The story of how a graduate in Chemistry became a basketball coach is the story of the Cup champion coach. Ibon Navarro (Vitoria, 46 years old) relives how it started. From the student who suspended everything to the bench of Unicaja Málaga.
Ask. Where does Ibon Navarro come from?
Answer. I was born in Vitoria, we lived in Bilbao for a couple of years and we returned to Vitoria. My mother worked at Telefónica. My father was a manager of an industrial infrastructure company and traveled the world. I had the nursery school and the Corazonistas school on the same street.
R. I started playing soccer, as a goalkeeper, those crazy guys who spend more time on the ground than standing up. Until I left him due to a knee problem. I delighted. What I liked was basketball.
Q. Do you have a degree in Chemistry?
R. Yes, in the specialty of organic chemistry. When I finished my degree, I went to work in Germany for a year, in Cologne. When I returned, I entered a company, the Leia Foundation, in the Miñano Technology Park, near Vitoria. I was there four or five years.
Q. And from there to coach?
R. When I was in the company I entered the lower categories of Baskonia, to train in cadet and junior. I got to First National. And when I got up at seven in the morning to go to work, I had a different energy if there was training in the afternoon. What moved me was not my job. The option arose to meet with Rafa Sanz, from Tenerife, from LEB Oro. I went to Madrid, ate with him, he offered me to go there and on the return trip I didn’t even turn around. I told my parents that I was leaving the company. It was a very good job, with five people under my supervision and the possibility of growing. But my passion was different.
Q. Was it like this when you were studying?
R. Yes. In my second year of college I coached the school team in the Basque league and was in the Euskadi youth and cadet teams and the Álava cadet team. He had four teams. I failed all the subjects. That summer I got into the room from June to September. I put two cards on the door. One said: “Remember that you have not approved any.” The other: “Pride.” I did not go out. When my friends called me to go to the pool, I would see the cards and return to the table. In September I passed everything.
Q. Was he always disciplined?
R. Yes, I never had a gift to learn quickly, but the ability to sacrifice. If you don’t have the talent to take the short route, you have to use the long route, work harder than anyone else.
Q. The ingredients of success?
R. At an individual level, effort, perseverance and resilience, never stop chipping away at stone. At a collective level I add cohesion.
Q. How does a coach live?
R. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life. Friends stay over the weekend and for the coach it is when he sleeps worse and rests less. Age changes you. Four years ago I lived more in fear, worried about defeat. If you only suffer on a day-to-day basis, this job will eat you up. You have to enjoy the little things, a chat with a player, a meeting with the staff… And let yourself be carried away by instinct, the first impression. If you decide something, it’s the right thing. If you think about it a thousand times, you generate doubts in yourself and when things don’t go well, the feeling of insecurity, of having been wrong, of being a fraud, kills you. Time teaches you lessons. Enjoying those little things takes drama and tragedy out of defeat.
Q. And how does your seven-year-old son experience it?
R. One of the mistakes that I have made as a young coach and new father is that my son associates winning or losing with the attention that his father gives him is of more or less quality. Winning is happiness, having dinner together, going to the park… Losing is being worse at home, not going out to eat, not having pizza for dinner or turning the TV down because Dad is sad. He has affected her too much and shaped her perception of things. Now I tell my son that winning or losing doesn’t matter, just having a good time, and he answers me: And you? Changing it is no longer so easy.
Q. How do you digest a dismissal?
R. I’ve only been kicked out once [de Andorra]. My agent told me: “There are two types of coach, those who have been fired and those who are going to fire.” It is a part of the work that must be assumed. First you think about the family, the child’s school… Then what did you do wrong. Working with people it is not so easy to find the formula. Sometimes you do something different and that’s not a good idea. I have been reading many self-help books for two years and it has helped me to be prepared. From that dismissal I have come out a better person.
Q. He was an assistant to Spahija, Ivanovic, Scariolo and Perasovic. He Thought He Wouldn’t Get To Be Head Coach?
R. I never had a deadline in my head nor did I have an exorbitant ambition. The good thing about those stages is that you realize how much knowledge you lack, that you have no idea.
Q. How is your Unicaja?
R. There are players with a very interesting profile because they are role players. There is a significant lack of that today, guys who play 12 minutes, have an impact on the game and carry it well. We have it, and that speaks of how assumed the players have the values of this team, not giving up, fighting together and knowing what we are playing. We are not a team of virtuosos, but of workers, with a defensive aspect that makes us the one that scores the most points in the open field. We need to generate errors in the rival. We are that resilience.
Q. Dario Brizuela and Alberto Diaz?
R. They are at a very mature point. The success in the Eurobasket has taught them to win, and that helped us in the Cup. They already value other things besides numbers. They have experienced an incredible atmosphere in the national team and this year at Unicaja is very special.
Q. How do you match nine new players in six months to be champion?
R. Winning is something extraordinary, it is not normal. In the summer, in addition to making a selection of talent, we were very concerned about how people were. We have done sessions coaching and cohesion, alignment, even sacrificing training for that, and we have given great importance to having the player who puts the music on full blast, dances and makes jokes, to having two or three highly respected leaders, players who are perhaps easy for us to wear but have room for growth.
Q. “The triumph of kindness”, the ACB dedicated to him. “People don’t know what a good person he is,” Brizuela said. How good is he?
R. When you win, everyone is nice. But the human quality in this group is very, very high. The players dare to share their problems, they listen to each other, they support each other. Sometimes I’m worried about the pick and roll and I don’t really know them. In these sessions they talk to each other in an incredible way, they ask about their families, they know the names of their children… even the American ones. Sometimes I think I’m missing out on meeting 12 fantastic people. For that I have to open up, be worthy of their trust.
Q. Is it necessary to be a good person to be a good coach?
R. No, there is no single formula for success. It’s not hard for me to get the bad milk out at work, what’s hard for me is to leave it inside. There is a video when I am in Manresa in which I scream fight! Anger got to me. Today I have learned when to be like this and when not.
Q. What do you value in a player?
R. That is a good companion and trainable, with good habits. I can’t stand that having talent and ability to improve to be a star doesn’t sacrifice himself.
Q. How does a Vitoriano live in Malaga?
R. Surprised by the temperature. It is a very special city, a nerve center of communication in Europe. Only Madrid and Barcelona have more flights and every day 1,600 people arrive by boat. It has an injection of tourists that gives it an incredible life.
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