Credit: AFP, Sputnik – Scanpix | BasketNews illustration/M.Didė
Credit AFP, Sputnik – Scanpix | BasketNews illustration/M.Didė

That's not what either Andrey Vatutin or Moscow's basketball fans were used to. For the first time in 20 years, CSKA have dropped five straight and went for the biggest losing streak in Vatutin's era.

Mike James

Mike  James
Mike  James
MIN: 28.35
PTS: 14.2 (46.46%)
REB: 2.93
As: 5.2
ST: 1.6
BL: 0.07
TO: 2.47
GM: 15

The president of CSKA Moscow hates losing.

Vatutin joined the CSKA office in 2002. Although he was only 29, he already worked for Ural Great Perm before and helped them win two consecutive Russian championships.

Since 2002, Vatutin and CSKA didn't see anything else but gold in the domestic championship. Moreover, CSKA won four EuroLeague titles, and in 18 years, they missed the Final 4 only once.

But now, after so many years of glory, CSKA fell in the deepest losing hole since season 2000-01.

"Horror at CSKA. CSKA lost five in a row, and this has not happened in 20 years!"

"Nowhere to fall below?" 

"Is it time to fire Dimitris Itoudis?" 

Those were the headlines that were twinkling on Russian media.

During that 12-day losing stretch, CSKA lost against ASVEL Villeurbanne, AS Monaco, Fenerbahce Istanbul, UNICS Kazan, and even Kalev/Cramo Tallinn.

When the latest setback came on November 7 in a 64-69 VTB League loss to UNICS Kazan, that was time for action.

One of Vatutin's mottos is that fans should not have unanswered questions.

So the following morning after the UNICS defeat, Vatutin called the CSKA administration meeting in their headquarters.

CSKA president never looks at the standings in December. But he saw the fuss these losses created in media and among the fanbase. It was necessary to clear things out.

Vatutin initiated a huge press conference with five top Russian basketball journalists ready to ask tough questions. CSKA also collected questions from social media.

They sat down four players, Tornike Shengelia, Alexey Shved, Daniel Hackett, and Nikita Kurbanov, head coach Dimitris Itoudis and the president Andrey Vatutin, and went for almost a two-hour live discussion.

3-pointers this season

Points made: 9,1
Accuracy: 35,0%
Place in standings: 4
Record max: 14
Record min: 5
Most made 3FGs: Johannes Voigtmann

If Dimitris Itoudis was the right coach to continue the project? What does it take to see Andrey Vatutin stepping down? If we were witnessing the worst version of Alexey Shved?

No question was left unanswered.

One month later, Andrey Vatutin calmly sips a cup of coffee and orange juice in one of the Kaunas cafes. CSKA won 5 of 6 previous games and cooled off the situation in Russia before the EuroLeague Round 14.

Usually, on game days and five hours before the match, Vatutin lifts some weights in the Zalgirio arena. But that Friday was too busy with team meetings, lunch with Zalgiris people, and a one-hour interview with BasketNews.

Vatutin knows media better than any other EuroLeague CEO.

He was born and raised in a family of famous Russian journalists. Vatutin graduated from the Faculty of Journalism of Moscow State University. He worked as a sports journalist, also was a media officer of the Russian Basketball Federation.

The journalism and managing a basketball club always looked similar to Vatutin. In his eyes, communication and handling different characters are the most important thing in both jobs. But Vatutin quickly understood that he wanted not to diagnose the problem but to solve it by himself.

In his incredible journey with CSKA, there were titles, conflicts, and NBA opportunities. In an interview with BasketNews, Vatutin revealed an untold story of almost heading to the NBA, one thing he missed from Mike James in an infamous conflict, how Kevin Pangos would be an ideal option for CSKA, and what kind of upgrade he wants from the EuroLeague.

In that press conference a month ago, you mentioned that you might consider stepping down from the club if you win the EuroLeague for the fifth time. How serious were you about this statement?
That was a joke because I like my job. I like people in CSKA. My colleagues, coaches, players... CSKA is my life. This is a No. 1 thing for me. That statement was a joke.

