Today it will be the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Do you think the Americans learnt their lesson, or rather lessons and will avoid the fourth consecutive failure? You’ve managed the outrank them at the 2002 World championships when New Zealand reached the semifinals and USA finished only sixth even though they were on American soil. What is the mistake the Americans keep on doing? How can they overcome that?
I think the Americans are learning their lesson. I certainly think that in terms of the attitude the team has shown this year and in fact in 2006 was much better and I think this is one of their problems. I think their collective effort in building a team environment has not been good and I think in 2006 was much better. I think that’s why Mike Krzyzewski was brought onboard and I think it will be even much better this time. And certainly the comments of the players in the build up to Beijing has been very much humble approach, a reserved approach. They don’t talk as America’s game anymore they talk about as a world’s game. So I think that side of it on the outside it looks like they’re doing the right thing. But still the culture of American basketball doesn’t lend itself to the team concept. These players, if you look at the top teams, if you look at Spain, Greece, Argentina, you’ll see that those players have played in several different World Championships or Olympics together. The core of the American team keeps changing. They’re trying to address that with a squad of 24 players, but they still have a way to go to develop a real team culture. I don’t think it’s within their capabilities to ever develop a team culture as some of the other great nations do. At the same time I don’t think they are so dependant on it and they have such phenomenal individual talent and they know how to play as individuals, but still a way for them to be successful.
Do you think that they will avoid the wrong step they did at Athens Olympics when they lost to Puerto Rico in the opening game. Now they are playing against the host nation, China. Can they put it behind?
I think they are the favorites. But I don’t think that they are unbeatable. I think in 2006 they were favorites as well and I think they would have won the gold, but Greece played the game of their history. That was the game of their entire history and it was one of the most phenomenal game I’ve ever seen in team play. If somebody does that in the elimination game again then the US could lose again. But I think it’s getting less and less likely, because they’re adapting again to the international arena and they are taking a more humble approach but I still think it’s going to be interesting to see if Mike Krzyzewski himself has learned. We all tend to criticize the USA for their attitude, for not having their attitude right but it’s no question Yannakis outcoached in the semifinals in Tokyo 2 years ago and Krzyzewski didn’t have an answer for Greece’s pick and roll game and for Papaloukas. Now we’ll see whether he has learned or whether he has developed some other tactics. It’s attitude and it’s tactical. But I think Krzyzewski is a great coach and I think he will adapt and they will be better at it. It’s not like the old days of the 90’s when you give them the gold medal and everybody plays for the 2nd place.
Will you watch the games?
I will. I’ll try to watch as much as I can.
Tell us a little bit, how is it at the Olympics. You’ve been there. You compete against world leading athletes, the amount of pressure that the coach and the team is experiencing is enormous. How did you deal with that?
I think, first of all, even though it’s their first or their fifth Olympics, they recognize what a great privilege it is. The Olympics is probably the one sporting event that is probably bigger than sports and bigger than a sporting event. When you’re there you realize the cultural, ambassadorial and even political ramification of your actions, of your behaviors. And just your day to day life, you go into the Dining Hall there it’s a surreal sporting experience because you don’t just see a phenomenal organization of thousands of athletes, you’ll see Yao Ming walk by, you’ll see a great discus thrower, you see the best athletes in the world. It’s not the easiest thing to stay focused just on the sports at the same time you realize that is the toughest basketball tournament that you just want to be in. You have to try to stay focused. The external pressure and those sorts of things, you know that they are there, but you are just focused on your job and you are so focused on trying to do the best that you can for your country, they don’t think to be really significant and I think for New Zealand we were not under a lot of pressure. Most of the pressure we had was the pressure we put on ourselves.
Let’s go a little bit to the 2002 World Championships. New Zealand was ranked before the championship 23rd in the world, but you reached the semifinals. You had only one NBA player, I’m talking about Sean Marks. Did you do something magic? What did you tell the players in order to build that amount of confidence?
