Basketball artiste Zandalasini focused on Final Four success with Fenerbahce
ISTANBUL (Turkey) - Cecilia Zandalasini is looking for answers to get Fenerbahce Oznur Kablo and Italy back on track and playing at the biggest tournaments again.
In both cases, she is front and center of those challenges because of her long list of attributes, including her famed offensive punch and top-drawer quality.
Now in her second season at Fenerbahce, it's clear that Zandalasini is now in a better position to strike for honors. With an up and down 2018-19 campaign for the Turkish club as experience to draw on, the Italian has been reflecting on an adjustment period of representing one of the biggest and most famous names in sport.
"YOU HAVE TO PERFORM EVEN IF THE PRESSURE IS BIG AND THE TRADITION IS BIGGER." - Zandalasini
"Before I arrived in Istanbul, I knew about Fenerbahce and the intensity from when I had been playing against them each year in EuroLeague Women for Famila Schio and I definitely got that impression of just how much of a big club that they are," she said.
"I knew that from the moment I arrived, it would be one of the biggest steps and that the expectation would be higher. Then, when I did arrive, you could feel it - it became real.
"This is a club that breathes different sports, not just basketball. But you have to perform even if the pressure is big and the tradition is bigger.
"As a player, I am lucky that I am able to step onto the court and focus on what I have been asked to do by a coach. Of course even that can be hard when you are playing in the famous derby game against Galatasaray and sometimes it is hard to ignore the feelings and the passion, but you have to really focus on the job you are doing first."
THE SURPRISE OF IAGUPOVA
During the off-season when Fenerbahce swooped for the stellar talented Alina Iagupova, it wasn't only the eyebrows of women's basketball observers being raised. A candid Zanadalasini confessed that initially, she was also left scratching her head.
She stated: "I will not lie, when I heard she was signing, I did not understand how we would both be playing together.
"I was not concerned or upset about it, I just didn't know how this thing would work because we had both played previously in a very similar position.
"I also didn't know Alina at all apart from having played a couple of games against her on the court. I knew absolutely nothing about her as a person and yet I have to now say that for me, playing with Alina has not only been a surprise, but a big pleasure.
"I WILL NOT LIE... I DID NOT UNDERSTAND HOW WE WOULD BOTH BE PLAYING TOGETHER." - Zandalasini
"She is an amazing player, but also an amazing person off the court. She is so nice and simple in her approach to dealing with you and on the floor, she makes playing basketball so much easier that it is an incredible thing, really. Alina makes it much more fun because she reads the game in this way that gets you so many open shots and on the other side, you can always throw her the ball and know she will do something positive with it.
"Thankfully, this new kind of basketball we are playing means that exact positions are not as important as before. What matters is the way we work alongside each other and help the team to be a success. So far at least, it has been a good relationship for us and I hope this continues."
LOVE FOR LAPENA
There is also no disguising just how much the Italian is relishing playing for new head coach, Victor Lapena. The Spanish playcaller has brought a brand of basketball that can accommodate two very similar stellar talents and dominant players like Zandalasini and Iagupova, but also have tight defense front and central.
"I have known Coach Lapena for a long time and that is because his teams always beat mine," mused Zandalasini.
"I can go all the way back to U16 when Italy played Spain and he always seemed to be the coach that beat us. You can imagine that I was so happy that he was appointed by Fenerbahce.
"IT IS NEVER ABOUT HIM, ONLY ABOUT YOU. HE TALKS TO ME ALL THE TIME." - Zandalasini
"He had already given me the impression of what a good person he is, but to also combine this with being a good coach can’t be easy, but that is what he is doing.
"He brings you energy when you need it and motivates you to become better. He also spends a lot of time talking with you. It is never about him, only about you. He talks to me all the time, before games, during games and after games. It has been so positive and so far, the results have mostly shown this and with him as coach, I think we can make even better work."
This aforementioned better work would mean getting Fenerbahce back to the Final Four, with the giants having missed recent editions – quite a change having previously featured six times in a row.
There is the added dimension of Zandalasini, as one of the most talented and high-profile players in the competition still waiting to make her debut at the showpiece event. So, will 2020 finally see her able to step out?
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She said: "Making the Final Four is the goal and the only goal for any top level EuroLeague Women club like Fenerbahce and so you have no other option but to think about it.
"Being at a Final Four is of course where you want to be as a player, but the problem is that in EuroLeague Women, you know how hard it can be. For example, just in our group this season we're having three teams all pushing for the top spot.
