When a pair of classic ULEB Cup teams meet on Tuesday with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line, all eyes will be on Ventspils center Dusan Jelic. The veteran big man missed the first leg through illness, but will be back to try and guide the Latvian champions to a big victory over a former ULEB Cup champion, Hapoel Jerusalem, that won their first game by 15 points. Jelic has been in tough spots before during a lengthy career that has seen him play in six different countries. He even faced Hapoel Jerusalem three years ago at the same stage of the competition. In this ULEBcup.com interview, Jelic talks about the fans at Ventspils, how much longer he plans to play and the strength of the competition in the ULEB Cup. But what interests Jelic most are his team's chances on Tuesday. "We're all confident that we can win at home," Jelic told ULEBcup.com. "Aggressiveness is important. We have nothing to lose. I think we have enough experience to do it."
Next week, you and your teammates host Hapoel Jerusalem in a do-or-die game for a ticket to the ULEB Cup quarterfinals. What is your mindset heading into that encounter?
"I didn't play in the first game and, of course, they have a 15-point lead. They have a lot of ups and downs. They are a good home team, but not so good away. They have a good team. It will be very tough to play this game. I believe we can win, but it is do-or-die."
Surely it was no fun for you to miss the first game due to illness. Did you see anything while watching that you can help your team with in the second game?
"I think our problem was defense in the first game. I bring experience and presence inside. The main problem was with their zone defense. We have a problem against zone defenses. But if we shoot good at home, we can break their zone. Of course, they have a big lead. I wish it was less, but there is nothing we can do about that now."
You have quite a bit of experience in do-or-die games, even having faced Hapoel in the same stage of the ULEB Cup three years ago. What does your experience tell you that Ventspils has to do in the rematch?
"I played Hapoel three years ago with Prokom. It was unbelievable. They passed us and went on to win the whole competition. We lost there by 10 and won at home by 9. We are like the same team as Hapoel. If we shoot well, we can win. If not, we will lose. I think the main thing for us to win is to score 80-90 points. That's the style of Latvian and Eastern European basketball. Lots of running and three-point shooting. They have the upper hand, but we cannot be underestimated."
You've seen a lot of two-game series. Do they require a different mentality than normal games, or best-of playoffs?
"First of all, when I saw the draw, I knew it would be hard. We could have had Crvena Zvezda or even Hemofarm, which was the weakest team in the third level. Israeli teams are always tough, with good American and foreign players. In two games, it's very bad that we lost the first by 15. But I talked to my teammates when they returned. Okay, maybe we could have lost by only six or seven, but we're all confident that we can win at home. Aggressiveness is important. We have nothing to lose. I think we have enough experience to do it."
BK Ventspils is known for its great play on its home floor. How much of an advantage is it to play the deciding leg at home?
"The truth is that some of the best games we played this season were away. We have a good crowd at home. I think we are one of the oldest clubs in the ULEB Cup. Our crowd is like our sixth man on the court. I can't wait for it to start."
How does the atmosphere at Ventspils Nafta Hall compare with some of the other great arenas you've played at?
"Our fans are like family. I can't say we have crazy fans, but it's packed. Not too big, but crowded. I believe once we start playing, we really want to do this. We have very good chemistry between the fans and the team."
Latvia is sixth different country you've played in during your career. What has the experience to play in so many different places taught you about basketball and life?
"Markets move from place to place. I can say it's a good thing, because people know I am a Serb with Greek nationality, so I never have problems. I hope to play seven or eight more years if I'm healthy. Other countries I'd like to play in are Russia and Germany, even though I spent a few months with Alba Berlin some years ago. I've been lucky to play in some of the best leagues. Basketball here in Latvia is going up. Last year it was only Ventspils, but now there are three or four good teams. The Baltic League is a prestigious league. For the first time in my life I'm playing three games a week. Maybe a game in the Latvian League on Saturday and then ULEB Cup on Tuesday and Baltic League after that. It's like an NBA schedule."
This is the third season that you've played in the ULEB Cup. What can you say about the progress of the competition over the last few years?
"I think that this year there are really good teams in the ULEB Cup. And it's been that way for a few years. Three years ago, when Hapoel played Real Madrid in the final, a reporter from Spain called me to ask who I think will win. I said Real will win because it's Real Madrid. But Hapoel won. All of the players want to play in the Euroleague, but the difference between the Euroleague and the ULEB Cup is not so big like the difference between the ULEB Cup and the FIBA Cups."
One of the crucial individual matchups against Hapoel is inside, where you will face the 2005-06 Regular Season MVP Mario Austin. How do you see that battle?
"I don't think about that. I never do, I just go out there and play. I know that Austin is not tall, but he's very strong and plays the five position. But I don't think about that. I'm confident in my ability."
Thursday, February 8, 2007