FIBA Women's EuroBasket Legends: Ana Dabovic – a jewel in Serbia's crown
BELGRADE (Serbia) - Serbia needed a special performer to step up in their quest to make FIBA Women's EuroBasket history during 2015 and it was the amazing Ana Dabovic who delivered in a big way.
While it was an impressive team effort as Serbia won their first ever title at the event, there's no denying the dynamic and entertaining displays of Dabovic proved to be the jewel in the crown of a landmark success. Racking up almost 15 points per game and handing out more than three assists per outing, she was crowned MVP.
That individual honor was also based on the fact that she caught fire during tournament crunch time in a seriously epic way. Dabovic amassed a spectacular 31 points in the Quarter-Final against Turkey, then erupted for 25 points in the Semi-Final thriller against Belarus and most importantly, torched France with 25 points in the title game.
FIBA.basketball caught up with the free-scoring guard for a rare insight into her journey.
It's always clear that really you love to represent the Serbian national team and while winning the FIBA Women's EuroBasket in 2015 was the high tide mark, when do you feel your own rise and also the rise of the team truly started?
The story of the Serbian national team is the favorite part of my career and the one I always love to talk about. Whenever I get asked about 2013 and 2015, I like to rewind even further to when I first started playing in 2010. For three years we were playing Qualifiers just to try get to the FIBA Women's EuroBasket. The year I consider the most important is 2012, when we gained qualification and got our ticket for what was the first Final Round for most of the girls.
"WE WERE A LITTLE BIT CRAZY - BUT IN A GOOD WAY. IN TEAM SPORTS, YOU STILL ALWAYS HAVE TO BE A TEAM." - Dabovic
From the changing of the Federation's President to Dragan Dilas and also Vice President Ana Jokovic, plus our coaching staff, everything was new. Marina Maljkovic had come in as our head coach, plus the team was a little different and everything started. It eventually brought us to become one of the best teams in Europe and I am very proud to have been there when it all started, because I know how it was.
The first big moment at Final Round in 2013 was after we didn't start very well and we actually lost to France by 40 points! And yet two years later, we beat them in the Final. This shows how much we grew up as a team and as individuals in this time. It was a big experience and the following year we also got to play the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2014 in Turkey. We really started believing in ourselves and also Serbia started to really believe in us as well. I couldn't finish the Final Round in 2013 because of my injury which was a pity, but yes, this tournament was the road towards our most important moment in 2015.
Heading into the Final Round in 2015, did you have a specific goal in mind? Was it really winning the title at that point already or more about the Olympic Qualifiers?
I have to be honest and admit we were only thinking only about Olympic qualification. That was our goal - to be in the first five. But then when we went and won the Quarter-Final and then the Semi-Final, I had been joking with my sister (Editor's note: and teammate) Milica that I wanted a direct ticket as winners, so we didn't even have to go through any Qualifiers.
I didn't believe that we would be first at the beginning of the competition. But the way we all played and the atmosphere in the team gave me the feeling that everything had come together. It was the way it was supposed to be. We were at our best in the right moments and my own confidence came from the team.
We all did what we needed to do, for the team to win. We were all unselfish, there was a good energy and in the end, you can not be denied winning when you have good people, a great atmosphere and a lot of good stuff like that happening. The support from the Federation was also a big success. When I talk about 2015, I like to say that when we lost to Russia in the early stages by more than 20 points, it was the game that brought us even closer together. We talked and we fixed things. It showed we were mentally ready.
There were many characters and a lot of energy in that team. How much more attention did you get from the public and the media following the event?
It's interesting that a year or two before 2015, nobody really talked about the Serbian national team. The thing that I am most proud of is that we made women's basketball in Serbia very popular. We made people happy with our success and the way that we played for our country. I think what people still love about us is that we play with a lot of fun and a lot of personality. We were a little bit crazy - but in a good way. In team sports, you still always have to be a team. No matter if we were good or bad off the court, when we take to the floor, we are the best and we're always together. We enjoy being there and we always understand we are there to represent our country and to fight.