"However, I am confident we can make it this year, but you also have no choice but to know that even if you are capable of it, you have to always look carefully at the next step you are taking."
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS WITH ITALY
For all of the buzz and adulation experienced by Zandalasini, including that memorable and unexpected WNBA championship title in 2017 with the Minnesota Lynx, she has had to endure some setbacks – not least with Italy.
Not appearing at EuroLeague Women Final Four can be mirrored with not featuring at a senior global event with her country, who missed out in agonizing fashion on the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018 and then fell short in their quest to make the FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournaments 2020.
Leaving successive FIBA Women's EuroBasket Final Round events empty-handed and short of their pre-tournament targets is painful in the extreme. The similarities between 2017 and 2019 were striking and it is something that Zandalasini is still trying to come to terms with.
She admitted: "I have a mix of feelings when I look back on what happened at the Final Round this past summer. One day I think about how we were just not good enough and other times, I can only wonder what was missing.
"It was a lot like the feeling I had in 2017 when we lost our possible place in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup and what I think is most frustrating thing, is that at the last two Final Rounds, we went there feeling like we were ready.
"I DON'T KNOW HOW I CAN EVEN START TO FIGURE IT OUT.... I HAVE TRIED." - Zandalasini
"I love playing for the national team, but the reality is that you lose one game and the mistakes at that level can cost you a lot. There are no games you can say that you will win for sure and it can hurt.
"As players, we talk about it, but my particular problem is that I don't know how I can even start to figure it out. I have tried and I just keep coming back to the fact that maybe we felt the pressure or missed something important."
The sunshine poking from behind some gloomy clouds is that Italy are blessed with a healthy crop of potential top level talents and so a resurgence could be around the corner. It's a fact not lost on Zandalasini, who is acutely aware of how important this could be and also how she once walked in the shoes of those current teenage talents who are attracting a lot of positive attention.
She explained: "Yes, it makes me think back to when I was playing for the youth teams and we had great success. We are still getting great success with our youth teams, but we now have to make sure that more players can make the transition to the senior team in these next years.
"We have so many talented young players and we are now waiting for them. I watch them play when I can and we really need them to reach our potential.
"But, they must follow their own process to become professional players. It is their process and I am not the kind of person to tell them how they might want to do it. I remember being in their shoes with so many people around you and others talking about you. They have to firstly try to keep enjoying it and follow their own path in the best way they can."
HOLDING UP THE MIRROR
Perhaps the spotlight having been thrust upon her at such a young age has shaped Zandalasini to a degree. While an intensely private individual, she is willing to lift the lid a little on what she sees looking back at her each morning when she wakes up, since the weight of expectation at Fenerbahce and with Italy could weigh seriously heavy at times.
"I really try not to think too much about this kind of stuff when I look in the mirror – about how I might be living my dream," revealed Zandalasini.
"I stand brushing my teeth each day and only see me looking back at myself in the sense that it feels right I am here, that it feels natural and that I deserve it for the work and the steps and process I have taken.
"I REALLY TRY NOT TO THINK TOO MUCH ABOUT THIS KIND OF STUFF WHEN I LOOK IN THE MIRROR - ABOUT HOW I MIGHT BE LIVING MY DREAM."
"The only time I sometimes look back is how 10 years ago, I was a young girl playing basketball at home and then I went to another place in Schio and here I now am in Istanbul. Maybe the only thing I see beyond this, is how I am someone wanting the next challenge and the next step in that process I keep talking about."
There is no doubt that Zandalasini is smart to ensure she is able to check out mentally from the intensity of being an athlete playing for a true sporting juggernaut. She also explained how having something extra which is just hers and for the people closest to her is equally important in her life.
She said: "I have these days off when I mean they are truly days off. Sometimes I can do nothing and I need to do nothing. You have to switch off.
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"Other times I get involved in my other passion. It is art and lots of related creative things. My main hobby is that I actually do art, through sketching and mainly painting. I paint water colors and I show my parents and my brothers and sisters.
"I keep this side of my life for me and my family. They have a good eye for art, because they handed me this other passion and it is something I absolutely love to do outside of playing basketball," concluded Zandalasini.
For now though, the EuroLeague Women canvas is the one that intrigues most, with the sharp-shooting star capable of inspiring Fenerbahce to a possible Final Four 2020 masterpiece.