Italian coach Ettore Messina sits down with R-Sport to discuss his plans to restore confidence at CSKA Moscow after the team's last-second Euroleague final defeat to Olympiacos, reveals what coaching techniques he gleaned from his time with Mike Brown at the L.A. Lakers, and hints that he wants to complete his career at the Olympic Games.
Messina led CSKA to Euroleague titles in 2006 and 2008 and spent last season working with the Lakers as a consultant to Brown before returning to Moscow to replace Jonas Kazlauskas after the 2011 final.
- How does it feel to be back at CSKA?
“I feel good. I’m very happy to be back at CSKA.”
- A lot of good memories coming back?
“Not only for that. I like to be here, to work with the people who are here. I like to work with the players that I already had and the players that I have signed. I like the commitment that the club has. I like the sense of family that we have here, I like it very much.”
- Since you joined you’ve had to rebuild the team. Are you satisfied with how it worked out?
“In the summer we tried to form a team or a group of players that we felt could become a good team. Now obviously we start practice and now we have the players, now we need to find the team.”
- Now you have four Serbian players in the squad. Is there any special reasoning behind that?
“First of all we found here already [Nenad] Krstic and [Milos] Teodosic and the reason why we signed [Vladimir] Erceg and [Zoran] Micov is because of their abilities, their background and the possibility they have to become greater players for CSKA. For me, there are not Russian players, Serbian players, black players, white players. I try to see if there is a good player, or maybe a player who is not so good. That is the only difference that I see in a player. I don’t see the nationality, the color of their skin, the background. I just don’t care about that.”
- How would you describe Micov and Erceg? How do they come across in training?
“Micov is a player who can play four positions because he can play point guard, he can play shooting guard, he can play small forward, which is his natural position and he can play also the big forward position. He is a smart player who understands what’s happening on the floor, he’s a good passer and a good shooter. Erceg, he’s a player who understands the game, he’s very young, he can really shoot a three-point shot. With his size and his three-point shot, I think he can give us a lot of versatility.”
- Turning now to the players who’ve left the club over the summer. Obviously we all know Andrei Kirilenko, but what do you think Alexey Shved’s chances in the NBA? Has he got what it takes?
“Look, Alexey has for sure the talent to play there. He’s probably at a good age to go there. I think they will ask him to use his creativity on the floor. At the same time, I think they will ask him to become stronger physically because contact is a very big factor in the NBA. If he manages to, let’s say, play through the high level of contact that there is in the NBA, for sure he has the talent to be a very, very interesting player at that level.”
- Three of the players that you helped develop when you were at CSKA previously, Trajan Langdon, J.R. Holden, Matjaz Smodis, have ended their careers very recently. Is there a bit of sadness that they weren’t around to see you come back to the team?
“The sadness, it was last year when we were all here at the ceremony for Langdon and Holden because they retired, because they stopped. As for me, I think we all need to make an effort to look forward, not to stay too attached to what happened before.”
- Do you still stay in contact with them?
“Oh, yeah. Sure.”
- You spent last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. What experience and expertise do you think you can bring in from the NBA?
“Last year, it was a very interesting season in terms of seeing how they relate to the players in the NBA, the relationships between coaches and players, how they organize their practice time, how they prepare the scouting of the opponents, how they a handle a special situation during the game, for example last-second shot, offense after timeout, defenses after timeout. There are a lot of things that we can pick up from the NBA, even if our game here is different.”
- There’s the stereotype of a more individualistic game in the NBA and a more team-oriented game in Europe. Are you relieved to come back to that more team-oriented style of play?
“No. I really enjoyed my experience there. I also said that, if I were a little younger, I would probably stay there. It was not suffering to stay there, it was great fun to stay there.”
- CSKA have got three tournaments this season, the Euroleague, the VTB and the Russian championship, with an unusual situation within the VTB. How do you feel about that and how does it affect your planning?
“I’m open. It’s like when I came to Russia for the first time, I was very curious how the Russian championship was, compared to other championships. Also, this is the first time where you have this league that merges into the VTB. It’s a little bit like a mini-NBA because you have conferences and your group, but also you have to play the Russian teams that are in the other group. If they have decided like this, it means that the people who take this kind of, let’s say, strategic decision feel that this is the best way to keep pushing basketball in our country and in the countries of Eastern Europe. So I’m fine with that.”
- Did you welcome the expansion of the VTB when it was introduced?