I think when we look back it felt magical. It felt like we have experienced something that went beyond. Just let’s do a great job, prepare and go out there and play great basketball. It was beyond that. There was a real sense that as in that was just like in that English saying that says “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. And there was an absolute sense that that had taken place to our team. That if you’d break us into 4 team individuals, none of us probably even belonged on that stage. But when you put us all together we were able to do some things in that tournament that defied everybody’s expectations and everybody’s belief. I don’t think that was any particular thing that you could put your finger on and say it was that particular thing that we did that allowed us to do that. It was more like a snowball begin to roll and we became a force. I don’t think we were a force when we went there, but we became a force through a combination of great chemistry and finally successes. Beating yougoslavia and Germany in the preparations, beating Canada. We had some veryy good wins along the way, that built a level of confidence and belief in the team and we had players that were two a man. Every single was dedicated to the job not to themselves.
Was a special atmosphere, let’s say family like. How would you describe it?
It was beyond family. I would compare it more probably to a battle field mentality where there was no question, that whatever it was required of us to sacrifice, we would make the sacrifice and we would do it knowing that we would contribute to the overall effort and we would do it happily. And that was everything from players diving for loose ball to coaches working till 4 in the morning on video-session, night after night, after night, to the physiotherapist giving eight hours of massage therapy a day. Whatever it required. It was an incredibly exhausting experience, but it was the same for everybody, but I think we went further than everybody else in terms of what we were prepared to do to be successful. And I think in the end everybody spoke of what a great success it was, we felt it was a pretty significant failure that we didn’t beat Yugoslavia in the semis and have a crack at Argentina in the Final. We never get our mind to the point that this is satisfying, this is phenomenal and we have done this and we can sit back and be happy. We were absolutely devastated that we lost in that semifinal. I think the affection of our fans back home and the outpouring of support and pride helped us recover quickly, but it doesn’t take away how devastated we were.
Let’s go now to the beginning of your career. You coached in USA for about 5 years then you went to New Zealand. Why did you choose New Zealand? Did you have any connection with NZ?
I did have a connection there. I didn’t know about it, but really New Zealand chose me. I didn’t really choose New Zealand, I was quite happy coaching in the states, working my way up the ladder. I was an assistant coach. I was ready to put my years in and wait for my break. But I had one particular frustrating year and a guy that had played for me a few years earlier was playing in New Zealand as a foreign player, as in import player and I didn’t even know that. And he rang me up and he just caught me on a day that I was a little bit frustrated and discouraged and he said: ”What would you think about coming down to New Zealand and coaching for the offseason. They are looking for coaches”. I said “Tell me about it”. After that conversation that was contact made, there was an offer I was just on a mind that it’s just gonna be for the offseason, so why not? I need the experience and the chance to see a bit of the world and that was it. The decision was made and I went. I loved it and I never looked back.
You were successful starting with the first year, you promoted Otago Nuggets. Afterwards you went to Auckland Stars, first as an assistant coach and later you became head coach and you managed to win 5 championships in 6 years. You had an outstanding career with New Zealand national team as well. You were perceived as a national hero. What made you come to coach in Europe?
It was probably more than a financial decision. Coaching in New Zealand was very restrictive, the sport has grown there and certainly myself and the guys that played in 2002 team we’ve benefited financially more than anybody else in the history of our sport. It still doesn’t compare at all with Europe. And also there was the element of the challenge. You can only win a championship a certain level for so many times before you can say:”I wanna move up “. I was looking for Australia more than anything, but they didn’t made an offer for me and what did open up was a chance in Turkey. And through international basketball and through the WC my reputation had started to grow and finally there was a team in Europe that wanted to take a chance on me and that turned out to be a great success for me and that built up my reputation and from there it’s been just sort of leap frogging around, jumping around and it’s brought me here in Cluj.
How do you see the level of European basketball. We’ve heard that recently a lot of NBA players are coming to play in Europe. I am talking about Arroyo, who played for Orlando Magic and he signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Earl Boykins that went to Virtus Bologna, Josh Childress (Olympiakos Pireu) and there were even some rumors about LeBron James coming to Europe if he would receive 50million dollars. Do you think European level grew compared to NBA level or is it still so far away from it?
