Exclusive interview with Achille Polonara, forward of Zalgiris Kaunas and the Italian national team. Polonara told us about his season, from the italian dream at the EuroBasket, to the EuroLeague which began with Efes and ended with the Lithuanians of Zalgiris Kaunas.
What a particular season with a thousand emotions for you. EuroBasket, the call of the reigning champions Anadolu Efes Istanbul then Zalgiris Kaunas. How was everything for you, how did you live it?
“It was a particular season for me because for the first time I changed team in the middle of the year. At the beginning with Efes it was difficult, not only for me but for the whole team, then with my agent we decided to change. I immediately considered the call from Zalgiris and I must say they helped me to be reborn. It took me a while to settle in, then we achieved great goals this year, the Lithuanian Cup, the EuroLeague Playoffs and we are fighting for the championship. Without a doubt it was a very good choice.”
What was the EuroBasket with Italy for you? What emotions did you feel?
“A wonderful experience. We are a group of players who have been more or less the same over the last 2/3 years, with a big brother like Poz. He is an atypical coach, but he gives you great confidence and brings out the best in you. You play with a serenity that you have with a few coaches and it’s also thanks to him that we did well at the European Championship.”
What is your relationship with Coach Pozzecco? Is he really a coach on the side of the players?
“Yes, he’s unique in this aspect. I’ve never had coaches like him. He’s a former player but also a coach who wants to be your big brother, give you advice, not yell at you or scare you, especially the younger ones. He’s giving you a lot of advices, he points out that extra detail in the right way to make you feel calm. We have great trust on him, it’s a positive mood for the group that helps the team a lot.”
The win against Serbia, a win that “shocked” the European basketball world.
“It was very good. We still had the memories of the victory in Belgrade in Serbia where no one believed in us and where that victory led us to a great Olympics. We faced Serbia aware of how strong they are and how great they are, we thought we’d enter the field and give everything we had because there was nothing to lose. This was our attitude, then in the end we looked up and saw the score on the scoreboard. We entered the field “badass” knowing to play the perfect match, also because we had Nikola Jokic against us, and so it was.”
Serbia had a Nikola Jokic who is now dominating in the NBA. What impression did it make on you? Is it really like Kevin Durant says, a star unlike any other who seems to “walk” or not do the right thing to then punctually score or invent for his teammates?
“He is a player who often has body language that seems wrong, he seems to walk careless and then he has that talent, unique. He can do whatever he wants, he has incredible game readings, being an added point guard in the game whether he is with the Nuggets or with Serbia. He has a unique touch under the basket, he shoots well from 3 points, he can do whatever he wants. With players like him or Giannis Antetokounmpo for example, one player isn’t enough to limit them, you need exceptional teamwork.”
Going back to your season, why didn’t it go well with Anadolu Efes?
“It has been a troubled season in general. Many players have remained from previous years, they added players of absolute level such as Clyburn who played in the Final Four or Zizic who played the NBA Finals with LeBron James, but for various reasons, it went bad.For example, the qualification for the EuroLeague Playoffs which seems absurd with a roster like that. There are those “troubled” seasons then even Larkin out at the end of December didn’t help, being a key player for Efes. Unfortunately, not always the strongest wins.”
Coach Ataman. What kind of coach is he and how was your relationship with him?
“He is a very good coach, of absolute level and with great experience. This year he has given all of himself, unfortunately things didn’t go well, seasons like this can also happen to high-level teams like Anadolu Efes.“
Could he be the right coach for Panathinaikos’ renaissance?
“Panathinaikos is a historic team in the Euroleague and the fans always expect a lot too. He can be the right man, he has won a lot and has a lot of experience. The last few years have not been brilliant for Panathinaikos but he can be the right man to bring them back.”
Then so many rumors. Virtus Bologna, Crvena Zvezda… what was true in all these rumors?
“There was very strong interest from Crvena Zvezda. For my part, I had taken this hypothesis into consideration, also because I had already worked with Dusko Ivanovic with Baskonia and I was very well with him. There was strong interest from both sides. Then with the fact that Red Star received the ban to register new players, as happened with Facundo Campazzo, nothing more happened. Yes, we were very close.”
Zalgiris Kaunas. Was it the right choice?
“Absolutely. It’s a club that has great ambition, wants to do well, with a great desire for revenge after last season in the EuroLeague. We have a coach at his first experience in the EuroLeague (Kazys Maksvytis) who however knows how to manage the team well and we has given so much. I would absolutely make this choice again.”
What’s your relationship with Coach Kazys Maksvytis?
“Good! He understood that at the beginning I needed some adaptation time because I had never changed teams in the middle of the season. He was very helpful, he gave me confidence and I can only thank him for that.”
Describe to us what Zalgiris is. Why are they able to perform “sporting miracles” every year starting against the initial predictions and why is this environment so special?
“In Lithuania, basketball is a religion and Zalgiris is the most followed and supported team. Zalgiris is more than a team for many, not just for the habitants of Kaunas, just look at the arena that is always full of people who drive for hours to come and watch Zalgiris. Coming to the arena is a celebration for Lithuanians. When I arrived it was January 9th and Zalgiris advertised matches and ticket sales for the end of March… everything else before was sold-out, I’ve never seen anything like this in all of Europe, amazing.”
How is to live in Lithuania?
“Ideal situation for a player. You don’t have many distractions, you can focus on basketball, you feel the warmth of people everywhere. On social networks, people always support you, never insults. Many fans and many teams should learn a lot from this mentality…”
Are you following the Italian championship? What idea did you get, predictable final Olimpia Milano – Virtus Bologna or do you see any surprises?
“I’m following Dinamo, in particular, which I’m still very close to them. I’ve seen my friends’ matches of Venezia, where Spissu and Moraschini are, and when I can, I always watch the Italian Playoffs matches. A Milano – Bologna final is not so easy. Every game there is a surprise, just look at how strong Venezia started. The Playoffs are a separate championship, where trust does a lot and can help you win the series.”
Do you see Achille Polonara as protagonist of the Italian league again or do you always see yourself in a foreign league?
“Sooner or later I’ll definitely go back to Italy, I don’t think I’ll finish my career abroad. When? I honestly don’t know, maybe it’s happening in this summer or otherwise in the future… there is a desire to return to Italy and this time will come.”
Where do you see Achille Polonara in 10 years? Still in the world of basketball?
“Not in 10 years.. (laughs ed.) It often occurs to me to think what I will do once I stop playing basketball, which will certainly be before 10 years. I still don’t know what I will do, I’m not sure I’ll stay in the world of basketball. I’m 70% for no, 30% for yes, although it’s too soon to say. Maybe in 6 months I’ll change my mind, but at the moment this is my thought.”
We conclude with your best Coach ever.
“Two coaches. Gianmarco Pozzecco, who I consider as an older brother, both in terms of player/coach and as a person. The other is Dusko Ivanovic, he is the coach with I had my best season in my career at Baskonia, he gave me a lot of confidence. In that year I was the player with most minutes in the entire EuroLeague, he made me play maybe even when I didn’t deserve. I had other important coaches, but these are without a doubt the first 2 names that come to mind .”