The shadow of Zeljko Obradovic speaks Spanish. Along with the volcanic Serbian coach, a 55-year-old from Badalona moves on the Partizan bench who is much more than his assistant. Josep Maria Izquierdo was the man who went to look for Obradovic at the airport when the Serbian coach signed for Joventut in 1993. “I remember that day perfectly. He came with his wife and his daughter. Although he did not speak Spanish, he already seemed to me someone full of energy and endearing ”, revives today the Catalan coach, Zeljko’s second in the Belgrade team that this Wednesday (9:00 p.m., Dazn) the ticket for the Final Four of the Euroleague (2-2 in the quarterfinals).
Izquierdo had made the leap to the Joventut first team in 1988 as Alfred Julbe’s assistant, “at 22 years old”, and that course of Obradovic’s landing in Spain marked the beginning of a friendship that has endured until now. After winning the European Cup in 1994, Obradovic signed for Madrid and the man from Badalona flew on his own: Joventut’s first coach, Javier Imbroda’s right-hand man on the white bench, teams in LEB Gold, Silver and Bronze and a stage working in the Sports area of the Badalona City Council. From the office he got a call from the teacher to get him back on track. Between 2013 and 2020, the duo met to win 11 titles (including one Euroleague) with Fenerbahçe. The pandemic led them to a sabbatical year until last year they met again at Partizan.
“In Belgrade I am fabulous. They are very hospitable and Zeljko takes care of me like a brother. Partizan is a multi-sport club but basketball is number one. When we signed for three seasons I said we would do something serious. Last year was difficult. When we arrived there were players already under contract and we didn’t have much time to sign. Neither is Partizán a club with the economic possibilities of Madrid, Barça, CSKA or Fenerbahçe. It was a tough season and now we are reaping the rewards, fighting to get into the Final Four”, says Izquierdo.
The figure of Obradovic, winner of nine European Cups, permeates everything. The Catalan surrenders to a coach who mixes the whip with paternalism. “In this world, if you don’t have character, if they see weakness in you, they eat you. Zeljko is tough, but very fair, very fair, he likes to take care of others. That’s why the players love him, they love him. Off the track it is very normal. He has treated me with a lot of respect from the first moment, demanding a lot from me. He is the best coach in the history of European basketball, the first in line, the one who arrives before, the one who leaves last, the one who works the most. Innate talent is joined by passion and work. He doesn’t care about the first preseason training session or the Final Four. He always demands the same thing ”.
Izquierdo is also discovered by Obradovic’s ability to change the course of matches when they get steep. Where others are clouded, he sees the light. “Many times he anticipates what is going to happen in the game. He is one step ahead of the others, he analyzes very quickly. So many years later, he still amazes me. And of course, they are 30 years of experience. Together with him I have learned that having a memory is very important for a coach. Zeljko can tell you about when we played in Ourense in the 93-94 season and they asked us a two against one… ‘Are you seriously telling me this? I don’t believe it,’ I tell him. Only he hits the key ”.
The Partizán will need the entire catalog of the great totem to knock down Madrid in mined territory. Although Izquierdo believes that this could be precisely in his favor: “The reading that we transmit to our players is that we are where we wanted to be at the beginning of the season, playing to qualify for the Final Four. We have shown that we can win in Madrid. We are going to fight until the end and the ones who have the most to lose are not us. We have fulfilled expectations after so many years without playing in the Euroleague… What we are doing is extraordinary and we are missing the icing on the cake. Those who have pressure now are not us ”. Opposite, the giant Tavares, “the most decisive player in Europe, in attack and defense”, according to the Spaniard; “Not only because of his 2.20m, but because of how well he plays. He hits the free throws, runs, finishes the counterattack, makes the defensive balance, puts blocks, in the low post if you don’t help, he hits the basket… But we have our weapons ”.
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