Credit: Lietkabelis
Credit Lietkabelis

Lietkabelis Panevezys head coach Nenad Canak never speaks for the headlines. But his path can't go under the spotlight anymore. 

You can call it destiny. You can call it a gift from above. The night he resigned from the team of his dreams, he received a phone call that changed his basketball life. He beat his most beloved team four years later, coached by the legendary Zeljko Obradovic.

BasketNews tells the story of another up-and-coming Serbian coach.

"Canak, leave!"

March 2019, LKL regular season game in Pasvalys. Pieno zvaigzdes host Lietkabelis.

Lietkabelis are down by 20 and suffer another disappointing defeat, dropping to the 5th position.

"That was a very disappointing game. It's hard to say anything smart. If the team defends like that, this is the mirror of the coach's job," Canak spoke after the 99-104 loss.

Canak went to talk to Lietkabelis director Martynas Purlys straight after the game.

"If you want, you should look for a better coach," Canak told him.

But he was surprised by the answer from an experienced Lithuanian GM.

"No way. Stay. You're still a young coach. One game doesn't mean anything," Purlys responded.

The following morning Canak understood that he was right.

That was critical support from his boss, which perhaps he lacked back in October 2018, when he decided to step down from the Partizan Belgrade head coach position.

That night, on October 26, 2018, Partizan lost to Zadar at home. It was the first win for Zadar in five Adriatic league games and the fifth loss in a row for Partizan and coach Nenad Canak.

During the game, Partizan were down by more than 20. Almost 8000 fans were booing already in the third quarter. Canak heard fans demanding his resignation.

Free throws this season

80%
16,9
Points made: 16,9
Accuracy: 79,9%
Place in standings: 2
Record max: 24
Record min: 11
Most made FTs: Mathias Lessort

"Canak, leave!" some chanted.

Former Partizan captain always joked that probably nobody supports the club more than him. He couldn't let himself be somebody who stopped Partizan from achieving its goals. 

Also, he didn't feel much support both inside and outside the club. So after the loss, Canak went to the locker room and said to his players that he was stepping down.

Canak lived 200 meters away from the Stark Arena. Before going home, he went to the restaurant on the other side of the street. Then he received a phone call from his agent Misko Raznatovic.

The agent informed him that one Lithuanian would call him soon. That was Jonas Vainauskas, the new GM of Lietkabelis Panevezys. He saw how Partizan won the Serbian Cup half a year ago after Canak's hire, and he loved that.

After a few days, Canak went for his first head coaching experience outside the Balkans. It turns out it was his second basketball life-changing call.

The first one happened in 2016.

Canak started his coaching career in 2012 when he joined Dejan Milojevic as an assistant in Mega Basket.

A couple of years later, he was appointed to work with the Mega junior team. He practiced team for five days and then played games on Saturdays and Sundays. That was an exhausting job, and Canak wanted to work on a higher level. So he decided to quit.

"Don't ever remind me that period," Nenad Canak smiles on a sunny Thursday morning in one of the cafes in Panevezys. "I had no idea what I would do. That was a tough time."

But after bad things, some good things happen.

Aleksandar Dzikic, the head coach of Partizan Belgrade, offered him an assistant job a week later.

"Without that Dzikic call, I don't know what I would be doing now," Canak admits.

His beginnings in Panevezys didn't look like a fairytale at all.

His GM changed ten players in two months in the middle of 2018-19 season.

His club, Lietkabelis, decided to cut a Lithuanian player due to match-fixing allegations.

The owner of Lietkabelis got into a public confrontation with the former GM and went to court.

During the LKL playoffs, Canak joined Lietkabelis players in the practices because they didn't have enough healthy players for full 5-on-5 drills.

It was an experience that usually follows with the contract termination. But not this time.

Not when Canak got this trust from his new GM, Martynas Purlys. When they showed him full support in his weakest moment, he couldn't turn his back on them a year later, when he grew up with the club together after going through all the scrutiny.

Four years later, he met Partizan again. But as a completely different coach.

Science fiction or playing against Zeljko

When EuroCup regular season draw put Lietkabelis in the same group as Partizan, it was already a hot topic for two Serbian players, Djordje Gagic and Nikola Radicevic.

It was a big thing for Gagic, who still has very close ties to Partizan since he played there from 2012 to 2015 and 2018 to 2019.

It was a very emotional return for him. Gagic met many friends before the game and found it hard to control his emotions. It turned out to be his worst EuroCup game ever. In 15 minutes, he scored 2 points, made five turnovers, and finished the match with -9 PIR.

Canak, who played professionally for 13 clubs until the age of 36, knew what was coming. So a week upon his return, he muted all the outside noise. And it wasn't easy.

His family was there. They lived a few minutes away from the game arena.

A lot of friends were there too. But Canak refused all these phone calls and invitations to meet even for a sip of coffee.

