Hapoel Tel Aviv welcomes Cedevita Olimpija to open up the EuroCup season on Tuesday night (8pm) as continental basketball returns to the forefront of the Israeli hoops scene. But it won’t just be the official start to the new campaign as there will be a familiar face also making his comeback to the Holy Land as the head coach of the Slovenian club.
Simone Pianigiani will once again grace the sidelines of the Drive In Arena for the first time since the 2016/17 season which culminated in a Hapoel Jerusalem league title over Maccabi Haifa. The Italian bench boss was feted as a conquering hero for winning that championship by taking the capital city squad to the top of the Israeli basketball world while also having advanced to the EuroCup semifinals where they ultimately succumbed to Valencia.
Now back in Europe after a spell in China, Pianigiani opens up to The Sports Rabbi in an exclusive interview about how he has taken on an exciting new project in Slovenia, his time with Jerusalem and his regrets by leaving after one season.
“Everything is good,” an excited Pianigiani told The Sports Rabbi. “I turned down a lot of situations after I had worked in China as I wanted something that I liked at this moment in my life. I was working with a lot of companies where I was doing many lectures and team building programs. Olimpija’s owner (Emil Tedeschi is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Atlantic Grupa in Zagreb, a leading food and beverages producer and distributor in South East Europe) who is a well known Croatian businessman called me and discussed his vision for a modern way of building a basketball club.”
“For the first season we won’t have a very high budget but we will be pushing and growing some of our young players that we have here in our program which is something that I very much liked. He asked me to take on a 3 year project and the fact that Ljubjana is very close to Italy and Milano was great with a very nice and important arena brings a lot of very positive energy which makes me happy. I’m happy here and it’s a lot of work but it’s a new era and a new start and a big job but a positive one which keeps me young. I love it.”
Unfortunately, Pianigiani has faced some challenges as he readies for the campaign as his team snit yet at 100%, “I see what our situation is right now and it’s honestly terrible as we are missing a lot of players with some being in key positions. We signed Justus Hollatz and Anadolu Efes wanted to sign him when he was with the German National Team at the World Cup. This was a big operation for the club and we loaned him out for the year which was very good for the club but we lost our point guard who is strong and can defend the 1, 2 and 3 positions. He was our first signing and then we brought in Nikola Radicevic and he broke his hand. We have 3-4 players out right now and we signed DJ Stewart who came in from the United States just a few days ago.”
However, at least one player who has impressed thus far and starred in last week’s Croatian Super Cup was 21 year old forward Luka Scuka, “He is one of the goals of the club. He is a young Slovenian, 18 years old and is one of the reasons I am here. This is his first season but he lost some training days after getting injured. He is really interesting and we have many of these guys like Gregor Glas who we are giving a chance to after having played with the Slovenia National Team and also was with Partizan Belgrade for the past two seasons. We also have two more young players in Rok Radovic and Karlo Matkovic who was a backup to Alen Omic last season and has NBA potential. This will be the first chance for some players to take a step in their career and we will be able to teach them. We know it’s a long process and we also have veterans who we want to contribute as well.”
As for goals this coming campaign, the 54-year old has a very clear sense of what the club wants to do and accomplish but also understands the challenges that he will face very early on, “We are looking at this as modern movement and we will increase the budget the next season with buyouts on some of the players as a part of that as well. We hope to compete but we know that the ABA League and Eurocup are at a higher level. Coming up we have Hapoel Tel Aviv on the road, then Badalona at home and Besiktas back on the road and we are not yet at that level. It will be very tough and we know that but we’ll keep working and we must keep the guy’s heads up so that they won’t lose their confidence. I think we will be better and better during the season, but it will be a great experience to play in front of a hot crowd.”
Pianigiani began his coaching career way back in 1995 as an assistant with Siena before eventually taking over the top job with the club in 2006 until 2012 as he racked up league championship after league championship as well as cups and honors while also taking the Italian team to the Euroleague Final Four twice, finishing in 3rd place both times.
The bench boss also headed the Italian National Team between 2009-2015 where he featured in the 2011, 2013 and 2015 EuroBaskets as well as spending one year with Fenerbahce before joining Hapoel Jerusalem in 2016 where he made a wonderful impression on the city and franchise. However, after just one season, Pianigiani left the Holy Land to sign in Milano and the decision which surprised many at the time, still doesn’t sit well with the coach himself but the accomplishments were unforgettable.
“I spoke about Jerusalem just yesterday and it was amazing as to what we built. After the season I had personal reasons to go back to Milano and Italy to be closer, but maybe I feel that I didn’t finish something. Maybe I should have stayed a year more and give stability to the high-level project.”
“It wasn’t just only winning the championship, the EuroCup was at such a high level as we played Valencia who won the Spanish championship that year. Malaga beat them in the final but there were so many high level teams. It was so special what we did and there was such great passion. It was very positive, we stayed solid all season and had a European mentality. There was such incredible feelings and emotions including stopping on the highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after winning the championship. We stopped the biggest highway! We got back to Jerusalem and everyone was waiting for us. It was absolutely incredible.”
In the Israeli league playoffs, Jerusalem had a tough time with Nahariya where they went down 0-2 in the best-of-five series, losing at the buzzer in game one as Scotty Hopson hit one of the most memorable shots in postseason history. They then fell up north in game two before winning three straight to head to the Final Four where they disposed of Rishon Le’Zion and then Maccabi Haifa in the championship game. However, without the incredible comeback the club’s second ever league title would have never come to fruition.
“This is something that involves two things and in this case sometimes we were suffocated with emotions. One thing was we had to keep focused as to what we built during the season and we knew that we had the right work ethic and we were prepared. We showed that we were on that level. Second, we can’t take the emotional side of things as we had to focus on the game and that’s what we did the entire season.”
“We dominated the first game and they made some extra shots and overcame us in the last second. We stopped playing in the last two minutes and it was a nightmare, we needed to be cool and remember why we had arrived there to that point. But we did come into game one ready and prepared. The second game wasn’t easy. At that point we knew that 2-0 is a big mountain to climb but we had only lost 1 game at home and we had to win one and then one back in Nahariya and then the 5th at home. When we got to that point Nahariya was down as they knew that they had lost their chance.”
Pianigiani continued, “We knew we had won big games on the road including Gran Canaria and we stayed focused on the court and we were ready. Sometimes players may be unhealthy, but if you arrive with your roster intact you should be fine. That was not the case in the Cup Final when we lost to Maccabi. If would have been healthy, who knows maybe we could have won all three titles.”
Hapoel Tel Aviv has improved drastically from the time Pianigiani last played them due to an expanded budget, more revenue streams and just an overall growth process that has seen them challenge Maccabi Tel Aviv for the league championship as well as aiming for European glory.
“Hapoel are a good team and they will compete to get to the end of the competition and win it all. The most important thing is that their court as the home team has such a huge impact just like it was years ago. When they were at home they destroyed Venice last season and then it was different on the road, it was a clear example as to how the fans can push the team. When you play everywhere in Israel you always have to stay solid mentally and if that is the case you can stay in the game. We have to play every ball the best way that we can and not look at the score which is the approach in all games. It’s always great to play Hapoel Tel Aviv.”
As for Pianigiani missing Israel, this may be a short trip but he has grander plans on returning and enjoying all that the Holy Land has to offer, “We will have a very short trip to Israel as we arrive the evening before the game and we leave the morning after. I have to come back to Israel maybe in the summer and spend some quality time.”