Credit: Imago/Scanpix
Credit Imago/Scanpix

Alba in Spanish, Israel Gonzalez's native language, means dawn. From a more pragmatic and maybe cynical perspective, which also reflects reality, the Alba Group is simply the name of the Berlin-based company that in 1991 lent its name to the basketball team which emerged from now-defunct BG Charlottenburg.

Luke Sikma

Luke  Sikma
Luke  Sikma
MIN: 24.61
PTS: 9.4 (53.65%)
REB: 6.6
As: 3.68
ST: 1.12
BL: 0.16
TO: 2.04
GM: 25

Since then, ALBA Berlin have been a powerhouse in the German basketball universe. But over the last years -and especially since the legendary Aito Garcia Reneses took over- they seem to be aiming for longer-term goals than the mere conquest of titles.

Yes, they are the reigning back-to-back German champions, and also this year's domestic Cup winners. But that hardly makes Israel Gonzalez and the club change course.

Having succeeded his teacher and mentor, Madrid-born Reneses, on the bench last August, 47-year-old Gonzalez knew what he was going into. In 2017, he joined Aito, 70 at the time, at ALBA Berlin, with the two leading the club back to the EuroLeague two years later, despite losing the EuroCup title to Valencia Basket. 

During their common tenure, ALBA became the place where several German and non-German players have prospered. Luke Sikma is of course the most striking example, but other cases stand out as well: Simone Fontecchio, Rokas Giedraitis, Martin Hermansson, Tyler Cavanaugh, Niels Giffey, Peyton Siva. Even long-time veteran Jayson Granger took the opportunity presented to him by ALBA in 2020 to make a comeback season at the EuroLeague level. 

Credit Imago Scanpix

In the current EuroLeague campaign, ALBA present a decent 9-13 balance, which allows them to stay in the playoff race until further notice. However, it's more than certain that for Gonzalez, this possibility - no matter how appealing it may look- will by no means determine how this season will be labeled as.

The Cantabrian coach is well aware that his team is "going to lose more games than those we are going to win. The goal is for us to compete to the maximum in every game. As long as we're doing that, we'll be happy," he told BasketNews in an interview that took place in December 2021.

3-pointers this season

Points made: 9,1
Accuracy: 36,3%
Place in standings: 3
Record max: 15
Record min: 6
Most made 3FGs: Maodo Lo

If ALBA look like a team that's easy to please, it's because their plan is very concrete. After his experience alongside illustrious coaches, like Pablo Laso and Pedro Martínez, Gonzalez is clearly following in his mentor's footsteps. After all, it was Aito who said that winning isn't everything.

"If winning is the only thing that matters, this means that those who get the best players in the world and don’t win, are a failure. On the other hand, if you get players that tend to get better, play their hearts out, and don’t win, you can accept the situation with tranquility," Reneses said in an interview.

This rather stoic approach perfectly fits the philosophy of a club that has never been a big spender in European basketball. Gonzalez believes that low-budget teams can survive at the highest level "by trying to develop their homegrown players, those that don't get the immediate attention of other teams and the ones that know that if they do well, they will probably sign with other teams."

Credit Imago/Scanpix

Himar Ojeda, the club's sports director, has emphasized the utmost importance of keeping players happy. He's put a specific title on the project: the bubble of happiness.

"We do it day by day," Gonzalez explains. "It's very important that the players feel like going to work, that they like what they are doing."

Take Luke Sikma for instance. He joined ALBA in 2017 and is tied to the club until 2023. Not because other teams wouldn't want to have him, nor because he's got the biggest contract in EuroLeague.

"He feels at ease and sees how we do things to help him improve," Gonzalez explains.

"He senses that he's important, and maybe feeling well takes precedence for him over earning more money in other clubs with more pressure."

Ojeda, who opened the circle of Spaniards at ALBA in February 2016, told BasketNews' Uygar Karaca that ALBA are a team that mainly focuses on how they will perform. "We're not so much into the analysis of the opponents. We don't do match-up scouting and work on ourselves," he said.

