Just as Lithuania Today is going to press, Lietuvos Rytas has announced that Zmago Sagadin has been replaced by assistant coach Aleksandr Trifunovič, despite the fact that Lietuvos Rytas won by the required five points to move into the next round of ULEB competition.
Frankly I’m starting to feel like some sort of kiss of death for coaches, because just after my interview with previous coach Sharon Drucker, he resigned by ‘mutual consent’ as well.
In this interview you will read that I broached the question of his hard training regime, and also the Žukauskas question, which I believe were the main reasons for his demise. Again, word from the club is that the parting was by mutual consent, and Club Director Jonas Vainauskas thanked Sagadin for his efforts in stabilising the club, but under his tenure, the players were often visibly tired and fatigued, and simply unable to perform at their peak. Here’s hoping that we are yet to see the best of Lietuvos Rytas.
Photo: Lietuvos Rytas
Calling the Shots
This month we talk to Zmagoslav Sagadin, the Lietuvos Rytas coach who took over the reigns of the team just before Christmas. Known as a tough task master, the Slovenian-born coach has many years experience, and has Sarunas Jasikevicius as one of his many fans. Sarunas stated that Sagadin raised his game to the elite level that eventually took him to the NBA. Coach Sagadin has a good record in bringing young players and teams together and getting the best out of every player.
We’re at the sharp end of the ULEB season. With the qualifying rounds done and dusted, Lietuvos Rytas took top spot in Group A, becoming one of the four seeded teams going into the finals. The first round of final 16 is halfway through, with Rytas recording a surprising loss to Snaidero Udine, though the three point margin in the away leg was comforting.
With three of their most experienced players sidelined through injury for that game, it is expected that Nielsen, Rush and Stelmahers will be available for the return leg in Vilnius on 13 February, and Lietuvos Rytas can move into the next round.
Coach Sagadin, you announced shortly after your arrival that it will take a month before anyone can call this team your own, and you also indicated that you were a bit disappointed in the physical conditioning of the players. With a couple of months and the Christmas break behind you, what have been your priorities so far?
Watching tapes I saw this team had great talent, especially offensively, but were not up to speed defensively. I was surprised by their lack of conditioning, and I could not do too much about that. I have tried to work hard in building a strong defence so we can win games when we are not scoring well.
I did not select this team. Basketball is physical and you have to be strong. You cannot just shoot - it looks good and I have nothing against it - but to win on the road, you have to have it all. It is very different with things against you - the crowd, the referees and the atmosphere. It is almost impossible to win with just good shooting when you are away, and the best teams are those that win road games. At the moment we are winning at home, but we need to win those road games. But we are improving, and step by step we are getting there.
There have also been some major player changes in that time. How have you tried to change the make-up and balance of the team that you inherited?
I tried to let players convince me that they deserve to play, and to show me that they want to work hard and improve, and that is why I eliminated some of them.
We have a decent team now, but we probably could not play Euroleague. The best Lithuanian players are playing for foreign clubs, and at the moment there are not enough domestic players to be competitive in the top European division. This country is not rich enough to buy really good foreigners who will still go to the top clubs in Spain, Greece and Italy because they have the budgets. It will be hard in the future too, to build a team that is competitive in Euroleague. I am not overly optimistic, but with the return of Stelmahers who is the brains, Rush the scorer, and Nielsen our best inside guy, with those three we can do something at a European level.
But there is a lot of potential here. There are great facilities at Lietuvos Rytas and clubs should pay more attention to nurturing young players. I am trying to convince management to move in that direction, to have a young team behind us as a feeder team, and perhaps even sell a few players to make some money. We cannot compete with the big European budgets so we have to do things a bit differently.
The recent loss to Zalgaris was against form. While Zalgaris had nothing else to play for - trying to resurrect something from a disastrous season – the Lietuvos Rytas focus was very much on the upcoming ULEB playoffs. Was the big-crowd and big-game experience helpful for the team, or does the loss negate any positive benefits?
I don’t know my players in detail yet. Sometimes they surprise me. The first game against Zalgaris I didn’t expect that much against a better credentialed team, but we won easy. Some of our guys did extremely well and surprised me in a positive way. In the second game I expected more, and suddenly we didn’t shoot well.
Of course there will be a fight with Zalgaris at all three levels. I am also impressed with ASK and Barons, and now Ventspils have a smart program so they are improving and are well on the way up, that is why they have reached the last 16 in ULEB. We should respect those teams too and we need to perform at our best in last part of Baltic league as well. But filling the stadium with 10,000 people against Zalgaris is a big responsibility and I will do my best to make it happen.
The question of Zukauskas is raised at just about every press conference. Will he get a bit more of a chance, or is the role of the big man limited?