It’s not so far. It moved considerably closer to the NBA level. It’s still a head above, but there are not two different universe like it used to be. I think that this is indicative of everything else that is happening in the world. We live in a world market right now, it’s very difficult for any country to protect any particular aspect of that country’s economy. So I don’t think the happening of NBA players coming to Europe, Major League Baseball going everywhere else. I don’t think any of these things are extraordinary. I think they are signs of an evolutionary process. Globalization. I think that Josh Childress is a known NBA player, probably the best NBA player to come to Europe, certainly in the prime of his career. Whether LeBron would do it? We’ll probably find out because I think there is somebody out there that has 50 million. 50 million a year would get me closer to becoming a billionaire than 30 million a year. And that is one of its expressed goals in life, that of becoming a billionaire.
He probably wants to surpass even Michael Jordan in yearly income. MJ reached around 30 millions. And even some European players that played in NBA are coming back to Europe. I’m talking about Jorge Garbajosa, Juan Carlos Navarro, Nenad Krstic, Bostjan Nachbar or Primoz Brezec.
Let’s talk about your European coaching experience. You coached in Turkey and Greece. You were a little bit disappointed about Greece, what about Cluj? Were you happy with what happened last season? There were only 6 or 7 months, but very intense. How would you describe it? Was it fulfilling?
I think it was a great coaching experience for me. I think anytime when you take over a team that is in a stressful situation it’s a great challenge. Because you have to address the mental aspect, the psychological aspect, the tactical aspect, the strategic aspect to the organization. And all of these things present with their own problems and we worked with all of them and I think in the end it was a strong team and a pretty strong organization at the end. So from my coaching experience stand point was fantastic. For the personal experience, getting to work with the organization, with Mircea Cristescu, my assistant coaches, the players that we had I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Are you happy with their support?
Absolutely. More than happy. I think that they did everything that they said they would do and that indicats that there is integrity there. I would rather have somebody tell me that they can’t do something than somebody lie to me and build the situation up, and say we could do this and then not do it. In the end it was a hugely frustrating experience because of all that was goings on in the Finals because of the refereeing situation and I don’t think it was just as in an English frase that we use “I don’t think it was all just smoke in mirrors”. It was real. There were real issues there. Anytime you have factors outside the ability of one team to beat the other or that team to beat the first team, affecting how a game is played, how a game is perceived, how a game is ended, the result of the game. Anytime you have this sort of factors it’s usually frustrating, because all you want in sport is the opportunity to be the better team or the better athlete on that day and for me, and for our team and for our fans this is what we felt it didn’t exist and while we put in some pretty good performances and while we put some pretty average performances in the playoffs. I think that in the end we don’t know the answer to that question. “Were we actually the better team?” That’s where the frustration exults.
In a February interview you said that when you arrived here in Cluj “the team lacked leadership and they had a disjointed mentality.” Were you able to successfully change that?
There is no question about it. We addressed those issues. We became a very unified group of players and coaches. We found some great leadership within the team. I think that Branko Cuic emerged as a tremendous leader in our team. I think Medvedj really emerged as a leader in our team. What we had to do was to identify the issues that weren’t allowing the leaders to lead. Because the leaders were there, but there were issues within the relationships, within the team that weren’t allowing these leaders to emerge. And once we got rid of these issues and once we discussed those issues then the leaders could do their job.
The supporters were proud that it has changed the way the players acted on the floor, the winning desire was there and it seemed that even the atmosphere in the locker room was much better compared to previous seasons, the team was much more united and it looked more like a family. Those are some basic principles for you?
Those issues that you’ve just outlined are beyond compromise for me. We are ambassadors for ourselves first, but anytime you put a uniform on, you represent many other interests. The interest of the organization, the owners, the sponsors, our fans, our city, you wear a lot of names when you put a uniform on. We owe all of those names a certain level of conduct and behavior and professionalism and competitiveness which as a couch is part of my responsibility to insure that the players give. I can’t always insure victory, but what I can insure is that we will be ambassadors for those things we are supposed to be ambassadors for. We had some disappointments in that regard as well. You know the frustration of what we felt, maybe issues with referees caused some of our behavior to be outside the line of what was acceptable, even my own. It’s something that I want to address this year and there is still room for improvement. There was no question, we became a competitive outfit that understood that we had powers much great than each one of us individually that we served and when we got down to the business of serving those powers our organization and our fans, we were a better team.
