Lapena: Fenerbahce is the most important challenge of my career
ISTANBUL (Turkey) - When the newly crowned EuroLeague Women Coach of the Year Victor Lapena touched down in Istanbul last year, he knew he was taking on the biggest role of his professional career.
Hit the fast-forward button to April 2020 and much to his relief, he has delivered against expectations in a big way.
The Spaniard two major pieces of domestic silverware for Fenerbahce Oznur Kablo, by way of a Turkish and Presidents Cup double, while having also guided the juggernauts to the brink of the EuroLeague Women Final Four.
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Appointed off the back of landing a EuroCup Women title last season with Nadezhda in his first foray outside of his homeland, the magnitude of picking up the coaching reins and trying to deliver for such a giant like Fenerbahce was never lost on Lapena.
"Everything was on my mind due to the recent history of the club and relating to both the men's and the women's basketball," he confessed.
"Having the opportunity to work in a big club as Fenerbahce was, without any doubt, the most important challenge in my career as a club basketball coach.
"Although I had the privilege of working for large organizations previously, the magnitude of Fenerbahce exceeded all of the above. I realized what it was like to be in this club from the moment I was able to meet with its managers and visit the club's facilities."
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Despite the pressure and weight of expectation, Lapena showed he had the skills and temperament to deal with it and was on course to propel one of the most famous clubs in the world back to the Final Four. That was always the aim, with Fenerbhace Oznur Kablo having missed out during recent years.
Cruising to the top of their group in the Regular Season and posting an impressive 10-3 record, it took a pandemic to stop Fenerbahce in their tracks. While the arrival of COVID-19 proved to be a bitter blow for Lapena from a basketball standpoint after such a great run, the gravity of the situation was not lost on him during the early stages, and he has taken solace in the fact he is simply safe with his loved ones.
He said: "Unfortunately, having had first-hand information about what was happening in Italy (a country that I adore) through one of my players in Cecilia (Zandalasini) and of course also Spain through my family, I think I realized before most other people in Turkey, where the cases only appeared later.
"Both I and my assistant Nacho Garcia were very concerned. On the one hand, we wanted to finish the job and certify our pass to Final Four, which was only one game and victory away. But on the other hand, our concern grew day by day.
"We waited a few weeks anxiously for the decision of the Turkish Federation and tried to keep the players focused, but each day it became more complicated as we saw cases grow and flights were being cancelled.
"In the end, everything was happening very fast. We were able to leave at the last minute and I was able to meet up with my family. So now I can at least enjoy this strange situation being in the company of my wife and children."
Anybody assessing why Lapena landed the accolade of EuroLeague Women Coach of the Year will appreciate that prior to the season getting underway, it wasn't only expectation that he had to deal with.
There was also the puzzle of how he could accommodate two high-volume scorers like Cecilia Zandalasini and the newly arrived Alina Iagupova in the same team, taking into account they more or less play the exact same position.
Some observers scratched their heads and even Zandalasini herself admitted she was concerned about how the dynamic would work. Yet it turned out to be a staggering success, with the partnership effectively fuelling a hugely successful campaign.
"I always want great players like them on my team, and the more the better," commented Lapena.
"It is the job of the coach to manage their personalities. In this case, as soon as I got to know them both, I knew that the season would go well.
"IAGUPOVA IS ONE OF THE BEST PLAYERS IN THE BASKETBALL WORLD - NOT JUST IN EUROPE." - Victor Lapena
"Besides being great players, they are generous and have a spectacular work ethic. Finding space for both on the court is actually the easiest part of the equation. The difficult thing is what they do in each game."
Iagupova in particular has been truly special while wearing Fenerbahce colors for the first time and Lapena admitted he doesn't think she needs to eventually end up Stateside for everyone to truly appreciate the actual level of her ability.
"Iagupova is one of the best players in the basketball world - not just in Europe," he insisted.
"She can change a game, no matter the competition. Not only due to her overwhelming skill to score, but for her solidarity and ability to pass the ball.
"She does not need to go to the WNBA to prove her worth – much like Alba Torrens, who I also had the privilege of working with during my time with the Spanish national team. Both of them are, if you ask me, among the best players in the world."
One of the most appealing characteristics of Lapena seems to be the way he seamlessly relates to the players he coaches. Zandalasini in particular was gushing in her praise of the playcaller recently and underlined how important it was that he had spent so much time in the international youth ranks with Spain and therefore seeing so many players early in their burgeoning careers.
"It has been a positive and a negative thing, because the big stars of the future get to know you (as happened in the case of Ceci), but the bad news is that more and more people remember you and that means celebrating far too many birthdays," joked Lapena.
"Seriously though, it is a great opportunity to work for your country with young teams and it is a wonderful experience to help young people to develop their talent.
"At the end of the day, these various FIBA youth championships are a great success and have helped many players to develop at a spectacular rate."
With his reputation continuing to soar, Lapena can now start being put into the ever growing bracket of exceptional Spanish coaches. It's already quite a collection of those who have excelled in EuroLeague and EuroCup Women - including the likes of Lucas Mondelo, Roberto Iniguez and Miguel Mendez for example.
"This list you are talking about is spectacular and just being compared to them is an honor," insisted Lapena.
"I think the Spanish coaches have had a high degree of tactical training and work routines for many years thanks to the Coaching Courses of the Spanish Federation.
"There was a tough moment of financial crisis arriving and we all began to leave our country because there was not a good economic situation. But successes still began to arrive with Lucas Mondelo in particular, one of the great pioneers.
"From there, many coaches have followed in his footsteps and I currently believe that there are more than 100 Spanish coaches working outside of Spain.
"It is an honor for me to belong to this group and I will continue working to keep the name of the Spanish coaches in good stead," he stressed.