“For sure, I’m happy to see this expanded, this big VTB League, with the playoff and everything else. Maybe, maybe it will be interesting to see how the Russian championship will still remain in the mind of the fans and the players, and that is also important.”
- So there’s a danger of the Russian championship being forgotten?
“Forgotten, no, but for sure it’s also interesting to see how the television and the media will handle this. It’s just something new, you know? Every time there is something new, you need to see how the thing will be accepted and implemented. Obviously, when there is something new, usually there is some kind of fear that what is new is not as good as the old, but for sure, I would say 90 percent of the time when you make some big step forward, it’s not easy to understand at the beginning, then after a while the value of this step forward, of this change, is understood.”
- In the Euroleague, is it fair to say that if CSKA don’t make the Final Four, then the season is a failure?
“Look, every year when CSKA organize the season, everybody expects CSKA to be in the Final Four, so regardless of what I say or what I think, everybody will expect CSKA to be in the Final Four. So my opinion doesn’t matter.”
- What effect does that have on you, that pressure?
“There is nothing stronger than the pressure that you put on yourself to do things. I respect a lot the opinion of the fans. At the same time there is, for sure, here there is a group of people who work very hard and very seriously to have CSKA in the Final Four. So what I know is that myself, the players the club, everybody will make 101 percent effort to be in the Final Four. I also know that if we put this effort with the talent the team has, there is a big chance that CSKA will be in the Final Four. So the only thing is I can work and wait.”
- Are there any psychological effects in the team from last year’s final, when CSKA lost 62-61 to Olympiacos?
“It’s interesting because, the first time I came to coach CSKA [in 2005], was after the Final Four in Moscow, when the team had lost the semifinal after basically winning all the games that year. I remember when we started the season, the first game of the Euroleague, there was a lot of, let’s say, holding back over what happened two or three months before. So I’m curious to see how it happens. The good thing is that I am new, so if maybe some of my players or somebody here will still be thinking about last year, I help them to forget and to focus on the next season.”
- I’m sure you’ve had a look round Europe at the squads that are out there. Who do you rank among the favorites this season? Any surprises?
“For sure the summer has been influenced by the economic situation, so for example we have seen Panathinaikos and Olympiacos who have changed a lot and nobody knows if they will be better or worse than last season. For sure, the four Turkish teams and especially Ulker and Efes have made an incredible campaign to make their teams stronger. There are again the Spanish teams, and Maccabi’s always there, Milano has made a lot of investment to have a very, very competitive team, then the Russian teams. So I think that because of all this, it will be uncertain what will happen. We will probably need some time before really understanding who the strongest competitors are.”
- About your blog, you’re one of the few, or maybe the only coach in Russia who’s communicating with the public in that way. What’s the rationale behind that - is it something you do for yourself, or is there is a message you want to put across?
“No, it’s just to communicate, just to explain yourself to people that see you and your team only on the final stage, which is the game, and just for people to understand what is going on behind all that and to have a better feel for what these coaches, these players, this club are trying to do.”
- Do you think that openness helps the team?
“I have no idea. I do it because I think it can help me and the team. I don’t pass on any information which is private and relates to what’s inside the team during the day, during the week, during the game, because that’s private and that should be, let’s say, preserved. But if there is anything that I feel would be interesting to share with our fans, I think it’s a good thing. Sometimes fans see coaches and players very, very far and I don’t think it’s good.”
- Do you still have the desire to work with a national team again?
- Have you had any offers?
“No. The problem with that thing is that you never know if it’s a good thing to have a full-time job or a part-time job with a national team. Unfortunately now the national teams only play most of the time in the summer, so you never know. At the same time, there is a reason behind what I said. I never took part in the Olympic Games and maybe I would like to do it before finishing my career.”
- Have you had any thoughts about any future involvement with the Italian team, and how would you describe coach Simone Pianigiani’s work?
“He’s doing very good work, I think, especially this summer without [Andrea] Bargnani and [Marco] Belinelli, he helped the team to come out together. I think it will make a very good experience, a very interesting experience for his life and his career, because he will work outside Italy for the first time. I think he’s the best possible choice for the national team of Italy, because when he was appointed coach of the national team, I was probably one of the few people who really sponsored him, meaning I said he is the right person and the federation should sign him, he’s coaching the best team in Italy, he has won the championship, he knows the best players in Italy, it’s important the federation put him in. I really believed.”
- How would you feel about meeting him and his Fenerbahce team in the Euroleague?
“Like when you face Efes or Barcelona or Panathinaikos. It’s still going to be a very difficult team.”