Jure Zdovc lives five minutes away from the Zalgirio arena, so he can easily walk to it. But as Zalgiris Kaunas losses in the first month of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague kept piling up, he did not feel like walking was the best idea.

Points this season

Points made: 71,1
Accuracy: 43,4%
Place in standings: 17
Record max: 86
Record min: 60
Best scorer: Janis Strelnieks

"I was ashamed," Zdovc admitted in an interview to BasketNews. "I didn't want to go to the streets."

Zdovc arrived in Kaunas once the 2021-22 season was underway. Martin Schiller was fired two games into the season, and Zdovc took over a team that lost all 5 preseason games, struggled with lesser teams in the Lithuanian league, and was not performing on an expected level.

He also took over at the worst possible time.

Zalgiris had a double EuroLeague week as Zdovc was baptized as the head coach of the team and another double week 11 days later.

Due to injuries, Zdovc was left without main center Joffrey Lauvergne and main point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. The latter was soon released, with both sides agreeing on a buyout.

There was also a fake positive test for Tyler Cavanaugh, Janis Strelnieks was in and out of rotations due to minor injuries, and the captain, Paulius Jankunas, needed surgery on his ailing knee.

Not the perfect circumstances, to say the least.

The darkest hour was just before dawn. Zalgiris lost to the main archrivals in Lithuania, Rytas Vilnius, at the beginning of November. Right after the game, fans stormed the corridor in the Zalgirio arena to meet and talk to the players. It turned to be a supportive action.

Next week Zalgiris lost to Real Madrid on the road, as Josh Nebo became just another unfortunate player to miss a game due to an ankle injury. But that Madrid game was kind of a turning point. Since then, Zalgiris won 3 out of 4 EuroLeague games and are breathing some fresh air again.

You arrived here two months ago, and those two months were quite different in terms of results and the game itself. The first month was very difficult, the second month was much more positive. If you could summarize those two months, how would you do it?

I arrived at a really hard time. A lot of injuries happened at the moment I agreed with Zalgiris. We had a tough schedule as we played all the best teams on the road, had no practices, and had to play double weeks. It was really tough with all the injuries.

When we finally had some time for practice, we slowly improved our game. Players began to understand what we want, they started to believe in our system. We still have some players sidelined with injuries, a few false-positive COVID tests also distracted us.

You cannot relax for even one day as we play the best teams in Europe every week, the Lithuanian league is strong as well. I want to build a winning mentality in this team, it's very important for this club's future.

Do you try to translate what the local media writes? You're a foreigner, so you can either block it out or understand what we're writing.

I block everything out because these are things I cannot control. I don't want to bother myself or break concentration, I want to focus on my job. The media must put pressure on us. We can all improve with pressure. I've always had high goals. I want to go to the Final Four.

When you arrived in Zalgiris, the team experienced lots of changes. The team split ways with Emmanuel Mudiay, you brought in three new players. The entire idea of the team changed as Mudiay was thought to become the leader of the team. How did the team react to the shuffles?

I didn't have a big plan. When I arrived, I needed to see how the team reacts, how they think. We didn't have much time for practice, so we had to try some new things during matches.

It was not easy to start winning. The most important thing is that we started to realize our weaknesses. We are not very fast, we have a lot of veterans. We can start winning by just helping each other.

I didn't make drastic changes in the offense. We still have the same issues - we don't share the ball enough, there is still a lot of individual action. As we're not that athletic, it is difficult for us to play 1vs1, 2vs2, so we must have good spacing and pass the ball to the open guy. 

You were very honest talking about team defense. What were your main issues and main goals in trying to install your team's defense?

Everything is tied to the offense. Euroleague teams will capitalize on your every mistake. We still have issues with transition defense. Every player must know their role in the system.

If even one player makes a mistake, it's hard for the other four guys to cover up. We must have good communication, use our hands, and trust each other.

Credit BNS

You have a lot of very vocal veteran players, like Kalnietis, Milaknis, Jankunas. Do you see any of them becoming coaches after their playing careers?

Oh, for sure. I hope so. It's a great job. It will be sad if these players do not continue to work in basketball. They need to give their knowledge to the upcoming generation.