Gonzalez further clarifies that this modus operandi is followed ahead of every game, including those against ALBA's main rival, Bayern Munich.

"The only difference is that we and Bayern know each other a little bit better, as we have played many times throughout the season. But if you were to ask me about the plays that Bayern use, I think I wouldn't be able to tell you any," the Spanish coach points out laughing.

In any case, especially for an outsider, ALBA are a special team. Although winning EuroLeague games has never become second nature to them, as Israel Gonzalez concedes, their style of play can bring any opponent to its knees. The reason is that under the "Spanish reign", the squad tends to run in transition, even after a basket scored against them.

They are keen on setting early offenses, usually in the first eight seconds. If they manage to be effective from a long distance and build some confidence, it's hard for any opponent to react.

The German side have a volatile five-man front-line, consisting of Ben Lammers, Luke Sikma, Oscar Da Silva, Johannes Thiemann, and Christ Koumadje. Almost everyone runs the court, poses a threat in 'pick and pop' situations, shooting after screens, and can pass the ball at least adequately after a short-roll. They can also put the ball on the floor in 'catch and go' situations to attack the basket.

As mentioned earlier, with four games in their last five games, ALBA Berlin still got some chances of going through to the playoffs, but their schedule is extremely tough.

Regardless of the outcome, Gonzalez would be very proud to hear his team being called one of the most exciting and fun-to-watch EuroLeague squads in recent history.

Here's what he told BasketNews in an interview about his work at ALBA Berlin, Aito's influence, Spanish coaches going abroad, and the importance of scouting in a team's performance.

First of all, are you satisfied with the team's EuroLeague track and performances this season?
Yes, a lot, actually. We started the pre-season with a lot of problems and injuries. Little by little, we have been getting players back, and then we found our form. It seems that we've managed to find a better dynamic, and we are playing better.

How easy was it for you to succeed Aito Reneses after having spent four years by his side?
As the club has done and as we have planned, it has been a fairly natural and relatively easy process. Last year I had some more responsibilities, being associate head coach, and -for better or for worse- I had to replace Aito for about a month.

It was a situation I already know. Besides, I've been working with Aito for six years. I believe in the philosophy of the group, and I'm also a part of it. Basically, we're working in the exact same way as Aito did.

Which element of coach Reneses' style or personality has kept you by his side for so long?
His way of coaching and teaching the way things should be done, not simply how to get past screens and how to grab a rebound. I have identified myself with the idea of playing fast, without overthinking it, and at a high pace.

I and Aito have been together for many years, and we have maintained a friendly relationship throughout time. Our co-existence turned out well because even before I met Aito, I studied his career a lot on video.

In Gran Canaria, we did things trying to imitate Aito's style a bit before he arrived. For me, it has been a luxury to be by his side and to keep learning and improving my style of basketball.

Credit Imago/Scanpix

ALBA have been a unique case in the EuroLeague universe in terms of playing almost carefree basketball and not letting results ruin the process. How did you succeed in meshing with the club's basketball philosophy?
Well, I think that's a credit to us coaches, but above all, a credit to the club that keeps the same line. They are aware of the situation we are in. Most probably, we have one of the lowest budgets in the EuroLeague.

We have tried to build a club philosophy whose basic principle is to always play better. We also want to develop our own players. We don't have as much market muscle as other clubs.

In order to achieve our goals, time and patience are necessary. We are aware that we're looking far beyond the short-term results.

Obviously, coach Reneses had a lot to do with it. "You don't need to win a title to enjoy basketball," he used to say. Players seem to be really buying into that mentality. Given that most of them come and go, how easy has it been for ALBA to maintain the same style over time?
It is true that we are talking about 5-6 players who leave the team every summer, but it is true that there are another 6 or 7 who stay.

Luke Sikma has been with us since the beginning. He is one of the great driving forces of this team and the main reason why we have been able to play this style of basketball.

We render our game a little bit freer, trying to read some situations and implement concepts, prioritizing passing over dribbling. This helps a lot. We also try to keep the same philosophy when signing players. I think that Himar Ojeda is very aware of the technical and human qualities needed for team building. We seem to be getting it right every year.

