

I also worked with Muta Nikolic for a short time, yes. But actually, I worked a lot with Dusko Vujosevic in this period. We worked two seasons together with our young team. And for me, it's a very important part of my career.

It was like old school. We work every day, five or six hours with a junior team. This was a serious part of my coaching career. Before that, I worked with some coaches that are not known very well, but Poli Bojanic was a very focused coach who taught me a lot, especially in those days.

In what ways?
When I started coaching, information was the key problem. We were bringing videotapes from the USA, and we began to watch and analyze, especially these NCAA games and systems. 

This was like my education. There were official schools, the coaching clinics, and everything, but when you sit, watch, and repeat all this NCAA system, great coaches, it was great. 

You kept all the good collaboration in your later career, I believe? Following the Barcelona game, is that something to do with your champagne party in the press conference room with Sarunas Jasikevicius?
We were sitting in the VIP rooms and waiting for the press conference. This is a spontaneous moment. But it was great.

Things looked great after I saw the video. We are very good friends, and he's a great guy, and I really try to have a good relationship with all my colleagues before or after the game.

OK, on the court we go and fight against each other, but it's the same bread for everybody. You live the same life. I am not too old, but I have 30 years behind my work as a coach.

For example, in 2015, the war started, and I finished my job in Ukraine. I have some empty periods, not all season, though. I came here, to Istanbul. I followed Zeljko Obradovic's training sessions, stayed for a while.

I was fortunate because I have good connections with coaches, and I can follow all these situations. I think this part of education, especially for the young coach, is very, very important.

Last 20 years, I've been like a foreigner. I perfectly understand all my colleagues. During my career, problems with colleagues were perhaps 0.1%.

How did you end up with Ukraine after that experience in ex-Yugoslavia in the first place? 
After Buducnost and EuroLeague, I decided to start from scratch and be a head coach in Ukraine. To be a head coach in all those best teams in Montenegrin or a Serbian team was very difficult. There was a huge competition. 

I worked in the Pro B division, and everything was done. I was 32. And I haven't tried it as a head coach yet. Before I signed to Khimik in Ukraine in 2002, I was an assistant coach in EuroLeague, and I wanted to really show that I'm capable of working as a head coach. 

It seems like you have a special appetite for these "burgeoning" projects. Khimik was a new organization, Monaco and ASVEL were trying to establish a new path. Are you particularly attracted by these challenging situations?  
In Khimik, my job wasn't only the coaching of the team. But I was asked to build some pyramid, like in the old Yugoslavian school with the young guys who start to get basketball education; some new coaches, a new system. 

It's very similar to Monaco. When I came here, it was only 3 months remaining towards the end of Pro B. And after that, we started to push for French League, and I can relate to these experiences, but one difference: I was only the coach and not asked to build a similar pyramid scheme in Monaco, you know, with the younger groups. 

But we started to fight from the Pro B division, and in five or six years, Monaco was really growing up and reached good results in Champions League, EuroCup, and now in the EuroLeague with some serious projects.

As you said, it was a big challenge for me to start from the bottom. But with my experience from Ukraine maybe it helped me to start to do my job in France.

Last season, you achieved great results by winning EuroCup and getting a place in EuroLeague. After that great success, why did Monaco decide to make such a big overhaul? Any second thoughts in retrospect?
EuroCup is a great competition, but EuroLeague is a new level for all of us, not only about the team, about the organization. EuroLeague is EuroLeague. 

We understood that some players were not on the level of the EuroLeague, and we started to build absolutely a new team. With some new sponsors, we knew that we could sign some bigger names and some players with some more experience in EuroLeague. 

And for us, to build a new team with new 14 or 15 players is definitely a huge problem. They are different in their level and age. You have young guys and more experienced ones. And because of this, I know I have a problem now.

I think this is the process that we need to survive. It is like a kid's disease, you know. When you start to build a new team and everything, you just need to survive. 

And I think our game shows some of our problems when we play some great games, sometimes going down. And definitely, this is not easy. We need to build one team, and for the future, we want to have some good basis and good fundamentals. 

And after that we can change the team again, sign new players or, I don't know. But for me, it's very, very important to build a basis because Monaco is always changing the team from season to season because the goals keep getting higher and higher.

Any specific goals for the current season? 
When I first came, our goal was to stay in the Pro A, which was pretty normal and logical. But then, we started to fight for playoffs. After the first year, fortunately, we finished in the first place.

Yes, we didn't win the title, but some better things happened. Every year, we have new goals and ambitions.

For this year, OK, when we started very well and people started to talk about playoffs after two games (smiles). No. This is our first year, we understand that we are rookies. We need to understand our pluses and minuses. 

Our goal is to build a team, a good system, and a good organization. So, I think this is a goal for Monaco for this season and, of course, to try to play good basketball, to win as many games as possible.

This was our goal in the beginning. But you see what's happened now. Leo Westermann is out for six weeks. It's like two months.

We have only one pure point guard, Paris Lee, who is playing on the level for the first time. It's very difficult for him, but he's getting better and better every day. We really try to be a serious part, but not only for one season in the EuroLeague. We want to stay and fight every game, but we understand it's not easy.

We already talked about it a little, but some last words about what went wrong in ASVEL? 
For me, it was really strange. Like in some Western movie when somebody hit you in the back. I didn't expect this because I have a perfect relationship with Tony (Parker), with everybody. Now I have normal relations with TJ Parker and all those guys from ASVEL.  

I have great memories of that, so I cannot be like that. OK, I understand this is life, it is the president who made the decision to replace me. But for me, this is a problem when someone can make some call or something like this.  

This is our coaching life. During ASVEL, I had zero problems during my work as and I only have great memories from the club and the city of Lyon, as well. 

Watch the full interview with Zvezdan Mitrovic here:

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2022-01-10
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