Dzanan Musa opens up to BasketNews about his return to Piraeus eight years after leaving Olympiacos, his practices with Giorgos Bartzokas, and his thoughts about an NBA comeback. He also addresses Bosnia NT's financial issues and reveals the toughest moment in his career.

Credit: Real Madrid Baloncesto
Credit Real Madrid Baloncesto

After eight years, Dzanan Musa will again enter the arena he once came very close to calling home. 

The Bosnian international will spearhead Real Madrid's efforts when Los Blancos lock horns with hosts Olympiacos Piraeus on Friday night. In the undisputed game of the week in the EuroLeague, the Spanish powerhouse will see its status as leaders (13-6) put to a serious test by the Reds (12-7). 

But for Musa, the clash holds a special significance since it gives him a chance to face the team against whom he made his debut in the top continental competition and also to the place his entire career could have started. 

Musa, now 23, was widely considered Europe's top talent at the age of 15, even before he landed in Piraeus in September 2014. It didn't take him long to showcase his talents and convince everyone at Olympiacos that he'd be one of their leading players in the future.

The man in charge of Musa's development was no other than the person currently guiding the three-time EuroLeague champs. 

"I had individual practices with coach [Giorgos] Bartzokas," Dzanan Musa recalled in a conversation with BasketNews before Real Madrid traveled to Greece.

"It was special for me because I was a young player, only 15 years old at the time."

Musa recounts that Bartzokas constantly watched the young prospect and paid him some compliments that the gifted scorer cherishes to this day. 

"He was very polite with me, telling me that I'm very talented and that I had to work on. It meant a lot to me to hear those words from that kind of coach, and I'm very grateful for it," Musa adds. 

The young Bosnian talent was living out his dream in Olympiacos' locker room. He took a selfie while wearing the team's jersey and was delighted at the idea that he would be joining a European powerhouse.

Only things didn't turn out exactly that way. The defeat by Panathinaikos Athens in the Cup three weeks later changed the picture. Bartzokas, who was in favor of Olympiacos handing Musa his first professional contract, left the team while the deal was almost done. 

The two sides had reportedly reached an agreement for a seven-year contract worth 80,000 euros, in addition to guaranteed house and school expenses and a monthly salary of 1,500 euros.

On his return to Sarajevo (he was playing in the local city's basketball academy), Musa took advantage of the transit break to have a seven-hour stay in Belgrade and a meeting with agent Misko Raznatovic.

The Serbian players' rep told him it would not be a good idea to sign with Olympiacos, as they wanted him for their youth squad and not for the men's team.

Musa listened to Raznatovic but pointed out that he would return to Greece to work things out with the Reds. However, when the Greek side asked the player to put his signature on the contract and ratify the agreement, Misko came back with another offer. 

It was from Croatian club Cedevita Zagreb, who offered exactly the same amount, but with a twist that made the difference: Musa would join the men's team right away and get significant playing time. 

"My main goal was to play as soon as possible in senior basketball," he admits.

"The plan they had for me in Piraeus probably wasn't that quick. Cedevita were a team near my home, they were playing EuroLeague and very good basketball. They also had very professional facilities.

So, I decided to go there. They promised me that I'd play in the EuroLeague very soon. It was nice for me."

Since Giannis Sfairopoulos, the coach who succeeded Bartzokas at Olympiacos took over, Musa had already made up his mind.

"I never returned to Athens. Things didn't go as we planned, and I ended up signing with Cedevita. You can say that I was very close to signing with Olympiacos," he now comments. 

Musa spent the summer of 2015 working on a totally different assignment, helping the Bosnia and Herzegovina U16 national team win the title at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Georgia.

He then completed the team's magical run on August 16 by leading his country to the U16 European Championship crown.

It was clear that he had a bright future ahead of him. The young prospect was rewarded for his efforts by being named to the starting lineup at Cedevita's Euroleague season opener. As fate would have it, the opponent was Olympiacos, then led by Vassilis Spanoulis. 

"It was my first EuroLeague game, but it wasn't in Piraeus. It was in Crete," he remembers.

Musa's memory serves him well. The Greeks had to play their EuroLeague premiere away from Piraeus since they had been sanctioned for incidents during their 2014 playoff games vs. Real Madrid. 