You arrived here without an assistant which is quite rare usually. If a head coach arrives, he tries to bring his own guys too. You recently changed some of the assistants, and you said that somebody else should come as well. Is it going to be some of your former colleagues, some of the guys that you know?

At this moment, no. Generally, I am not a big fan of bringing a lot of circus with me (laughs). In many clubs, I was alone and was no problem. For sure, if I had some coach who doesn't have a job, but worked with me in the past, maybe I will not insist on asking GM if I can bring him.

On the other side, I work in one of the most basketball countries in the world. For sure, it's a lot of great coaches in Lithuania with a lot of knowledge, a little bit of different philosophy, which is always good for me.

You need to improve every day and learn something new. I don't see the reason why we cannot find the coaches here.

Who were the people that shaped you as a coach?

Zeljko Obradovic, maybe. We played together, we were roommates. He became a coach very quickly - Partizan called him to be a coach in the middle of the national team practice.

People always told me I'd be a great coach. I did not initially believe it, but basketball gradually became the love of my life.

Can you talk more about the Zeljko part?

We were in Belgrade preparing for Eurobasket 1991 in Rome, and Dragan Kicanovic, the best player in Yugoslavia, came to the practice and gave him the offer to become Partizan's head coach.

He won the Euroleague next year. I was playing in Bologna that year, we played each other in the quarterfinals, it was really fun.

You were the head coach of Union Olimpija in Ljubljana. That team used to be big in Europe, but now it is not the case. What's your opinion on why did it happen that Ljubljana's basketball team, the main Slovenian basketball squad, is not that big right now?

Money, very simple. I was a coach from 2008 to 2011 and, in the 2010-11 season, we had a great year in the EuroLeague. We had a new arena like here, full of fans (12000 people). Unfortunately, a crisis occurred, and Olimpija came in big debts. They could not survive.

It's a big similarity between Zalgiris and Olimpija: new gym, people love basketball, both small countries. Zalgiris survived, they got a license, though, Olimpija could not make it.

What's the exact reason, mostly it is money. They still struggle because of nowadays time. If you don't have the license, it's very difficult to get in.

Luka Doncic is one of the biggest stars in the world. Did he help create a new impulse for the Slovenian kids to play basketball?

I hope so. Not a lot of kids go to basketball in Slovenia. There are lots of things to do, and it takes a lot of work to become an athlete. He for sure helped, we also won Eurobasket 2017.

We'll see. Basketball will always have a future in Slovenia. It's not like it used to be, but some kids will try to be like Luka.

Credit FIBA

Due to the qualification system, Slovenia had to miss FIBA World Cup in 2019 with the best players not being able to play. How is this issue viewed in Slovenia?

This is something that I cannot understand. If you ask me, it's a disaster. When they played in the qualification, I didn't even know some of the players.

The darkest day probably happened when you lost against Rytas Vilnius in the LKL. The crowd was standing there and waiting for you. How did the team react?

No matter what happens, I'm the coach. We deserved to be criticized. In the end, they provided support even if we didn't deserve it at that moment. This is how it's supposed to be.

How well-known do you feel in Kaunas? Are you being recognized by the fans in the streets?

When we were losing, I didn't even take my hat off. I was honestly ashamed, it's not a secret. I feel responsible. When we were losing, I was driving to the gym in a car, despite that, I live 5 minutes from the arena. Now, when we are winning, I started walking.

Yes, some people recognize me. Basketball in Lithuania is very popular. I remember I talked to my assistants. I lived in London for 10 years, because my daughter started studying there. 

And the fans from Lithuania stopped me in London, where no one knows anything about basketball. It's a popular sport here, and if someone recognizes me, I feel very honored.

Even if you are playing on the road, you can see the Zalgiris fans. After some games, they come to the bus to greet the team. How surprising is it to see that kind of bond between supporters and team?

I had this experience with AEK Athens, as fans were everywhere. I stayed one extra day in Barcelona and met the Lithuanian fans at the restaurants. They came to take photos with me. It is nice for Zalgiris to have supporters in all of Europe.

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