It's really difficult to imagine that I can leave CSKA after one more EuroLeague title.

Sometimes people step down being on the top because there's nothing more to achieve, and they're not hungry anymore.
If you have 0-5 at some stretch during the season, you become hungry (smiles).

I'm a very happy person because I have an interesting life. We travel a lot, and I can meet new people every day. Basketball is the most important part of my life. Of course, there's family, kids, but I can't imagine myself without basketball, without visiting Kaunas, Madrid, Kazan...

It's like drugs, and you need an injection every day. That's a typical adrenaline story. 

You're almost 20 years in this business. How do you stay hungry?
The best motivation for me is that I hate losing. To lose something is not a drama for me, but I prefer winning. That's the best motivation. I need to win card games, chess, tennis. That's the part of my character.

Vatutin's career
1995 ITAR TASS Sports Observer
1997 Russian Basketball Federation Press Officer
2000-02 Ural Great Perm CEO Assistant
2002-06 Russian NT GM assistant
2002-06 CSKA Moscow Deputy CEO
2006-07 CSKA Moscow Vice President
2007-2009 CSKA Moscow CEO
2009- CSKA Moscow President & CEO
CSKA are all about winning, and you might get used to it. But how Andrey Vatutin reacts when CSKA are losing?

Bad. This is my job, and this is my life. My colleagues and I are working every day for CSKA. If CSKA loses, maybe that means we're doing something wrong.

The main problem from the last 20 years is that we created a special generation of supporters. And they accept only victories. If CSKA starts losing, like we had 5 losses in a row, they start thinking how it's possible? And they start attacking you. This generation of supporters is a success for CSKA, but at the same time, this isn't good for the club.

But it is how it is. It's impossible to explain to all the fans that it's sport and losing is a normal part of the process.

I can imagine that in a bad moment, every supporter starts thinking that a different coach is better, other players are better, and other teams have better management. But it's a standard type of pressure, and I know how to survive it. I work in CSKA for almost 20 years... It's not an easy job, but it was always very interesting.

Years ago, I talked to Jonas Kazlauskas, Ramunas Siskauskas, Darjus Lavrinovic, and they always emphasized that one single loss was already a tragedy in the front office. But this new EuroLeague format with 34 regular season games changed some things.

We saw big teams on losing streaks. We witnessed a fantastic Efes come back from the 11th seed to the title. Maybe CSKA's front office now accepts losing as a normal part of the process because no matter what happens in December, usually, CSKA ends up playing in the Final 4?
Theoretically, yes. But in CSKA, it's slightly different because of what I told you before. It's a winning team, and every loss is a big problem for us.

Although it's a marathon, I wouldn't know the answer if you asked me where we're right now in the EuroLeague standings. For me, the 5th, 6th, or whatever place in December doesn't matter. We play every week. Sometimes two games per week. In January or February, it's logical to watch the standings. But now it's too early.

At this moment, the most important is to be in good shape, healthy, and have a good atmosphere inside the locker room. We missed healthy Grigonis and Milutinov for a long time, we had many other players out at certain points, but I think that now we're pretty okay.

In 2019 CSKA also had a stretch when they won and lost every second game. If I'm correct, then players had a players-only meeting, that was a mental game-changer for the rest of the season.

Since you won the EuroLeague four times, I believe you started noticing some common values between championship teams. What are the critical points of a championship formula, and which current players are the ones to rely on in bad situations?
There's no answer for that. I don't have the recipe. Every season is a different story. You need a good group of leaders, personalities, some luck. But there's no recipe because it was four different titles.

You remember the final game in Istanbul when we lost to Olympiacos, right? Our team was extremely good. Roster-wise, maybe the best team in all CSKA history. But one point...

To be honest, now I can say this. If CSKA won that title, I was ready to leave Moscow for a different destination.