Despite the facts about refereeing, that in game 5 and in game 7 altogether, Ploiesti received 93 free throws and Cluj only 27, Bojan Obradovic in game 5 was awarded not less than 26 FT attempts, do you think that there were moments when Cluj players actually had gave up the fight, they felt they had lead in their shoes and there is no chance to win? Was it something wrong with their mentality in those moments?
I think the answer to that question is sadly yes. And I think that even myself, at times the level of discouragement and frustration was such that I questioned our ability to beat the odds. But I think that those things were sporadic. I think that maybe one player would get very discouraged and then he would recognize that this was happening and he would see another player starting to get discouraged and he might be the first guy to step in and try to pick him up. But certainly it was an inconsistency in our belief which didn’t help us. It didn’t help us at all. And it was very frustrating and very difficult to deal with and in the end we didn’t quite measure up to what the job was. And that’s why we finished second. We talked about it, we can give all the excuses in the world, but the bottom line is that nobody will remember who was second. So we have to find ways to overcome obstacles whatever they are.
It’s been two months since game 7 of the Finals. There were a lot of emotions then. Do you see the Finals any different now? Or do you think it was something taken away from you?
Do I feel any different? NO.
I don’t want to ask you about the quality of the refereeing, only if you want to comment on that. But do you see any solutions for the future? Would it be beneficial to bring foreign referees for the Finals, or for some important games?
I think that would be very sad. Because the quality of the refereeing in Romania is very good. I think that the decisions of the referees don’t live up to their own capabilities. And I think that’s what we have to find out. Why is that happening? Because I think our referees are fit, technically they are strong, they position themselves well in the game. There is no question in my mind they see things that they make decisions about whether to call it or not. Maybe that they are trying to interpret the instructions from FIBA about letting the game flow, manage the game a little bit more, maybe it’s something more sinister, I don’t know. My view is that our referees are more than competent. What they need to do, is they need to give themselves to the game of basketball, which is what they are supposed to do. They shouldn’t let anything interfere with their understanding that their job is to insure fair play.
Do you think the Romanian Basketball Federation should step up and implement a measure like in the NBA where referees are required to offer explanations to the players and coaches regarding certain calls?
I suggested these very things to the federation last year during the playoffs. There must be accountability for performances. Certainly the players are accountable to the coaches, the coaches to their owners, the teams are accountable to the federation. But I can’t find anywhere in this mix who the referees are accountable to, other than themselves. And I think in any business, in any enterprise that’s a flawed way of doing things. You can’t be accountable to yourself and expect excellence. It won’t happen. There is very, very few individuals in the world who were self motivated to the point of greatness. And that’s when you don’t have an institution of accountability that’s what you’re expecting. You’re expecting the referees to be great, just because they want to be great. The human nature for the ordinary person just isn’t like that. So my suggestion to the federation was (because) I think all national federations and FIBA as an international federation, their first responsibility is for the integrity of the game. And their job is to insure that. And when you have a system that is flawed, and I think that having referees not accountable to anybody is a flaw in the system that cannot exist. Then I think the federation CANNOT insure the integrity of the game. They’re not in a position to do that, so I think they have to fix that flaw in the system and then we will find that the referees actual abilities and their potential as referees will shine. I think we’ll see we have very good referees. But when we have a situation that they’re not accountable to anybody then anything can happen.
Would it be beneficial for Romanian teams to create a professional league? We have to keep in mind that there are plenty of teams that receive financial support from local authorities.
There are NBA franchises that receive financial support from the authorities. The stadiums are owned by local authorities and the teams are paid to use that stadium and to remain in that city. We have the recent example of the Seattle franchise that was not able to function there and they will move. I don’t think that point precludes professionalism and maybe the laws in Romania are different, I don’t know. Professionalism is a word that gets misused. I certainly think that we can exist in our current state and be very professionals and how we conduct ourselves and how we do things, but certainly when everybody understands that we’re going to become profit driven, then generally the level of accountability goes up for everybody and professional behavior follows that. Honestly I don’t have an opinion whether that’s the right model for Romania because I don’t know the structure here well enough. But I do know that if you can achieve that, that’s generally a better model, than a semiprofessional model.