"Three days before the game, the coach told me, 'Hey man, I know you are training hard every day. You're getting better and better, so you're starting and playing against Spanoulis," Musa told David Hein in 2015.

That prompted a strong reaction from the player. "I was like, 'Oh man, that's like playing against Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Spanoulis is amazing as a person. He asked me about myself and how I practice. That was a special moment. I scored four points, so I'm glad I debuted against that kind of player," Musa recounted.

A lot has happened since then. In his final season with Cedevita in 2017-18, he averaged 13.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.3 steals in 23.5 minutes per game.

At the age of 19, he was drafted with the 29th pick by the Brooklyn Nets, where he appeared in only 54 games in two seasons, averaging 4.3 points, 1.9 rebounds, and spending most of his time in the G-League.

Then came the moment Musa calls the toughest in his career so far.

"It was when I came back from the NBA. They told me that I was cut," he says. "But everything happens for a reason in life. So, I used that as motivation." 

In January 2021, he returned to Europe for Anadolu Efes Istanbul. His stint was short and didn't include any individual accolades. Still, Musa won the EuroLeague with Ergin Ataman's team and used the Turkish league games to get back on track.

It was time for takeoff. The 2021-22 campaign propelled him to stardom as the Bosnian guard led Rio Breogan to a Copa Del Rey berth for the first time in 30 years before becoming the Spanish league's top scorer and MVP. 

"I credit the people at Breogan for giving me so much love that I've never felt before," Musa acknowledges with gratitude.

"That helped me come to Real Madrid. I see this as a reward for my coming to Breogan. But they were one step, and now I'm taking the highest step possible. Breogan gave me the confidence I needed."

Musa's current season with Real Madrid has been great in every respect. He's averaging 15.4 points on excellent shooting splits (85.4%-57.7%-40%), 2.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and a PIR of 15.8. Not bad for someone that had accumulated 27 points in his first 14 appearances.

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"I'm happy to be here with Real Madrid and show everybody I'm on the highest level in EuroLeague. I'll try to win as many titles as I can with this club," Musa declares.

Looking back, one can only imagine how hard it has been for Musa to do justice to his talent and to his reputation as one of the top European talents. The pressure to justify and materialize all the comments and expectations people made or had of him could have easily derailed the young Bosnian. 

But Musa says his family always had his back. 

"They helped me every time I was getting lost a little bit with fame and other things," he concedes.

"I always wanted to play basketball like I did when I was 8-9 years old when I first started playing. I wanted to keep playing the same way, and that's what kept me on the ground. I'm thankful to my family for supporting me all the way and for showing me the right path."

That path has led him to Real Madrid, the NBA, and the Bosnian national team. 

His trajectory has followed a similar route to Luka Doncic's path, who grew up idolizing Vassilis Spanoulis. Musa names Kobe Bryant as his childhood idol. 

"I modeled my game around him, in terms of mentality," he says. 

But European basketball is full of legends, and Musa is playing with some of them right now in Madrid. The likes of Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez, and Rudy Fernandez populate the Spanish squad's locker room.

"It's a special feeling to learn from those guys and grow every day," Musa maintains.

"You have to respect those older players, especially Spanoulis, who's in my agency. It's very nice to feel that we belong to the same family. I've heard many stories about him. He's obviously a legend, but I see he's becoming a legend in the coaching system too. I'm very happy for him," the EuroLeague's 8th-best scorer joyfully notes.

For a player who debuted in the EuroLeague at 16 and became champion at 22 without scoring a single point that season, there's hardly anything that can limit his aspirations. In an interview seven years ago, Musa made a pretty audacious statement. 

"In the next 10 years, I want to be like Steph Curry, LeBron James and reach over Michael Jordan in NBA rings," he boldly told David Hein in 2015. 

Well, how's that going for him?

"Yes, I've said that over time, and I believe it's every kid's dream to achieve that. I am still an ambitious kid. I want to improve my game every day, and who knows what's going to happen in the future?" Musa responds. 

That last part of Musa's reply is particularly relevant when it comes to a potential NBA comeback. Bosnian legend Mirza Teletovic thinks it's only a matter of time until his countryman returns to the top league. 

