Interview. Nikola Markovic: "Basketball is an emotions' sport, it's an emotional roller-coaster"

Valentin Todea, David Istrate

Valentin Todea, David Istrate

At the beginning of this week, CSM CSU Oradea managed to beat BC CSU Sibiu in the Finals winning their second consecutive title. Thinking about the joy of all the fans from Oradea, we tried to take advantage of this occasion and publish the English version of our interview with Nikola Markovic.

The Serbian player quickly became one of the best in his team as he added a lot of strength and skill to CSM CSU Oradea. He ended the season with very good numbers (10.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.0 APG) and managed to win the Romanian League and to be a runner-up in the Romanian Cup.

A couple of months ago, we travelled to Oradea to talk with Markovic and to find out more about how he views the game, what are his passions and wishes for future. In the beginning of the interview, he told us a little bit about himself and how he started playing basketball, who was his role-model and how was the early part of his career.

Could you present yourself in a few words?

I'm Nikola Markovic from Belgrad, Serbia. I've played basketball since I know myself, all my life. People who follow basketball know that I played three years in Greece, two years in Poland. Before that, I was in my home country, in Serbia, and now Romania.

How did you start playing basketball?

At that time our national team was having great results. At the end of the 90s and at the beginning of the 2000s they were winning a lot of championships. So lots of kids were trying to be like them. It was not like now. Today kids are more attracted by TV, tablets, and video games. In that period, when I was growing up, we were attracted by sports and at that moment it was basketball. So, I started like that with my friends when I was 8, 9. We started to play basketball every day and I had 10 or 11 when I started to go to practices. So pretty much I'm 20 years into this.

Who was your role-model?

My favorite player in the beginnings and I think that also now was Dejan Bodiroga. I liked him a lot. His versatility, he could play almost every position except, I don't know, maybe 5. He had shots, dribble, clutch shots so, for sure, he was one of the heroes of the country at that time.

After a few years you got called to the national team and you played at the Universiade. How was that experience?

Yes, yes, yes. From Under 16 to the University, that was the national team. I was close to the seniors' team, there were some rumors that it's gonna be me or Bircevic or Kalinic at that moment but coach chose Kalinic because he needed more someone who could play 3 and 4. I was like more pure 4 at that moment and in the last few years, I started to play more 5. I had the chance but still, I've been through all these national teams youth categories. So it was a good experience.

What did that mean to you - playing for the national team?

It was great, I loved it. As soon as you finish the season you go to the national team, to the training camp all summer. You are practicing with your friends and getting ready for the championships. You feel very proud to have the chance to wear the national team's jersey, to represent your country in that way. So, for me, it was a great experience and I really miss that time.

Everybody knows that the Serbians and Croatians have a great mentality, being known for not giving up. This is why we asked Markovic if this is one of his main qualities. In the mean time, we also tried to touch a more emotional subject, talking about his reactions to losing, his relationship with the fans, and his best and worst moments. 

You Serbians and maybe Croatians are known for having a great mentality on the court, for fighting. Would you say that this is one of your main qualities?

Yes, it's one of the qualities because I want to win every game. I cannot choose how I want to win but I want to win. If I have to fight more or play stronger or run faster, I don't know, I just want to find a way to win the game. So, for sure I think that I have a winning mentality and I get very mad and nervous when we lose or play badly. So far it was good.

How do you react when you lose?

When I was younger I was really mad, I was nervous. But now I'm evolving, I'm 29 almost 30 so now I don't express that too much. But still, if something bad happens or we lose it's hard. You know, this is an emotions sport, it's an emotional roller-coaster. In one game you have a lot of up and downs. You get nervous, you get happy, you get stressed. People who are watching from the stands are people who think is easy but sometimes when you go through it is stressing. Of course, most of the times is a joy but when you play bad defense, you miss a shot or something bad happens you get a little bit stressed. However, that's a part of basketball.

The relationship between players and fans is very important. Which fans of a team were the best ones from all the teams you played? Because I know that you spent some time at Crvena Zvezda.

Yeah, I was really lucky to play with teams that have great fans. In Serbia was Red Star who has really amazing fans. You know, when they come to the gym 7000 you can jump over the basket because of how much hype and adrenaline they give. It's crazy, especially when we played the derbies against Partizan. It's a full gym, it's overcrowded and it gives you a crazy feeling. Then, in Greece, I played for PAOK and that was really amazing, especially the derby PAOK - Aris. So I was really, you know Americans like to say, blessed just the chance to play a derby in Serbia, a derby in Greece. It's not the biggest, Panathinaikos - Olympiakos is the biggest, but PAOK - Aris is also very big. When we played that game, our gyms are really like 5 km from the one another, and you go with a police escort, motorcycles. You know, it's crazy. There is now away fans, it's just home fans and they still make stupid things. If you kick the ball close to the stands you can not go and take the ball because fans are spitting on you. And it's a full gym. So that were really some nice games. It's an experience. In Poland, fans are not like in Greece or Serbia. I don't think that there is a place in the world where fans are like in Greece or Serbia, so passionate about sports. Maybe in South America, you know, Boca Juniors and these guys. But in Europe, I think that Greek and Serbian fans and maybe Turkish ones are the craziest and most passionate about sports. In Poland, it was also great, 3500-4000 fans all the time. The city was all about basketball, there is no other sport. So this year when we played Champions League every game was packed. It was nice to play there.