The Brooklyn Nets?
And the title was pretty much in the pocket... But this loss kept me here, and now I can say 'spasibo' (thanks in Russian) to Olympiacos. Because the next ten years were really interesting and brought me a lot of happiness. It was a chapter full of titles, people, games... 

Winning the EuroLeague was the goal set for you by the Nets and its owner Mikhail Prokhorov?
It was the main goal to be the EuroLeague champion and leave CSKA with the status of the EuroLeague champion. But here we go, I'm staying for ten years (smiles).

But was it a personal goal or goal set by the Brooklyn?
It was my personal goal.

So you punished yourself with that dramatic loss?
That title was really in our pocket...

But it turned out to be better for you?
Again, 'spasibo' to Olympiacos (smiles). But it was from my side. From the fans', players, Jonas Kazlauskas' perspective, it was a tragedy. For me, it was also a huge hit. But after ten years, I can thank God this loss kept me in CSKA.

Credit AP Scanpix

Did you try to visualize what kind of GM you would have been in the NBA?
Listen, a job in the NBA was never my dream. In general, NBA never was my dream. I believe I can be more successful in European basketball. I'm not so young. For me, it's difficult to leave my city, my country, my people and just go. I'm not a player. For players of age 22-24, it's much easier. 

But ten years ago, you were still pretty young. You were close to 40, right? Even Pablo Prigioni made his NBA debut at 35.
But Prigioni is from Argentina, and I'm from Moscow (smiles).

I was thinking a lot. There, you start from zero by jumping right onto the top-manager position. And you go to a different continent, with different rules, mentality, culture. Here you're the president, GM, and you gradually came to this point by earning the name for yourself in Russian and European basketball. I never regretted this decision.

It was a good possibility, but just like Ramunas Siskauskas, who was practicing in Chicago with some NBA club, I think it was Bulls, but he decided to stay in Europe.

What do you like in the EuroLeague more than NBA?
Here every game matters. It's a war. And the NBA is a league of players.

I'm a product of European basketball, Russian basketball. I like the style of how people work here. You can easily talk to players. Coaches here make a lot of decisions. In Europe, we have smarter basketball.

You know how they play the regular season in the NBA. It's more or less like a show. But in Europe, every game is very important. Pressure, title, places... And, of course, people. "Hello, how are you?" And they forget you in a second. In Europe, people are more natural.

Credit Sputnik – Scanpix

What's the essential piece of building a team in Europe for you?
If you start to create the team, position No. 1 is the head coach. No single player came to CSKA without coach approval.

Duda Ivkovic, Evgeniy Pashutin, Jonas Kazlauskas, Ettore Messina... We always did a recruiting job together with the head coach. And we start from this. We sit with the coach, discuss the market, analyze the budget. Coach is the No 1.

To come back to a previous question, it's a different story than in the NBA. GM invites the players, and after that, they sign the coach. We work in another direction. You choose the coach, sit down together and decide who could play or deserve to play in CSKA. For me, that's an ideal model.

When Larry Bird agreed to be the Indiana Pacers head coach in 1997, he said he would sign for three years and leave no matter what. And even though Pacers were very successful with Bird, he left the position after three seasons because he said that players usually tune out their head coach after three years together.

CSKA has changed a lot since their last EuroLeague title in 2019. You had a chance to start the rebuilding with a different coach, but you already started the eighth season together with Dimitris Itoudis. What was the turning point that kept this relationship for such a long time?
First of all, every coach is always under pressure. If a team starts losing, questions come. Itoudis is a successful coach with CSKA. Every season we had the VTB title and Final Four appearance. There's no other coach who can guarantee a better result.

He knows the system, he's successful, he's hungry, and he brings together Toko Shengelia, Will Clyburn, Daniel Hackett with us. He deserved two more years to realize his ideas. 

It looks terrible when you decide to change the coach just because you're tired of him. Come on, he gives you results. For sure, he's a little bit tired of working with me, and I'm a little bit tired of working with him (smiles). But that's a bad reason for parting ways.