Little by little, the team is approaching the Spanish style even more, in line with what we set out to achieve four years ago. But the difference with Spain is noticeable in terms of officiating and style of play.

When we arrived in Germany, most teams were very strictly adhering to a pre-determined system. Now, we're noticing that more teams are trying to imitate certain ideas of ours. On the European level, of course, we are haven't been as influential.

On the other hand, one could also ask: How does a team with a 40% win share in the EuroLeague keep its players happy? Himar Ojeda has called it "the bubble of happiness".
(laughs) Yes, it is true that one of our goals is to build this "bubble of happiness". We do it day by day. It's very important that the players feel like going to work, that they like what they are doing.

Hence, our style is very educational, as we try to teach players by explaining to them how the team should work. We're trying to convince them that those ideas are the ones that will help develop both the team as a whole and them as individuals.

If we were to impose things on them or rebuke them for their mistakes, they would simply do everything wrong. We start from the basis that the players are eager to implement what we propose. Having people willing to work and also a good environment is where the foundations of this bubble of happiness are being laid.

Getting used to losing can be dangerous, as it causes a snowball effect. How can it be avoided?
We are aware that in the EuroLeague, we are going to lose more games than those we are going to win. We have to be smart and understand the situation.

The goal is for us to compete to the maximum in every game. As long as we're doing that, we'll be happy. If players give 100% and we don't manage to win, well... You can't ask for more, and I'm sure we will win games if we manage to play at our maximum level.

We know that our winning percentage will not exceed 50%. We know which club we are at and what their goal is.

On the other hand, we also have the BBL, where we can win a lot more than 50% of the games. This fact also helps us maintain our team dynamics.

I've asked him the same question. Now, I have to ask you too. How have ALBA managed to keep Luke Sikma for so many years and turn him into a franchise player?
I think he is happy because he fits into our basketball philosophy. He feels at ease and sees how we do things to help him improve. He senses that he's important, and maybe feeling well takes precedence for him over earning more money in other clubs with more pressure.

He's happy here, also doing a very good job with the young players. It is a luxury to be able to have him and share every day with him because watching him practice so hard and being so cheerful has been one of the joys of our training sessions.

Apart from captain Luka Sikma, ALBA has failed to keep other important players during the transfer market period. How should a team with limited resources move forward and address the future?
By trying to develop its homegrown players, those that don't get the immediate attention of other teams and the ones that know that if they do well, they will probably sign with other teams, as it's usually the case.

We have to learn to live with that and with the hope that someday the club will do better financially and that we will be able to compete with other clubs on better terms.

Credit Patrick Albertini/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

Aito's sabbatical year ended as he took over the youth team of Joventut Badalona. Do you think he'll ever coach a men's team again?
Probably, because Aito is holding up well. He is passionate about basketball, and he likes it a lot. If he feels physically well and is presented with a project that fits into his philosophy of how a team should work and basketball should be played, I could see him making a comeback.

In recent years, we have seen many Spanish coaches cross borders. I'm talking about veteran technicians who, to most people, would seem rather unlikely to try it. Joan Plaza must have paved the way, but Xavi Pascual, Curro Segura, Aito Reneses, and Luis Casimiro followed. How is this trend to be explained?
The ACB is a very strong league. Coaches with different traits have proven their worth. The success of the Spanish national team has shown that the work that Spanish clubs are doing with players' development is very good.

That's how doors to other markets open. It's good that now we have more choices in terms of finding a job vacancy.

Since the ACB is the best domestic league in Europe, Spanish coaches were usually reluctant to leave their comfort zone and try their luck in a foreign country. In some cases, they also had to deal with the language barrier, as they barely spoke English. How did things work out for you?
I was lucky that when Aito called me to join him at ALBA, it was like my career had gone full circle since Himar Ojeda was already there. Having a friend in the club was much easier.

The same goes with assistant coach Carlos Frade and Raul Rodriguez, who runs the youth team and with whom we were coaching in Gran Canaria's lower categories.