"He may have gone to the NBA too soon and been burned, but I believe he will return to the US soon because he just needed more experience and more games," Teletovic said in an interview with Israel Hayom.

Although unaware of what may happen in the next years of his heyday, Musa has repeatedly stated he's focused on Real Madrid- an answer any athlete on their roster would provide if asked the same question.

However, for the EuroLeague star player, his presence in the Spanish capital is all about the feeling of intimacy that the NBA can hardly offer. 

"I'm happy that these people here treat me as their family. It's very important to me to feel that I'm welcome somewhere. That's something that money can't buy," Musa underlines. 

On the other hand, what would he do if an NBA team knocked on his door again?

"Of course, you're not closing the door on the NBA," he admits.

"If some offer comes, I'm going to take it seriously. But I hope to stay with Real Madrid for as many years as possible." 

That's a wish Musa extends to his time with the Bosnian national team. Despite his impressive showing at the 2022 EuroBasket (21.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists), the Balkan team didn't make it to the final round in Berlin after being placed in a very tough group featuring Slovenia, France, Germany, and Lithuania. 

But the basketball part in Bosnia and Herzegovina plays second fiddle to other issues, which have surfaced as far more important over the past few years.

During the European Championship U-16 in 2015, FIBA officials came into Bosnia's locker room after the quarter-finals game vs. Germany to tell an astonished Musa and his teammates that if they didn't pay the fee, their team wouldn't be allowed to play in the semis.

"We were in shock, and me and my teammates couldn't even talk after hearing that," Real Madrid's player described

A Bosnian businessman gave the solution back then, but financial problems kept tarnishing the federation. That was particularly evident in how the team prepared and eventually managed to participate in the EuroBasket.

Jusuf Nurkic said he's ready to take everything over to himself if that means improved conditions and decreased uncertainty. It looks like players of his caliber (and of Musa's also) are living in two different basketball realities.

On the one hand, there's a bright career at the highest level, whether in the NBA or with Real Madrid, a top-class organization. On the other hand, lies a national team that didn't know until the last minute if they were going to make it to Germany last September. 

On the outside, the whole setting seems rather embarrassing. Musa's words on the matter indicate that the problem is still there, more than likely to re-appear before the next big tournament.

"I don't know what to say. It's a very tough subject to talk about," he admits.

Credit REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen

"I'm playing in the best club in Europe, but when I go back to my country, nothing's easy. At the end of the day, you're not playing for your country for the money or for fame. You're playing because you love it. That's something that pushes us," he adds. 

"It's not always easy. EuroBasket was in question for us, but we have a great group of guys. We're all brothers, and I love all of them. I hope we'll be able to share the court for many more years."

However, Musa doesn't think players should take some initiatives and pay for expenses out of their own pockets like Nurkic offered to do.

"Our job isn't that," he clarifies. "We're players, and all we should care about is what happens on the court. Money and stuff like that in the national team isn't our problem."

The former Nets forward points out that all players strive to play and make their families and countrymen proud.

"Everything else is in the hands of the country's government," he stresses. 

Credit FIBA

But Musa's present is with Real Madrid, who face a challenge against Olympiacos. The forward is all for the atmosphere the home crowd will create in a packed Peace and Friendship Stadium. 

"It's always special to play in front of those fans. They have a great basketball culture, and I'm looking forward to the game. Olympiacos are a great team, and it's going to be fun to compete against one of the best teams in Europe," Musa holds. 

As a player who has tried on Olympiacos' jersey, even for a while, Musa reveals he has discussions with teammate Mario Hezonja about the Greek rivalry between Panathinaikos and Olympiacos.

"Of course [we talk about it]," he says.

By the way, Hezonja, who played for PAO in 2020-21, will visit Piraeus for the very first time since Game 4 of the 2015 EuroLeague playoffs, when Olympiacos downed FC Barcelona 3-1 thanks to a last-second, series-deciding 3-point shot by Giorgos Printezis. 

"I was even watching Mario when he played for Panathinaikos," Musa continues.

"Greek fans are unbelievable. When you watch those games, it's full of passion. That's why we play basketball.

Especially those derbies are amazing. I respect fans in Greece a lot, and I hope that we can enjoy basketball in a full gym during the game vs. Olympiacos."

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