He gives results. He's a patriot of CSKA. He's really hungry. He's a fighter. I hope that this year and the next one will be successful for us.

Credit SPO Scanpix

How did you try to handle Mike James' situation as a club president? Did you try to stay between player and coach, or were you on Itoudis' side from day one?
The situation was difficult for everybody, especially for me. Being in my position, you need to think about the reputation of the head coach, the reputation of the club, the atmosphere in the locker room, results.

Mike James is an extremely good player who can give you results. And you also have to think about the financial part because his contract was for two more years.

The situation was very difficult. Unfortunately, it was impossible to make a good decision for everybody. For a long period of time, close to two months, I was putting a lot of effort into finding a compromise.

To keep them both in CSKA?

How did you try to do it?
Theoretically, you have to choose the coach's side in this situation. Because if some players, not specifically Mike James, show disrespect to the head coach, another player could do the same the next day. How can the head coach continue working after this? It's impossible.

For around two months I tried to find a compromise to balance the situation. But one day, I understood that it wouldn't work.

I feel sad about it. Because I think that with Mike James, we had a really good chance to win the EuroLeague in Cologne. Now Mike James is in Monaco, and the rest is history.

Credit Scanpix Baltics

You described Mike James as the Top 3 or even Top 2 player in the EuroLeague. Did you have any regrets about how that cooperation ended?
Every season you have some conflicts. That's a normal part of the process. The difference is that this story became public. 

Mike is a great player and definitely not a bad guy. We still keep normal relationships with him. For sure, I have regrets. Because CSKA with Mike James and without Mike James has two different faces. Not better or worse. Just different. But it is how it is.

Did you try to analyze that situation afterward? What did you take from that experience as the president of CSKA?
It was too unpredictable. Maybe it's impossible to predict the conflict between two egos. Itoudis and James both have big egos. When one person shows signs of disrespect, not just for Dimitris, but for the whole team, how can you find a compromise? And how can you predict this to happen?

It was a really difficult family situation for Mike. I understood that it was hard for him to play against Barcelona and Fenerbahce under those circumstances. But it blew out like a bomb.

Before that happened, nobody had a feeling that a conflict was emerging. It just happened in one moment, unfortunately.

Mike was disappointed that CSKA didn't let him go to the States to visit his grandfather's funeral?
It was not as simple. He asked for a possibility to go to the States on a certain day. The coach explained that we have big games, and he agreed to stay in Moscow for 2-3 more days.

I talked to Mike after that. I asked him why he didn't call me to explain that it was so extremely important for him to go to the funeral? I didn't know that his grandfather was like a father figure to him. He didn't tell me this. For sure, that's much more important than the game against Fenerbahce and Barcelona. Much more important.

But he didn't tell me this. Otherwise, my answer would be clear: 'Of course, go to the States.' This is what we actually did when another family situation happened to Mike very soon.

Dimitris gave him another option, Mike accepted it, and… That's life. 

In both championship teams in 2016 and 2019, you had an elite point guard running the team. There was Milos Teodosic in 2016 and Sergio Rodriguez in 2019.

This year you tried to sign Vasilije Micic, Kevin Pangos, but it didn't work out, and you started the season with one more roster space. Maybe there's something wrong with the point guard market in Europe right now? Because not only CSKA has problems finding the right floor general.
For sure, we miss this type of player. Thank God, Alexey Shved plays extremely well. I'm really happy that we can see Shved in CSKA. I think you'll agree with me that Shved in Khimki and Shved in CSKA are two different players. And he's much better in CSKA.

Shved accepted the criticism and his role. He plays extremely good in offense, but at the same time, he plays defense. No more stupid turnovers, a lot of steals, blocked shots, etc. He accepted the rules.

It's not a surprise for me, because I have known him for many years. Before the NBA, he was a product of the CSKA system.

But who's a true point guard in Europe? Except for Nick Calathes.

