Rafa Martinez of Valencia Basket a Eurocup legend. No other player has started in more Eurocup games. Not only that, he is one of the few players to win the competition twice with the same team. Only he, longtime teammate Serhiy Lishchuk and Mindaugas Lukauskis, who did so for Lietuvos Rytas but also played for Valencia in the past, can claim that honor. Martinez is playing his sixth season in the Eurocup and has taken part in 85 games - fifth overall - starting 71 of them, to tie for first time with recently retired Mire Chatman, the competition's all-time leading scorer. Martinez is fourth in three-point shots made (144) with an excellent percentage of 40.22%. And above all, Martinez hopes to keep making history and do what no other player did before - win a third Eurocup title. There is a long race to the Eurocup Finals and it all continues with Valencia's road game against Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar - a clash between the last two Eurocup champions - this week. Martinez still remembers the 2013 semifinals, when Lokomotiv prevailed on points differential. "We are really looking forward to playing against them, as they beat us in the semifinals two years ago, denying us the chance to reach another Eurocup final," Martinez told Eurocupbasketball.com. "It is a great team with a big budget, and they want to continue growing, just as we do. Both teams have the goal to play in the Euroleague."
Hello again, Rafa, congratulations on a big win against SLUC Nancy. Was it important to start 2015 like that?
"Yes, because we didn't do well in the Euroleague. We had won at home in the Spanish League and needed to start the Eurocup with a win, too. We did things the right way - played great defense - and that allowed us to win by a good number of points."
Moreover, the club honored Florent Pietrus in his return to Valencia. How special was that for you all?
"Flo was in Valencia for five years and not only did he help us a lot, but he won titles with us, too. He helped us grow as a club and, truth to be told, it was a special moment, seeing the whole Fonteta giving him a great, well-deserved ovation."
Everyone knows you have played the Eurocup for many years, but has it been difficult, mentally speaking, to switch competitions?
"Well, the club's goal is always to play the Euroleague and it deserves to battle to achieve that. We played it twice in the last few years and we wish we could compete in the Euroleague every season, but you have to earn it. The Eurocup has always been a competition that has been good to us and the prize that comes with winning it, playing the Euroleague, is very big. We are back to a competition which we have played for many years. We are Eurocup experts and are looking forward to winning the title."
It is the first time in 10 years - and just the second in competition history - that a Eurocup champion defend its title. Is that an extra motivation for Valencia Basket?
"Obviously, defending a title gives us an extra responsibility. We are the reigning Eurocup champions, everyone knows we are favorites and other teams are looking forward to competing against us and trying to beat us. Defending titles comes with extra pressure, too."
This week, you will face Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, a showdown between the last two Eurocup champion. Is it a good test for you, to see where you stand right now?
"Definitely. We are really looking forward to playing against them, as they beat us in the semifinals two years ago, denying us the chance to reach another Eurocup final. It is a great team with a big budget, and they want to cntinue growing, just as we do. Both teams have the goal to play in the Euroleague."
Like you said, Lokomotiv beat Valencia in the 2013 semifinals. What do you remember about that series?
"We didn't have a good game at home and Lokomotiv scored easily. They got a good lead after the first leg in Valencia but we had a good game plan, especially on defense, in Russia. It was hard for them to score and we managed to get an 11-point lead at some point, enough to win the series. In the end, we had a lot of injuries, as many as three during the game. That forced us to use a small lineup with Stefan Markovic at power forward and Serhiy Lishchuk as our only big man. We were close to get a miracle win. We won the game, but not the series."
This is your sixth Eurocup season. How do you like the evolution of the competition, with Euroleague teams joining in before the start of the Last 32?
"It is getting more and more competitive every season. Like I said, winning it means to go to the Euroleague and there is a lot of teams that want to be in that competition. Moreover, it is a European title and there are more and more teams with chances to lift the trophy. It is tougher every season and there are a lot of teams with good rosters. The combination of winning a title and making it to the Euroleague is very attractive for a lot of teams."
You couldn't celebrate much when Valencia won in 2010 due to a long doping test. How did you celebrate the title last season?
"It was great! Celebrating a title is always great - and no doping test this time! (laughs) I could enjoy the celebration and only regret arriving to Valencia a bit late. We had two or three spectacular days, enjoying the fact that we won a title, which is really hard to win. You realized it as time goes by. We want to do it again this season, of course. Our fans came onto the court with us, it looked as if we were in Valencia! The club hired a charter flight and a lot of people came to see us. We celebrated together on the court, with no rush, quietly, with our people. Then we went to the locker room and then back to Valencia. It all went perfect!"
You are high in some Eurocup all-time rankings, especially three-point shots and of course, games started, where you tie for first place. How does it feel to be part of the Eurocup history?
"Of course, these are things you don't even begin to imagine when you start playing basketball. I am really proud of it, but at the same time, you can notice that a lot of years have gone by! Still, it is the kind of thing you never think of and makes you work harder, be more motivated. At the same time, titles are more important than records, especially in a team game like basketball. It gives you the chance to celebrate with your entire team, to see that the hard work pays off. It is the best feeling for a player."
Other than Valencia, which other teams do you consider as candidates to win the 2014-15 Eurocup crown?
"For sure, Lokomotiv and Khimki have the only goal of making it to the final and winning the title. I am sure that Bayern Munich will want to access to the Euroleague, one way or another. There are a lot of teams with options to win and the competition gets tougher every season, with better rosters. Herbalife Gran Canaria is still undefeated. They are playing much better in the Eurocup than in the Spanish League right now, and knowing their coach, I am sure they want to have a shot to win the competition."