Nine months ago, the paths of coach Antonis Constantinides and Energia Targu-Jiu were thousands of kilometres apart but, unbeknown to them, on a course to intertwine and change the destiny of both.
The 40-year old tactician was adding to his trophy case a third national league crown in his native Cyprus, and his first with Apoel Nicosia after two title conquests at the helm of ETHA Encomi.
Meanwhile Energia (also known as Rovinari) won the Romanian cup to bring to Targu-Jiu a first ever title and clinched eighth place in the LNB League, the best result in the six-year history of the club in the to flight.
Both the Cypriot coach and the Romanian club however were itching for more, beyond their respective national frontiers.
In the summer, Energia applied to play in the EuroChallenge and handed the reins of their team to Constantinides, who had previous experience in the competition at the helm of ETHA.
It has already proved a match made in heaven, as nine months later the Romanian side have reached the EuroChallenge Quarter-Final Play-Offs following a triumphant showing in the Last 16.
As it often happens, one single event can change the course for those involved. At Energia, this occured in Brindisi, Italy on 28 January.
For now, Energia bid for a spot in the EuroChallenge Final Four while having already secured the unofficial title of Surprise Package of the Year in this season’s European competitions.
Coach Constantinides visited with fibaeurope.com to shed some light on their fairytale campaign, explain the impact of that night in Italy and how any team, regardless of the size of its budget, creates its own destiny.
You had coached the Cypriot national team in the EuroBasket 2013 Qualification Round and had coached in the EuroChallenge, but had never worked for a club outside Cyprus when Energia approached you in June. What did you expect from the Romanian LNB, how did you prepare for this step and how does the league measure up to your expectations as a professional?
I am the type of coach who tries to stay informed all the time about leagues and players around Europe so during the last years, as soon as the league season was over in Cyprus, I made a few trips to watch play-off games in other countries.
The Romanian LNB was one of the Leagues I had been following for the past four years and I could see that it was taking steps forward every single year. Every team in the league has very good foreign players while the Romanian national team came very close to qualifying to EuroBasket 2015 in last summer’s campaign, so Romanian players are also at a good level.
It is a very competitive league and, in my view, it can be argued that it is right behind the top-6 national leagues in Europe, in terms of quality of play. I believe that Romanian basketball right now provides a great stage for a foreign player or a foreign coach who want to build their career on solid foundations. It has good organisation, several sponsors and the arenas are usually full. Ploiesti reached the Last 32 of the Eurocup and we have reached the last eight of the EuroChallenge and that says a lot.
Most people on the outside would agree that Energia advancing to the EuroChallenge quarter-finals in the club’s maiden European campaign came as a complete shock, but was it something that had been discussed as a goal within the club? Can you walk us through the process of a team that is considered to be the surprise package of the competition?
If I told you that we were expecting to be in the quarter-finals, or even in the Last 16, I would be lying. We took it step by step and when the draw pitted us against Lukoil Academic, Kormend and Tartu University Rock [in the regular season], we knew that they had a lot of experience but at the same time we knew they were not huge powerhouses, so we didn’t feel intimidated. We felt that the main thing was to win all three games at home, we managed to pull it through and I think we thoroughly deserved to advance to the Last 16.
Once there, we were drawn together with Enel Basket Brindisi and Astana, teams which could easily compete in the Eurocup, as well as Okapi Aalstar, who have huge experience in the EuroChallenge, so we were not very hopeful at first, to be honest. But we went in with the same mindset, of focusing on defending our home court. Then, everything changed on the night we won at Brindisi (on 28 January).
We didn’t expect it, we travelled there hoping to play as well we could but we saw that the game was gradually starting to go our way, believe in it, and we came out with the win. That result made us realise that we could qualify, it convinced us that it was actually within our possibilities and we went into the game at Aalstar the following week feeling that we have nothing to lose and everything to win.