Vasilije Micic.
Micic... Who else?

Tough question.
No more. 

He's more combo. Even Micic...

For sure, we miss that type of player. We need good passers because we have big players like Shengelia, Milutinov, and Voigtmann. Now we need to cover this situation. For sure, Pangos was the best choice for this team.

Do you think Pangos made a mistake?
I don't know. It's his life. I saw that he went to the G League last week. But it's his life.

He decided to realize his dream to sign with the NBA team. And for sure, he deserves this contract. He could be more successful in Europe, but he decided to go to the NBA. We'll see what he will do after one season in Cleveland.

Maybe there will be some changes during the season.
Maybe, who knows. For us, he would be ideal. He's a game-changer for any EuroLeague team.

He's Canadian. Maybe he prefers life in the States to Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kaunas, or Barcelona. In the EuroLeague, he could be the best passer together with Calathes. 

For him, it was his dream. For me, to go to the NBA wasn't a dream (smiles). Two different persons and two different stories.

This year we had a lot of discussions and changes in the EuroLeague office. If Andrey Vatutin were the next CEO of the EuroLeague, what would be his three main changes to improve the tournament?
The first change is to announce CSKA as All-Time EuroLeague champions (laughs).

I prefer to keep silent because if I decide to go to the EuroLeague office one day, I will announce my program. Now it's too early (smiles). But the question was good. 

But CSKA was one of the teams which supported the dismissal of Jordi Bertomeu. As a president of CSKA, what kind of an upgrade do you expect from the league?
The main problem is not a Final 4. There are two main issues. 

First of all, it's money. In European basketball, we lose money every day. If you win the EuroLeague game, you receive up to €40k. But you spend more on a charter flight and other travel costs. I am not even telling you about the players' salaries. This is like charity. All teams deserve more money and I believe it is possible to find them.

Secondly, the national leagues. It's really difficult for coaches and players to play two EuroLeague games per week and then the domestic championship game the same weekend. Too many games.

I think that for everybody it would be ideal to have two teams. One would play in the EuroLeague, the other in the domestic championship. And maybe the main team would play in the domestic championship playoffs.

Maccabi Tel Aviv had an idea of building two teams.
Maybe it's possible in Israel. I respect the level of an Israeli league a lot, but if you compare it to Turkish, ACB, or VTB league, it's a little bit different.

So I see two main problems: the bonuses from basketball and the cooperation with the national leagues. Because if you start making EuroLeague a good business project, you don't need national leagues. But I don't know how to realize it.

But probably it's impossible to expect CSKA to leave the VTB league?
Impossible. For Real and Barcelona, I think it's the same.

Unless you build a second team?
If you build the second team seriously, not just a development team, you need more money, more players, salaries.

So it's possible only if EuroLeague finds more money for teams?
Who knows. We're talking about a perfect model.

If you were a journalist in that CSKA's press conference last month, as a former journalist, what main questions would you have asked, and what story would you have written about that CSKA situation?
Difficult question (smiles). I don't like to be an ostrich that hides his head in the sand in a difficult life moment. My desire was to show that CSKA is not an ostrich after 0-5. In good or bad moments, CSKA is still an open club.

It was difficult to participate in that meeting because not only journalists were there, but also people on the stream. But as you see, after that press conference, we beat Maccabi and slowly started winning.

For me, as a GM, it's very important to keep the relationship with people, fans, media. We play basketball not for ourselves but for people. For these people, CSKA means a lot. Every day I try to be successful to make these people happy.

So who was Andrey Vatutin if there were no basketball?
Diplomat. After that, an owner of a restaurant. When I will retire (smiles).

Why diplomat and an owner of the restaurant?
Because I like good food and good wine. I try to visit some good places in every city and country I visit. When my friends go to Madrid or Barcelona, they call me to ask where to go.

If I had three lives, the first would be for basketball. The second life for diplomacy. I would like to work in Foreign Relations. And in the third life, I would be the owner of a restaurant.

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