Do you think the new resolution that allows the team to have 7 foreign players on the roster, but always at least one Romanian on the floor could be beneficial on long term for the Romanian basketball level or the Romanian players won’t get so many chances to play?
I tend to believe that it’s not beneficial for the development of the game in Romania. I tend to believe that these minutes in the Romanian basketball league being chewed up by foreign players are minutes that your top elite Romanian players, they need these minutes, they need this competition in order to lift their standard of play. However, I do believe that from the stand point of the league and the profile of the league and the level of the league, it could be beneficial for the league. I think it’s two different things and it depends on where you sit in the community of basketball and how you perceive it. For me, as a member of the league it will be a positive thing for the league. I think if I’m sitting in the development side of the game or in the Federation I’d probably have some issues.
This summer you were invited to Kusadasi to hold a presentation in front of 700 hundred coaches from all over the world in a FIBA endorsed event and also you have a school of trainers back in New Zealand. When Mircea Cristescu announced that you will extend your contract he also mentioned that you also will be in charge of the local coaches development. Could you explain that a little bit? And how can we increase the level of Romanian coaching?
I think that my role in this will be somewhat figurative, rather than more operational. Certainly I want to be involved with helping coaches develop themselves. I want to be accessible to local coaches. We haven’t established what programs we actually want to run, and actually what my role in these programs will be. But I have input into the information going to the coaches and there will be times when I will be personally working to the coaches. I really look forward to that. I think that it helps me as a coach, develop myself, because everytime you teach other people there is a different level of responsibility that you have, other than the actual coaching. I’m looking forward to it. As I said, we haven’t developed a program as yet, but there will be both an informational flow from me to our local coaches as well as some hands on work with the coaches. I hope that I can contribute something to their development.
Let’s talk about the next championship. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that you will play against Ploiesti in the first round of the Romanian Cup? It will be much more difficult for each other to study the other more thoroughly.
I think I’d rather answer that question after the game. J It is what it is. It’s gonna be difficult for both organizations. I think ideally it’s good from a promotional stand point. It kicks off the basketball season and everybody will be interested in the game, it will be a lot of interest. It’s bad on the sense that one of the top two teams will be eliminated early on. Like so many things there is a positive and a negative side of it. If we come out on the positive side then we’ll think it’s a great thing because we won’t have to deal with Ploiesti later. If we don’t win then we probably would be saying that sort of game should have been left for later down the track. But I think I’m a fairly objective individual, I think I can see the pros and the cons. It is what it is.
Are you a little bit worried that maybe the best Romanian player, Cătălin Burlacu, signed with Ploieşti after a two year experience abroad?
Burlacu is a hack of a player. When I was coaching in Turkey we played against them and I tried to recruit him in the next season. In Turkey I was really impressed with him. He’s a physical talent, he’s a competitor, now is more experienced. He can really play. He is a talent. I’m a little surprised he is back here in Romania. It’s great for the Romanian league, and it’s certainly very good for Ploiesti. It presents a huge challenge for everybody that has to try to defend him. Last year they had Griffith and Obradovic and they were too much for us in the playoff and now it’s gonna be Griffith and Burlacu. If anything, I think that they are a little bit stronger. But I hope we have a stronger team and I think that tactically we’ll understand our text a little bit better with a strong preseason. We aren’t going be afraid of Ploiesti and we aren’t gonna believe that they are not beatable. But these are just words we still have to go out there and try to beat them.
About next season, by adding Levi Szijarto to the roster, maybe the best Romanian defender maybe it’s not a big surprise that even in the next season DEFENCE will be an important role in your game philosophy. Do you intend to make any major changes to the tactics or were you happy with the way the players implemented last year and you will do only minor changes?
No, I wasn’t happy at all. I put a lot of emphasis on the preseason and on what we’re able to develop in term of team chemistry and a culture and the playing system. Obviously when you join a team halfway through the season you don’t have that. Our efforts in the preseason will be extremely important for how well we’ll do throughout the year. I don’t think that anybody has to be “shot between the eyes” to understand that we are going to come out and try to be a defense-oriented team. I want other teams when they think about preparing for us, to think about that this is going to be the most miserable experience that we could possibly imagine that we have to get out against these guys that will just die to stop us. If we can achieve that mentality then you become a real pain in the ass for everybody to play against and that’s really what I like. I like for our team to be really the toughest guys in the game, I like for other teams to, not fear us, just think “Ah, we gotta play Cluj this week and we know it’s going to be 40minutes of hell and if we can get the team to that sort of mentality I believe that we can be successful. And Levi is a player that fits very comfortably into that sort of a mentality.
