Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Anadolu EFES in Istanbul on Thursday in Euroleague Gameday 7 action at 19:30 Israel time as both teams will look to get their continental seasons pointed in the right direction.
One of the stars on EFES is veteran European center Tibor Pleiss who has played with many teams throughout the continent. From Bamberg and Baskonia to Barcelona, Galatasaray and now with Anadolu EFES the German big man who also played one season in the NBA with the Utah Jazz has made his mark on the game of basketball.
The Sports Rabbi had the opportunity to speak with Pleiss ahead of the classic Euroleague matchup in Turkey as we delved into numerous topics from the national team, to the year in America, some of the great players that he has shared the court with throughout the continent and of course the topics which has been encompassing the entire globe, COVID-19.
“It’s a totally different situation playing basketball without fans and you have to get used to it. Teams are missing players every week and we had that also in the preseason. You never know what the upcoming week will bring. We have two tests each week and it’s aways like a surprise, you never know what will happen. Everybody has to be ready and those who don’t play that much may have to fill a spot.
Playing without fans has obviously been something difficult to get used to, “When there are fans in the arena like in Berlin it’s a totally different with the atmosphere as you have something to play for. Playing without fans is like practicing and you don’t know if it’s pushing players to give their best.”
With the outbreak of COVID-19 back in March, the Euroleague decided to cut last season short which left players with an odd way to end the campaign, “I had mixed feelings, it was positive and negative as we were so close to wining the titles both in Turkey and in the Euroleague. Everyone was like wow when it happened but health is the most important thing and everyone understood that staying healthy and protecting their families was above all else.”
This year, EFES has struggled out of the gate as Shane Larkin had been out injured until last week and now is unavailable to play once again after featuring last week against Olympiacos as the team is still trying to find their footing, “We are still missing the flow from last season and it’s not that easy like last year when we didn’t have to communicate on the court we knew where everyone would be. We never felt that we could lose a game as we had so much confidence. We still need time to find the spirit, but we aren’t the only ones as Real Madrid and Maccabi Tel Aviv are in the same situation.”
Coach Ergin Ataman and Pleiss are beginning their fourth season together, their 3rd at EFES as the center has flourished under his tutelage since they first collaborated at Galatasaray in 2016/17. Pleiss explained the secret to their relationship as he is averaging 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds so far this campaign which are almost identical as his Euroleague statistics from last season “He lets me do my thing and he also allows me to shoot. Most coaches before said that I should go under the basket and rebound, but here I have freedom to shoot even from the 3 point line and I have become a really flexible player. He has trust in me to help the team.”
“Every coach has something special but coach Ataman lets the team play and he doesn’t put every single player at one position. He lets us be free and play as he has a group of good and talented players. If you let somebody play he will give it back to you.”
As a youngster, Pleiss actually began playing soccer and it was only until his mother introduced him to basketball that he began falling in love wit roundball, “My mom said to me that there is another sport and wanted me to just try it. She took me to a junior basketball team and the coach said to pass the ball against the wall and catch it. He then said come back next week and that’s how everything started.”
Growing up Pleiss didn’t have any one specific role model or player he fashioned his game after but looked at his teammates and took various attributes from each one, “When I started playing at Koln my teammates were my role models. Marcin Gortat who played in the NBA was a teammate and he was always working hard so I wanted to work hard like him. If I saw a specific attribute I always wanted to take the best out of every player.”
At Koln, Sasa Obradovic was just beginning his coaching career and Pleiss leant first hand a lesson or two from the bench boss who has gone on to win multiple awards throughout the years, “He hardened me up because he was a tough coach and we had tough practices, it was never good to show pain and he taught me how to fight through situations. I understood when was the time to fight and battle and that prepared me well to head to Europe.”
Pleiss has played outside of his home country of Germany since 2012 and perhaps at some point will want to return home to play but the time hasn’t been right just yet, “I have thought about it and clubs were in touch with my agent. I was interested in going back home to be closer to friends and family but there was never a situation that made me happy with a good atmosphere like at Anadolu.”
Over the seasons Pleiss has not only played for some great Euroleague clubs but also played with some incredible players along the way including Fernando San Emeterio, Kyle Hines, Andres Nocioni, PJ Tucker, Juan Carlos Navarro.
“Those guys were always there fighting all of the time and they never realized always giving the best everyday. Nocioni fought and jumped for every ball, Navarro was like Messi but on the basketball court as he was called La Bomba for just being able to shoot the ball and it would go in from anywhere. San Emeterio can go to one side and he scores while the entire league knows it and no one can stop him. He is an amazing person and an amazing shooter. Tucker is a ball of energy and when he would go to the basket with his entire weight. He was tough to stop. Hines was always productive and while he may not be the tallest big man he would always be around the basket and such a good guy. They are great teammates and it’s easy to pass them the ball because you knew they deserved it.”
Following the the 2014/15 season with Barcelona, Pleiss who was selected in the 2010 NBA Draft with the first pick of the second round by the New Jersey Nets signed with the Utah Jazz in what turned out to be a disappointing season in the “greatest league in the world”.
“It was frustrating, maybe the most frustrating season in my life. I was a good player and when I got to Utah they didn’t use me. I was just there to weight lift and practice and watch the other players play. But that season made me into the person and player that I am now. Nothing could break me after that season. Sometimes I would be watching the game on TV inside the lockerroom because there weren’t any seats in the arena. I missed basketball and I wanted to be on the court feeling my body and celebrating with my teammates and to be there even when we lost. When you don’t have a chance to be a part of it, it’s just tough and it’s as if you did nothing.”
On the positive side, Pleiss was able to create relationships with a couple of players with the Jazz, “I was close with Rudy Gobert and Raul Neto right away as he had played in the ACB when I was there. Rudy and I knew each other from playing on the national teams. We went for a lot of dinners together and hung out a lot.”
Pleiss hasn’t played on the German National Team for some time and while there had been a chance that he would return to the fold under Henrik Rödl it has yet to happen, “We were talking to each other a year ago but I was never able to go to the national team game windows so he made the deciosn to play with the team that has been together for a while. We were going to meet in Berlin but then the coronavirus pandemic began.”
Pleiss has a minor injury but said that he will be ready to go when EFES tips off against Maccabi, “I twisted my ankle and it’s blue but I hope to play and I have practiced. The pain killers of this century help a lot. I am sure that I will play.”
As to the keys for defeating the Yellow & Blue, Pleiss understands that both teams will be playing desperate basketball in order to record the win, “We have to be ready and give our best. Maccabi is like us, both teams aren’t in the best situation and we are both under pressure for this game. We are missing two players so that won’t be easy and Maccabi’s had some problems so it will be big fight.”