Tokyo Time has teamed up with Swish productions and respected sports journalist Mo Stewart, to bring you an exclusive interview with Leicester Riders Coach Rob Paternostro ahead of the Play-Off Finals on Sunday the 19th May.
You can't have a conversation about the greatest ever BBL coach without mentioning the name of Rob Paternostro. The Connecticut native has won every trophy in the game at least twice and has been named BBL Coach of the Year a record six times.
Since Arriving at Leicester Riders in 2008, he's turned a steady, mid-table team into perennial winners, and he hopes to lead his men to a third straight playoff title at the O2 Arena. However, as he explained to me in the lead up to the game, this season has been far from plain sailing; the Riders have had to contend with new challenges in Europe and new threats at home, in the form of BBL Championship winners London Lions, and Playoff Final opponents London City Royals.
Swish: In comparison to previous years it's not been as smooth a ride for your team, with London Lions leading the league ladder for most of the season. And yet, when it's time to head to the O2, here you are for the fourth year running, ready to win the trophy. How would you assess your season?
RP: It's been long. We were speaking about it today actually....we had our first practice in the second week of August, started playing friendlies really early, and then we had the European schedule to start the season, which was ten games, combined with the BBL at the same time. It was a long process for us. I think that until we got to January we weren't really settled, because of all of the different games, and the injuries we suffered. Once we got to January we feel like we turned a corner - the added practice time with fewer games really helped us out.
We've been playing really good Basketball at the end of the season – we made a strong push at the end for the league title, but came up a game or so short. I've been very impressed with the way our guys have been focused and locked in through the playoffs. We've played four games, we've won all four, and all of them have been a defensive effort. If you look at the games, defensively we've really been solid - not just physically but mentally - and that's been super satisfying for me as a coach.
Swish: The mental side must be one of the hardest parts to deal with; not only having an elongated and busy season but also just trying to come back and repeat success, again and again. What would you say was your biggest challenge in trying to repeat; is it holding off the threat of other teams or holding it together amongst yourselves, keeping focus high and complacency low?
RP: There's no problem with complacency amongst our guys. They're just as hungry as they've ever been, and we have some different players on the team as well, so I would say the bigger threat is the other teams. If you look around, the majority of the league has gotten better. Obviously, the Lions had a great season, they brought some great players in, then you look at Royals...I don't remember a BBL team putting that much investment into their club in a long long time. I think the league was deeper this year, and there was more talent in the league.
For us, the schedule we had at the beginning of the season was crazy. I think at one point we played eleven matches in twenty-one days, and a few of those were in different countries. It was like playing catch-up all year for us. You go through a routine throughout your time in the BBL where you're playing a certain amount of games, mostly on the weekend, so you can build a practice routine. We didn't get that until January. That was the most difficult thing for us, combined with the fact there was a lot of good teams this season.
Swish: Regarding Europe - you are the BBL's representative in that competition (the Basketball Champions League), and there have been some changes mooted for next season in terms of the format. On behalf of teams competing in Europe if you were given the chance would you ask them to look at the scheduling, maybe trying to find a better window for some of the competitions?
RP: It's a good question. I don't think you should be playing Wednesday night in Hungary, Friday night in Newcastle and Saturday night in Leicester. If you're playing a midweek game in European competition, one game at the weekend should be enough. Speaking to a lot of the coaches at European games, they were all shocked to hear that we had two more games at the weekend. Teams in Italy, Teams in Hungary are only playing one game before the return game the next midweek.
It's tough playing three games in four days and then doing it two weeks in a row. It takes its toll, not only on the preparation for the games but for the injuries & recovery throughout the rest of the week. When you're playing in Europe, there are so many important games at the beginning of the season that you have to navigate, and that's the time when you're usually practising and gelling as a team.
Swish: You mentioned injuries, and you've had quite a lot to deal with. There's been a high turnover within your squad, but one bright spot is that you brought in Tim Williams mid-season and he's been fantastic – a real dominant presence down low. How pleased have you been with how quickly he's integrated into your system?
RP: Oh yeah – he's been awesome. Not just the numbers, but his whole personality, and his intelligence. We knew that coming in – you only had to watch him on film to see that – but his ability to pick things up quickly and make great decisions on both ends of the floor is incredible. Decision making is so important in Basketball. On offence it's obvious, but defensively is where I think he's gone a little under the radar. His defensive decision making really put us in a different category as far as our team defence. It was impressive to see him able to do it on the fly, in big moments, and it made us a better team.
Swish: You've made Britain your home for nearly twenty years as both player & coach. What's been the biggest change in the game in this country since you arrived in 2000?
RP: When I first arrived as a player, most of the teams were loaded with talent. I'd say up until 2003 we were still getting top talent, and media coverage – we were live every Saturday night on Sky Sports, before moving to ITV Digital. It was really happening at that point, but when we lost that TV deal there was a transition period that lasted about five years. Since around 2008 it's been quietly getting better. We're getting better players coming into the league over the last few seasons. Talking to agents of players & coaches from around the world, I know a lot of them are now looking at the BBL as a really talented league where they want to send their clients.
When I first arrived in Leicester as a coach in 2008.....it was a hard sell. I tried to sell players on coming here, doing well and then getting bigger jobs, but now we're looked at a little differently. Social media has helped a lot. You've gotta remember when I first arrived it was hard to watch Basketball or get Basketball information – it was only on in the middle of the night, so you had to record it on a VCR or whatever just to watch those games. Now, anybody can watch anything at any time.
The knowledge of the game in this country is getting better and better, and I only see that increasing. It's gonna be slowly – I don't think we can expect it all right away, but I do see positive signs. More teams like ourselves, Worcester and Newcastle having their own venues to play in is something that will be not only good for our league, but the next generation coming through.
Swish: Is that the next frontier as you see it – the infrastructure to have not only a stadium to call home, but to be able to bring through the next generation in terms of youth teams?
RP: I believe so. You just have to look at our situation here. We have an arena right in the centre of Leicester, you go there on a Saturday morning there are a hundred kids playing with Riders shirts on. That's something that we could've only dreamed about 5,6, or 7 years ago, but now it's a reality. These kids are not only enjoying their Basketball, but they're also becoming Riders fans, as are their families. If you look around the league, that's where everybody wants to be. Not just the ability to practice and play on your home court, but for the community to have a central location for Basketball in the area.
Mo Stewart for Swish Productions