"What? You're the boss. You can do whatever you want!" his friends were surprised when Canak answered them.

He didn't even go out of Stark Arena locker room until 25 minutes before the tip-off.

"I acted like I was in Strasbourg or somewhere," Canak smiled. "I didn't make any exceptions. I didn't even go out of the hotel. I was ready for the game."

Canak understood that if he started spending his energy on other things, he wouldn't be 100% on the game.

The team followed his coach. Although Partizan never were behind in that game, they couldn't get too comfortable with their lead. Lietkabelis always were on Partizan's heels and gave a competitive fight 77-84. 

"I'm proud of myself because I was really into the game," Canak recalled his comeback to Belgrade. "I think I made good decisions. I followed the game. It wasn't easy for me because I played against Partizan for the first time. In the gym, which is 200 m away from my apartment. People made a warm welcome and everything. But I didn't do anything that could disturb my focus during this trip. I think it was the right way."

There were no tricks before the second matchup against Partizan four months later. But there were two essential things.

"Players saw that they can play on that level in Belgrade," Nenad Canak started.

"And I have to be honest. I knew that Partizan's clash with Red Star two days before our game in Panevezys would have an impact," he added.

Partizan celebrated their first emotional derby victory of the season over Crvena Zvezda 98-84 before their trip to Panevezys. But Lietkabelis made Partizan quickly forget the flavor of a big win.

Hosts just blew them off from the start. Lietkabelis have built a 22-point first-half lead and were up by 29 in the third quarter. Partizan fought for their pride and reduced the difference to 15 points in the last minutes of the battle, 78-93.

Do you remember Djordje Gagic and his -9 PIR in Belgrade? This time, he had a career-best 21 point performance.

Generally, that was a one-sided game. 

"You guys are doing a good job," Zeljko said, shaking Canak's hand before putting his players in a clinic.

"Let's try to find some excuse that we played a big derby in our country two nights ago. But that's the most stupid excuse that somebody can use," Obradovic was mad after the game in his unique way. "This is not an excuse. Everything is the opposite. If you like to play basketball and play for a club like Partizan, you have to give everything inside."

While Canak was waiting for his turn to join the press conference, his mobile phone was burning. Congratulations were flowing from his friends and colleagues.

"Also from friends who were Red Star fans," Canak laughs.

Considering his love for Partizan, the way he left Belgrade's club, and what it took to bounce back from it, it might have been one of the biggest victories of Nenad Canak's coaching career. But the coach tried to downplay his personal side of this win as much as possible.

"I'm 45. I'm not young anymore," Canak spoke to the media about the personal side of that victory. "This win is important only because Lietkabelis now have a chance to reach the Top 4 of the group."

"I was thrilled how my players stepped on the court with confidence. I knew that Zeljko did everything to wake up his team. But we're people," he added later to BasketNews.

"We started very well. We gained confidence. And to be honest, when Djordje Gagic and Gediminas Orelik play well, we're good," Canak said. "There were no tricks. And I'm not that type of coach who would say, 'oh, I was thinking what Zeljko will do, so I did this and that.' Nothing like that at all. We just played with 100% energy. They had a tough game and trip before. And we played really well."

Credit K. Kavolėlis

Lietkabelis players praised their coach for his well-prepared game plan. But he soft-pedaled it again.

He was never the one who spoke for the headlines. And he always preferred putting the spotlight on players instead of himself. Even facing the most significant victories in Lietkabelis history, Canak always started with players and never tried to impress somebody.

His job and results speak for itself.

"What kind of big statements? I didn't teach my players to make 3-pointers. I'm just trying to use my players' advantages," Canak explained his approach to big statements in the press conferences.

"People won't change their minds about me if I say something to impress. Be who you are. Don't act."

That's the mentality Nenad Canak carried from his father, a director of one of the biggest factories in Yugoslavia.

"He never put himself over others. He always supported his workers and tried to be on the same level as them," Canak got serious. "He talked with them about their problems. He tried to help these people. For me, he was an example of being down to earth. If you're the coach, you're not different from other people."

Credit BNS

During the interview, mostly elderly gentlemen were crossing by Canak in the coffee shop.

It's a small city of 85,000 inhabitants, so everybody knew who Canak was.

These fans were greeting Canak with a EuroCup victory he achieved the night before.

With a shy smile, Canak said 'ačiū' (thank you) every time.

"Don't disturb him. He's doing an interview," one older guy disciplined his friend.

"I think it's from him, my father," Canak concluded.

"To be honest, I really think that the most important thing with that win was that we kept our chances to make the Top 4," Canak wrapped up but added. "But when I started assistant coach job in Mega, I couldn't imagine that 4-5 years from now I will lead a team against Zeljko. At that moment, it was science fiction. Just because of that fact, I was proud of that win. But nothing more."