Earlier you were saying that the career of a basketball player is like a roller-coaster so could you tell one of your best moments and one of your worst moments?

Definitely winning the U18 Championship was one good moment. I remember I was 18, still young but I was very proud of myself. And I also remember how my family and friends were really proud of us. You know, when you represent your country and you win the gold medal is a feeling that I can not explain. Especially in that year against Spain when they had Rubio, Rabaseda and other guys. Also against Lithuania who had players which are in NBA right now. So a lot of guys from that championship are playing at a high level now. We won it in Madrid where Spain was a big favorite. So that was really one of the greatest moments. Playing in EuroCup was also good because I had the chance to compete at a high level and to see that I belong there. It's a matter of details and focus. When you play at that level it's a different mindset for the games, you know, and all the times it's up to the details. How focused you are and how much energy you bring every night. The worst moment was maybe when I was 21. I really had a good season back then and that's when I was in the talks for the national team and I broke my leg. That was my first and my last, I hope serious injury. I broke my fifth bone in the foot so I was like 13 weeks out. I missed almost 3-4 months doing nothing and then again 3-4 months of recovery. So I was missed the whole season when I was really evolving as a player. This put me down a little bit but my thinking is that 'Ok, not just basketball but every sport is not a sprint but a marathon'. In my case, I know most of the guys are young talented. If you are 21-22 years old they think that you are an old player. If you don't make something by 20 years you are an old player. It's crazy. Of course, when you go abroad you are not old. Now, with 29 you are still young, you can play, but in my country with 20, 21, 22 you are old. If you didn't achieve something you are old. And at that moment a lot of the guys went to great teams and got big contracts but I was injured and my career wasn't going so well. But ok, after one year I recovered and then I went to Greece. I didn't know where I'm going but it was good. In my first season, I was the second rebounder of the league, Kenny Gabriel was first, he played in Panathinaikos and now he is in Turk Telekom. So after that, I played in PAOK and it was ok.

Earlier you said that in Serbia if you are 21-22 and you didn't do anything you are considered old. There are some players who don't like this competition and, you know, they would like it to be easier. Do you like this competition - that everyone has to fight for his place?

That's normal. No one can give you something for granted. Whatever you got you must deserve it. What I got now, at this moment, nobody gave me this for free. I worked for this, you know, all my life practicing hard. I think that competition is always good because it pushes you forward to be better.

What's your motivation going further and further?

Now, my motivation is to win the trophies. To be honest, I played with some good teams but I never had the chance to fight for a title. I mean I won something as a junior and with the national team. Also, I played one final last season. We lost it because of some stupid things we made. Our point guard got ejected, he was our main point guard and we didn't have anyone else. After he left the court we had a guy that was 36 years old. So he got ejected when it was 2-2 and we played until 4 wins. I mean it was like 50-50 but without him, it was much tougher so that was my first final last year. So this year I want to play two finals and two wins I hope.

Knowing that Nikola Markovic played in four countries, we were very curious to find out which is his favorite. Also, we wanted to learn from him and to see what hobbies does he have.

How would you compare the lifestyle of a basketball player outside the court and practices in Greece, Poland, Serbia, and Romania?

Greece is for sure the best, first of all, you have three hundred or more of sunny days and Greek people are very social, they like to hang out, they are calling you to their home, it`s really really nice and they know how to enjoy life. In Poland the people are a little bit cold, to be honest, as a nation, looking for themselves. When I first went there after Greece and Serbia where the people were friendly and wanted to hang out a lot, there was different, like `I go home, you go home`. Because of that, first I was a little bit down, I was asking myself `What I am going to do in my free time? Nobody wants to hang out.` But I got used to this and it was cool for me. And here it is similar like in Serbia. Greece was the best for sure, especially living near the sea.

What do you think that Romania can take from Serbia in terms of basketball?