I am proud of the group of people that has made all this success. It is not easy and it takes a lot, which is why I am so happy we have done it. When someone suggests something, we immediately look to do it. We also have a lot of meetings about improving. The ways of our coach Marina Maljkovic are hard, but very good. We always do it intensively and that is what we show on the court. Fun, a good atmosphere, a lot of hard work and lots of love are the ingredients for us!
Coach Malkjovic had to handle all of this and seemed to get the right balance in 2015, making all this energy and personality work...
Yes, Marina really did it all the right way to make the success and I don't think it was easy for her or the staff. But she found a good way for us to perform to our best and to be the best when it was the most important times. Starting from 2012, right through to 2016, I don't think we ever disappointed anyone who watched us, or the people in Serbia who knew we always fought to give our best. It all started from her and from the way that she coached us.
What are you favorite memories about the Final Round in 2015?
I remember a lot of things, but basketball-wise not so much, except that I definitely played games with the most joy and love I have ever had. I felt that I could do this because of the atmosphere I talked about earlier, which was so great. Everyone was having fun, enjoyed being there and even the girls who maybe didn't play a lot, still showed that I could feel the love, support and energy. That is how you win very big titles.
What makes me most happy is that many of my friends and all of my family was there at that moment. I played with my sister, my parents were there, my brother and sister, including my brother also bringing his family. I am full of love and joy that I did the best and achieved an important success for our country on a day when everyone I loved was inside the gym.
After that we experienced the most important thing for all Serbian athletes - being on the famous balcony and on an open top bus when we returned. We all felt like Queens. It was special for all of us and basketball wise, it was a series of games when I felt no stress - even when we found ourselves with the chance to go straight to the Olympics. And yes, we did it!
What about the MVP award; can you talk about what that meant for you?
The MVP award is very special for me because it proved that I helped the national team to win the gold medal. The only reason I got it is that I had help from amazing players and people on the team. I really was never more confident during my career. Playing with people you love and respect, gave me that confidence - especially from the Quarter-Finals onwards. I also knew that if I was not playing well, then we had players like Sonja (Vasic), Jelena (Brooks) and others who would step up for us.
You already mentioned how special it was having your family around. How much more special was it to make history while playing with your sister Milica?
You should ask my parents. I am sure when they were watching us, they were very proud and especially because my father is a coach who helped make us who we are, both as people and players. So him watching us at that time must have made him the happiest man in the world and the most proud. I am happy that not only did I play with my sister, but I made history with her, which is something truly special. We were both really trying to make this success for each other and for the team. She was the captain and always leading. She likes to say how we are different in terms of being the brain of the team, against the legs and the heart of the team.
Our time spent playing for the national team was also normally the most time we spent together, since we were always playing in different places for our clubs. I appreciate the moment all the more because of this. I also remember in the Final when I threw the ball away so she could come onto the court and we could hug and I could tell her tell, 'This is it, we are going to the Olympics.' Everyone in the team are sisters to me, but with Milica it is obviously very special. People like to say how we are very different, yet we grew up with the same brothers, the same coaches and I think this has helped the national team a lot.
Finally, the reaction to the first-ever Women's EuroBasket gold, and direct Olympic qualification, back in Serbia was amazing?
We experienced something is a dream of any athlete in Serbia. To experience the traditional balcony parade is special. If you get on that balcony, it means you won something very big. We never believed it would happen to us, but we always dreamed. First we had the open top bus through Belgrade and I will never forget it. I felt so happy and proud as everyone was waving and cheering for us, sending kisses and showing all their love. I was proud we were able to make them so happy. Then at the end, standing on the balcony with the girls, I don't even know how many people were there in front of us and waiting. One by one, we were going outside and talking to them. It was an amazing thing.
In the future, I can tell kids who want to play basketball about all of this and the feelings I had, in order to motivate them. Those couple of years in 2015 and 2016, including the gold medal, the balcony, making history and the Olympics was definitely the best moments of my life. Even now, I still sometimes look at pictures or go onto YouTube to remind myself of everything amazing that has happened to us.