Much better coach now

Canak smiled when he was asked to compare himself between 2018 and 2022.

"He was the same person as now, who didn't forget his friends. He respected people that tried to support him in tough moments. But as a coach, Nenad Canak now is a much better coach than in 2018," Canak assured.

"I learned a lot from my players. The crucial thing is that Lietkabelis allowed me to make mistakes. It's said that smart people learn from other people's mistakes. No, people learn from their own mistakes. I learned from my mistakes a lot, especially during this period. But somehow, I realized my mistakes, and the club gave me time to grow up," Canak was thankful to Lietkabelis and its front office.

Nenad Canak loves Dusko Vujosevic. During this conversation, he quoted him at least three times.

"Like Dule Vujosevic said..." Canak started his thought, "... for each coach, some club allows him to be a coach. Somebody must make mistakes. Somebody must go through bad results. And after that, you will go up. You will correct those mistakes if you want to be a good coach."

"Zeljko Obradovic is one and only who became the EuroLeague champion from the beginning. For others, it's vital to go through mistakes and get support. I've been lucky because I went through that here, especially in the first year," Canak said to BasketNews. "And now I can be proud and happy because I played an official game against Zeljko Obradovic. I reached that level in Lietkabelis, and I'm proud of that. I think that I'm on a good way."

Credit BNS

Nenad Canak is one of the most respected coaches in Lithuania.

Other Lithuanian specialists admire him for his tactical knowledge. He has clear ideas and makes it easy for his players to transmit his strategy on the court.

Canak thinks basketball 24/7.

"Even if I drink coffee, I always have some ideas running in my head," Canak smiles.

But he's not that coach who will tell stories that he stays in the gym from 8:00 to 20:00. Again, he's not here to impress anybody.

He watches a lot of basketball. Mostly EuroLeague and EuroCup.

Thanks to a great memory, Canak always tries to think how he could use it for his roster when he notices some exciting set.

He follows his favorite team, Partizan, closely. He admires Zeljko Obradovic for his pick and roll spacing.

"I'm sure that with Zeljko, they will do the best in the crucial moments of the season," Canak said.

"I really like Balsa Koprivica. It's very good for Serbian basketball that we have a young big guy. Certainly, he will bring a lot of joy to the national team. Zeljko won't teach him how to make hook shots. But with Zeljko, he will learn how to act in practice, accept the information, and treat teammates."

Barcelona and Sarunas Jasikevicius is another thing to watch for Canak. He leans closer to the TV to check Saras' timeout sets.

"Saras has perfect ATO plays. He always changes some details," Canak recalls. "That's what I also try to do. Everybody does scouting and tries to change some small details to score two points. Sometimes it's enough for the game to be decided."

Aito Garcia Reneses also always was something he followed with great pleasure.

"For me, Aito is one of the best offensive coaches. Even now, when I saw him in Badalona, he still looked young," Canak smiled.

"One coach told a funny story about him. He said that when he started his coaching career, Aito was modern. When he became a head coach, Aito was still a modern coach. When he retired, Aito still was modern," Canak laughs.

As the coach says, there are so many sets, and everything is on YouTube now. But everything is about feeling what fits best for your players and adjusting small details to your team's strengths.

Canak looks for inspiration even on the football field. Serbian had a great connection with a former head coach of FC Panevezys, Joao Martins.

Canak is a big football fan, specifically, an FK Partizan supporter. He attended Martins' film sessions. Canak tried to see how the football team prepared for games, opened their offense, sparked a ball movement, and the coach tried to motivate his players.

"My offense is much better now," he summarizes his change from 2018. "I use better qualities of my team. I avoid playing that stereotype offense as I used it before. I'm more decisive when I choose the type of defense and strategy. I think players feel it, and they play with confidence."

Players play with confidence also because they know that the smart and right coach is behind their back.

The team loves him. As many Lietkabelis players said, Canak is not a typical Serbian coach who builds his authority and discipline through shouting and punishments. He's understanding, honest, simple, helpful.

As many LKL players said BasketNews, Lietkabelis became a desirable destination for Lithuanian players because of Canak.

After one of the critical EuroCup home victories against MoraBanc Andorra, Lietkabelis players had dinner. Usually, players want to rest from the coach as much as possible. But this group wanted to have their coach here with them, to enjoy this moment of another good team victory.

Confidence in his decisions, quality, and abilities was another significant difference from 2018.

"I agree. But the feedback from my players was very important. And it made me very confident," Canak emphasized. "I also must say that during these four years, I had a great connection with the coaching staff. These guys became my friends, not just assistants."

(Not so) weird dreams

Basketball pundits and fans questioned if Lietkabelis would make the EuroCup playoffs. Now, at the end of the regular season, Lietkabelis still aims for the Top 4 in Group A.

