The Russian team defeated the Spaniards with a margin of one point, which was a miracle in itself. The game provided rich material for a suspense movie script.
During the preliminaries, the Spanish team easily defeated the Russians, but those who know David Blatt, an Israeli-American basketball coach and a former basketball point guard, said about the lost game, which had not affected the subsequent struggle: "He just pretends he can do nothing, when in fact he is tuning the team for a possible playoff battle against the Spaniards."
Blatt, one of the most sought-after head coaches in the world, did this before the European championship. The Russian team then played against its potential adversaries - Lithuanians and the French - and was thoroughly thrashed. Yet Blatt and his boys seemed unperturbed. Moreover, the coach convinced the Russian basketball authorities that the results of training games should not be taken too seriously.
The Russian team started off well, which allowed the observers to say that nothing has changed, and that the Russian boys would win in their string but lose the playoffs. Russians last played in the finals of the European basketball championship 14 years ago, when they defeated Germany. Since then, the best they managed was break out of its string, but they never went further than quarterfinals.
This time the Russian team defeated the French and Lithuanians - to whom they had lost preliminary games - in quarterfinals and semifinals, gaining enough points to qualify for the basketball tournament of the 2008 Olympics. But nobody expected them to win the tournament.
What has helped the Russian boys to do better in the finals than the Spanish team, which had reached the European championship finals five times - and five times lost the game to others?
There are several reasons for that.
First, the Russian basketball federation created ideal conditions for the team, which is extremely important when you train to win.
Second, I would give the top prize to the man who had convinced David Blatt to take on the Russian team, which was viewed as a loser from a country with an underdeveloped basketball infrastructure.
Blatt is one of the world's top basketball coaches. An American who moved to Israel long ago, he played basketball at Princeton University from 1977 to 1981. After competing in the Maccabiah Games in Israel, Blatt decided to abandon his American career and began to play basketball in Israel. He stayed on to play for Israeli club teams for more than a decade until he ruptured his Achilles tendon.
After that he opted for coaching, and in the 1999/2000 season was assistant manager to Pini Gershon in Maccabi Tel Aviv, a great European-league team, for which he worked until 2004, when he moved to Dynamo St. Petersburg.
During the off season, Blatt went to Istanbul's Efes Pilsen after leading Benetton Treviso to the brink of the Euroleague's quarterfinal playoffs two seasons in a row, although he had been offered to coach Moscow Dynamo. However, the Russian club wanted an immediate answer, while Blatt was negotiating with an NBA club. Something went awry there, but Dynamo refused to wait for the temperamental coach. So he went to Turkey.
There are many people in Russia who say that combining coaching with club work is not good. However, Blatt, who never guarantees anyone a place on the team, now has a contract with the Russian national team until the end of the basketball tournament of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Third, the team coaches carefully selected players, taking into account the smallest details and their personal qualities. They needed a perfectly tuned team spirit to attain the challenging goal. As a result, nearly all the players mentioned the comfortable atmosphere during training.
And the fourth factor was the team's unquestionable leader, NBA player Andrei Kirilenko, who was named the best forward and best player of the European championship. Without acting like a star, he had complete psychological contact with other players, who respect Kirilenko for his talent, smooth relations with coaches, and dedicated play subordinated to the team game.
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