Joan Plaza, Real Madrid

Apr 08, 2007 by Javier Gancedo, Print
Joan Plaza, Real Madrid

Joan Plaza - Real Madrid

Joan Plaza more than paid his dues before getting his chance to coach Real Madrid. Almost 30 years' worth of dues, in fact. That is the amount of time he spent coaching youth teams, during which he helped develop two of his current stars, Raul Lopez and Alex Mumbru, combined with the time he spent as an assistant under coaching legends like Aito Garcia Reneses and Bozidar Maljkovic. All have prepared Plaza for the task at hand - helping the winningest team in European basketball history to end a 10-year continental title drought by beating Lietuvos Rytas in the ULEB Cup Final in Charleroi. For Plaza, winning will be about personal fulfillment, but also much more. “It is time for us to win the competition, the one missing in the club's roll of honors," Plaza told "Personally, it would compensate me for many years in which I was about to throw in the towel."

Real Madrid has made it to the ULEB Cup final for the second time in club history. How has the season been for your team and what is your opinion of the competition?

"The competition level has been high. So high that, at times, it has been similar and even better than in the Euroleague. The fact that, at some point during the season, the French, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Adriatic League leaders were taking part in the ULEB Cup says enough about the competition level. I think we have improved a lot as the competition went on and I am happy with the progress my team had throughout the ULEB Cup season."

Despite being the winningest club in European basketball history, Real Madrid has not lifted a European title since 1997. Is that extra pressure for a team with such a strong tradition?

"I don't think so. It is logical to think that Real Madrid has to compete and try to win each and every title possible, but once that is said, we arrive to the ULEB Cup Final being sure that we did a good job to get to Charleroi. It took us a little time to get used to the competition level, but we have been able to knock off strong opponents as the season went by. Of course, the goal is the same: we want to win the title. Lietuvos Rytas won the title two years ago and we lost the final in 2004, so it is time for us to win the competition, the one missing in the club's roll of honors."

Joan Plaza - Real MadridYou worked seven years as an assistant coach to some of the greatest basketball bosses in Spain and Europe, such as Manel Comas, Aito Garcia Reneses and Bozidar Maljkovic. What did you learn from them and who are your biggest references as a coach?

"It is logical to say that I learned a lot with all these coaches, and also from having the chance to play the Euroleague and the ULEB Cup. I made it to the ULEB Cup semifinals with Joventut in 2003. All that gave me enough experience to take the head coach responsibilities at a big club playing in European competitions. I think that all these coaches were different from one another and I learned good things from everyone. Some of them cared more about physical, technical, tactical or emotional issues. All those years as an assistant coach, plus 22 years as first-team coach, helped me to get enough experience to challenge for a major European title with a team like Real Madrid."

You coached Raul Lopez and Alex Mumbru as juniors at Joventut and now you are back together trying to win a title as players and coach at Real Madrid. How special is that for you?

"It is very special. Not so long ago, when I still was an assistant coach, one of the achievements I was really proud of was developing young talents such as Raul and Alex, but also some other players who are earning a living as professional basketball players like Sergi Vidal, Albert Miralles, Oscar Yebra, Cesar Sanmartin, Ivan Corrales and many others. They all have done well at the club level and some of them, at the Spanish national team level. If you feel proud of them when you face them throughout these years, having the chance to coach Raul and Alex now is a special feeling. We hope to make it even more special with a good end of the season and, if possible, winning the ULEB Cup."

You already had the chance to see Lietuvos Rytas on video and you have played each other in the preseason. What can you tell us about L. Rytas and what do you have to do to win the game?

"Both teams have changed a lot since last summer, so that preseason game cannot be considered a reference point. We know it is a strong team, with talented shooters and with experienced players like Eurelijus Zukauskas and Matt Nielsen in the middle. Even with that, what we have to do is try to play the best we can. Sometimes, as a coach, you have to force your team to play better than it did during the season, but what we have to do this time is play at the same level we did most of the season. We had some ups and downs because of some injury problems, but I just hope that we can play our game instead of trying to stop our opponent. L. Rytas is a great team that won the competition two years ago and played at a great level in the Euroleague last year. We will have to be 100-percent focused and give all our intensity to win the game."