It was a pretty easy decision to make. First, because the person calling is Aito Garcia Reneses, one of Europe's leading coaches, and secondly, because the work conditions are good.

As you said, Aito Reneses, Himar Ojeda, Carlos Frade, Raul Rodriguez, Cristo Cabrera have worked or are still working for the club in various capacities. Players from Spain like Luke Sikma and Marcus Eriksson are starring on the court. Is it a coincidence?
Obviously, we all know the Spanish market very well. Luke Sikma has already been in the orbit of Gran Canaria, playing for their second team La Palma. We got to know what his character and personality were like. As soon as he developed as a player and had a good season with Valencia, we made him an offer, and he accepted it.

We knew who Marcus Eriksson was. He is another player we know very well for having played in Spain. Himar Ojeda has followed him since the time he was with the Atlanta Hawks. We did the same with Marius Grigonis, another player with ACB experience.

Credit Imago/Scanpix

Do you think that most coaches are mainly relying on scouting and the analysis of the opponent rather than on the improvement of their own team? How does one keep the balance between the two?
Both paths can lead to success. There are great coaches whose philosophy is based on scouting and on destroying the opponent's game.

Then, there is another great line of coaches where maybe scouting is secondary, and the most important thing is how their team performs. Aito is the forerunner of this theory, and it is our philosophy to think about our team and improve it.

For us, watching the video after the games are over is most important, as we have the chance to break down our successes and our failures. Conversely, we don't pay much attention to the pre-game video in order to see how our opponents play. We do want to have an idea of their style, but we don't delve into details.

Does that go for all games, even those against Bayern?
Yeah, absolutely. The only difference is that we and Bayern know each other a little bit better, as we have played many times throughout the season.

But if you were to ask me about the plays that Bayern use, I think I wouldn't be able to tell you any (laughs). We don't care much about their systems. We care a little bit about the characteristics of the players and, above all, that we do the things we have practiced and prepared well.

How can a team operate defensively with the minimum of scouting?
By relying on our rules, making the players understand the game and its important elements more, like the main characteristics of the players they're defending. Above all, we foster a firm belief in our rules and the confidence that if we abide by those rules, we will be able to defend against any offensive system, even if it's unknown to us.

Is there any special way to prepare your team before consecutive games, as it happens in a EuroLeague double-week?
Yes, we try to get some more rest. Maybe we practice less, we watch a lot of video, we analyze more what we have to do in those games. The key for us is to get on the court as fresh as possible and then be able to enjoy the games at 100%.

Do you think the EuroLeague could change something in its format?
The EuroLeague is on the right track in the sense that every ball, possession, and match matters. That's very nice because it's the main attraction of our brand of basketball compared to the NBA.

I think that in order for this trait not to be distorted, we have to reduce the number of games. You can't play 34 games in a domestic league, another 34 in the EuroLeague, plus any playoff and national team games in the summer.

If we keep overstuffing the schedule, we will see teams quitting games prematurely. For instance, whenever one team will be trailing by 15 points, they will immediately start thinking about the next game.

The important thing is to maintain this level of competitiveness in order to create and preserve a nice product for the fans.

Are there any coaches outside of Spain who have profoundly impacted your coaching identity?
I have always followed Zeljko Obradovic and Dusan Ivkovic a lot, but I don't have first-hand information to be able to say that they have influenced my philosophy.

I have had great luck starting my career with Pablo Laso. Then, I went to Pedro Martinez, Luis Casimiro, Aito and Manolo Hussein. I have had some great teachers, and I feel lucky and privileged to have worked with these coaches.

Credit Regina Hoffmann/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

How should a team of yours ideally operate on the court?
Our team is getting closer to what I have on my mind as the ideal way to play: a team that plays very aggressive defense, where players help each other and recover quickly. I would like us to continue being an attractive team to watch, with a lot of transition game and passing, where not only one player has the leading role on offense.

When the season is over, I like our players to say, "I'm a much better player than when it started." For me, this process has been most satisfying.

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