You have also some other strong defenders. I’m talking about Chetreanu, Lapuşte and some other players.
I would like to believe that after the preseason they will all be strong defenders.
About last season, you made what it looked at that time like some surprise moves. For example you gave Ionuţ Mocanu a chance to play in the final and also it proved to be a good effort and it helped the team. Will all the players have equal chances to play in the next season or this preseason will help you to decide the 5 starters and then you’ll do only minor changes.
This whole thing about starters it’s a false thing in the whole world of sport, not just team sport, not just basketball, not just my team. I would much rather look at, if you want to see who the critical players are I’d much rather look at who is on the court at the end of the game in a close game than who starts the game. But to answer your question more directly the players don’t have equal chances. Everybody that says that they do is lying. There are certain players we expect to perform more and give us more, because of their ability level and their experience level, but having said that there can be many situations that arise in the course of a season that require any player to be used in a situation and they have to be ready and part of having a great team culture and a great team chemistry is that every player knows that they are important to the team. I think John didn’t play at all in the playoffs until the finals, but he still knew from everything that happen from the first day that I arrived that he was important in the environment of the team. And when I did tap him at the shoulder and I said “John, we need you to play”, he was ready. It was not something he didn’t believe he could do. He was ready. And I thought he gave a us a real honest effort and he helped us.
Do you have any news about Brad Buckman or LeVar Seals?
Yes. Neither will be back with us next year. We’ve just learned from Brad that he has other opportunities that he is going to take and LeVar is going to Cyprus. We really liked LeVar, but he wasn’t the guy that was going to fit into what we were trying to achieve this year.
Will Cluj have a complete roster by 11th of August? How is the recruiting campaign going?
I’m a little bit doubtful that we’ll have everybody by the 11th, although I really wanted to. But I think we will be within one or two players of completing the roster. We are very close. And we know who we want so it’s just a matter of just getting the contacts done and getting the players in airplanes or in cars in order to get here as quickly as possible.
And at the Tuesday’s press conference you emphasized that you need all the future players to have a good background. Is it related to the recent history of violence that we had in Romanian basketball? I’m talking about referees assaulted by players, players that came here with a history of rape allegations or even brawls outside of the court. Or is a principle that you always follow?
It’s a principle I’ve tried to follow all my life and its philosophy behind it’s rather simple and to some degree a bit selfish. I go to work everyday with these guys for ten months out of a year and I have a lot of control over who works in my environment, a selection of the players of the team and, simply speaking, I just don’t want to go to work with somebody I don’t like. I don’t care how talented they are. My job is important to me and my ability to enjoy my job is important to me and if I’m walking into the gymnasium every day and I look at two or three of the guys on the floor and I just don’t like them, I’m not going to enjoy my job. I don’t like people who don’t have good character. For me the quality of a person is more important than the quality as a player and there is a tremendous amount of players around the world that have great quality in character and more than adequate quality as a player.
Even in NBA we have some players that were gang related. Do the basketball players have to be role models for children and for the community in general?
I don’t think they have to be, I don’t think that it’s in anybody’s job description that you have to be a role model for young people. But I think all players should realize that whether they choose to actively do that or not, kids are going to look them, kids are going to model themselves on how these guys behave. While I don’t think a player should be told: “You have to go out in the community and you have to try to be mister nice guy all the time”. I do think the players should be aware that his behavior does impact people and consequently it’s not so hard to self control and preserve the right image. So I do think players should expect that from themselves even if I don’t think that the community should expect that of them.
Last year Mircea Cristescu organized a number of number of actions in local schools in order to increase children awareness regarding basketball. Will these actions continue this year or you don’t have any plans yet?
Mircea Cristescu is in charge of these operations. And we hadn’t have any meetings yet to discuss these things.
Mister Baldwin thank you for the interview and we wish you good luck in all your future endeavors !
8 August 2008.