Real Madrid has changed a lot this season. The team's roster seems more balanced, with two pure playmakers in Lopez and Kerem Tunceri, as well as two elite shooters in Louis Bullock and Charles Smith. How important is that balance, as well as having a deep roster?

"We didn't find out anything: it was a question of structure. My basketball philosophy starts with having good court direction, and this is where Lopez and Tunceri guarantee us control in the game. Speaking about the rest of our perimeter other than these two players, we have a world champion in Alex Mumbru and a top prospect in Marko Tomas. That allow us to get that balance we are looking for, both in offense and defense. At some point during the season, we had outstanding backcourt defense. We have had too many injuries in our froncourt, players like Venson Hamilton, Ratko Varda and Marko Milic, but we tried to give our big men a lot of importance in our game. So far it has been that way and allowed us to rotate players. Everyone feels important in this team."

Joan Plaza - Real MadridFelipe Reyes seems to be playing the best basketball of his career, as he showed in the semifinals against Unics Kazan. How did you help him to improve so much and how important was for him to become a world champion with Spain this summer, in terms of confidence?

"What I think is that when I became the team's head coach, one of my biggest goals was that my players were able to improve and I think we are reaching it. When you are a coach, you can try to make the most out of your players and try to improve them, which is risky because it takes some time and dedication. I found a group of 10 to 12 players ready to receive new information and improve, and Felipe shows it with his numbers this season. We put a lot of effort into practice to improve our game individually and as a collective. In the specific case of Felipe, we tried to make him a better shooter, as well as learning new things such as finding the open man or even being able to defend backcourt players. All that has allowed him to get better, but in his case, he has big room for improvement. I wish the best for him, not only this season, because I think he will explode as a better basketball player in the next two years. We have to go step by step, it is clear that he improved, but he still has to learn new things. The most important thing is that he will be willing to do it."

Six years ago, in 2000, you were coaching Joventut's fourth division team in Spain. What would you have thought if someone had told you that you would be coaching Real Madrid now and helping the team to have a great season?

"I would have thought that he was out of his mind, or that he was trying to make fun of me. Due to my background, I honestly thought that sooner or later I would get my chance to coach an elite team, but I never had such great goals and in so little time. I thought that, as some colleagues, I would have the chances to coach in the Spanish League or even abroad - I had chances to coach somewhere else - but I never thought that six years after that I would be coaching Real Madrid and leading the Spanish League standings for 24 games, playing the Spanish King's Cup final and with the chance to win a European title. I feel really proud and also really thankful to those people who trusted me last summer."

What would it mean for Real Madrid as a club and for you as a coach to win the ULEB Cup title?

"For the club, I think it would mean that all the good work we did paid off. One of the things that Alberto Herreros and Antonio Martin proposed was that we work together in the same direction. That meant having a pattern of work in order to choose players and how to organize the team. The ULEB Cup title would mean a lot, as Madrid has not won a European title since 1997 and lost this competition's final in 2004. It would be a reward for Antonio, Alberto and everyone in the club for being coherent when it came to organizing the club and its structure. They stayed calm when it mattered and that would be a big reward. Personally, it would compensate me for many years in which I was about to throw in the towel. Throughout the last 30 years, I tried to become a better coach and follow my own guidelines. I tried to coach in each and every age category, hoping that would help me to become a Spanish League coach. If that also helps you to win a European title, it is a big reward not only for me, but for my family, friends and wife, who went through bitter times because of me. Sometimes I had to go to the other side of Spain to watch games, and all that would have been worth it. What I also believe is that it also makes people think that there are a lot of Spanish coaches out there able to coach Madrid, Tau, Estudiantes, Barcelona or any other elite team."