Even in losses against Joventut Badalona, Partizan, or Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, Lietkabelis were competitive until the end.

Recently, they beat the second-best Lithuanian team Rytas Vilnius in the Lithuanian Cup semifinal despite losing their main center, Gagic, on the game day due to Covid-19.

When almost nobody believed in Lietkabelis, Canak was the biggest supporter of his players from day one of the training camp.

"From the first moment, I told my players that we will have a lot of crossroads. It's easy to go left or right. But we have to be together and must go straight. Maybe slower. We can lose some games. But we can't allow somebody to go left or right," Canak explained.

Credit kavolelis.lt

Under Canak, Lietkabelis won 3rd place in the Lithuanian Cup twice (2019, 2020) and advanced to the finals for the last two years (2021, 2022). In LKL, they finished third in a previous couple of seasons (2020, 2021).

Now they have big ambitions to finally reach the LKL finals.

Many Lithuanian basketball fans believe it will be hard to contain Canak from leaving to a bigger European club.

Even a former NBA player from Lithuania, Donatas Motiejunas, suggested that Canak would have been an interesting option to take over Zalgiris Kaunas before they reportedly reached the agreement with Lithuanian NT head coach Kazys Maksvytis.

"I often watch Lietkabelis games, and I'm amazed by this coach. I would like to see him on a higher level," AS Monaco center told BasketNews. "I like his basketball philosophy, how he handles games, how he handles players. You can see his strategic impact on the game."

"Before the season, I didn't expect that kind of talks. But to be honest, I'm really focused only on Lietkabelis, like I always did," Canak said BasketNews.

"But for me, it's like a confirmation that basketball people in Lithuania recognized what we're doing here in Panevezys. And those are just good words, not for me but for Lietkabelis and my players. I'm focused on Lietkabelis 100%, and we'll see what will happen during the summer," Canak added.

Credit Karolis Kavolėlis

When Canak came to Panevezys, he didn't see many people on the streets on his Sunday walks.

But since then, a lot of things in Panevezys have changed. More people are smiling. New restaurants were opened. New green spaces emerged around the city.

"I'm really enjoying my time in Panevezys," Canak said. "Talking about basketball, I still hope we can get more support. The last EuroCup games were different, and players felt that. We need fans' support. I think we can do some big things together this year."

What basketball dreams are going through Canak's mind during these Sunday walks in Panevezys?

"In 2016, I left Mega, and at that moment, I thought I won't be in basketball anymore. Six years later, I played against Zeljko Obradovic. For sure, it wasn't in my plans," Canak laughs.

In an interview with the LKL media team, he mentioned his desire to coach ALBA Berlin one day. That's a rare dream you hear from a basketball coach from Serbia, right?

"No, why?" Canak smiles.

He played in ALBA from 2005 to 2007 and really enjoyed that time. His son Marko has born in Berlin. Two other sons started school here. He also has a lot of Serbian friends over there.

"Also, because I came here from Greece," Canak laughs.

He told a funny story. 

'Avrio, avrio!' Canak knows this Greek word very well. It means 'tomorrow.' That's what he heard from Makedonikos Kozani people every time he asked about his unpaid salary.

He also got to know what 'methavrio' means. It's 'the day after tomorrow.'

"After that season in Greece, I signed in Berlin," Canak started his funny experience.

"Like every Serbian, I didn't believe in cards, and I took some cash with me," he laughed.

He signed all the papers about the bank account and everything. But one day, his wife came to Berlin and asked: "What about your salary?"

"Nothing yet, nothing yet," he responded.

After two weeks, he went to the ALBA office.

"Hey, how are you? Everything is okay?" they asked.

Everyone was happy, laughing. They asked about Nenad's family.

"I'm okay, I'm okay. Everything is great. But what about my salary?" he asked them. "Sorry, I just want to plan things."

"What salary?" ALBA people were surprised.

"I mean, my salary," Canak replied.

"It's in your bank account. We sent your salary two weeks ago," ALBA people responded.

"In Greece, when they send me money, everybody calls you to say you've got paid. From the GM to the secretary," Canak laughs. "In Germany, it's a normal thing. If you're set to get paid on the 10th day of the month, on the same day, money will be in your bank account. I didn't check it because nobody told me they paid."

"I felt like a donkey," Canak laughs.

But it's not only about paying on time.

"They have a very good organization. ALBA always have ambitions. Those fans are also very loyal. If I had to choose, Partizan would be my team. I missed my chance in Partizan. If I can say where I would also like to work in Europe, it's ALBA. I don't know why it's strange for some people, because it's the EuroLeague team. But for me, it's a big team."

So what about dreams?

"I'm too old for dreams," he smiles. "Let's go day by day. No dreams anymore. I just try to prepare my team in every practice. Try to enjoy my life. Family. And watch football."

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