The seven footers are diminishing. European clubs are selecting 205 - 210 cm types, much tougher players who can run and face the basket as well. But Eurelius is here and doing his job, coming to practice and working hard. We are building our defence, and with a strong zone he can play as commander in the middle and can be a big help, especially in the domestic and Baltic league.
It is more important how you select the team than how you manage it these days. There are so many games, too many, and not enough practice. We play three leagues and usually have three games per week. You have to have enough players and be strong enough to play three games each week. That is also why I am convincing management to be sure to select a physical team.
You are renowned as a tough trainer. During press conferences journalists often speculate that you train the players hard, and that is the reason for injuries. What is your reaction to that?
My system is hard for players not physically ready. The first part of the season they didn’t have any conditioning because the previous coach didn’t allow any weights at all. It was a big problem, but now most of the team has adapted. There will always be some injuries, but it has stabilised, and when you are strong and prepared there are in fact less injuries. Now we have settled on one and a half conditioning sessions a week which is quite normal.
I hope we will have some luck as well, and that our fans will support us until the end of the season. I tell the team every day not to let down the great supporters we have. Most teams play in front of semi-empty gyms and don’t know how enjoyable it is to play to full crowds like we do. They should enjoy it and do their best to maintain it.
Before the game against Snaidero Udine you suggested that losing by a few points would be quite acceptable, and that is exactly what happened after a slow start that saw Rytas trailing by up to 16 points. With the return leg just over a week away, the equation is quite straightforward – win by more than four points or the ULEB season is over. You were obviously keeping in mind the home court advantage for next game and the return of Nielsen, Rush and Stelmahers to give you that optimism. In the meantime however, Snaidero Udine has recruited three or more new players, throwing a lot of pre-finals form into confusion. How do you see the upcoming clash and the race to the ULEB Cup?
They surprised me that they are investing so heavily in the second round of ULEB and their national championships. They are especially good from the perimeter and have good experience. They are not so good inside and I was pissed off last game that we got beat inside. We did not know that their big guy could shoot threes, he probably surprised himself, hitting five from six. I think we have enough to beat them even without the return of our three main players. I have no doubt we can do it.
It has been an exciting year for us Rytas supporters. The team never says die, and has made some good comebacks from almost disastrous situations. On the other hand, it has also been a never say win team, with some match-winning leads whittled down in the final minutes. Do you have any plans to ease our collective blood pressure?
We are not stable, we go up and down. I’m surprised with some guys and I don’t know their mentality, so I’m just showing them how to learn from their mistakes. We analyse everything and hope we will not repeat our mistakes. Basketball is a game of habits and it is not easy to change habits. It takes time, I cannot do a lot even in three or four months.
I don’t like having a big lead early. I try to involve most players and to play physically in the first half, giving all ten guys a chance. I like to see who is good on the day and then go 100% in the third quarter, take a lead and then protect in the last. We are much more focussed when we are a few points behind. When we are up I see players are not listening and looking around the stadium during time-outs. This team is not experienced enough to protect a lead. With Stelmahers returning and controlling the game it should be better, but without him I have a problem.
In doing research on you, a number of sources noted that you look older than your 54 years. You yourself have said that the stint in Vilnius will probably be your last coaching years before retiring. Having watched you coach, as well as referee and analyse most games in Vilnius this year, I am in fact surprised that you look so young. I was surprised by the amount of emotion you invest in every game, which is at odds with your straightforward reputation. Where is the line in professional sport these days; between emotion and calm calculation?
Professor Acanikolic, who was the sage of many Yugoslavian-era coaches, said that you can only coach at the top level for 20 - 25 years. Now it is my 34th season, so my nervous system is probably exhausted and it will be smart to retire as soon as possible. But I have changed my mind two or three times; going to Belgrade then Ljubljana, where I was convinced by the Minister of Sport to help stabilise Olympia. Then I retired to enjoy life, but it got boring, so I decided to work two or three years more, and now that will be it. I hope.
Club management are talking to me about the future but I have still not decided just yet. I hope to decide in March or April.
You are renown for having little or no contact with players away from the court. Is this simply the way your coaching has evolved, or is there a particular method behind your style?
We spend five or six hours together nearly every day and that is enough. I like to talk to players individually after practice about what to focus on. We spend too much time around the court already. They have their own lives and I don’t think they want to see me anymore either.
Finally, I presume you have been well aware of Lithuanian basketball traditions for many years, with your tutorship of Jasikevicius and proximity in European leagues. How have you found the basketball environment here, as well as living and working in Vilnius?
Actually I don’t have a lot of time for a social life, but the first impression was a good surprise. I like restaurants and see many good ones here. I have not had the chance to visit any museums or see the cultural side yet, but the first impression is that it is a very European town and not hard to live here.
I really admire that basketball is the number one sport here. Most of the people I meet really understand basketball. In Serbia it is similar, but here it is even better. They really understand the game and you cannot bluff them. You have to show that you know what you are doing.