Romania can take knowledge. I believe if you see now that, for example, Poland, as a national team, they qualified to the World Cup, but they let imports in their league. Coaches from the Balkans came in their league in the '90s, so they were practicing and practicing, one coach opens the door for another coach, so there were a lot of coaches from the Balkans during the last 30 years. Polish coaches could take that knowledge from them because this is simple. For sure, I believe the best knowledge is from Balkan coaches, and not because I am from there. Most of the Balkan guys are in the top teams usually and they let them come in their league, they put knowledge and other Polish coaches take experience and knowledge from them. Slowly, slowly the Polish guys became better and better. And you can see now, there is a process, they went to the World Cup now. They have one American, A.J. Slaughter, he can help them a lot, but they have also a lot of Polish guys, and you can not say that Poland is some basketball country. But here, in Romania, as I can see, there are just Romanian coaches mostly, I was wondering why this is happening, OK, Milan Mitrovic is here as an assistant. People have to learn, I know that players and coaches sometimes have an ego, some bigger and others smaller. The Polish guys like to learn, they are looking for knowledge and experience from other coaches. For example, the coach from my previous team, Igor Milicic, he is Croatian, he is amazing, how he handles tactics and prepares the games, a lot of individual set-ups in defense, in offense, alternative defense, special situations in offense, he is really prepared, and other guys are taking from him, the polish coaches. His signature is 1-3-1 zone, this is how he won the championship last year, with a 1-3-1 zone, 2-2-1 zone press and coming back in 1-3-1. Because you know how are the Americans, they like to hold the ball, and he put them in the zone, and you hold it and you can not do anything. On that, he won the championship. We played this system in the Champions League also, believe me, especially Americans if they are not smart or if they don`t let go of the ball fast, they lose the time and they waste a possession, you make a stop and you defend. The Romanian players that we have in our team are very good, I like them. Bobe plays for the national team, Fome is very talented, Edi is talented also. You just have to work with them and to show them, because for sure they have talent, but the talent is not everything. OK, maybe in Serbia we have more talent but it`s not only that, believe me, it`s work, you start from when you are a kid and when you dribble the ball a lot and you get knowledge in time.

What about your passions besides basketball? What do you like to do in your free time?

Now I have free time here because I am alone, but mostly with kids. Because I am 9-10 months away from my home, mostly I am using all the time to spend with my friends and family, because I am only 2 months during the summer home, and after I start everything over again.

I know you are a big football fan, can you tell us a bit about that?

Sometimes I really watch more football than basketball, I love basketball, of course, I watch almost every Euroleague game or when is good EuroCup game or Champions League I watch as well, but I like football a lot, and tennis is also one of my favorite sport.

Do you prefer more games or practice?

Maybe I like to travel more, when we played Champions League it was nice, we traveled a lot, game by game. You get tired, you don`t have a lot of time, most of the time you are on buses, airports, hotels, but it`s interesting because time is flying. You turn around, it`s already February, almost end of the season.
Can you make a comparison between the Euroleague, EuroCup and the FIBA competitions, Champions League where you also played?

In EuroCup there a lot of good teams with good players, that year when I played in EuroCup we advanced to the second phase. In the first phase, we had teams likes Lietuvos Rytas, Besiktas, Saratov, all the teams with a big budget. And in the second phase we had Valencia, Zenit, Limoges and we finished third, only two teams went through so we didn`t qualify but we beat Valencia, Limoges and for sure there are very good players, different kind of games, you have teams who run, but of course also preparing for the games, thinking, scouting, knowing their set-plays, knowing how to adjust in defence, I mean for sure you have to be more focused, because it`s totally different preparations for those kinds of games, and it depends what coach you got. Some coaches prepare every single day, watch videos, schedule meetings, every day, and others don`t like this. They have only like one or two times per week this kind of meetings.

In the end, we talked a little bit about the importance of team chemistry and about Markovic's plans after retirement.

How important is for a team to have chemistry outside the court, like bonding and hanging out?

That`s the most important thing for me, I think that`s the biggest part of one team, to build a healthy and good atmosphere between each other, not some fakes. Fake is not good, in my experience that`s the most important thing, not to be greedy, I mean to take ten shots or to be greedy to score, like to play for the team. On the court and off the court also to hang out to build this atmosphere. If you want to achieve something, if you want to last longer during the season, to make steps forward, to play in the playoffs, in the finals, to win championships, I believe that`s the most important thing. The atmosphere you have off the court it comes on the court and you function better and I believe the chemistry is very important and if you can build that in one team, by players or coach, he can build also, then that`s great for the team.

What are your plans after you retire from playing basketball? Would you consider coaching?

At this moment, I don`t know about coaching because when you are a player you just come to the practice and you practice and go to the game and play. But when you coach, you have to think about fifteen guys, you have to think about them, you have to prepare the practices, for the game. I think it`s a totally different world to be a coach, but from this stand of point, when I finish career maybe I will coach, why not. Basketball is the only thing that I know to do, and I did that all my life. My father is a professional truck driver, he has a company with three-four trucks, so that`s my family business. My brother was doing this, I didn`t do it because I was attracted by the ball. For sure I would like to be there, to stick with the family, to expand this business, but on the other side I would like to stay in basketball also, to be around basketball because it`s really great, that`s what I know what to do best. Now to play, and maybe one day to coach, who knows, maybe to be a GM, I don`t know, or an agent or something, just to stay around basketball, but you never know what it`s going to happen in a few years.

Thank you, Nikola!

*foto: Valentin Todea/Total Baschet

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