A new era started for Real Madrid on June 29, 2011, when Pablo Laso met the press for the first time as the coach of the winningest team in the history of the EuroLeague. After a very successful playing career – Laso still leads the all-time Spanish League standings in total assists and steals – had already coached for eight seasons, including five with first-division clubs Valencia Basket and Gipuzkoa. In his first press conference for Real, however, Laso heard questions like: “Were you surprised when you got the first call from Real Madrid?”; “Are you aware of the criticism out there due to your lack of experience?”; and “Are you aware that there is a certain disappointment in the club?”
Almost 10 years later, Laso has led Real to a new golden age. During the last nine seasons, Real has won two EuroLeague titles in six Final Four appearances to go with five Spanish League and six Spanish King’s Cup trophies. If someone had predicted such success a decade ago, Laso said, his response would have been clear:
“It is very difficult to change the past, so usually I focus more on what’s coming.”
“I would laugh, for sure. It is very difficult that a coach stays for 10 years on the same team, and in a big team like Real Madrid, with a lot of, let’s say, noise around. But probably one of my personal-best victories is that. Being in the same spot, in the same position for 10 years means a lot, and I am very happy to stay here after that long of a time.”
One of Laso’s secrets is that he is always focused on looking forward to the next practice or game, an outlook that has allowed him to be successful in one of the most demanding coaching jobs in the world.
“The way I am as a person, I don’t think too much about the past. It is very difficult to change the past, so usually I focus more on what’s coming,” he says. “I always think about the future, so I am more worried about what’s going to happen next season. But it’s true that probably one day I will take a look back and think about the previous years, and think about the years that I had in Real Madrid where I was doing work that, for me, has been difficult but very successful.”
Upon joining Real Madrid, Laso considered it important not just to win but also to honor the club’s past. Real had been successful in the 1960s and 1970s, when coached by Pedro Ferrandiz and Lolo Sainz, thanks to a trademark style that given its fans fun-to-watch, past-faced basketball. Laso brought back that playing style from day one, his players bought into it, and the rest is history.
“Of course, Real Madrid wants to win, but Real Madrid has to have a style and recover what Real Madrid has been for basketball, or has given basketball during so many years,” Laso explains. “You talk about [Pedro] Ferrandiz, you talk about Lolo Sainz, you talk about Clifford Luyk, [Juan Antonio] Corbalan, great players that played for this team in winning times, in losing times, whatever, but always had a style that is recognized around the world. And that was, for me, the first thing that I had in my mind. I think I had the players to do it, and from the first day I tried to come back to the style that would be recognized by the fans. And I am very proud that all around Europe, people stop me and say, ‘Hey, Real Madrid is very fun to watch. We love your team, we like the way they play, you have great players.’ This is something that makes me very proud because behind that there is a lot of work and I am very happy to be recognized in that way.”
“All around Europe, people stop me and say, ‘Hey, Real Madrid is very fun to watch.'”
Laso’s first EuroLeague game, a 76-100 road victory against Belgacom Spirou Charleroi of Belgium on October 20, 2011, started the new fun-to-watch era for Real. Remarkably, four players from that game – Rudy Fernandez, Felipe Reyes, Sergio Llull and Jaycee Carroll – are still playing for Laso and Real almost 10 years later.
“I had little butterflies in my stomach for my debut,” Laso remembers, “But I was at the same time very confident because I felt like the team was ready to compete in that situation, and I think we played a good game. We got a solid victory away from home.”
Keeping and developing core players has also been central to Laso’s philosophy. Three of his charges – Llull, Sergio Rodriguez, and Luka Doncic – were voted EuroLeague MVPs under his guidance, but what makes Laso happier is how each of them understood that when someone wins an individual award, everybody wins.
“All three played great for this team,” he says. “They made the players better and helped them, and I am very happy that the EuroLeague recognized them as MVPs because, probably, it was more of a team thing. And what makes me very happy about them getting the MVP is that the rest of the team was very happy that they got the MVP, and this is something that really makes me proud. Even when you win an MVP award, all my players talk about the team and say they wouldn’t be MVPs without the rest of the team. And I think the rest of the team is very happy to have MVPs on their roster.”
Developing youth talent is also at the heart of Laso’s tenure in Madrid. Doncic is one of 14 homegrown players who made their EuroLeague debuts with Real under Laso. Tristan Vukcevic, who just turned 18 and regularly plays for Real in the Spanish League, may soon become the 15th. Laso’s friend and former teammate Alberto Angulo is the club’s youth teams director, and the two of them talk about young players daily.
“Since the first day that I came to Madrid, I thought that it was very important for our youth program to have a lot of importance in what we want to be as a club,” Laso says. “The work that Alberto Angulo and all of his staff do to help these players to become future basketball players at the professional level is great.”
Fun-to-watch basketball filled the team’s home court, WiZink Center, but also drew big crowds on the road. And between its core players and youth program graduates, it wasn’t long before Laso’s teams started a new golden era for Real. He reached the first of four EuroLeague Championship Games at the 2013 Final Four in London, at the end of his second season on the club’s bench. Real played for the title again in 2014 in Milan, only to lose in overtime. It all clicked in 2015 when, for the first time in 20 years, Real lifted the EuroLeague trophy on its home court in the Spanish capital.
“The task we accomplished during the previous years to become a very important contender in the EuroLeague was very important,” Laso recalls. The 2015 championship game “was at home, in Madrid. We had lost the final in London. We lost the final in Milan. We were getting closer and closer, and I think it would have been very disappointing not being able to contest that trophy. I am very proud of not only that game, for sure, but for the season and the seasons before. You don’t think become a champion just by clicking your fingers. It takes time, it takes a lot of work and all those things came together that day in Madrid.”
Real won its 10th EuroLeague title in 2018 in Belgrade, downing defending champion Fenerbahce Istanbul 85-80 after a season full of tribulations. Llull was out for eight months with injury, only returning shortly before the Final Four. Several big men had also been injured early in the season. Point guard Facundo Campazzo missed the playoffs and played little in Belgrade. It took a team effort that was sealed by Trey Thompkins’s put-back basket off a teammate’s missed free throws in the final seconds, but for Laso the journey was just as important.
“You don’t think become a champion just by clicking your fingers.”
“I think it was a very special year,” Laso recalls. “Everybody was talking about how difficult it was going to be for us to make the playoffs. I remember those playoffs against Panathinaikos, losing the first game by, I don’t know, 40 points, getting killed, but then being able to win three in a row. So sure, the moment of Trey hitting that put-back on the free throw is important, but for me, all the previous work during the year is just as important.”
Real had won the EuroLeague once in 30 years between 1981 and when Laso was hired, compared to twice since then. It took Real two decades to lift its previous five Spanish League trophies; Laso’s team did the same in less than a decade. Real won six Spanish King’s Cups from 1975 to 2011; under Laso, the next six fell in just nine years. Almost 10 years from the day he signed with Real, Laso is now considered one of the best coaches in European basketball history. The questions he gets in press conference rooms around the continent are very different now, but Laso stays humble and strives to always move forward.
“Ten years ago, I was in San Sebastian coaching, and I didn’t know at that time that we would have this conversation,” he says. “Now, I am only thinking about today’s practice, becoming a better team, making my players get better, see how they grow up, a lot of situations, even personal, that I live with my players… and I am very happy about it. But as a coach, you never know what it’s going to be like in the future. Right now, I feel, for sure, very happy, very comfortable, proud that Real Madrid let me coach this team for 10 years. But I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow! The only thing that I am pretty sure of tomorrow is that we are going to practice and we are going to try to give our best for this club.”
Seen at: Euroleague.net