Afterwards we knew that if we beat Astana at home we could qualify. It’s easier said than done to beat these kinds of teams, but at the same time we believe that we can compete against any team at home, we gave 100% on the court, maybe also God helped us, and we pulled it through.
You describe yourself as a coach with faith in his players and himself who tries to instil a winning mentality in every practice. What difference does it make in this process when you have the bar set by a European competition and the team is measured against it, for the first time in some of these players’ careers?
The confidence a player and a team can get from a win in Europe is incredible, I had first seen this when I was at ETHA. You simply cannot buy that kind of confidence. I don’t know if our dream campaign will continue into the Final Four or it will end in the series with Le Mans, but I know that the biggest gain we got out of this competition and we can use in the Romanian league has been the mentality with which my players now go out on the court and compete in any game against any opponent, the surge in confidence is simply unbelievable. We have already achieved the biggest success in the history of the club, the media here referred to us playing the quarter-finals as the biggest success at club level for Romanian basketball.
Did the team have moments of doubt during the season? You have suffered eight defeats in the LNB so far and are still not assured of a play-off berth. Was there a time you thought that the EuroChallenge campaign was costing you on the domestic front?
The trips and the two games a week made it very difficult in terms of fatigue, the distances within Romania are big and we had occasions where we went through a 5-6 hour bus ride to go to a game, so it has been very tiring for the players. To be honest, following the loss at Astana [in Last 16 Game 2] the thought crossed my mind that maybe we should concentrate our forces on the Romanian league and I even discussed it with the club management. But at the same time I am a very ambitious coach who aims high and luckily my players on this team are equally ambitious, this has been the key to our success this year. So neither I, nor my players could have stomached saving up energy to focus on one competition. In hindsight, had we not won at Brindisi maybe our minds would have changed, but as I said that night in Italy defined everything.
Our roster is perhaps not deep enough even for one competition, but part of my job as a coach is to come up with ways to handle it. The way my players have responded is one more reason why I am so proud of them and what they have achieved this year. One of our biggest assets is that this team is a family, at good times and at bad times, because we have been through both this season, and we remain united always. Even a team with a limited budget, like us, controls its destiny.
In the Quarter-Final Play-Offs you are facing Le Mans, the best defensive team in the EuroChallenge. They have the pedigree as a storied French club, but you have the home-court advantage in the series. Are you the favourites?
Well, to begin with, if we look at our history, we would not have the right to consider ourselves as favourites against any team, let alone a club like Le Mans, even though we have the home-court advantage in the series. Le Mans has played four seasons in the Eurocup and the previous three they were in the Euroleague, so their pedigree speaks for itself. They have an enormously experienced coach (Erman Kunter) who has worked at the highest level and players who have competed in the Euroleague and they are doing well in a league as competitive as the French one.
As you said, we are going to face the best defence in the competition but at the same time we are also a team whose orientation is primarily defensive. They will be two or three very tough games, both for us and for them, and I insist that we are the underdogs in this series.
They are playing at a fast tempo, they make swift decisions on whether to pass, shoot or penetrate and they execute with the same speed. We need to be very focused on dealing with that and I think that if we do not succeed in slowing them down things will be even more difficult for us. That said, we will try to make the best of our home-court advantage because we are convinced it is really difficult for anybody to beat us at home. We will try to prolong this dream and fight to reach the Final Four.
One of the international experiences you had before this season was graduating from the FIBA Europe Coaching Certificate (FECC) programme. What impact do you think that course has had on your career?
I had looked it up, I gathered all the information I could find on programmes such as this before I decided to do the FECC and, in one word, it is an amazing experience. I think that this three-year experience alongside coaches from around Europe, under the tutelage of mentors like coach [Svetislav] Pesic and coach [Pablo] Laso was incredible and there is no doubt it made me a far better coach than I would have been if I had not done it. I learned a lot of things on how to develop and manage young players, on both offensive and defensive tactics, I have also been asked my opinion about the FECC back in Cyprus and I’ve stated that it is a lifetime experience for a coach.