Maccabi Tel Aviv welcomes Barcelona to Yad Eliyahu on Tuesday night at 21:00 for a Euroleague Gameday 19 clash. The Yellow & Blue enter the contest with a 12-6 record after a road win over Alba Berlin while Barca sport a 13-5 record but have lost their last two continental games against Baskonia and EFES.
Ahead of the game, The Sports Rabbi had the chance to speak with Victor Claver, the veteran forward who has been with Barcelona since the 2016 season. The Valencia, Spain native is one of the most decorated players in the country’s history having been a part of two EuroCup winning teams, three Eurobasket Championships and a World Championship this past summer in China. Claver is known to be one of the great team players who have plied their trade not only in Spain but also in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers.
This season Claver is part of one of the great Euroleague teams that have been assembled which includes the likes of returning NBA star Nikola Mirotic along with Kyle Kuric, Malcolm Delaney, Adam Hanga, Alex Abrines and Cory Higgins, “We have one of the best rosters that Barca has ever had and we have been playing great so far this season. The results in both the Euroleague and the Spanish league (ACB) have been good as well. We want to become a championship team. Not just names and only players, but we want to be a great team and I believe that we are on our way.”
The last time Barcelona advanced to the Euroleague Final 4 was in 2014 the same year that Maccabi did as well and won the continental title. Back in November Barcelona dismantled Maccabi 96-73 and Claver is most certainly hoping that the result this time around will be similar in Israel, “I hope so, but it will be a different game. They are a great team and they are playing great his season and playing in Tel Aviv is always hard. Every time I have played there with Barca and they played great last year. We have to respect our opponent and be ready to play every game. We can’t think that what we did here in Barcelona will be enough.”
What will the keys be against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Tuesday night? “They are a team who like to play fast and have very good players who run and push the ball and play in transition we have to be aware of that. Even if we are winning and we have a lead in the box score we have to keep playing well because in Tel Aviv with the fans and the support that Maccabi has, it’s not easy. We have to be focused for the full 40 minutes because that is one of their strengths.
A foot injury kept Claver out of 10 Euroleague games this season but he just returned to the fold a couple of weeks ago against Baskonia. However, every time the 6”9 forward is on the floor he can be counted on to play roughly 20 minutes a night and although he may not score in huge numbers, Claver is one of the most important cogs in coach Svetislav Pesic’s squad, “I try to give my best to help the team. I know that I could score more and do more things on offense but one of the most important things about a basketball team is that everybody knows their role. I try to adapt to what the coach wants from me and that’s my focus before the games as well as what I analyze after the games. I think that way I can help the team as best as possible.”
Growing up in Valencia allowed Claver the chance to hone his trade with a club that not only fostered its youth but one that was beginning to become a basketball power in its own right. Playing with so many young players that one day would become stars including Toko Shengelia, Rafa Martinez and Nando de Colo was an opportunity opf a lifetime, “Valencia is such a great organization and they always help support me to become the player that I have become. To be a professional, beginning at the youth levels all the way to the top. The team is still growing and they are getting better every year. I had some great teammates that helped me become a better player as well.”
During those formative years, Claver saw his hometown team win their first continental trophy in 2003 and then captained the same team to the title in 2010. Two of the all-time great Valencia players Nacho Rodilla and Victor Luengo who brought home the first championship were very instrumental in the team’s growth along with Claver’s development, “They helped me a lot as I grew up at Valencia and they were stars of the team. I had the chance to play with Victor Luengo who is like a professional father to me, a tutor and a mentor and helped me become the player that I am. I was the captain of the team at 21 years old and to win and lift the Cup was a great experience.”
In 2009 Claver was selected 22nd overall in the NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers where he played between 2012-2015. Some of the players in that class included James Harden, Ricky Rubio, Steph Curry, Demar Derozan and Israeli Omri Casspi who was taken with the next pick. But leaving the friendly confines of Valencia of course would bring about many feelings, “I was worried, nervous and excited! It was a dream come true. I think that it was the right time to do it and I waited a few years in Valencia after being drafted before going to the NBA and I thought it was the right time to go. They gave me the opportunity and I was very thankful for that. It was a great experience. I didn’t play as much as I wanted and I didn’t stay there for a long time. But for the years I was there I enjoyed every minute and I think it was a great lesson for me in every aspect; from professional and personal.”
One of Claver’s teammates his rookie season was Damian Lillard who came out of Weber State and the guard’s evolution was definitely a surprise to some, “Lillard was a big surprise for everybody, not only the fans but also by the team. They took a bet in him because they chose him very high in the draft and he came from a very small college. But from day one he was the leader and he showed everyone that he was the leader and the superstar. He is an amazing player and as a person he tries to help his teammates and his coaches.”
Portland seems to have been the haven for Spanish players with the likes of Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez having also played for the Trail Blazers, “You have to remember Pau Gasol also played there this year! I think that Portland has always been a Spanish team as the first Spanish player in the NBA Fernando Martin also played there so for us it’s always been a Spanish team. It was good because they always supported me from when they picked me in the draft. I practiced with tem in 2008/09 even before they drafted me, so there has always been a good connection between Portland and Spain.”
This past September, Claver had the privilege to lift the FIBA World Cup after having won three Eurobaskets in 2009, 2011 and 2015 with the Spanish National Team. Over the course of his international career, Claver has shared the court with so many amazing players such as Pau and Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Calderon, Fernando San Emeterio, Sergio Llull, Serge Ibaka, Felipe Reyes, the list goes on and on. What did becoming Champion of the World mean to the modest Claver? “It was an amazing experience. Nobody expected us to win. We never gave up during the tournament. When the tough moments arrived we kept fighting and at the end we were able to lift the trophy. It was amazing. The chemistry that we have with the national team since I have been a part of it beginning in 2007 when I was only 18, 19 years old has been very warm. Spain had just won the World Cup the year before and from the first day I was there I was part of the family. That is one of the keys in the national team. When anyone joins the team they are made to feel comfortable and that encourages us to play well for one very important reason.”